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Review of Camranger used with Nikon D800/Mac Book Air.

I don’t normally do reviews, but since the product is quite new, and there are so many hardware and software configurations, I thought I’d write on my experience of using the Camranger with a Nikon D800 and Mac Air.

What is it ?
The CamRanger is a piece of hardware that allows wireless control of cameras and wireless transfer of images, using a laptop/iPad/iPhone. Find out more at camranger.com. It’s expensive (300 USD), but not only does it do away with cables, it also provides better software for shooting ‘tethered’ than I have been able to find for the Nikon/Mac combination.

You can get wireless liveview, focus checking, and control most of the settings of the camera that are normally controlled by the camera buttons. It's invaluable for mast photography, but I also use it for routine jobs in preference to a wired tether.

Soundbite
I love it !

Mast work

Setup
It was very easy to set up, just download the control program to the laptop, type in the WiFi settings to the Settings app of OS X, plug in the CamRanger to the USB slot on the camera, start the control program, and you are away.
I then set the preferences to automatically download image files, since I like to have copies on both the camera card and the laptop, partly for security, and partly so I can immediately start working on them in Lightroom.
I also set the connection mode to “camera” rather than “PC”, since this allowed me to fire the camera by hand, if I want to.

In use
Once set up, I could send the camera up to the top of a 4m long mast, and then control pretty much everything except of course the zoom setting on the lens. And when it came down I could continue shooting by hand from the camera.
When triggered from the laptop, the camera fired immediately, and the jpeg thumbnail from the raw file appeared within a second, and the 36MP raw files were delivered in under 10 seconds, after which I could zoom in to 100% to check sharpness again. With the camera set to raw+large-basic-jpeg the file downloaded in about 2 seconds, and I could check the focus on that.
With Lightroom set to monitor the image folder, I could start doing serious work on the files immediately too.

I also have the motorised tripod-head controller for the Bescor MP-101, which also works as advertised, from inside the same app.

Issues

Mast work

1) The big one was that sometimes the app complained that it couldn’t make a connection with the camera, and once that happened it took a long time and/or fiddling to get it back.
I was working in remote rural churches, so it’s hard to imagine that electrical interference was the problem. I don’t know what mysterious forces The Lord uses, his wonders to perform, but I’m guessing he is too well behaved to infringe the 2.4 GHz band.
After several weeks I found that bad USB cables were the problem, and when I finally found one that worked, it kept working most of the time. Others have also reported 'bad' USB cables (that work fine elsewhere) can cause problems with CamRanger.

2) The CamRanger comes in a neoprene bag, which you are supposed to hang from the camera or tripod, but that didn’t feel good, and I suspect its wobbling caused the USB-3 connection at the camera to disconnect a few times, so I put some velcro pads on the device so I could stick it to a solid surface, and also bought a very short USB cable that also made the system less vulnerable.

3) Note that the camera must be set to ‘raw capture only’ if you want raw files to be transferred, if you set raw+jpeg then only the jpeg will be transferred.

4) If you have two memory cards in the camera, images from both cards will be transferred, halving the transfer speed. So I take out one, and rely on the computer for backup.

Alternatives
There are many good tethering programs out there, but it turns out that the combination Mac-Nikon knocks out many of them, so I have always used Lightroom connected via USB,
which gives no control of the camera except firing the shutter.
Nikon Control is an expensive option for ‘wired tethered’ (150 USD)

Update May 2016

I have now played with an open source alternative called DDserver, which is firmware that can be installed on the MR3040 router that is the 30 USD hardware basis of the CamRanger. The firmware and associated apps (DSLRDashboard) are shareware.

Installing the firmware on the router is a little intimidating, but most people will know a young nerd who can do it for them in less than half an hour. The user interface is very good, and although the wireless system is still a little unstable (I guess it's the MR3040's fault), reconnecting seems to be easier, and vitally doesn't involve fiddling with the camera end of things, which was the big problem when I had the CamRanger on top of a 12m mast.
It doesn't support control of the MP-101 head, but that's a bit of a luxury anyway. (Update July 2016 : I have now built a very cheap and simple remote control for the MP-101. Instructions here.)
Conclusion ? I think I like DDserver more, and at one tenth of the price (plus tips to the author who deserves some financial support), it's a very attractive option.


On a mission from God

High-altitude work
Photographing a chalice
This summer there is an exhibition of local church artifacts at Uppsala Cathedral (himlenarhar.se), and my colleague Georg Lulich and I were lucky enough to be awarded the contract to take most of the photographs for the catalogue.

