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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Corporate Headshots


It seems that corporations are starting to realize that those headshots that they took with their I-Phones really do look crummy and not professional. In the last year I have had numerous requests for professionally taken headshots. Now I am a fan of environmental portraiture but for these types of portraits, most companies are going for the traditional image with lighting and a backdrop. They are all wanting them for their social media pages in whatever flavors they are participating in.

Now understand I am a one man shop and my shop is my quite small house. It really isn’t conducive to having clients over for portraits. So as always, I need to bring the studio to them and that studio needs to be portable. Sometimes I have the luxury of being able to drive to the location but often times I have to take public transportations such as a train followed by a cab ride. Everything is literally either being pulled or carried on my back!

With that in mind, planning was needed to come up with a small enough kit to carry but yet big enough to give professional results. First off, what couldn’t I bring. Cloth backdrop with stands was not an option and the studio lights were a big no, no! Big light stands? Nope. After some research I ended up getting one of those pop-up backdrops from Savage along with their lightweight stand. I knew I had to keep my lighting to a minimum so what I am showing you here is basically a two light set-up with reflectors picking up the heavy lifting of opening up the shadows.

Since I didn’t want to be bothered with a backdrop light I either use an umbrella or a Photek soft-lighter as my main light so that I get some spill on the backdrop. When I have the room and time I will also add a rim/hair light. My lights are currenty Cactus RF60 flashes being fired off from a Cactus V6 transceiver. When I use the Photek, I put two RF60 flashes inside of it. When I use an umbrella I only use one RF60. The hair light  RF60 gets gelled with a grid added to it.

With this set-up I find I can get a decent portrait no matter which direction the subject may turn. The reflectors really kill any harsh shadows and help minimize what I might have to retouch later. It is a very face friendly set-up that accommodates all shapes and sizes of faces. It also lights all but the most deep set eyes and normally kills eyeglass reflection issues.

So that is basically it! I tweak the set-up per job requirement. In fact the other day I had to shoot over 100 portraits in less than an hour and a half at a hotel. The space allotted for me was the hallway by the ballrooms. I needed to leave room for traffic to be able to move by which required me to hug one of the walls. I only had room to use one light and I had to shoot that through an umbrella. I had just enough room to set up the reflectors but no room for the hair light. I was able to pull it off but I still wish I could have used the rim/hair light. Such is life as a freelancer!SCN_0003

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Fuji XT1 Wedding Bells

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I have been using the Fuji XT1 professionally for about a year now. For me it has been the most enjoyable digital camera system that I have shot in years. The type of assignments that I have covered with it have ranged from editorial to corporate to portraiture. It has met all of my expectations and then some. Yes there are some quirks that need to be worked around, especially since the Fuji X system is relatively young compared to the likes of Nikon or Canon. However if you are willing to put up with those quirks the rewards are great.

One type of photography that I had not tried the system on yet was wedding photography.  Wedding photography is not my main income stream by any means but I do shoot the occasional wedding, usually obtained by knowing someone involved in the actual event. This was such the case with a wedding that was to happen the weekend after Thanksgiving. I will be honest weddings always make me more nervous than regular gigs. There always seems to be much more riding on it to get it right. I would never dream of trying new gear on a wedding but I had been shooting events with my Fuji system a lot lately and was pretty comfortable that I could get the desired results that I was looking for with it.

As always everything gear wise was packed and ready to go the night before the event. It was the smallest kit I had ever taken to a wedding. I had two medium size shoulder bags with gear and two small compact light stands to carry and that was it. Inside one shoulder bag was two Cactus RF60 flashes, one Nikon SB28 flash, two Cactus V6 transceivers, two compact shoot through umbrellas, extra batteries and some small light modifiers. In the other shoulder bag was my Fuji system which consisted of two Fuji XT1’s, one with battery grip and one without, a 50-140mm, 56mm, 18-55mm, and the 35mm:1.4. There were also spare batteries, memory cards and a Nissin I-40 flash for TTL work.

As always the first thing I do when I get to any assignment is to scope out the place and look for visual possibilities. This event was being held at an old manufacturing plant that had been turned into event spaces and artist studios. I knew that the family formals were to be shot before the event started. I found a spot to set this up where the lighting was decent and I had just enough room to squeeze a decent size group into a shot. The Fuji 18-55, which is the kit lens, was going to pick up the heavy lifting for these shots. One might ask why I used the kit lens instead of one of Fuji’s more professional lenses? Well the kit lens is pretty damn good, it has stabilization built in for handheld work and there isn’t much in the way of distortion when you have to shoot that really wide group. It performed excellently! I set up a mini studio in about five minutes using the two Cactus flashes and the two shoot through umbrellas. We worked through the shot list of the formals and then I took down the mini studio and packed it back in it’s bag, not to be brought out again for the rest of the event. For those who are curious, the Cactus flash system has been 100% reliable and a joy to use.

