When is Cold to Cold?
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Wednesday, January 23, 2013
By Big Ben

When is cold to cold to shoot?  A couple weeks ago, my clients, assistant, and equipment was put to the test in a riveting and damn near ice age of winter evil.  Living in Utah has its advantages and disadvantages just like any other location.  You can drive an hour in any direction and have a completely different backdrop ranging from red rock, Salt Flats, the Great Salt Lake, and the high peaks of the Rocky Mountains. However, we reach triple digits in the summer and negative digits in the winter.

For this week's post, we shot an Engagement Session up in the hills where the temperature hovered around zero degrees fahrenheit.  With Chantell and Lance's wedding just around the corner there was no time to waste.  The couple hails from the hills and desired a theme based around the mountains, outdoors, and snowscapes. 

From my past experience in shooting in cold weather, I made sure each and every battery and extra source of power I own was fully charged and ready to go at a shutter's click.  Cold is the ultimate enemy when it comes to draining your batteries.  I've seen some last less than half of their normal margin.  What we didn't realize is that sometimes even a fully charged battery can reach a threshold where it cannot adequately and consistently send enough voltage to do its job. 

One thing that any professional photographer that uses off camera lighting and strobes knows, is that without a means of triggering your lights, you're screwed.  Well is just so happened to my radio system, which is optimal budget/performance balanced Cyber Syncs from Paul C. Buff.  I have been using their system for close to five years now without so much as a hiccup in performance and functionality.  However, it so happens that subfreezing temperatures are simply too much for the Cybersync's Transmitter.  The Cybersync's Receivers worked just fine and handled the deathly temperatures without as much as a misfire.  

The transmitter's failure all came down to the battery.

The Cybersync CST Transmitter utilizes a small coin wrist-watch type battery (CR2450) that cannot push the needed voltage at low temperatures.  I would alternate transmitters via placing them in my pockets in a valiant effort to warm them up without success.  About the only thing that would work would be to throw them onto the defroster of the vehicle for 10-15 minutes in which I would only get maybe 10-15 minutes of use before they became too cold to fire again.  And while all this was going on, I had my client's safety and experience to worry about.  Anyone who has shot with me knows that I provide an experience, not just a photo session.  


I needed a solution and I needed one quick.  My client's patience and welfare were quickly deteriorating every extra minute I was taking.  I told my assistant Kyle to grab the reflector and get moving.  Reflectors work great for quick fill lights in run and gun situations, but their lack of control in the areas of quantity and quality of light significantly limits their use.  We popped off a few frames with the reflector and saw that that the light was causing too much discomfort for our subjects.  Squinty eyes are never flattering and our groom to be was complaining of watering eyes.  We tried the tricks of having them keep their eyes closed until the moment of shutter release and having Kyle keep the reflector's light off them till the last second.  Although we captured some great images (such as the one above this paragraph), I wasn't satisfied with the limited quantity of the reflector as you can see from the near blown out background. 
Our next option was to try my backup radio system of cheap E-Bay Triggers from Phottix, or as the slang term in the industry is "Poverty Wizards".  I didn't even want dare mess with this option as if my Cyber Syncs were failing, the poverty wizards would also suffer the same results.

In last ditch effort to get our strobes to fire, we went for an Optical Slave method were I would use a low power on camera flash to trip a photocell located on the battery pack of the strobe.  This can work wonders in low light environments and non-direct sunlight where the on camera's burst of flash is bright enough to trip the photocell on the mains.  As we were shooting on a bright, cloudless day this was going to be a challenge.  I could turn up the power of the on camera flash, but then I run the risk of it contributing to the exposure and create nasty amateur harsh and flat lighting.  I was astounded by the performance of the Elinchrom Ranger Quadra's Photocell and how well it worked, even in bright sunlight.  Sure it was a pain in rear as my assistant Kyle had to handhold the battery pack close to the camera and flag it out of the most direct sunlight.   But after some tinkering, we could get a good trigger whether we were in open daylight or open shade. 

Me with an on camera speedlight set to a low power on manual mode to optically trigger the mains of the strobe's battey pack

Kyle demonstrating how he held the battery pack by hand with the photocell aimed at the camera and out of direct sunlight.

We shot optically between the times when the Cyber Sync transmitters were warming on the defroster. 
In the end, the shoot was a success and the client's subpar experience was worth the sacrifice when they saw the final images.

I am now in the market for a new radio system that will handle better in extreme elements as I am sure this won't be the last time I am to deal with zero degree weather.  The Pocketwizard TT1/TT5's look very appealing, but all PW's have and will continue to be overpriced in my opinion.  I am looking to start taking advantage of High Speed Syncing for overpowering the sun with open apertures and without chroma and contrast robbing ND Filters, but could care less for TTL capabilities as I shoot solely on Manual and have a distaste for the camera or flash making my decisions for me. 
I have considered the Radio Popper's, but at a 189.00 USD price tag, I might as well go for the Pocketwizards.
A few local photographers have suggested looking at the upcoming Yonguo 622N's, which are a budget system that supports TTL and HSS.  They are currently available for Canon and the Nikon version is rumored to be coming soon.

Kyle attempting to thaw himself out in the glow of a Strobe

Now if you are one of my followers who just want to see more images from the session, Scroll down and enjoy!

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