Sunday, April 30, 2006

The Gary Mayo Affair: Fuji S3 Pro or Nikon D200?

Body art artist extraordinaire Gary Mayo has spent the last two weeks agonizing over his decision between the FujiFilm S3 Pro and the Nikon D200. Gary wants to expand his body art studio's offerings to include photography,and therefore he is also in the market for lighting equipment and light modifiers. He initially bought the Fuji,but has spent some time now examining the D200 and multiple Nikon SB 800 flash units in a camera store,and now he's having second thoughts (dare I say buyer's remorse?) about the Fuji S3. Read about Gary's connundrum's concluding phase here and if desired, check back thru Gary's posting history and see how he has arrived at his current situation. basically, he's been documenting his work using a consumer digicam, but now recognizes the need to move to a higher level type of camera,like a D-SLR.

I am using Gary's situation merely as an example; he is actually NOT the first person who has decided he needs a D-SLR camera AND some lighting stuff to help advancce his level of photography. I think his recent in-store demo of the Nikon D200 and the i-TTL and the associated Nikon Creative Lighting System moniker has made a pretty good impression on him. What makes's Gary's situation so important is that he is also considering LIGHTING equipment. Lighting equipment is something many amateur photographers do not buy enough of, and therefore most amateur photographers do not understand much about lighting equipment. Gary's realizing that the camera is merely half of what he needs--he knows that he needs lighting equipment as well.

A couple of years ago, I had a lengthy correspondence with a custom knife maker who found himself in a similar situation; well-established in his industry, successful,and with a burning desire to do his OWN photography for his website and promotion of his products. His first serious attempts were with a Fuji S1 Pro and he tried very hard but got very poor results using the S1 Pro...I advised him to get rid of it and to get another camera, a Canon D-SLR, which had a MUCH lower ISO minimum and to invest in some "real" lighting equipment. The S1 Pro was a used model a dealer in his home area had sold him,and its ISO 320 bottom end,combined with its slow 1/90 X-synch was making flash photographhy a living hell for him with the lights he had. After four months or so, and exchanges of a lot of e-mails with lighting setups,suggestions,etc, he learned how to shoot his OWN products quite well after having gotten rid of the S1 Pro,switching to a Canon system and after having bought some decent lighting equipment. But the common thread here is a guy with 1) real desire to do his own lighting and photography and 2)ample cash to really do things right and, 3)conflicting advice coming from several directions making it hard to make a really good decision. The decision is between speeedlight flashes, like the Nikon SB 800's, and AC-powered studio flash lighting,such as monolights or the more tradional box-and-cable systems. My advice is to forego the multiple SB 800 flash units as the basis for any photography done commerically,with commercial intent,and to go totally with studio electronic flash units for all the 'serious' work. Event work and quick web-upload images can easily be handled with a single Nikon SB 800 shoe mount flash fitted with a Nikon remote cord like SC-17 or SC-28 or SC-29 and either fitted to a good flash bracket or hand-held or held by an assistant or on a light stand. For "real" photography, I've long been a believer that studio flash units offer the best control and deployment of the light you will be using to make pictures with. I've owned Speedotron box-and-cable flash units since 1987. That's been the brand I have the most experience with. I've also used Photogenic Machine Company power packs and light units in high-volume family photography for tens of thousands of exposures. Both are made in USA brands with long history and solid,reliable power,shot after shot. With virtually zero maintenance. Ze-ro. So, my preference is for the old style box-and-cable system of a power pack with four to six (yes, 6) outlets and from 1200,1600,or 2400 watt-seconds of power. You need four flash heads, minimum.