For the rest of the wedding I utilized the 50-140mm, the 56mm (older version) and the 18-55mm. When flash was needed I put the Nissin on top of the XT1 that was carrying the 18-55. The other XT1 always had one of the other two lenses mounted to it. I carry the two camera setup using Holdfast Gear’s Money Maker camera strap. It’s pricey but keeps my back from complaining by the end of the day and it looks way cool!

To say I was thrilled with the results would be an understatement. The image stabilization in the 50-140 works superbly. The 56mm allows me to isolate individual subjects during candid shooting and the 18-55 does great for the wide angle shots. The colors I got from the Fuji files were gorgeous and the latitude to adjust and play with the raw files is huge! This was the first time I used the High Performance mode and there was a noticeable improvement in response and focusing abilities with the cameras. Yes it ate through battery juice a lot faster but I brought plenty of back up batteries so that was a non issue. I shoot 100% manually. The auto setting that is turned on is the white balance which is amazingly good. With the WYSIWYG viewfinder my post processing time has been reduced dramatically which allows me to go out and shoot more. Perfect! For those of you who like to shoot rapid fire with your cameras, I cannot comment on how the Fuji would have done. I didn’t use it. I prefer anticipating the moment and shooting a couple of shots  to get my keeper instead of twenty shots to only pick one good one. I’m knocking those of you who do shoot that way, in fact I used to but I don’t with this system. The other change in the way I shoot is I am using a lot less flash lately. The fast Fuji lenses and the high ISO performance of the XT1’s allow me to photograph with natural light a lot longer before having to pull out the flash gun.

So in the end my marriage to the Fuji system looks like it is going to last for quite a long time. I can only imagine how the relationship will grow in the next few years.

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Fuji XT1, the romance continues

In my last post I documented my transition from Nikon to Fuji, specifically the XT1. I’ve now had more time to play with the camera and also use it on some photo jobs. Am I sorry that I made the switch? Not in the least! Heck for Christmas Fuji gave us XT1 users new cameras by way of firmware upgrades! I love this camera in fact I wish I had two. I will need to get a second body for back-up purposes and it remains to be seen if it will be another XT1 or one of Fuji’s other bodies but it will be Fuji. In fact this camera has been such a joy to use that my film cameras have been sitting on the shelf way too long. I will need to rectify that but the camera is that good and that much fun to use. I like taking it everywhere and that my friends is how you get the good pictures.

Speaking of taking it everywhere, It took the XT1 out for an hour hike in one of my favorite woodsy places. Normally I take my film cameras to this destination but decided to travel light and just bring the Fuji. I walked away with more keeper photos from that hour than I would or could have with any other camera that I own or have owned. Why you say? Because of the WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) operation of this camera. I run this camera on full manual, no auto anything and it is the perfect camera for that. Adjustments are fast, especially once you get used to the layout, but then you see in the view finder what your adjustments did before you every take the photograph. I don’t need to take a dozen photos to make sure I got it right. I adjust my settings on the spot and can see if I got it right! One shot and onto the next subject unless I am trying to work on the angles and composition more. That is fantastic!

Another thing I have been playing with is using old Nikkor pre-AI lenses on the XT1. You see I didn’t totally get rid of all of my Nikon gear. I kept a couple of old film cameras one of which is an F2 for which I have a set of pre-AI lenses to round out the package. The Fuji with an adapter allows me to bring these early lenses to use in the digital world. Now some people would say why bother when the Fuji glass is superior and in some ways that would be correct. The Fuji glass is fantastic but don’t rule out old glass because it has a certain look and feel that you just might enjoy. I was surprised with the quality of the images that I got using some of these lenses. Some of the images in this post were shot with the old glass and I bet you can’t tell which ones.

The image quality from this camera continues to amaze me. It holds it’s own against a lot of full frame cameras but in a much smaller package. I have been using the JPEG files right out of the camera a lot but if I want full control of the image I have been using Iridient Developer for my raw files. That software is amazing in how it handles Fuji files, especially landscape images where you want all of that fine detail.

The XT1 allows me to shoot in much lower light without the need to pull out the flashes. Speaking of flashes, I have previously posted about my Cactus V6 transceivers and that is what I am using with the Fuji. I also picked up a Cactus RF60 flash and this with the transceivers and my old speed lights make for a killer setup that is quick to set up and very reliable to use. Love it!

One discovery or correction from my previous post where I questioned the tracking/fast focusing abilities of the XT1 especially in low light. I had been reading that if you put the camera in high performance mode that it helps. Well indeed it does. The XT1 sounds like a little machine gun going off and tracked very well in a hockey stadium. I wouldn’t call this low light so that still remains to be seen but in decent light it was not a problem.

So what is the biggest thing that I have had to get used to by making the switch to Fuji? Carrying a much smaller kit to do photo sessions. Even my wife is amazed at how much less gear I have to take. It’s a wonderful thing!

Happy wanderings!

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!