Review, Adorama Flashpoint 180 – Portable Flash Unit

I have a new portable flash unit in-house for testing. It is the Flashpoint 180 – a highly portable, lightweight unit that produces up to 180 watt/seconds of output. It comes complete with portable battery pack and charger, a diffuser dome, a reflector, a shoot-through white umbrella, a brief instruction manual, and a carrying case.

180 1

According to the manufacturer’s specs, it is capable of up to 700 flashes at full power. Flash duration ranges from 1/400 to 1/1100 of a second, depending on power output selected. Specifications state that color temperature is 5500k +/- 200k, which is reasonable.

The battery pack consists of two Sony rechargeable units housed in a plastic case; these are removed and charged via external charger. The manufacturer provides two charging units. Good news is that 700 shots should get you through a full day’s shooting. If you are shooting consistently outdoors in bright light or direct sun, depending on your needs you may want to get two of these, one of the 180 model, and another of the 400 model, using one for key lighting and the other for fill or add-on.

Overall, this is a lightweight unit, favoring portability over bullet-proof construction. The controls are sturdy and well made, and should hold up over time. Most of the flash body is aluminum, and a diffuser dome does double duty protecting the flash tube and LED-based modeling light. This is definitely not water-proof, so I would take care outdoors in mist or rain.

180 2

Power output is controlled via a stepless rotating knob, providing about 5-stops range. A slave sensor is also provided, along with an on/off switch for a triggering audio signal.

An LED modeling light is provided, but it’s anemic at best. Not too surprising, as many people will leave it turned on throughout a shoot, and that will drain batteries quickly.

Adorama also provides a short padded handle which can be inserted into the mounting socket – it’s easy to carry the unit around in the field – you would just clip the battery pack to your belt or carry it in your off hand.

Like any other studio flash unit, time to recycle depends on power output selected. This ranges from 1-5 seconds; not surprising at all on a battery-powered unit supplied by a lower-voltage power pack.

I also like that the unit is Bowens-compatible. As I own some Bowens gear, that’s a big plus in my book. I can use their light modifiers on this flash unit, for example.

Overall, a good, lightweight unit, highly portable and suited for use in the studio or just about anywhere you want to go.

Link to the Adorama page: http://www.adorama.com/FPBPLB.html

Product Review: The Flashpoint DG600 300 w/s AC/DC Monolight

I’ve been testing a studio strobe from Adorama, the  Flashpoint DG-600. Intended for use in both studio and location work, this is a 300/WS workhorse (published guide number of 58m/190ft ISO 100) that offers flexibility in many types of shooting situations. It can run on normal household power (US) or a 12v DC power pack.

The housing of the light is made of heavyweight plastic, and seems quite durable. An attached carrying handle is provided, as is a  8” metal reflector – the latter is attached using a locking bayonet-style design.

On the front end, one sees a conventional semi-circular flash tube mounted in front of an LED-array modeling light.

hero shot angle

At the back, most controls are push-button variety, with the exception of the power switch, which provides on/AC, off, and on/DC positions.

hero shot rear

The unit is provided with a nice long power cord (which is a good change – it seems lately that power cords are shrinking in length, or are not provided at all), and a PC/sync cord for those of use who haven’t yet gone to wireless triggers. The sync plug on the housing is of mini-plug variety, not the full-size “stereo” plugs one often sees.

Push button controls include flash test, sound on/off, modeling light, and slave operation. Flash intensity is read through a digital numeric display, and is controlled through a rotating knob. Flash intensity numbers are not linked to f/stop, but are displayed relative to total flash output, from nil to maximum.

Flash output is consistent in intensity right from start up, and stays that way throughout a shoot. Max recycling time is 1.5 seconds at max power (AC) – but at lower power settings is near-instantaneous. The cooling fan is quiet and unobtrusive. Stated flash duration is 1/800 to 1/1500/sec.

I also tested the light with a color meter. While I found that the light easily hit daylight color temperature (5500k) a from a cold start, it needed to fire a few times before settling in and stabilizing at this color temperature. (In other words, color temp varied a bit from shot to shot from a cold start to warm-up).