Frankly,I'm not really "sold" on the idea that three or four SB 800 flash units can give me the kind of results that I would want to get if my goal were to shoot photographs of people with tattoo art,or just people as portraiture subjects. It is vastly and easier and quicker to mount light modifiers to studio flash heads or monolights than it is to fit modifiers to shoe-mount electronic flashes like the SB-28,SB 80 DX,SB 800,or Vivitar 285 HV. I know, I've done it. I own a complete kit of umbrella adapters for shoe-mount flashes, and have used multi-umbrella,shoe-mount-powered setups for location portraiture. But the FACT is that, if you're going to use a softbox, or two umbrellas, or three light units, that it is just about as easy to plug in a power pack, set up three light stands,and then hook up three light units and set them on the stands, and then arrange the lighting.And, the resulkts can be previewed with decent modelling lamps in the flashes, which iss something that NO shoe-mount flash can do for you. I think that the benefits of i-TTL and TTL lighting control in multi-light setups are often very over-hyped in the Nikon advertising. I would rather use three studio flashes or four studio flashes, than the same number of SB 800 flashes. The i-TTL connectivity of the new Nikon flash units is not as impressive to me as modelling lamps in the flash units! If I have AC power, and I need three lights, I think Speedotron, not Nikon, for my lighting. Again, I do not see the value of using multiple SB 800 flash units for photographing people for consistent professional sales of the images.

As to the Fuji S3 versus Nikon D200 camera choice Gary finds himself mulling over...hmmm...I thought it was interesting that two weeks ago, Gary's website had maybe 25 orr more website and magazine review excerpts, with lauditory reviews for the S3 Pro from all sorts of sources. To my way of thinking, Gary would probably be best served with whichever camera he can shoot the best. On people photography,most of it can be handled with a 6 MP file,and the S3 qualifies,and the D200 qualifies. As to which camera Gary,or anybody else can shoot the best, pay close,close attention to the words: shoot the best. Amongst ome people,and some situations, the S2-and S3-class autofocus system allows too many accidentally out of focus frames to get through,or the AF system will fail to acheive an AF Lock in time to catch precious moments in the way the photographer intended. The D200's AF system is significantly better and faster than what the S3 has. It is possible to acheive a pretty good percentage of well-focuised frames using an S2- or S3-class AF system, but it is also true that the "better camera bodies" Nikon and Canon make have AF systems which tend to produce a higher percentage of well-focused frames than the S2- and S3-class bodies. Having owned a number of D-SLR's (three Fuji models,four Nikon models,one Canon model), I can honestly state that there is not ONE perfect model on the market, and that ALL models have their own strengths and weaknesses. But as far as autofocusing perfromance goes, the user and his understanding of the camera determines how well a camera fulfills its role as an AF camera. Bluntly speaking, some people can make the S2 and S3-class AF systems work for them, while for other people, the S2- and S3-class AF performance leads to too many dud frames which must be discarded. AF-assist lights can be used when speedlight flash is used,and so that can play a part too in how well a camera focuses. I've read reports from serious amateurs, snappers, and professional wedding photographers describing how the S2- and S3-class AF systems have failed them in certain types of situations, and this is something a lot of Fuji owners are kind of touchy about. While with AF-S lenses and in the best of light, the S2 usually delivered acceptable results for me,personally, there have also been many situations where the S2 could NOT deliver the type of AF performance that the D1 or D1h or now the D2x could/can deliver.

Much of my studio flash experience has been using box and cable systems with fairly subdued modelling lights in the heads, with diffusion material or umbrellas softening the light, and with flash power ample to deliver f/11 at ISO 125. That's how much flash power I like to have. The bigger the room or shooting area and the bigger the areas you're lighting, and the more flash power you need. This is one area where SB 800's cannot compare to monolights or box and cable studio flash. THe problem is that 75-to 150-watt modelling lamps in studio flash heads do not output "that much light" when umbrellas and softboxes are softening the lights, and under the modelling lights is where a camera with a better AF system will serve you better. Using two Speedotron flash heads with modifiers for main and fill,and with a 3rd for a hair or separation light and another light (or two) illuminating the background, there is STILL not enough light for easy,foolproof focusing with a camra like the S2 Pro,for example. In-studio, you usually have LESS LIGHT to focus by than when you're shooting outdoors most of the entire day. A wedding pro using a speedlight will tell you that the S3 Pro's AF system is pretty good when the SC-29 cord is the connector,and the AF assist lamp is propping up the camera's low-priced AF module. In a modern studio situation, the hotshow will be fitted with a Pocket Wizard or other electronic flash synchronizatrion device, and there will be NO AF assist from a speedlight flash unit. Bottom line, the AF system is one of the main differences between the S2 and S3 cameras from Fuji, and the "better" Nikon D-SLR models like D2x and D200. I personally have had AF irritations and problems with the S2 Pro when using MY studio flash lighting equipment; not that it's unworkably bad, but the focusing module is simply NOT as capable as what the better bodies deliver when you have 2 x150 watts of light modified by a two large light modifiers.