This was a dream job that involved visiting 35 churches in the diocese and photographing the beautiful works of art housed there.
But it was also very hard work, and as usual with ambitious projects, the deadline was tight - 4 weeks to drive 4000 km, take 5000 images for selection, and then process and deliver 200 to be included in the 250 page A4 catalogue.
Colour matching
A really old cusion

The work was pretty varied, and drew on every corner of our combined experience and equipment bags. One day we would be taking close-ups of Russian ceramic eggs using tilt lenses and focus stacking to stretch the depth of field, and the next day we could be using a mast to photograph a crucifix suspended 6m up.

The technical issues could all be overcome, but one of the challenges of being a freelance is that for the sake of the client and yourself, the work has to be done very efficiently, and there is seldom time for experimentation when on a commission.

Sometimes you want to try a new idea, but if it doesn't work first time, you need to fall back on familiar procedures. And on the 4th day on the road, at 8am, in a strange church in the middle of nowhere, it's good to have standard procedures that you can execute in your sleep.

The Paten

A personal favourite of mine was one of the first items, a gilded chalice from the 1200s, which was technically easy to make look good, and ended up being used extensively to advertise the exhibition. It also gave us an unjustified confidence that the rest of the project would be equally straightforward.
Least favourite at the time was a silver and gilt paten from the 1300s that was very hard to light in a way that picked out the relief without also picking up highlights on all the buckles and damage of the ages. This one took many hours to get a good shot of a rather simple piece.

The belltower Bollnäs Another day we were booked in for two churches, and picked up the giant medieval key to the first where we would reproduce some 'passion paintings', which also sounded quick and easy. Except there were 17 of them, hanging 3m up above the pews, attached to the wall with intricately-twisted wire.

Taking down and rehanging each painting involved delicate positioning of a ladder and a degree of acrobatics.
Luckily, in my younger days I was an enthusiastic rock climber, so am used to working with tools whilst balancing on one leg, with catastrophic consequences of falling or dropping something.
Uppsala
The paintings turned out to be rather cracked, so the surfaces were made of many small concave paint flakes, which made lighting them without getting highlights very difficult, even with cross-polarisation. We ended up with the lights so far to the side that we got shadows from the frames and had to composite several images from each painting in order to lose those.
After several hours of frantic work we had to literally run to the car with our equipment in order to be on time to the next church.
Sadly there was no time for behind-the-scenes shots that day. They would have been fun.

Part of a chaliceSo those were the extremes, but in between were a lot of more predictable and routine shots, and in addition to all the buildings and artifacts, we also met a vast array of people, who were without exception very helpful and kind to us. We also got to see a lot of the beautiful autumn scenery between Märsta and Hudiksvall.


It was a very intensive month, being on the road and frantically processing the images, many of which needed to be masked and cut out to a black background, a tedious and time-consuming process which we usually avoided by careful lighting, but many times that is just not practical. But it was also a very rewarding project, and one I will remember fondly.

Here are some selected images from the project : Himlen är här slideshow

The exhibition


The horse studio

Alice, natural light A few years ago I came across a horse that was standing in a pool of light in front of a dark bush that was in shadow, and the high contrast led to an image of her eye that looked like it was taken in a studio. I really liked the result (as did Edviks Art Museum, and the Mimara Art Museum in Zagreb, who both included it in their autumn collections), but the chances of getting similar natural light again was small, so I decided to build an overdimensioned studio where I could control the light in the same way that I do for portraits of people.

Surmulen stables kindly let me use their barn, and I rigged it somewhat like a human studio, but with looser, less precise lighting since I expected that positioning the horses would be difficult.
Astrid and Tosen

About a dozen horses came in, and none seemed to be troubled by the flashes,they were much more bothered by simply being in a strange building, and positioning them was predictably 'interesting'. But the results were everything I had hoped for, and the images are now hanging on the walls of Hotel Uppsala.

Click on the image of Astrid and Tösen for more shots from the studio.
And here is a timelapse from behind the scenes :


A day in the life

This is the story of the shoot of an advert for a new-business network that I'm in.
Uppmassan advert
A group of us in the network decided we could afford a full-page ad in the local paper if we all shared it, and so three of us set about making it happen.
Zara happens to have been a professional graphic designer in her past, and Emilie is a natural model as well as stylist. We all loved Zara's first sketch, with our products arranged around a model, so it was just a matter of collecting the items, and shooting.
I thought about renting a full-sized studio, but we ended up using a room outside Zara's Fish Spa, for flexibility and convenience. The only problem this caused was that my 2.7m background wasn't really wide enough, so we had to improvise some extra width and photoshop the seams.
After shooting the safe, planned pose, I suggested that Emilie shake loose, just for fun, and inevitably that resulted in a much better shot than the planned one. The best shots always seem to be during warm-up and testing, or winding down.
Three hours was really a bit rushed, but we got exactly what we wanted, and Zara made a great ad from the shot of Emilie doing impossible things with her leg.
Here's a timelapse video of the day (you should have sound on...) :

And here is the final ad.