Once warmed up, variance in color temperature in the mid- to ¾-power range was not a significant issue. At full power, it took a bit longer for the light to warm up and stabilize – if you are shooting at full power, and the light has been resting a while, fire off five or six test shots to bring everything into line.

The modeling light is an LED array, which operates in proportion to flash output settings. This is a great idea – those of us who engage in day-long shoots will appreciate this. Completely cool, with no appreciable heat generated, so less wear and tear on umbrellas and soft boxes, not to mention one’s fingers!

Also, unlike tungsten or halogen-based bulbs, it is roughly the same color temperature as the flash tube, which is a significant convenience. However, the modeling light is challenged to provide enough illumination used with a diffuser or soft box, and I’d like to see available luminance increased. Otherwise, a brilliant idea (no pun.)

One might think that the lower power usage of the LED modeling light would bode well for its use with a battery pack – however, Adorama doesn’t recommend this.

Accessories available include a NIMH portable battery pack and spare battery, a speed ring for soft box/light modifiers, a beauty dish, umbrellas, and related items.

At this price point, $199, this light is a good value vis-à-vis overall build quality and light output, and it appears that it would deliver sold performance in the field or in the studio. In my opinion, at 300/ws, a couple of these would fill an average room nicely – even at levels below full power. All you location shooters and real estate photographers, take note!

The Flashpoint DG-600 is available through Adorama: http://www.adorama.com/FP600DG.html

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Webinar: Advanced Studio Display Calibration for Photographers (recorded)

Webinar (recorded) featuring David Tobie and David Saffir discussing the issues photographers encounter when calibrating displays for use in photo studios and related workspaces, including solutions for ambient light issues, Studio Calibration Standards, and Side-by-Side tuning of displays for visual matching. Webinar content also includes adjusting laptops to better match desktop displays, which is particularly useful if one is reviewing or editing images in the field, or shooting tethered to a camera. Coverage of the Datacolor Spyder4 device and software as a color management tool.

Check out the WORKSHOPS tab at the top of this page for our upcoming Photo Tour and Workshop to the Palouse!

Nik Silver Efex Pro 2: Review and Basic Workflow

by David Saffir

Whether you’re considering using SEP2 for the first time, or upgrading, you’ll find that the software is well-designed – it has an intuitive interface, good balance between presets and customization, improved editing options, runs faster, and produces excellent image quality.

Some might say that the presets and other tools available in programs like Lightroom or Aperture are sufficient to create good black and white images – but I can’t agree that they are the best choice.

The high level of control and customization available in Silver Efex Pro 2 (SEP2) make this an excellent tool for serious photographers. And even if you’re only occasionally converting a color image to black and white, you’ll find the software to be well worth the investment in time and money.

Here’s the original color image that I worked on for this article:

Highlights

The opening screen, launched from CS5. Note that SEP2 always starts out applying the default “Normal” preset (outlined in orange) – and in this case the image looks a bit dark to me. That’s going to change, of course. (click on any screen shot to enlarge)

Silver Efex Pro 2 has a great lineup of pre-sets – one click on a pre-set converts your image into your selected black and white “look”. (left side of screen shot).

There are some new ones, and all have been organized into categories for easy reference. You can use presets for a one-click conversion, as a starting point for further edits and adjustments. You can also save your own adjustments in a custom preset.

Brightness – previously had one slider adjustment. Brightness can now be adjusted in highlights, midtones, and shadows. A “dynamic brightness” adjustment has been added (the Dynamic Brightness slider automatically adapts the brightness applied to each area differently – more detail later in this review).

Contrast – Now provides three sliders: Amplify Whites, Amplify Blacks, and Soft Contrast.

Structure adjustment (quoting Nik Software: “Increasing contrast within the objects without affecting the edges of each object. The result is the increase of apparent detail throughout the image without unwanted artifacts”.): This has been expanded/upgraded – adjustments can be made highlights, midtones, and shadows. There’s also a new adjustment for “fine structure”.

Selective adjustments: uses Control Points to make local changes to brightness, contrast, structure, amplify whites, amplify blacks, fine structure, and selective colorization.

