Thoughts on Westcott’s New Spiderlite TD6 at Photoshop World
Westcott Photo Booth at Photoshop World
FJ Westcott expanded on the experience at the previous Photoshop World in Las Vegas and appeared to be quite a success with the attendees. They created interesting sets, hired outstanding models and really provided some creative costumes. A samurai, a geisha, Marie Antoinette, Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and more graced the sets. Photographers crowded around trying to get angles and nice shots. All of that sounds much the same as last time, so what was different?
First, the lights themselves were much better. My experience last time with the Spiderlite TD5 convinced me that the product wasn't for me. Although the quality of light was nice, there just wasn't enough of it to get a decent shutter speed, even when cranking up the ISO. If you have to crank up your ISO, it sort of defeats the purpose of portrait photography. I came prepared for that expectation this time by renting a Nikon 85mm f/1.4mm G lens from LensProToGo.com. That gave me two extra stops of light over my f/2.8 zooms. Also, the Nikon 85mm has such delicious bokeh that you just want to lick your images. On top of that, I started off with my ISO at 1600 on my D700 when taking my first shot.
Well, that turned out to be dumb of my. My first shot of Quan here made him look like Johnny Flame. That's because the power of the Spiderlite TD6's is much better than its predecessor. Once I shook off my disbelief (and regained the presence of mind to look at my light meter), I settled one very acceptable settings of ISO 200, 1/400th shutter speed and F/1.4 using the 85mm lens in manual mode. The shot above isn't one using those settings, and it required some recovery effort. Most of it came back, but those tassels are pretty much blown. That's my fault and a bit of a shame, as I've seen some outstanding images that other photographers took of Quan. He was striking some more fearsome poses for them, too.
Once I dialed in my settings, I was mostly happy with the results. I had far more keepers this time, compared with my previous experience. The modifiers worked well and provided some interesting light and shadows on the subjects. Mind you, not all of the subjects were models. One of the bays was also setup for stills, including Quan's armor on one day.
Westcott did something this time that I think was a very good idea, but like anything, it started to become a bad thing because there was too much of it. They offered photographers as instructors in the various photo booths, as well as in the main Westcott Expo booth. This was very useful for many people to get some ideas – not only on use of the products – but also on lighting and portrait photography. Westcott had some great instructors sharing their knowledge.
So you ask me, “William, how could that be a bad thing?” Because they did it on almost every booth. The instructors were getting their shots, but most often, interfering with many people who wanted to go home with a few shots of their own. The walked in front of your camera, moved the light, changed the model – seemingly in JUST the moment that you had a good composition and some eye contact from the model. For the first two days, it was something I found extremely frustrating. On the last day, it didn't seem to be as much of an issue and there was more opportunity to photograph the models without an instructor.
There was one other problem, but it was no fault of Westcott. It was a matter of etiquette among other attendees, or lack of it. Quite literally, a few folks would get in front and camp out. They would camp out, standing up, or lean in front of the person behind them (e.g., that would be me) to get their angle. I'll admit that there were a number of times I walked off cussing under my breath. How many shots do you need of the same model, at the same angle? My own strategy was to get in, get my shots, and get out so someone else could do the same. I'd go look for another angle and work my way forward as folks moved out, and I think that works for everyone if you don't hog time in front of the model. I'd like to say that I saw a lot of other photographers who also worked that way. Get in, get out and let someone else have a shot. There's no need to fill your entire CF card once you get to the front. Sadly, a few selfish hogs blocked a lot of people and I doubt they gave it a second thought.
There were some times when someone would inadvertently get in the way of a shot behind them, and I think that's bound to happen. If they're concentrating on the model in front of them, it's hard to have eyes in the back of your head. A few of those folks recognized what happened, apologized, and let others move in for a shot. I tried to do the same, too. I think courtesy goes a long way when you're working in a tight, crowded situation like these photo booths. If you read this, please keep it in mind for the next time you attend an event with multiple photographers. There's a shot for all of us if we work together and share.
The Dirty Little Secret
Most of my shots in these scenes used the same settings. I varied things using the still life shots, but I wanted a relatively high shutter speed for the models. That's because they're still moving, trying to accommodate the photographers. Without a short-duration strobe to freeze them, I still have some minor fuzziness on a few shots. Not as many as with the TD5's, but enough that I didn't want to give up those two stops of light afforded by the 85mm f/1.4. That's the problem.
An aperture of f/1.4 offers a very shallow depth of field, which worked well for some of my shots. However, varying that aperture meant compromise by either raising my ISO or lowering my shutter speed. Either of those choices presented an opportunity to degrade the quality of my images. As a result, that impacted my creativity in a way that would never happen with strobes.
These lights provided a great opportunity to host a crowd of photographers to shoot simultaneously, and that's a huge benefit for an event like this one. Sharing a Pocket Wizard or Skyport one after another would've made for some very long lines, and perhaps a different kind of frustration. The Spiderlite TD6's are perfect for this kind of environment, but does that mean it's perfect when you're the only photographers?
In my opinion, no. Continuous or Strobe, you get light output and both can use various light modifiers. The TD6 can use 1200W Tungsten lights, which is quite a lot, or up to 300W Florescent lights. My mid-range Elinchrom BXRi strobes are 500W units, which is a bit more light. However, the part that makes it freeze motion and give you a sharp image is the 1/1558 flash duration.
Why is that flash duration important? Because that's all the time the light has to reflect from your subject back into your camera sensor. Imagine you're in a low-light scenario and you want to let some of that ambient light bleed in for atmosphere. That requires a longer shutter speed for your exposure. The longer the shutter is open, the more time a subject has to move and cause blurriness. However, add in a short flash duration on your subject and that light is part of your exposure, too. How much movement can you do in 1/1558 of a second? For that brief period in time, your subject gets recorded and I'll bet you it's sharp (if you focused, obviously).
One of the attendees was combining flash with the Spiderlites and was quickly reproached by an instructor who told him he didn't need that flash. Honestly, I think the guy was onto something. There was definitely beautiful quality of light coming from the TD6's, but a little burst of flash could eliminate any motion issues without overpowering the continuous lights. It made me wish I'd brought my flash to try it as an experiment..
Without a doubt, Westcott's photo booths are the hit of the Expo show floor. It provides a great opportunity for attendees to get some nice images. The new version of the product improves greatly over the old TD5 model. I think it's the only way to go for a group shoot like this one. I'm mindful that there are trade-offs with nearly everything in life, and lighting is certainly in the realm of compromise. I wouldn't trade in my strobes for continuous lighting as a solo photographer, as I think it has advantages beyond those of continuous lighting. Even so, I'm very pleased to see the Spiderlite line improve.
The models are great, the sets are great, and so are the instructors. My hope is that Westcott continues to provide this experience at trade shows, perhaps with a little bit of tweaking with the number of instructor presentations. For those of us attending, just remember that the person behind you deserves a shot, too.
Many thanks to Amber McCoy from FJ Westcott for quickly responding to my request to credit the models, and the makeup artist. If you shot photos at their booth during Photoshop World 2011 in Orlando, please give these folks credit in your images.
- Rebeka Corey (High Fashion, Red Riding Hood, Queen of Hearts)
- Quan Nguyen (Samurai)
- Courtney Grant (Tribal)
- Andrew Wong (Geisha, Steampunk)
- Hope Roberts (Phantom of the Opera, Marie Antoinette, Jester)
- Rachael Todd (Laundry Pinup)
- Heather Flora (Rapunzel)