Oman

Back from a trip to Oman that I won with a photo from last year's holiday in Sri Lanka.

Pelle Estborn in the Omani desert The most photogenic area of Oman has to be the sand deserts that were a few hours north of our hotel in Salalah, but unfortunately we only had one night there, and with sunsets only lasting a few minutes down in the tropics, it was intensive work to make use of the golden hour, which would have been more like the golden half hour without all the sand that acts like a giant warming reflector. The silhouette picture you see here wasn't planned - the guy just happened to be on the next dune between me and the sun, and I simply asked him to pose in profile. But I liked the pic, and so gave him my card later so that I could send him a copy, at which point I discovered that he was the editor of the magazine through which I had won the holiday. A mix up with seating on the plane also meant that I ended up sitting next to him on the flight home, and now it looks like I might be able to get some work through him in the future. Now what are the chances of all that happening ? And on my first day as a full-time freelancer too. I think someone up there is giving a giant thumbs-up to my career change.
You'll find more pics and a quick report of the trip here : Oman photos and trip report


Underwater photography

Professional underwater housings are extremely expensive and dedicated to a particular camera model, so I've been playing with cheaper alternatives at the local pool.

Lotta Ericsson under water at Fyrishov First I tried a soft case for my DSLR, but found it very clumsy, and since scatter in the water wasted the quality from a big camera I moved over to a hard case for my compact Canon S90, which gives plenty of quality at ISO 80, and when set to manual operation has a shutter lag of around 0.5s, which is annoying but useable.


I then tested different waterproofing techniques for external flashguns, and after a couple of expensive mistakes settled on Tupperware-style containers with a plastic bag inside to contain small leaks.
I expected to then be able to use a normal optical slave to trigger the external flash from the S90, but due to physics that I don't yet understand, these don't work through water, so the final solution was to use optical fibres designed for home audio systems. Neodymium magnets were then attached to the ends of the cables which could couple with steel nuts through the plastic walls of the containers, and camera and flash were then mounted on a standard monopod.
Lead weights in the flash container were used to make the whole unit neutrally bouyant.

Then it was just to drag along some adventurous models to the pool and start shooting. Shutter lag and card-writing speed were a bit of a problem given the limited time the models could pose, but the image quality was fine for these sorts of pictures, and we were all pretty happy with the results, which you can see here :
Underwater photos


Vintage industrial exhibition

Last week I picked up my pictures from Edsvik Konsthall where they were partying with new friends in the autumn collection, and now I'm preparing my next personal exhibition, to be held at Ateljé Anna-Karin Sjöblom.

The theme of the studio and exhibition is industrial vintage, so there will be pictures of old mills, rusty tractors, a steam ship's engine room, and the 425-year-old wood plane that you see in the image here. That wasn't in a museum, but in the workshop of my host for the last exhibition in Dalarna, and has been hanging on the wall there since the workshop was built, alongside other wonderful gear that has accumulated over the centuries.
And as you can see, it's one of the many areas of Sweden that is still sepia toned.
Click on the picture to see the rest of the exhibition.
Exhibition list


Location lighting

Mia Studios don't suit me very well - they are expensive to rent and need a lot of imagination to build an interesting scene out of four white walls.
So I much prefer location shooting, but still want to have good lighting.

Nikon have long had an excellent remote control system for their pocket flashes - Even back in 2004 the humble D70 could provide wireless automatic exposure for remote flashes using optical signals sent before the shutter opened. That's the system I used to take the portrait of Mia above, which required a surprising number of SB800 flashguns to achieve the natural-looking lighting. Canon have finally caught up, with their latest cameras and flashes sporting similar functions.

But pocket flashes have limited strength (~100J) and long recycling times when used at full power, so when Quantuum came out with a battery-powered studio flash at a fraction of the cost of established brands, I jumped at a 600J unit, and and was so happy with its professional and robust build (it's already survived a 2 metre fall on to asphalt) and its performance (consistent exposure and colour, fast recycling) that I also bought a 300J unit.
With this sort of energy you can overpower direct sunlight even with a large softbox. You lose automatic exposure and your shutter speed is limited to 1/250 s, but in an arranged shot that is not a huge problem, and if you use the Phottix Strato radio trigger you can still get automatic exposure on all your pocket flashes while the studio flash is triggered in manual mode.

