Thursday, May 17, 2012

Shooting for Coke, And My Experience With The PocketWizard ControlTL System

These are some standout shots to me from a three day shoot I did for The Coca-Cola Company. My assignment was to shoot their employee's in a photojournalistic / documentary type style, meaning I needed to shoot them with minimal equipment and cover a lot of ground for them. I'm not a fan of the term "down and dirty" but that is basically what it was. I was instructed to do things as best as I could in camera with the time given to me, and then deliver the large quantity of files I shot for them with only basic processing applied to them. The basic goal was to capture shots of their actual employee's in the type of environment that they each worked in as if they were really working -- I just had them to follow my direction as I needed.

The good side of this is that it made the planning and production side fairly painless on my side. Due to the nature of how I was shooting, I would be forced to keep the lighting fairly simple and portable. There were no elaborate sets, nor would I need to worry with shooting permits for any of the multiple locations we shot at around Atlanta. What I did have to concern myself with was making sure I got things right for them since the planing and production side was anything but painless on Coke's side. This involved them arranging for us to shoot at each location, paying numerous employee's / models to work with over the course of the shoot, and even pulling a brand new Coke truck off the road along with one of their drivers for a day. 

After hearing about the job and how I would need to shoot, photographer and PocketWizard employee, Chris Valites, offered to send me a "Control TL loaner kit" from the company that consisted of: Two Flex TT5 transceivers, a MiniTT1 Transmitter, a PowerMC2 receiver for my Einstein monolight, a AC3 ZoneController, and numerous other adapters and cables.  He told me they would be perfect for that type of shooting and ask me to use them and write a review giving my thoughts on the system once finished.

I am not one of those photographers that likes to geek out on all the latest and greatest equipment that's come out, so I will keep my thoughts as brief as possible while still being fair and giving their gear the attention and respect it deserves. First, PocketWizard is the industry leader when it comes to radio slaves. They've been around the longest and pretty much set the standard for various other radio slave manufactures to live up to. Their ControlTL (Control the Light) system is one of their newer systems that I think any wedding or event photographer would be a fool not to invest in. I say this because it gives you TTL / ETTL capability for Nikon and Canon strobe systems, respectively, when you want it. The system also allows you to control the power of speedlights and monolights from your camera. This can be a huge help for editorial shooters, like myself, since we are often forced to shoot without a assistant. I put the system to use in both ways during the Coke shoot. Below I will explain how I put them to use and give some insight into why I chose to light certain shots the way I did or not light them at all in other cases.

Day 1 started off with us shooting an early morning sales meeting at a Coke distribution plant. This was an actual meeting that was taking place, so I had to shoot while not really being able to verbally direct either of the assistants I had working with me (Lee Starnes & Joe Martinez). So, prior to the meeting I gave the instruction that I wanted things to have a cross lit look to them for the most part. They both had Canon 580 EX II strobes on a light stand with a PocketWizard FlexTT5 as a receiver. Lee's strobe had a mini beauty dish on it so I instructed Lee to pretty much stay at my side; his strobe would serve as my key light, and Joe's strobe had a standard Stofen diffuser on it to give it somewhat of a bare bulb effect. This would bring up the overall ambiance of the shot by overpowering the florescent lights in the room. I also instructed him to pretty much stay at a certain angle to whoever I happened to be shooting at the time, if possible, to give them a highlight on the opposite side of the subject that was being lit by the key light. I had the AC3 ZoneController on my camera so I was able to control the power on each strobe without having to verbally ask them to adjust it. This is where the ControlTL system shined. I put my camera on Automatic or Aperture Priority (something I rarely do), the strobes on ETTL (also something I rarely do) and was able to tell my key light strobe to give what it deemed to be the accurate exposure, and the background strobe to be a stop or so above that via the AC3 ZoneController on my camera. Put that together with me being able to direct both assistants with hand motions and it turned out to be a pretty sweet way to photograph an actual meeting that was going on while minimizing distractions from us. The ControlTL system shined when put to use this way. This is why I say you would be a fool not to invest in it if you're a regular wedding or event shooter. Check it out in the following five shots:

Click on each shot to enlarge:

Here the background strobe not only was creating the highlight on the left side of his face (camera right) but it also brought up the exposure on all the wall behind him while eliminating the greenish cast the fluorescent lights emit.

