Executive portraiture with Fuji XT1 and Cactus RF60s


The executive portrait is one of the most important portrait sessions that a company can hire you for and yet for some reason you quite often get the least amount of time to accomplish them. Actually I know the reason, corporate executives are generally very busy people juggling a lot of things at once. Having a photographer show up to take their portrait is like reminding them their six month dental check up is today. They go because they have to but it’s painful for them. In fact they probably enjoy the dentist visit more than the photo session!

So with that cheerful reality in mind you show up with all of your gear, ready to create the next great executive portrait! Then you are informed you will only have five minutes of the executive’s time because…well as stated above they are busy people and they like you as much as a root canal. What is a photographer to do? First, don’t take it personally. Second be prepared to only have five minutes of time and if you get more than that, give them more options photographically.

Case in point. I was hired by a corporation to drive from Chicago to Des Moines Iowa to shoot a head and shoulders portrait of one of their head executives. They wanted the usual studio lighting with backdrop. In one of my previous blogs I talked about how I shoot these types of portraits and went prepared to do just that. I was also prepared to only have five minutes of the executive’s time. I did however suggest to both the executive and the person whom hired me that if they were paying me to drive all of that way to take his portrait, they might as well take advantage of me being there and let me give them some extra portrait options. Happily both agreed to to it. Hot damn I thought! Than I get the text message from the executive that he had some critical meetings that day so that might clip into our time. Crap! Back to the five minute shot!

My usual mode of operation is to request a room to set up the gear for the head and shoulders shot. I get it all set up and then and only then do I call the executive in so as not to waste their time. Inevitably they walk in and say, “I hate getting my picture taken.” Yep, you and the rest of corporate America! I always try to relax them with some cheerful banter while I am taking their photo. If I am adjusting the lights or camera settings I always tell them that they are doing great but photography is like cooking and you need to season to taste. I am making adjustments/seasoning to taste! Then I try to get a couple of shots in the bag and show them a nice one right away. They will start to relax when they see that they really look pretty good in the photos. During this time I am always open to their input and what might be bothering them in a certain pose or photo and make adjustments to their liking. Once I get the must have head and shoulders shot than I start to play with other types of portrait options if the time is available.

What about my Iowa executive? He was awesome and gave me the time needed to get some great portraits done. He even started to get into it and was coming up with ideas of his own on how we might photograph him. Now this is very rare but when it happens you had better be ready to deliver and deliver in spades.

We ended up doing some environmental portraits of him in his office using a variety of lighting styles. One version was lit with a soft box as a main light and then a gridded flash as a rim light. Another option we turned off the soft box and used the window light as the main light and kept the rim light albeit turned way down. Then we went outside and found some open shade to get some naturally lit portraits. So we ended up going from full studio style lighting to a mixed lighting and finally to natural lighting. I went prepared for all of it and we did all of it. I had a great and willing subject which makes all the difference in the world but you still need to deliver and deliver in spades!

A little technical side note. The main lighting for all of the non naturally lit shots was Cactus RF60 speed lights. The camera used was my trusty Fuji XT1 with mostly the 56mm lens and 35mm lens being used.

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Head shots with Cactus V6

You may be getting tired of my Cactus V6 posts and or missing my film posts, I get that. However when you are a photographer who is on a more limited budget than some of the other great talent out there and you find a tool that works well for you, you need to share that news. As I continue to implement the V6 units into my professional work their value and usability keeps growing. I ordered two more units giving me a total of four V6 transceivers now. They were put to work right away.

Sooner or later as a photographer you will be required to take corporate head shots. They may not be nearly as exciting as other things that one can photograph but you need to make the subject look good and you need to be able to light them well. Each photographer has their own recipe for these types of shots and that recipe can change along the way dependent on the requirements of the organization you are photographing for.

These four shots needed to be done quickly as each person had time restraints for the day. They were also being photographed for a photo illustration that required a different lighting scenario than what you see here. This scenario dictated some of my lights being turned off for those shots and then turned back on for the formal portraits that are in this post. With the Cactus V6 triggers, it was just a matter of pressing one of the group buttons on and off. Sweet!