Portable studioMy current portable studio fits nicely on to a Golf trolley (Prestige Europe GC510) so I can walk with it out into the countryside, tow it behind my bike, or take it on public transport.

Just a few days ago I heard about external battery packs from Pixel that can recharge an SB800 in under 2 seconds after discharging at full power, and costs a quarter of Nikon's own version (thanks Johan!). I ordered immediately and got mine the next day, and it's brilliant - neatly designed and robust, with a belt case and a tripod screw so you can mount under the camera if you wish. With the flash set to around 1/4 power you can take motordrive sequences with no noticeable falloff of power. So then of course I needed a motordrive for my D700....

I bought a cheap noname brand that has all the features of the Nikon MB-D10 for a quarter of the price. It may be plastic, but I don't think I will break 4 of them before I would break one Nikon. Here's a pic from a sequence that I took with the motordrive and two juiced up SB800s :
Sara Persson on Ormen Lange

I think Ormen would do just as much damage to an MB-D10 if he screwed up here.

The next step in flash control would be to replace the optical wireless system with TTL radio control, to avoid problems in bright light and round corners.
PocketWizard make the TT5, but that is expensive and the principle of intercepting electronic signals between camera and flash just seems wrong and unnecessarily complex.
Pixel have the king, which is cheap copy of the TT5 and seems to have issues.
Phottix, however, make the Odin, which has a transmitter that behaves like an SU800 and seems to me like it is much more intuitive to use. Plus it's cheaper. But still not cheap, since you still need a receiver for each flash. But it's on my wish list.
Jan 2013
My wish came true ! I now have a set of Odins that do everything I'd hoped, and more. The transmitter looks and behaves just like an SU800, with the addition of zoom control for the remote flashes, so it's very intuitive, but the amazing thing is that they also allow me to sync with dumb studio flashes at a shutter speed of up to 1/8000 s, which I'm sure violates some physical laws, but I'm not going to press charges. Did I mention that I rather like these devices ?
Nov 2013
And the toys just keep coming... Now I have a Godox Witstro 360 flashgun, which is a large pocket flash, or a very small battery powered studio flash, depending on how you look at it. It gives 360 J of energy, so 4 times the power of an SB800, and has a USB remote control for flash power. I love this too !
It recycles fast enough that at 1/16 power (equivalent to 1/4 power on an SB800), it can keep up with my Nikon D810 shooting continuously at full speed.
Jan 2016
Now I have two Godox AD360s that I remote control through the FT16 triggers. The second one is a mark-II, which has TTL control, which is great for shooting sport.


Exhibition at Gottsunda Library

Horses in Hågadalen
During March I will be having some pictures on display at Gottsunda Biblioteket along with Eva Triumf and Saska Björck, who constitute Hovmästarna, a group dedicated to celebrating horses through painting, photography and poetry.


The focus of the exhibition is the horses in Hågadalen, a valley near where I live, and through which I walk most days. There are several stables in the valley, and most days at least one of the horses is looking photogenic, so I have several thousand images from the last year alone. Of those I'm trying to pick out my favorite 30. It's not easy, because they are all so cute.


The opening is Saturday, March 5th, and the exhibition continues under March 23rd. More details here : Hovmästarna


Sri Lanka

Just back from 2 weeks in Sri Lanka.



This is a brilliant place for photography - wonderful scenery, exotic birds and other animals, and friendly smiley people who are happy to be photographed.



I left my full-format D700 at home, because the D300 is much more flexible, with its 18-200 VR do-anything lens that I used most of the time, and the 10.5 fisheye. But I also had a 70-200 f2.8 along for a bit more quality and the ability to extend for the bird shots, and then an SB800 flashgun, a close-up accessory lens, and a small carbon tripod.
Not to mention my Canon S90 pocket camera that was always with me, and for example contributed with the pictures of Lotta in the sunset.
I was a bit worried about my full memory cards getting lost or stolen, but with 30 MB at the end it was going to be very tedious to copy them at an internet cafe, and handing them over to a stranger to copy seemed too risky. An iPod or dedicated photo backup device would have been a good solution but I was too mean to buy one just for this trip, so in the end I just locked them in the safe at the hotels, and held very tightly on to my camera bag in between.
More pictures and a full trip report are here : Sri Lanka pictures


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