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Sunday, 29 April 2012

Spring Sail Now On! Part 2

We left our TGO mag two day photo-shoot on the knife-edged arete of Striding Edge, (part 1) trying to avoid causing a major incident to our fellow scramblers, tripping over my light stand or impaling themselves on my 'brolly.

The weather gods had been caught napping so we enjoyed an unseasonably warm and sunny day for March but obviously we would not get lucky twice. Day two turned out grey and of course windless, since we would be sailing.


I've done quite a lot of sailing photography over the years. I used to cover World Cup windsurfing and wave-sailing for Boards and Windsurf magazine back in the 90's - spent a lot of time on some really excellent beaches although it always seemed to be very windy! Odd, that. In 2009 I even did a book on Cowes Week - the world famous Isle of Wight Sailing Regatta - which was tremendous fun. If anyone is thinking of going to Cowes week to check it out, it happens at the beginning of August each year and is really worth going for if you enjoy sailing and partying in about equal measure.
So anyway, I figured I could come up with some nice images for this shoot but I was going to need a secret weapon. Fortunately I had one. My WaterQuest 15.4 American fishing canoe complete with 2 hp Suzuki outboard. Yup, I had me a "power boat"!

The WaterQuest is a brilliant piece of kit for family boating. It has a wide beam, is very stable, comes complete with cup holders, a fishing rod rack and a beer cooler - oh yes - and it has a square transom for that little outboard. Fact is, I was never going to get decent sailing pix without the ability to get on the water and follow the action. I even have a home-built sailing rig for this boat, cobbled together from an old windsurfing rig.

I chose to shoot these images with the little Nikon D5100 and must say I'm impressed with the image quality. On the printed page of the magazine I can't see any difference between the D700 and the D5100 and I challenge anyone else to pick which is which. Mind you, we shouldn't be surprised. The limiting factor will always be the print quality of the magazine and most modern, good quality DSLR's are more than a match for magazine print quality these days.

The choice of camera was based on the practical consideration of trashing a camera body in the event of a capsize or dropping the darn thing! I'm not comfortable with risking my £1600 D700 in a canoe, without a water housing.

Everything else went in my "go anywhere" Peli box (it's the 1510 model with roller wheels), sort of standard issue kit for water-sports photography.

The other challenge of course would be lighting the photos. With a day full of dull, grey light and not much prospect of sun I was going to have to be creative with flash where ever  I could. I started out shooting with the D5100 and 18-200mm f3.5/5.6 VRll  super zoom I have, which would enable me to shoot at distance and close in without having to fumble with lenses.
By leaving the outboard ticking over at low revs I could pace the slow moving dinghy easily to shoot tracking, bow-on and astern. The outboard motor doesn't really need handling - I just set the course, tighten up a pivot clamp and it stays put.

Although the ambient was dull, at least the sail was a decent red and the guys were wearing red BA's so they stood out a bit and added some colour. I also found that later on, by positioning my boat to the east of the dinghy, I was getting some backlighting from a very weak afternoon sun trying to push through the murk. This worked well through that red sail.

I had to keep an eye on exposure of course. Shooting into the light, even dull light like this, could cause underexposure so  I kept an eye on the histogram ready to dial in some plus exposure compensation (+EV) but you know what? I ended up using minus 1/3rd (-0.3 EV) in Aperture Priority, with a setting of 1/1600th at f7.1 on 400 ISO. I was surprised to be taking exposure out to be honest but I guess that big dark sail was having a bigger influence on the matrix meter than the background sky and water, making the default exposure a bit light rather dark as expected. Either that, or Nikon's matrix metering is just so good that it sussed out the mix of background and subject really well and I just preferred to tweak it down a touch.

So now that  had a good mix of sailing shots showing some action and landscape, I figured it was time to get on board and shoot some close-up stuff. Permission to come aboard cap'n? Fine, but what about my boat? Ah well, being a nice light canoe it would be no problem for the dinghy to tow it. Once on board, with boat line-astern I switched cameras to the D700. The D5100 was doing just fine and I would have continued to use it except for one thing. I only own one Dx lens - the 18-200 VRll - and that's nowhere near wide enough for the cramped confines of a dinghy cockpit. The D700 with the 18-35mm ED would be needed, plus my trusty SB600 coupled with the go-anywhere SC17 off-camera sync cable.

I don't often use tethered flash like this but the situation demanded a bit of caution. My Pocket Wizards are not designed for getting splashed, hanging out the side of a dinghy and I didn't have time to be faffing around putting them in zip-lock bags. The SB600 is pretty weather resistant (we weren't exactly surfing along here) but even so, I was careful to keep it high and dry and whilst I'll take the risk with the SB600 out on the water, I'd be much less happy with my £300 SB800 out here.

And I might have used Nikon's CLS wireless system here but I would be tucking the flash behind the sail and under seats and stuff so I wasn't confident the master flash would get the signal through. So I played safe and just went with the ultra-reliable cable.

Using hand-held off-camera flash in a cramped situation like this with a wide lens can have its problems. You have to hold the flash at the right angle to light your subject. At the same time you have hold the camera steady, get the auto focus working well (not always easy on ultra wide lenses that sometimes have their own ideas about what the focus point should be), extend your flash arm as far away from the camera as possible and watch the horizon as the boat rocks around and avoid shooting your own shoes. And they say blokes can't multi-task!

Nikon's iTTL system is remarkably reliable most of the time although I nearly always dial in some minus Flash Exposure Comp. I just don't want my flash to be all that obvious. I normally find a FEC of around -1.7 is good but it depends on the subject brightness and reflectivity so there's no pat solution, it's just "test it and see".
I wasn't at all sure how the flash was going to react to be stuck behind the sail. I went to to full manual on the camera to control the ambient at a steady 1/250th at f9 at 200 ISO and let the iTTL get on with it. Initial tests looked OK  but I dialed in -0.7 (2/3rds) FEC and used a diffuser cone and 1/4 CTO gel for warmth - seemed to work out just fine as long as I was careful not to get the flash too close to anything that might cause a hotspot that the wide lens would see.

All in all, that worked out OK. Without the flash the on-board shots would have looked dull and lifeless but that little SB600 on a cable really gave them a lift. The CTO warm up was well worth while too, just giving a bit of a colour contrast with the cool ambient light. I guess I might have tweaked the ambient down a bit with a slight tungsten white balance but I wasn't sure at the time it would work in that kind of light - now I think it would have been OK, and next time out that's what I'll do. Meanwhile, this two day feature is out now in the Spring edition of TGO magazine where Carey gives his side of the story. Take a look if you get the chance.