Color Filters – you can apply color filters to the image, which are the digital equivalent of using a similar filter on-camera.

Film Types: provides 18 presets for applying the “look” of a particular black and white film. There are also adjustments for grain, color sensitivity, and a levels and curves adjustment.

Finishing Adjustments: toning/split toning, vignette, image borders, and burn edges. The toning tool set is particularly sophisticated, and even includes controls for things like silver toning.

Loupe, Histogram, and Zone System tools – more on these later, including the Zone System.

History Browser – records all of your adjustments, step by step. Similar to Photoshop. You can roll back and forth between steps. Very useful tool and a great improvement.

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Workflow

This section provides a more detailed review of features, and an example of workflow, using SEP2. There’s more than one way to approach image editing – its relatively easy to work through your options and get the best result.

Most reviewers jump right into using the software, but I’d like to suggest a different starting point: convert your first layer in Photoshop into a Smart Object. Smart Objects “remember” your adjustments in SEP2.

Once you convert the layer, you can adjust via SEP2, close it, and later click on the Smart Object – this will re-open SEP2 where you left off, and remember all adjustments from your earlier session. Very efficient and powerful.

Here’s how you convert a layer to a Smart Object in Photoshop: Layer>Smart Objects>Convert to Smart Object:

Note: I’ve inserted a second layers palette into this illustration. The palette marked “1” shows a standard background layer. The palette marked “2” shows a background layer converted to a normal layer, and then to a Smart Object. A Smart Object is identified by the square icon lower right in the layer thumbnail (see arrow).

To launch SEP2 from Photoshop (assuming you’ve installed it), go Filter>Nik Software>Silver Efex Pro 2.
Here’s the opening screen again.

(click on any screen shot to enlarge)

The opening screen is organized into three columns. On the left, the column shows the presets I mentioned earlier in this article. The red rectangle includes a toggle button to hide the presets column, and a second button to reveal it.

There are many presets. They range from “normal” to some impressive special effects. A single click on any preview thumbnail temporarily applies the pre-set adjustments to the image. They are not finalized until you click OK at bottom right.

I frequently test a few presets at the beginning of an editing session to see if I can shorten my work cycle to a finished image, or at least get to a starting point for customized adjustments. Inside the green rectangle, the first button shows a single image view. The second button displays a red line down the middle to show “before” on the left and “after” on the right as a split preview.

You can move the line where you wish, or change the orientation of the two previews. The third button creates two smaller images showing a “before” and “after” side-by-side. In my own workflow, I usually use the line tool. It’s also possible to zoom in and out for closer inspection.

The third column, on the right, has a wide range of image adjustment and editing tools.

Global Adjustments

I generally make global, or image-wide adjustments first, and work on details second.

I may go to the Color Filter or the Film Types first. These are similar to on-camera filters we are all familiar with. For example, the red filter is a good choice with this model’s skin tones. Note that the filter can be adjusted for intensity and hue – click on the Details triangle icon and the submenus will appear:

Red filter applied, before/after view.

These are non-destructive edits – they are not applied to the image until I press the “OK button. If I find that they are not fitting into the workflow at the beginning, I’ll probably return to them later on.

Film types

Another global adjustment. The film types tool provides 18 different black and white film types that do a remarkable job of emulating some of the more popular black and white films. If you mouse over them you’ll see a preview of its effects.

You have a couple of options here. Like the presets provided in the left hand column of the software screen, you can use these as a quick path to a finished, or nearly finished image. In my workflow, I usually use them as a starting point for further editing.

Note the Grain adjustment panel, right under the film type drop-down. This is a highly flexible adjustment, and it does an excellent job of emulating actual film grain – it is very natural in appearance. Left side shows “before”. I’ve used a fairly intense setting for demo purposes – you have complete control on-screen.

If you select a film type, you’ll see changes in both the Sensitivity and Levels/Curves panels. These are adjustments in the response of the “film” to the color in the underlying, original image. (Also note the change in the grain adjustments, which are part of the “look” of the film selected.)