The basic set up for these photos was a main light which was either camera left or right. It was alternated because of the photo illustration that was being done at the same time. This light was a Nikon SB900 attached to a Cactus V6 and shot through a medium octabox. The fill light was SB800 above and behind the camera position. This was attached to a V6 and shot through a white umbrella. The background light was gelled blue and was a bare SB28 on a V6. The rim light was a second SB800 with a warming gel and was being controlled from an on camera SB900 that was being fired with the TTL passthrough feature of the on camera Cactus. The SB900 was in Commander mode. The rim light was also covered in a Rogue softbox. It all worked great and the whole session was done in less than an hour.

There will probably be one more post on these triggers. Why you ask? Because I did some initial testing and piggy backed my Radiopopper JrX transmitter on top of my Cactus transmitter to see if it would operate correctly. It appeared to work. I now want to test it with my Alien Bee lights to see if I can control the power output for those via the Radiopopper while it’s mounted on my Cactus. If that works and I think it will, then that means I can have the Cactus control my speedlights while the popper controls the studio lights during a session. That would be awesome!

Stay tuned…

Happy wanderings!

Cactus V6 trigger follow-up

I am getting happier and happier with these units. I took the pair of Cactus V6 transceivers with me to photograph my niece and her fiance and baby boy. They were in town from California for a wedding and visiting family. I wanted to grab a portrait of their little family while I had the chance. In my last post I mentioned my discovery of being able to combine the usage of the Cactus V6 wireless system with the Nikon CLS wireless system.

For this photo I put the couple on the top step of the porch. There is a roof overhang that puts that area in pretty heavy shade. However there was some dappled sunlight coming through the trees and hitting my subjects right in the face. I placed a Nikon SB800 on the porch camera right. This would be a rim light but also look like some of that sunlight that was coming through the tree, except I was controlling it. This flash had a 1/4 CTO to warm it up and was being shot through a Rogue softbox.

The dappled sunlight that was hitting my subjects square in the face was being controlled by my helpful sister-in-law who was holding a tri-grip diffusion screen. This in effect put their faces back into shade.

My main light was a Nikon SB900 mounted on a Cactus V6 in receiver mode. It was being shot through a medium octabox. I was trying to balance the ambient light with my flashes and this flash was having to fire full power.

My fill light was the on camera flash, mounted on a Cactus V6 which was put in TTL passthrough mode as well as transmitter mode to fire my main light. This on camera flash was another SB900 that was put into Nikon’s Commander mode. The SB900 controlled the SB800 that was on the porch using the Nikon CLS system while the V6 it was attached to did it’s job with the main light. Way cool!

Still no problems with the units. They fired every time. I just ordered two more of them and hopefully someday I will get to try the Cactus rf60 flashes too. They look like a deadly combo.

Happy wanderings!

Cactus V6 transceivers: trial by fire and a discovery

This isn’t going to be a detailed operational review of these transceivers, those already exist on the internet, however this is a quick review of Cactus V6 on the job. First a little back story as to why I even bought the Cactus V6 transceivers. I’ve actually been a Radiopopper user for quite some time. I usually use the JrX Studio series but also own the PX system. Love the JrX triggers but the PX triggers have been a continuous source of frustration for me. I prefer manual flash control anyway but sometimes TTL comes in handy.

In the post prior to this one you saw some digital images of Greta that I used flash with. It was a windy day so light modifiers were going to be out the window for this session. My plan was to use one flash off camera and one on camera with the PX system. The off camera flash would be my main light and the on camera flash would just open up the shadows a bit and all done TTL. It worked great….for the first 15 minutes of the session. Then the remote trigger just quit firing. They had fresh batteries and were indicating they were getting the signal but it wasn’t firing the flash. Thankfully I had brought the JrX remotes as backup and quickly switched over to them and did the rest of the two hour session without a hiccup. However this also meant no on camera flash to open up the shadows. I successfully worked around the issue but you know, sometimes you just need that on camera flash working along with an off camera unit or two or three. For example during a wedding reception it is almost a requirement.

