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Archive for February, 2018

More than a speed light: Shooting with the Rotolight Neo 2

by on Feb.18, 2018, under Reviews


Introduction

One Neo 2, lit by another Neo 2.

Artificial lighting falls into two categories: Continuous and strobe. Continuous lighting is a great option for beginning photographers, because you can see your results before tripping the shutter (also, they’re handy for the whole ‘video’ thing). Unfortunately, the continuous lights of yesteryear were very power hungry and put out a ton of heat to get light levels that even approached a small, battery-powered strobe.

The advent of LED lights changes this somewhat, offering users a more convenient means of entry into the world of continuous lighting. But their power output still pales in comparison to even a low-end hotshoe flash. Plus, even basic studio strobes come with modeling lights to help with setup, and many on-camera flashes now have LED lights for video shooting in dim conditions.

But Rotolight has come from the other direction; instead of a strobe that happens to include a continuous light source, the Neo 2 is a continuous light source that happens to be capable of strobing at a respectable power output.

The Neo 2’s high-speed sync feature allowed me to get some nice fill-light on Allison’s face at a wide aperture while still exposing for the direct-sun highlights in the scene.
Nikon D5 | Nikon 105mm F1.4G @ F2.8 | 1/1000 sec | ISO 100
Photo by Carey Rose

Designed to be versatile for both on-the-go photographers and videographers, the Neo 2 packs a ton of neat features into a truly portable package. Let’s take a closer look.

Key features

  • Continuous light power of 2000 lux at 3 ft
  • Strobe power of F8, ISO 200 at 3 ft (AC power – roughly half this on batteries)
  • Zero recycle time for strobe work
  • Built-in Elinchrom Skyport receiver for remote high-speed sync triggering (up to 1/8000 sec)
  • Battery or AC power
  • 85,000 full-power flashes or 1.5 hours continuous light on battery power
  • Color temperature adjustable from 3150 – 6300K

Of particular interest to me was the ability to control color temperatures without using gels, the wireless triggering with high-speed sync (HSS) capability, and the lack of any sort of recharge time, even on batteries.

I’m primarily a stills photographer, so I brought along a set of Neo 2’s to a few situations where I’d ordinarily be tempted to use a speedlight. In some ways, they’re hugely impressive, but in others, well, there’s a little ways for Rotolight to go.

Getting started with continuous light

The Rotolight Neo 2’s controls – two clickable rotary dials and a power switch.

As a continuous light, the Neo 2 is really straightforward. You hit the power button on the back of the light; one rotary knob controls the brightness, and the other controls the color temperature. Because the color temperature is varied depending on a ratio of brightness between cool and warm LEDs on the panel, a mix of the two – around 4100K – will give you maximum light output.

When I was wrapping up our iPhone X review, I wanted to take a photograph of the phone being splashed with water, but I wanted to be able to fire the fastest bursts I could to catch just the right moment. That’s tough with a traditional strobe, but perfect for continuous lighting.

Sony a9 | Sony 90mm F2.8 Macro | ISO 6400 | 1/1000 sec | F5.6

I took this shot in an office building lounge area, with some ambient light, the Neo 2 directly behind the subject and firing back at the camera at full power, and my cell phone LED giving a bit of kick to the corner of the phone closest to the camera.

I set a Sony a9 to shoot at its maximum rate of 20fps (which uses an electronic shutter, and therefore is incompatible with traditional strobes anyway), and fired away as my coworker nervously emptied the cup of water from an exaggerated height. The end result, though a little noisy because of the shutter speed I wanted, has all the drama I was envisioning.

Here’s another example of using the Neo 2 in continuous mode in the same room, but with a different subject.

Fujifilm X-H1 | ISO 200 | 1/100 sec | F1.4
Photo by Jeff Keller

Part of what makes a continuous light so fun and easy to use is the instant feedback of how the image looks, and with the Neo 2, it’s small enough and powerful enough to be great for product work. This could be particularly valuable for those who aren’t necessarily comfortable with flash photography, but are looking to up their production value for an eBay or Etsy store.

Then I took our Neo 2 set into the studio for some macro shots, and things weren’t so straightforward any more.