Both of these can be adjusted further to suit your needs. One can adjust Curves and Levels as well – in fact, one could say that there is rarely a reason to leave SEP2 and return to Photoshop for adjustments.

I usually move through the next part of workflow in the order provided in the global adjustments panels.
Brightness/Contrast/Structure adjustments. Note that each adjustment slider can be expanded by clicking on the triangle next to each tool name:

This division is a welcome improvement. For each segment:

Brightness

Divided into highlights, midtones, and shadows. This is more or less self-explanatory. There is a fourth adjustment, Dynamic Brightness. Quoting Nik Software “intelligently applying different brightness values to different areas of the image. Moving the slider to the left will darken the image overall, while keeping highlight detail. Moving the slider to the right will brighten the image overall, while keeping shadow detail”.

Contrast

Amplify Whites and Blacks – moving the whites slider to the right selectively increases tonal values of brighter areas, which can be adjusted without blowing out highlights. Moving the blacks slider does the same for tonal values in darker areas.

The Soft Contrast tool is one of my favorites. It quickly applies a “softer” look to the image – when I see the change, I think “smooth” – in terms of overall contrast and transition areas. In this case, I’ve applied a Soft Contrast adjustment at 25%. “Before” view to the left of the red line.

Structure

The structure adjustment is a pretty unique tool. Quoting Nik: “(Increases) contrast within the objects without affecting the edges of each object. The result is the increase of apparent detail throughout the image without unwanted artifacts”. An example of a structure adjustment in the shadows area (I made a modest adjustment. Note the structure slider. “Before” view is to the left. You can click on  screen shot to enlarge)

Fine Structure is pretty self-explanatory – it works on the smaller details in the image.

History Browser

This is a good time to introduce you to the new History Browser. Move the slider up and down your editing steps to either change your workflow, or review the impact of changes step-by-step. This tool is toggled on and off using the third button from the left in the panel (button outlined in red, arrow points to slider):

Note that unlike Photoshop you can’t delete an individual step from the middle of an editing stream and leave the remainder intact.

Selective Adjustments

Nik Software created the Control Point (they also refer to this as U-Point technology). Control points are highly adjustable tools that provide brightness, contrast, structure, amplify white, amplify black, fine structure, and selective colorization.

One creates a control point by first clicking on the “Add Control Point” icon. Then, you click again on the part of the image you want to adjust.

The size of the adjustment, or “area of influence”, is provided in the first slider on the control point:

Note that the Control Point is a very smart tool: it analyzes the area it is controlling, using the place where you first clicked (orange dot) as its reference. Adjustments made to the control point will generally affect only similar tones, textures, etc within the circle of influence. Adjustments made here would have minimal effect on the model’s hair.

Control points can be placed at will in the image. You can also place multiple control points – these can be controlled individually, or they can be grouped. When grouped, an adjustment made to one affects all in the group. They can also be adjusted from the right hand control panel, turned on and off, and more.

Control points are very sophisticated tools. There are many more ways to mix and match them.
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Finishing Adjustments

Nik provides a number of tools for enhancing and finishing your image.

These include:

Toning/Split Toning
Silver Toning
Paper Toning
Vignette
Burn Edges
Image Borders

One of my favorites among these are the toning tools.

If you click on the toning drop down you’ll see something like the screen shot below. When you move your mouse pointer over each one you’ll see a live preview on screen.

Note that I’ve selected sepia toning; there are many others to choose from. Note the inclusion of cyanotype and ambrotype adjustments. The strength of the toning is adjustable.

If you choose silver toning, you’ll see color in parts of the image that would, if this were a darkroom print, have silver on them. White areas obviously do not. It’s a different look: (remember – you can enlarge any screen shot by clicking on it)

Paper hue and toning are more or less self-explanatory.

The vignette tool is very flexible. There are presets available through the drop down, you can control the intensity via a slider control, you can adapt the vignette from a circle to a rectangle, and adjust its size.

A burn edges tool is provided. There are presets available, you can apply the effect to 1, 2, 3, or all four edges, control the amount, shape, and size.