So off to the internet I went in search of the holy grail. Radiopopper has a new unit  which looks awesome and would still operate my Alien Bees but no flash on camera abilities unless of course you rig up a flash bracket deal. I hate flash brackets! I had avoided the Chinese flash triggers because of early quality issues but Cactus seemed to be improving their offerings and the V6 triggers caught my eye. The price was more than right and I could use an on camera flash with them. With an overnight delivery bringing a pair to me on Friday, I tested them on Saturday and used them on Sunday for an outdoor portrait session.

One gottcha and a word to the wise, do a firmware update as soon as you get your transceivers. The gottcha is you can only update with a Windows computer and not a Mac. I only use Macs. Uggh!!! My Nikon SB900s did not work correctly with the units but I had already read that the firmware update would fix that. Well it wouldn’t fix it in time for my Sunday photo session so out came the SB800s. Yippie, worked like a charm!  I was ready but I packed the Radiopopper JrX system in the bag as backup.

My plan for the session was to keep it simple. I knew going in this was going to be a one hour, full speed sprint of a photo shoot so I had one flash on a stick shooting through an umbrella and a flash on my camera using the TTL passthrough technology of the Cactus V6. The flash on the stick was attached to the second of my two Cactus units running on group A. The flash on group A is a manually adjusted flash not TTL. Cactus by their design are not TTL units, they just offer the TTL passthrough feature for the on camera flash. My subjects arrived and it was off to the races with two children that didn’t want to be there. One was sick and the little boy just wanted to run not sit still for some silly photographs. Did I mention I only had an hour?

How did the Cactus V6 do? It never missed a beat. I had very little time to make adjustments and no time for anything to go wrong. They fired every time. Why was the TTL passthrough so important? During this session I was shooting my subjects in one direction when another photo opportunity suddenly happened behind me. With only seconds to respond I spun around and took the shot of my very backlit subjects. The TTL flash allowed me to get the photo which otherwise would have been missed. Awesome! Adjustments of power to the remote flash were easily done with the easily understood layout of the device. Adjustments to the on camera flash were done on the flash itself since it was in the TTL passthrough mode. If you don’t select the passthrough mode you can adjust the flash through the Cactus that is acting as the transmitter.

So I was a happy photographer but I still wanted to make sure they would work with my SB900 flashes. A friend of mine kindly hooked them up to her PC and we did the latest updates. Easy enough. I came home and hooked up the SB900 flashes and Houston we have ignition! They worked perfectly. Now here is the discovery! This is not listed as a capability in the instruction manual but it indeed works. If you put the on camera flash in the TTL passthrough mode with the transmitting Cactus, in this case I was using the SB900, and then put the flash unit in it’s Commander mode, you can shoot using a combination of the Cactus system and the Nikon wireless system. I am sure it would work for Canon too. The photo of the Cactus V6 and the Radiopoppers were shot this way. I had one SB900 attached to a V6 in remote mode. I had the other SB900 attached to the second V6 which was acting as the transmitter. This was in the hotshoe of my camera. This flash was put in the TTL passthrough mode via the V6 giving it full TTL capabilities and then the flash itself was put into Nikon’s built in Commander mode. That flash fired a third flash, which was an SB800 set up as a remote via Nikon’s wireless system. I was able to fire all three flashes at once. The transmitting Cactus adjusted the power of the first SB900 which was attached to the receiving Cactus and the on camera SB900 adjusted the SB800 and itself through it’s Commander mode. I hope that all made sense. Way freaking cool!

I like the Cactus units a lot and will do some more experimenting with them. If something ugly shows up I will let you know. So far the only thing I don’t like is the PC only firmware updating. There site says they are looking into a possible Mac solution. Also be aware these are not small units so they will take up more space in a camera bag but compared to my Radiopopper JrX units, I don’t need a bag of wires to hook these up. Plug and play!

That is it for now…except I want a couple more of these things.

Happy wanderings!