Strobe time

This is the time where I advise you to do what you really should do anyway: read the manual. While the Neo 2’s are perfectly intuitive just as constant lights, using them in flash mode is a little tricky at first, particularly if you’re using the optional Elinchrom Skyport radio controller.

But after some reading (and re-reading) of the manual and a healthy dose of trial and error, I was able to consistently control each of the Rotolights independently in terms of flash output, color temperature and modeling light output right from the transmitter.

Fujifilm X-T2 | Fujifilm XF 80mm F2.8 Macro| ISO 200 | 1/250 sec | F5.6

Though the HSS capability of the system is limited to whichever system you choose at purchase, our Nikon transmitter worked perfectly fine on a Fujifilm X-T2 up to that camera’s maximum sync speed.

For the above image, one Rotolight was behind the subject to the right, with one of the included diffusion panels on the front so that individual LEDs aren’t discernible, and I set the color temperature to the cooler side. There’s an additional Rotolight off camera left providing some fill, and the extra highlights you can see in the reflections off of the iPhone’s lenses are non-dimming ceiling lights.

Overall, it’s a nice system for macro work, but if you require really deep depth of field, your ISO will climb quickly (a later shot with this same setup at F22 required ISO 3200). But at the very least, for macro work, you can place the lights very close to your subject.

Balancing with daylight

One of the main issues with using continuous LED lights as a one-stop shop solution for lighting became apparent anytime you took them outdoors. Without a huge panel and accompanying huge battery, overcoming sunlight or even bright overcast conditions was a non-starter, and you really were just better off with a strobe. The Rotolight Neo 2’s, it turns out, split the difference nicely.

Rotolight Neo 2
Nikon D700 | F4 | 1/125 sec | ISO 200
Ambient Only
Nikon D700 | F4 | 1/40 sec | ISO 200

Although I tend to like each of these images for different reasons, you can clearly see that the single Neo 2 off to camera left changes the feel of the scene entirely. By raising my shutter speed to take the background brightness down, I can ‘shape’ the light effectively with the Rotolight, while still maintaining context. Plus, with high speed sync, I could use the Rotolight to overpower the ambient entirely in this situation, if I wanted to.

Let’s look at how the Neo 2 copes with a much brighter scene involving direct sunlight.

Ambient only
Nikon D5 | F2.8 | 1/1000 sec | ISO 100
Rotolight Neo 2
Nikon D5 | F2.8 | 1/1000 sec | ISO 100

In this situation, I exposed for the brightest highlights in the scene while still maintaining a fairly shallow depth of field. Then I brought in the Neo 2 at maximum power to see if it could keep up – I really like the effect it has here. It’s soft, but the added fill light looks almost like it could be a reflection off of another building.

But for this situation, I needed to place the Neo 2 pretty darn close to my subject. This was necessary because, over the course of using our Neo 2’s, they would completely synchronize with our Nikon’s all the way up to 1/8000 sec – but between 1/1000 and 1/2000 sec, I started to notice a reduction in the light’s intensity.

A mediocre BTS photo, courtesy of my cell phone, shows how close the Neo 2 was to the subject.

As it happens, this 1/1000 sec shutter speed made for a good exposure for the ambient in this scene while still allowing the Neo 2 to operate optimally. But it should be pretty apparent that in bright conditions, you’ll struggle with framing your subjects wider than just head-and-shoulders with the Neo 2, to say nothing of trying to get a second evenly lit person into the scene.

The recycle time

Instant recycle time means 11fps bursts with flash are as easy as it is for Andrew to juggle this soccer ball.
Nikon D5 | Nikon AF-S 14-24mm F2.8 G | ISO 6400 | 1/1000 sec | F2.8
Photo by Carey Rose

For the above casual demo, I wanted to see just how effective and reliable the Neo 2’s were when shooting bursts. With zero recycle time and 85,000 full power flashes per battery charge, sports and action could be a really neat use case for these lights.

I cross-lit Andrew with two Neo 2’s – one upper camera left, one lower camera right. Check out the illumination on the grass in the lower right to see just how consistent the output is, even as the stadium lights caused some flicker at these shutter speeds.