(click on any screen shot to enlarge)
detail of the breakout box:

The image borders tool is one of my favorites. Presets are provided in the drop down menu, and you can adjust size, spread, and whether the effect is “clean” or “rough”. There’s also a “vary border” tool which provides nearly random variations on a set of adjustments.

I’ve provided a split-screen view here so you can see one pair of options. (I previously applied one effect). The right side of the screen shows an image border resulting from maxing out the sliders to the right.

Last but not least is the part of the palette column that provides a loupe viewer, a histogram, and a zone map, or zone system- based selector.

The first two are pretty basic, so I’ll move on to the zone system selector. If you mouse over a particular step (here I’ve hovered over step 3) the corresponding areas in the image will be highlighted by red shading. (see the zone boxes in the red outline lower right)  You can also click on these and mark more than one zone.

This is useful if you want a particular area of your image to be in a particular zone – identify the zone, and make global or Selective Adjustments to suit.

Wrap-Up

When I drafted this article in Word, it stretched to almost 20 pages. That’s pretty unusual – I still feel like I scratched the surface and a bit more – and you have to ask, how could that be?

Silver Efex Pro 2 is NOT a complicated application – but it is truly fully-featured. It incorporates the best of both worlds – darkroom and digital – and the results can be outstanding. The folks at Nik come from a variety of backgrounds, including film and darkroom processing, hard-core digital, world-class lighting, and more. The variety of tools available, and their accessibility, make it a “must have” for those of us who are interested in digital black and white photography.

The results you can get from this application will speak for themselves. Get the free trial, and put it through your toughest challenges.

For more info, go to Nik Silver Efex Pro.

DISCOUNT: If you decide to purchase Nik Silver Efex Pro2 or any Nik software product, including upgrades, use this code on the order page: DSAFFIR. You’ll get a 15% discount.

For updates on my workshops use this link.

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Disclosure: I have been a beta tester for Nik Software. I did not receive compensation for this article.

New Workshops for Spring and Summer 2011

New Workshops for Spring and Summer 2011

Here’s a quick post so you can mark the dates if you’re interested. I’ll post detailed descriptions again in a day or so.

Studio Lighting Weekend Intensive: Portraits
Saturday & Sunday: April 30th and May 1st

PhotoShop: From Start to Finish
Four Saturdays: June 4th, 11th, 18th & 25th

Printing in the Digital Darkroom
Two Saturdays: July 9th & 16th

These workshops will be held at Venice Arts, 1702 Lincoln Blvd, Venice, CA 90291

Call Elysa at 310.392.0846 for reservations.

Two Places Left: Studio Lighting Workshop: Portraits with Style!

workshop is tomorrow – details and reservation info here: Studio Lighting Workshop: Portraits with Style!

Studio Lighting Workshop: Portraits with Style!

Studio Lighting Workshop: Portraits with Style!

David Saffir instructor $89, Saturday, March 19th – 9am to 1pm

Learn how to successfully pre-plan your photo shoot, put your lighting setup together to match a particular “look”, capture your image successfully, plan your editing in Photoshop, and create an image you can successfully print or provide as a digital file.

Model Sara Muldorfer

This is a “hands-on” workshop. We’ll take you step by step through the process:

• Pre-session planning meetings with customers, clients/models, and others

• Identifying a look or theme, including use of printed examples, design ideas, and the like

• Pre-shoot coaching, with focus on making diplomatic suggestions for wardrobe and makeup

• Studio preparation, including backdrops, choosing a lighting style, and two or three light setups for portraits

• Classic vs. non-traditional lighting, using main and accessory lights

• Setting up your camera for successful capture, including tethering to a computer

• Three-step fast and efficient editing in Photoshop

• Providing proofs to customers/clients

• Preparing for printing or publication

Although we use studio flash in class, we start with continuous lighting (hot lights), which helps students see how lighting changes work, moment by moment.

This one-day focused workshop teaches an uncomplicated, efficient, professional process from start to finish. You’ll leave the session with a list of skills you can practice that will help you improve the quality of your work and your client’s satisfaction!

This is a hands-on workshop, so please bring your camera. We will provide a light meter for your use.

Contact Mel Carll at 661 904 2092 for reservations.