Cameras are very personal things,and each one can make good images. Lighting equipment centered around umbrellas, softboxes,and various honeycomb grids and snoots is best left to studio flash units, either of the box-and-cable systems like Speedotron,Norman,ProFoto,or Broncolor,or the currently more-popular monolight designs like Alien Bees, White Lightning, Elinchrome, JTL,or the excellent Calument Travelite monolights. Studio flash units with sturdy,built-in umbrella shaft holes are my favorites, and mounting softboxes with sturdy speed rings is a nice feature of studio flash units. Portable speedlights like SB 800's,while nifty and wonderfully electronically gadgety, simply do not connect to umbrellas,softboxes,reflectors,grids,and snoots in the same quick,simple,sturdy way that real studio electronic flash units do. If the choice is between spending one thousand dollars on three Sb 800 flashes, and then $80 for three cheap umbrella smounting adapters, and then $150 ffor three light stands, or in spending the same amount on studio flash likghting gear, the answer is clear--the same money spent on conventional studio flash gear will be much more well-spent money over the years. As to Gary Mayo's dilemma...I think his best course of action is to get a decent flash meter and some studio ligghting gear and forgoe the multi-SB 800 setup. As to the camera he choses, again, the one that he can shoot the best makes the most sense. It is my firm beleif that you need to LIKE your camera,and the more you like your camra the better. See, I've been forced to shoot with cameras which I did not really,really "Like",and I have owned lenses which I did not really,really "like". And there have been some cameras and lenses which I truly liked, a lot. And with those,I think I shot the best pictures most consistently. I have not always had the best cameras or lenses,and indeed these days I own stuff I do not 100 percent like.
So, if a guy "likes" tthe Fuji S3 pro, then that's a good camera for him. If however he "likes" the Nikon D200 significantly more,then that would make it a better camera for him. In terms of an objective,honest,technically-grounded reply, I would poijt out that the D200 and SB 800 and the CLS system and its associated multi-light macro system is,really, only for i-TTL Nikon cameras like,well, the D200 and the D2 series. Shooting close-range flash exposures, the added precision of a 1/3 stop Nikon body,and the i-TTL control protocol, and the metering abilities that Nikon has developed, make the D200 a more fully-versatile camera body as far as speedlight-based flash work goes. The S3 has good in-camera JPEG capabilities that can cover wide dynamic range scenes,as well as giving a couple of uniquely Fuji looks,all with the associated Fuji in-camera upsampling and its concomitant jaggies and image artifact problems, and along with that some pretty nice color of a uniquely Fuji nature. For the majority of people, the Nikon is for better handling and more control,while the Fuji is more about the file, the picture, the better highlight handling,at the expense of the body features and speed of shooting,speeed of handling that Canon and Nikon are focused on with their cameras.

Anyway, that's the way I see things in Gary's situation. He needs a decent d-slr,and some studio lights, and some light stands and light modifiers. The lighting situation is the clearest part of the dilemma. The camera is the wildcard in the equation. I personally think a Fuji D-SLR is for a really skilled,experienced,knowledgeable shooter who knows his way around the f/stops and ISO's and the technical aspects of photography,where the Nikon is designed to be,shall I say, "less dangerous" for use by the less exhaustively-trained and studied shooter. You can "rely on" the Nikons to function in the more-automated exposure modes, where with the S2 and S3, the camera is clunkier,and places more demand for skill and experience on the camera operator; the Fuji's have always been,IMO,designed for the "serious" shooter who knows how to work arround body limitations. And I mean that in the best possible way--the S2 and S3 are designed to be cameras for expert operators who truly KNOW photographic principles inside and out,and who understand the Fuji concepts and workflow ideas. Half-stop shutter and aperture control,and consumer-level AF makes an S2 or an S3 unsuitable for some assignments. The S2 and S3 cameras are not,shall we say, off-road vehicles or all-wheel drive vehicles, but are designed for more civilized driving conditions.

***neeeds to be proofed

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I look good in print.

Signed Gary Mayo