A Camera, a Light, and a Length of Wire
For some reason I do not like looking like a photographer when I’m out and about. Something very old geezerish, (and I write as a member of that particular demographic) about wandering around with bags and camera vests and the suchlike. Reasonably priced, reasonably large sensor equipped, mirrorless cameras promise to make this concern a thing of the past.
My default walking out of the front door gear.
In Math there is something called optimization theory. The subject area can be guessed at from the name and is probably best explained by example: There is a hole to be dug. The hole digger has to work out the best amount of soil to extract with each dig so to speak. To much soil on each shovelful and he or she will tire quickly while too little will allow said digger to go all day but will not remove the maximum possible amount of dirt.
Deciding what camera gear to take on a trip or into a studio space has always been a bit like this – too much and confusion and an aching back result, to little and the shot could well get away. The camera problem is actually more complex than the shovel one as there is an extra variable to consider in addition to bulk and that is cost. Making smaller things do the same job as bigger things is expensive – especially in the early days of release.
I have finally arrived at a compromise that feels right and will probably dictate my gear process for the next few years – that is unless there is a really dramatic technological leap in the offing. Anyway, that is what this post is about.
My basic walking out of the door kit now consists of:
A Samsung NX 1000 camera with kit 30mm – 75 mm efl lens
A Nikon SB 600 strobe/flash
A PC/audio cable (links camera to flash and has nothing to do with sound, computers, or political correctness)
Two universal hot shoe translators
and that is it.
This all fits very easily into two pockets of my winter coat and even allows for the addition of an extra lens in my case. I usually add a Nikon 50 mm f/1.8 with a macro reversing ring on one end and a Samsung to Nikon converter on the other but sometimes will and something different like a Lensbaby with the converter.
Nikon strobes seem to be more than happy to cooperate with Samsung NX cameras. This obviously means that any method of getting the flash off camera will also work so synch cables (the curly springy ones) will work as I guess will some remote triggering methods. The choice of PC cable may come as a surprise given the fact that they are pretty crappy and prone to breaking and I admit that this decision is a bit of a compromise. The reasons for the choice. however, is that the other options are actually worse. Remote triggering by light is too dependent upon ideal conditions and just too unpredictable while the springy sync cable would be unworkable as the strobe would be yanked off its surface whenever the photographer took a step. The sync cable is also a very bulky item.
It is worth mentioning that the Nikon SB 600 is no longer made but I’m guessing that other Nikon strobes will work. I like the SB 600 because it is professional quality but nowhere near as bulky or complex as Nikon’s higher end offerings. As for other manufacturers as far as I know Canon won’t work (contact issue IIRC). Samsung do make at least one suitable strobe but I have no experience with it. One thing to watch out for is that some strobes, especially much older ones can damage the camera – research this for any given combination before testing!
On a practical note the strobe really does need to have an adjustable head – in all directions as bounce flash with white walls, ceilings, pieces of paper and card as modifiers will be essential. I will also add that there is no problem with using the SB 600 on camera (usual hot shoe arrangement) but the whole thing can feel a little unbalanced. It is also worth noting that there will be no TTL action with this setup and that manual camera mode will have to be used. I don’t want to get into a mini strobe tutorial here – suffice to say that using flash with manual is not difficult and basic trial and error using the camera’s view screen will usually get good results. Shoot in RAW and white balance can be corrected later along with exposure if required. Easy enough to get it right in camera with a little practice though.
Hot Shoe Translators
Much more about these gems here basically these add a pc and an audio type connector to a camera and a strobe unit. I don’t want to go to deep into the reasoning behind the audio thing here, suffice to say that it has nothing to do with sound but rather is a good alternative to the proprietary and not great pc connector.
Anyway this does allow for certain options regarding the cable. pc to pc, audio to audio or pc to audio – I use the latter configuration simply because I had a couple of those cables lying around – the next time I upgrade I will be going for audio to audio. One thing that needs to be stressed is that if the audio connector is used it has to be a mono one – stereo ones really screw up communication between camera and strobe).
The translators also do one other very important thing – they allow the strobe to be sat on a small plastic stand and consequently any level surface – no tripod or light stand required.
I chose the Samsung NX 1000 for a couple of reasons. Firstly it is relatively cheap. I purchased mine when it started to appear for around the $300 mark with its kit lens. I’d wanted to try mirrorless for some time but was put off by the relatively high prices. I figured that I could live with a $300 mistake but not a $3k one. Suffice to say I have no regrets.
The second reason is that it has an APC-S sensor (1.5 crop in relation to 35 mm). Whatever anyone says size does matter and I need this size of sensor.to hit the quality bar that works for me. Nothing against the smaller point and shoot sensors (I use them a lot) but in more demanding working conditions the extra area really helps. Different people have different views on this – many photographers would argue that only a 35 mm sensor is good enough while others will say that anything less than medium format is good enough. Me? I think that the crop sensor is more than good enough.
The other thing, regarding the camera itself, that determines image quality is the lens and the Samsung kit lens is more than up to the task – at least for my needs. Samsung has built up a pretty good ecosystem regarding lenses and they now have a pretty comprehensive range. One thing that is worth mentioning regarding mirrorless cameras and lenses in general is that ultra-wides tend to be a whole lot less bulky than DSLR equivalents. This is due to the much shorter distance between the sensor and the rear most glass element. Of course this makes them much cheaper than the DSLR equivalents.
I do a lot of close up and macro work and the kit lens lets me get in pretty close. The sensor is 20 mp and this allows for some heavy duty cropping. To put it In non-math terms I can get a very good, quality, highly enlargeable image of a scene an inch across. For the ratio inclined that is roughly a de facto 1:1 though technically it isn’t. (I will happily address that in the comments if required). On the very odd occasions when I need a higher resolution macro I use the Nikon 50 mm lens reversed.
Samsung produce a wide range of mirrorless APC-S sensor cameras covering a wide range of price points. The differences are mostly not in the important things such as sensor or glass but in things such as build quality and view-screen improvements. The one difference that could be important is that some of the range come with an electronic view finder and some with the possibility to attach an optional one. The NX 1000 has no EVF option. This is not an issue for me but could be for others. Re build quality the NX 1000 is certainly as good as I need. As an aside I’ve always purchased so called entry level consumer cameras in preference to pro models and have never had the casing break or fall apart on me yet.
This is where this setup wins. The high ISO performance on the camera is very good and I usually have mine set to 6400. With a little work in Lightroom (4 or 5) really good results that stand up to pixel peeping can be produced. This, combined with the respectable sensor size in addition to the Flash option means that there are very few times, even in the lowest light conditions where good quality images cannot be made. On a bright sunny day a high quality point and shoot may be able to come close to this setup but as soon as the light becomes iffy there is simply no contest.
I am not saying that this set up is perfect for all types of photography – anything that requires burst mode, especially sports would not be served well. In the case of landscape photography it is not so cut and dried. The days of requiring huge sensors for landscapes are in the past and the vastly reduced cost of wide angle lenses could make mirror-less cameras attractive. Where long exposures are required, e.g. after sunset or for blurry looking water any gains by reducing camera bulk are more than wiped out by tripod bulk. For studio work I now default to the mirror less setup every time – ditto for closeup work.
There is no perfect solution regarding gear. It will always come down to a series of compromises between opposing forces such as budget, bulk, and flexibility but it now feels to me as if I am finally getting somewhere.
I ought to add just for the record that I have no association with, nor do I get any money or equipment from, any corporation or company mentioned in this post.