ISO 6400 | 1/800 sec | F2.8
Photo by Carey Rose

It should be noted, though, that the D5 was set to 11fps instead of its maximum of 12fps – with the current setup, the Neo 2’s would occasionally fail to fire during the D5’s highest burst speed. That said, having 11fps at my disposal as Andrew went through a few penalty kicks still gave me lots of options to choose from.

Thoughts and takeaways

The Rotolight Neo 2 is a really clever device, and the more I use them, the more I enjoy them. I can envision myself really taking advantage of their versatility in a previous job of mine; I could use them as indoor interview lights for an on-location video, and then bring them outdoors to get a nice portrait of the subject to go along with the video. Two uses, one solution, and my bag is that much lighter.

Again, a Neo 2 lit by another Neo 2.
Nikon D750 | Micro-Nikkor 55mm F2.8 AI-s | ISO 100 | 1/125 sec | F8

The quality of the light is nice and soft, and the instantaneous recycle time and long battery life (for strobing) are appealing. The consistency of color accuracy, even during burst shooting, impresses further.

There’s also a litany of features that are far beyond the scope of this experience; impressive lighting simulations, like the glow of a fire or flashes of lightning, are built-in. The CRI (color rendering index) is very high, good enough for broadcast television.

And yet, I can’t help but feel that these are a bit of a niche product, that their appeal will be limited. For people that are primarily stills shooters, smaller, cheaper, battery-powered flashes will offer you far more power (you may need to get some light modifiers to approach the softness of the Neo 2’s).

For dedicated video shooters, you may find you need more power if you’re in bright conditions. For beginners just getting into artificial lighting, there are basic LED light panels all over the Internet for less than the cost of a tank of gas.

Despite all of this, I think that the Rotolight Neo 2’s have their place as a high-end, portable and versatile lighting solution, admittedly for a very specific type of customer. And more than anything else, I’m excited to see how Rotolight continues to develop this technology into the future.



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Behind the scenes: Shooting a motion time-lapse in the Canadian wilderness

by on Feb.17, 2018, under Reviews


Back in summer 2017, I went on a six week adventure to British Columbia and Alberta in order to capture Canada’s beautiful landscapes in the most impressive way possible. I wanted to make a time-lapse film that raises more awareness of our planet and our environment.

Planning

When it came to logistics, I tried to be as prepared as possible for this 6-week trip, and did tons of research ahead of departure. I knew I probably wouldn’t have a whole lot of internet (or time to waste on the internet) in the Canadian wilderness, and wanted to be prepared to just take things as they came. So I collected locations that I discovered on Google, on Instagram, or on other photographers’ portfolios, and created a long list of spots that were worth checking out.

I didn’t have a specific shot list. I just tried to capture the most beautiful scenery and moments that I could find along my adventure. However, I paid a lot of attention to interesting details around me instead of going for spectacular vantage points only. That’s how the whole moody intro sequence was conceived. By stepping closer to the subject, I tried to approach time-lapse in a slightly different way than you see in your typical, ‘epic’ time-lapse films online.

Challenges

I guess my biggest challenge with shooting this project was my own safety—doing all of alone, in an area packed with grizzly bears, was pretty scary.

Hiking alone comes with a risk that I always had to bear in mind. I carried bear spray at all times, and tried to let the bears know that I was there by creating a lot of noise on the hiking trail (they can get really dangerous when they’re startled). When I set up a time-lapse shot, I always had to have an eye on my surroundings and make a lot of noise by singing or talking to myself. Over the course of my trip, that risk was something I got used to.

Being all alone also didn’t make it possible for me to camp out on location. Obviously because it is very risky, but most of all because I simply couldn’t carry camping gear along with my camera gear and slider all by myself.

As a result of this, I had trouble getting to the best possible location at the best times of day. In order to shoot at sunset or sunrise, I either had to find a location that was fairly close to the parking lot, or take the risk of hiking up or down in the darkness with my head lamp as the only light source.

