Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Nikon CLS and Crossfit Games

This last weekend I had the rare and wonderful opportunity to step out of the box with my shooting and cover an event that was both exciting to witness and an intense challenge as a shooter. The gym I belong to, Front Range CrossFit, hosted the Rocky Mountain Regional Crossfit Games on May 16th and 17th. Two days of some of the most inspiring human feats of physical ability you could possibly imagine. Men and women pushing themselves to the very limits of what is possible in strength, stamina, endurance, speed, agility, power, and mental and emotional toughness. Words do no justice in describing what it takes to do a Crossfit workout and having been there I only barely begin to understand what it takes to compete in such an event. I will just say that for me it was one of those moments in life when I realize how amazing humanity is, how we continue to find new ways to challenge ourselves physically, we are still moving forward and reaching new heights. And certainly, it was a lesson about how I can push myself farther, personally and professionally.

As a shooter, the weeks leading up to the games had me less than thrilled at the prospect of a point and shoot photography job. Lighting, to me, is what sets the professional photographer apart from the average guy with a camera.  Many people have a great eye for composition, lots of photography enthusiasts buy all the latest and greatest of gear. Nowadays, with digital cameras and their super smart metering systems, and no need for film knowledge or even aperture and shutter speed savvy, you can simply shoot something over and over again until you get the shot you want. Pilots who don't really steer the plane? A good friend and fellow photographer likes to say "why become a pilot if you are just going to use auto pilot?", but then again, there are foggy days, and long, straight flight paths, and there is a time and a place for the pro to tap into some of those great little bells a whistles that are put into our cameras and flash units.
In this situation, I was limited in my ability to set up lights and there were some questions about how I should go about covering the event. Fast action in a dark location, with on camera flash, leaves little room for creativity and originality and I am a professional that doesn't much care for the hard line shadows cast on walls and floors using on axis lighting. Many of us who are lighting junkies scoff at the idea of TTL (Through The Lens) settings, and creative snobs have a hard time accepting the fact that sometimes you just have to let the technology do the work. I knew I would be shooting at a 250th of a second because of the need to freeze the action, my max flash sync speed, and I knew I would be shooting with my aperture at wide or close to wide open to get as much of the ambient light recorded as possible. In addition, I felt confident with the D300, bumping the ISO up to 400 to get a bit more bang for the buck out of the flash and the ambient light. So in effect, I knew my exposure was F2.8 to 4.0 at a 250th of a second.
It became apparent to me after a few practice sessions shooting workouts at the gym, that the Nikon CLS (Creative Lighting System) and TTL feature of the flash were the best way to get the job done. CLS would allow me to hold the flash high and to the left, wireless, while my right hand worked the camera. If you are not familiar with CLS, in a nut shell, as I understand it, the camera's on camera flash sends signals and info to the SB flash, telling it what the camera's aperture is and when to fire.  The SB reads and meters it's own flash and knows when adequate power is obtained for exposure. This can be done with many flashes at once as long as they are within operating distance of the camera, experience has taught me that the distances vary depending on the situation.
So with my Nikon D300 in one hand and my Nikon SB800 flash in the other, on Saturday morning I took the first of over 1500 photos for the weekend.  I never had to think twice about the numbers, I just had to compose, focus and shoot, a welcomed simplicity which allowed me more concentration on trying to stay alive and uninjured, keeping out of the way of the competitors and flying weights. Everything was dictated by the situation, I just had to let the flash do it's thing.

Freezing the action was no problem at a 250th.
Getting the flash off axis just a little bit helps to bring some dimension to the light.

The typical post-Crossfit workout position.... if you do it right.

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