On Assignment: On Vacation

I have gone through several gear transitions in 30 years as a photographer. By that, I do not mean upgrading from an F3 to an F4, or buying a 300/2.8.

(Actually, I remember upgrading from a Nikon F to an F2. Which makes me feel older than dirt right about now.)

Rather, I am talking about major changes in both the amount and type of gear that carry in general.

With lights, I went from Novatrons (power pack and heads) to White Lightings (monoblocs) to speedlights. With camera gear I went from carrying everything - everything - in a Domke F2 bag to shooting with one or two cameras and a small waist pack.

Basically, like many shooters, I eventually went from heavy gear and lightweight experience to the reverse. It is a natural progression. Just look at what a 25-year-old photojournalist carries vs what a 45 year-old one carries.

Sadly, the path to "less gear, more brain" usually passes through "more gear, less brain."

I travel pretty light now, with my daily bag being something with which I can do a wide range of assignments. Yet I still can travel a great distance on foot and not earn myself a bad back. No big deal. A lot of mid-career PJ's do the same thing.

But I recently have been making another transition. I have long felt that, tight as my daily bag is, I have been unable to reduce what I carry when I am off the clock. I'd basically just throw my gear into carry-on bag when I go on vacation, for instance.

I don't have a Nikon "everything" lens. And even if I did, it would still be a load on a D2Hs. And then there's light. I gotta have me some light.

A coupla months ago, I got a Canon G7, and I have really grown to like it.

Is it perfect? Absolutely not.

It has that point-n-shoot "baaah-dump" shutter delay. They crammed too many pixels (10 megs) into a tiny CCD chip. Which means noise, which they have to correct. So no raw. ASA-wise, you would not wanna go above 200 (too noisy.)

But, if you acknowledge it for what it is, and realize that you need to shoot differently with it, it's an amazing little camera that can make real photos. You can totally drive the train, too - manual control, actual knobs, hot shoe, manual focus and exposure, manual flash - cool stuff. Or you can put it on autopilot, or any level in between.

Shoots very nice video, killer macro, you can get an underwater housing for it, and it is just the perfect size for portability and ease of handholding.

It has image stabilization, real nice glass (equiv 35/2.8 -- 210/4.8) and a very intuitive menu system. (And remember, I am a Nikon guy.)

Long story short, I have a new vacation kit: A Canon G7, an SB-26 speedlight and a PC cord or set of Pocket Wizards. I would totally hit Europe for six weeks with this setup, a backup battery and a few 4-gig cards.

Heck, I have been shooting assignments for The Sun with it. (Don't tell them, please.) I have an OA coming soon from a features cover shot done with the G7.

I took the camera and a speedlight to Florida - no SLRs this time - and had a great time making photos. I wanted to talk about a couple of the photos from last week as sort off a "traveling light" version of an On Assignment.

Take the photo at the top of this post, for instance. We were base camping at a hotel 2 miles from Disney World to get an early start the next morning. The kids, who were way too wired to get to sleep, were getting some story time with my wife Susan. She spends so much time reading to them. And they have both become strong and enthusiastic readers as a result.

I hope one day that they realize how much of their eventual success will have been as a result of her dedication to reading books to them.

Anyway, I was busy writing a post, as usual. But as soon as I saw them, I wanted to shoot a photo.

Here's where it gets utilitarian and way cool, IMO.

With a little pocket camera and manual control (and a slave-equipped speedlight) you can quickly and easily turn this into a decently lit photo. Here's what I did.

First things first, get the light off of the camera. I decided to use the wonderfully ironic "shoe-mount" method that was originally shown to me by a reader. (You guys rock. You truly do.)

So my light is now coming from the ceiling overhead and to camera left of Susan and the kids. I am gonna set it off with the on-camera flash, in manual and dialed way down. My speedlight, conversely, is dialed up to 1/2 power on manual, which is a lot of light.

I did this to minimize the light from the direct flash in the photo. I just want to set off my speedlight with it. The speedlight got me up to an aperture of about f/8, which I quickly dialed in using the chimp-and-adjust method on manual. Remember, I am going for speed and control.

(Here's the shoe mount flash in detail.)

So now, my powerful speedlight, bounced from camera left off of the ceiling is determining my exposure. My built-in flash is winking just enough to set off the speedlight. And I am happily making pix.

Here's where the point 'n shoot beats my SLR. I stand on the adjacent bed, hold the camera way up by the ceiling, and chimp the TFT screen in live mode to compose (it was still at a pretty hard angle to see, but doable.) I am all but shooting straight down on them, without standing on their bed. Which would have been getting a little carried away. You have to draw the line somewhere.

("Alright, guys, she's starting a new chapter! Cue the wind and the fog machine!)

Oh, sorry.

Point is, with a tiny amount of gear and a little creativity, I have a photo that would look just as good on the wall in a frame as it will in our picture album.


A couple of days later, we were watching our last sunset of vacation from my parents' dock when I made a shot of Susan and Em with the G7 and the (*cough, mumble*) built-in flash.

(I know, I know. But I didn't have the speedlight with me and the light was going fast.)

The point here is manual control of two planes of exposure and how to quickly get it. And before I start, I'll acknowledge that the PhD mode (push here, dummy) would have probably done just fine. And I could have probably adjusted the ambient and flash exposure by using exposure compensation.

But that still leaves the variable of maybe-the-camera-nails-every-exposure-and-maybe-it-doesn't. So I go manual, for total control and repeatability, and probably just as fast.

Here is the process. I set the camera to manual and ASA 200, and set the lens to wide open (f/2.8.) I quickly adjusted the shutter speed to slightly underexpose the sky for rich color. (The girls went to total black.) It was ~1/25 of a sec, if memory serves.

Next, I dialed my flash to 1/2 power and popped a frame. Too bright on the flash, but not by much. I only have full-stop adjustment capability on the flash, but I have third stops on the aperture and shutter in manual mode. So we adjust the flash by adjusting the aperture.

I closed down the aperture 2/3 of a stop. This corrected the flash exposure. But that darkened the sky, too. (If that comes as news to you, hit balancing flash in Lighting 101.) So I opened up the shutter 2/3 of a stop to 1/15 of a sec to compensate for the closed-down aperture.

If this sounds like a lot, it isn't. It took two frames and about ten seconds. But what I got was total control and absolute repeatability. No good expressions on errant exposures, or the reverse.

Would I have rather shot this with an SB-26 PC-corded into an umbrella? Sure. But this was just a quick-grab snapshot with a point 'n shoot on the spur of the moment.

The takeaway is that once you get comfy with this stuff, you always have your brain as part of your gear bag. Even if your "gear" is a pocket digicam with an on-board flash.

UPDATE: Got some cool ideas popping up in the comments already. Someone suggested the Gadget Infinity remotes on the Canon. Perfect combo. Why didn't I think of that? I actually have a set, which I will review when I get a couple hours time.

What is your lightweight vacation combo? Tell us in the comments.


Related links:

Canon G7 [Amazon|MPEX]
L101: Traveling Light
L101: Balancing Flash
Great Vintage Flash: Nikon SB-26


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