This is all of the gear I brought with me into the Canadian wilderness

Gear

Since I was all alone on this mission and wanted to hike out to locations a lot, I had to keep my gear package as compact and efficient as possible. I packed my Sony a7S II and Nikon D5100 (as backup camera) together with a newly purchased Canon 16-35mm F4 and Rokinon 14mm F2.8, as well as two cheap vintage lenses: an SMC Pentax-M 50mm F1.7 and an SMC Pentax-M 100mm F2.8.

As you might have noticed, my camera package was pretty humble. That was all I had and all I could afford, and honestly—that was all I needed.

A great Sony camera with only 12 MP paired with a sharp Canon wide-angle lens that could almost do anything on location. This lens is my absolute favorite due to its great flexibility for wide three-dimensional time-lapse movements. The Rokinon lens is well-known for its night- and astrophotography abilities, as it has just little amount of coma and is wide enough to capture almost the whole night sky. The Pentax lenses are actually my first lenses I’ve ever bought. Obviously, they’re old, cheap, and not the sharpest; they’re also small, light, and capable of projecting an image onto my sensor I was totally happy with.

In contrast, my time-lapse gear was downright extravagant thanks to a sponsorship from the innovative company eMotimo. They gave me a loaner for a great package for the duration of my whole trip: The spectrum ST4 is a newly designed 4-axis motion control system that, combined with the iFootage Shark Slider S1, simply can do it all—slide, pan, tilt and even pull focus in video or time-lapse shooting mode.

Using a Playstation Controller, I could easily set up literally any shot I wanted, and the ability to set keyframes in between the start and end point of my programmed shot gave me ultimate control over my composition. Additionally, an innovation that I’ve never seen before is a mountable extra motor to automatically pull the focus as the time-lapse is running. There are many ways to mess around with that: one I used was to shift focus from an interesting foreground to the revealing scenery in the background.

Another great feature worth mentioning is the ability to repeat a programmed movement at different speeds. This allowed me to record shots at different frame rates, but still have the exact same camera movement in each.

Since I couldn’t get the idea out of my head to combine a moving time-lapse shot with a real time video, with both shots having the very same camera movement, I did exactly that in the final shot of ALIVE. I recorded the whole scenery in dynamic time-lapse except for the person (me) being recorded in real-time video 25fps. Even though it took a lot of time perfectly masking out the person in post production, this shot probably wouldn’t have been possible without the spectrum ST4.

With all the flexibility of the motion control devise I felt an enormous freedom as a time-lapse photographer and could explore further ways to creatively make use of its features. However, this turned out to be a weakness as well, as I often found myself tempted to design way too sophisticated time-lapse shots. In this case, the inorganic/mechanical camera motion often drew way too much attention when watching the processed time-lapse sequence making the scenery appear surreal.

So in the process of my trip I learned that less is more in this case. It is way more important so be at the right spot at the right time—which is ultimately what I was seeking for my whole adventure.

Editing

In the editing process of ALIVE it was certainly very hard to come up with an edit as I had to choose the best among 149 time-lapse shots I recorded on my trip. Since I wanted to keep my film under 4 minutes, I forced myself to make some hard decisions. That turned out to be a pretty emotional process because every shot has a background story that connects to me personally.

It just often felt super frustrating to kick out a shot for which I woke up at 4 a.m. and hiked up a mountain for two hours in order to be there for sunrise.

A Story

Let me conclude my little behind the scenes tale with a story from Lake O’Hara, one of the most captivating landscapes I have ever experienced in person, and the final shot of the film. I decided to hike up to this incredible viewpoint for sunset and kept shooting until there was no light left to work with. That was the moment when I found myself alone in the darkness on the edge of a cliff.

The final shot of the film, captured above Lake O’Hara at sunset.

Should I take the risk of hiking down the steep and forested trail in the darkness potentially ending up as grizzly bear food? Or should I rather just stay up here all night and do another time-lapse of the milky way? Without camping gear and food, I stayed and spent another 5 hours in the cold darkness until the sun came back up.

Even though this shot of the milky way didn’t even make it into the final film, there is nothing I regret about staying up on this mountain all night all alone without a tent in bear territory… simply because it was one of these adventures that made my trip so unique.



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