October 3, 2013

Quantity of light vs Quality of light, then and now...

I had a discussion with an adjunct a couple of months back about where commercial or professional photography is heading and after a colorful debate we agree to disagree. 

His point was that professional photographers were essentially mandated to use professional strobes and packs or they were rank hacks and only watering down an already watered down industry. 

My point is this, if you look at the direction that dSLR manufacturers are going in terms of ISO's (and usable ISO's) it is no secret that the quantity of light needed to shoot a job today is drastically less then it was just ten years ago.  With every new camera that is released, these high ISO's keep getting better and better.

Take a quick look at this video that Canon released a couple weeks ago:
While they are not telling us just how dark it was where they photographed the fireflies (or lightning bugs depending on where you are) you know it was quite dark or they would not be showing it off. 

Monday night I was teaching and illustrated this fact on the board, I knew the divide was large, I was shocked to see how large it was.  I was demonstrating how full ISO's either doubled the amount of light or halved the amount of light depending on which way you were going. 

I drew them out on the board from 100 to 12800, like this:
100   200   400   800   1600   3200   6400   12800

I used a recent job and a past job to make the point, the past job was a series of headshots at an annual meeting and the recent job was a series of casual headshots for a local company.

In 2004, I hauled a 2400 watt/second pack with two heads (plus a backup) down to Florida along with a case of Hasselblads. With the larger original size and characteristics of medium format glass, I shot portraits at f/8.

Nine years later and I'm shooting a similar job with my favorite digital camera the new(ish) Canon 6D with the crazy sharp new 24-70.  With the smaller size of the full frame 35 mm sensor vs. the larger 6x6 square, I only needed to shoot at f/5.6 to get the exact same working depth of field.

While I was at the board counting off 9 years of technical advancements in professional photography for my class, I was shocked as I really hadn't realized just how far we'd come.

A staggering 16x the amount of light was needed nine years ago than what is needed today for essentially the same job.  Here is where I got that number from, nine years ago I was shooting on Fuji Provia 100, which I'll even throw in the 1/3 stop you loose by shooting at its actual rating of ISO 80. 

Nowadays, you can easily get away with shooting casual corporate portraits at ISO 800. The employees I'm photographing don't get out much so their white lab jackets and pale faces gave very few places for noise to hide, couple this with the 6D's low noise capabilities...  

And yes, before you email or post something mean, I know 400 would be better and 200 better still, but it's a cost benefit calculation.  Unfortunately corporate work is not paying what it was ten years ago, but the gear needed has increased exponentially so it is up to you to figure out how to run your business.  Me, I'm not dragging a cartload of gear when a duffle bag full of speed lights will do.  Be smart about what you are doing and use the technology at your disposal.

But I digress, at ISO 100; you are looking at needing three full stops of light more than if you were shooting at ISO 800.  That not three times the light; it's 8 times the light.  Here is where that comes from, 100 to 200 is twice the light (or sensitivity actually), 200 to 400 twice again, so four times, and lastly from 400 to 800 is twice again from the previous 400 making it eight times the amount of light. 

Add the stop I'm saving in the camera by shooting at f/5.6 (I just want their face in focus, nothing else) and we need 16 times less light shooting at f/5.6 and ISO 800 than we did doing the same job with ISO 100 film and f/8.

As I drew it out on the board, I tried to stress to my class this is the cool science part of what we do.  Twenty years ago photographers needed to be half technician and half artist, unfortunately for the industry, I don't think that really is the case anymore. 

In the weeks to come, I'll post my modeling light modifaction that I use for my softboxes so you can be as precise with speedlights as you are with a studio flash.  You still need to know how to light a face and you need to how to light a semi, that will NEVER change but the tools we use certainally will evolve and make our jobs easier and improve our final results.

In the meantime, think about your images and how they have evolved over the years and as much as I enjoy my film cameras and shooting film in general, the technology has evolved so much, use it to the best of your ability.  Your competition is!

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