Same thing for this shot. This was the basic look I got out of most everything I shot during the meeting.

I remember thinking how awesome the ControlTL system was in this shot in particular. The meeting was in progress and I realized that I wanted the background light to not be quit as intense. So rather than having to communicate to Joe through  sign language that I wanted it dialed down, well, it was as simple as just dialing it down from the PocketWizard AC3 on my camera. Awesome.

Lighting this shot would have killed it, so I just removed the AC3 and shot it available light. Knowing when not to light something is just as important as knowing how to light something.

Here Joe was not able to get in position to create the highlight on the subjects face due to the wall behind him, so I just had him shut his strobe off. The wall being there turned out to be a good thing, because I like this shot more this way than I would have with the additional strobe. 

All of the sales people in the meeting are given a fleet car. They're all solid white with no external Coke branding, but they fill them up with Coke swag to distribute to the various locations they are in charge of. That's what these coolers are about. This is a available light shot. 

After the sales meeting we were introduced to the Coke driver and shown the truck we would have for the day to do a mock delivery route for us. The truck was one of Coke's brand new hybrid trucks -- it was pretty impressive looking as you can see in this shot. This is one of my favorite shots from the shoot, so I polished it up in Photoshop to be used in my portfolio and on my website. There were some pretty distracting power lines and all in it. 

This was another one of the drivers we had on our mock route. This one was shot with a beauty dish on a Paul C. Buff Einstein monolight powered by a Vagabond battery pack made by the same company. The light from it is what you see on the far (bright) side of his face. It's also creating the highlight on the coke bottles and dolly. The sun is the fill light in this shot.  

My contacts at Coke mentioned to me that they could never have enough shots of their trucks. We had some down time after arriving back at the Coke distribution center and all of their drivers were coming back in from their routes so there were a lot of trucks there to shoot. I walked around and just had fun shooting them. This is one of my favorites that I got from that. It's not often you get a chance to be in a secure distribution plant to shoot like that, so it was a pretty cool opportunity since Coke is the most recognized brand in the world.

A detail shot of the Coke truck we had that day. I like to shoot stuff like this because designers can do some cool stuff with it from a design standpoint if they like.

This is my absolute favorite shot from the shoot. It was at the very end of the first day of shooting and I had to stop shooting before I was positive that I had something I would be happy with. I got it though. It did need some help in Photoshop though. It had become overcast at that point, so I didn't have the nice blue sky I had earlier in the day. I wanted to keep the red, white, and blue American colors to the shot, so I had my former Photoshop instructor, Roger Sawhill, drop in a blue sky where it would look far more believable than I was able to to get it myself. I lit the driver with a beauty dish on a Einstein monolight at camera left using the PocketWizards to trigger it. 

Day 2 was spent shooting in a grocery store. We covered a lot that day and were able to move quickly since I was shooting available light. Once again, knowing when not to light something is just as important as knowing how to light something. We were going to be shooting during business hours, so I had to be mindful of the customers, that in itself was a good reason to stick to available light due to the liability issues that come with having light stands and such set up for people to possibly trip over. My other reason for sticking with available light is that matching your strobe light through gels to fluorescent bulbs (which was the ambient light source in the store) is pretty much impossible. The color temperature on fluorescent bulbs constantly varies slightly due to how they work. Blending in my strobe with the ambient light would have introduced funky color shifting to the shots, so my only option was to shoot available light. What better way to make it look natural than just shoot things as they really are.

This is a great example of how trying to light this and have it look natural would have been pretty much impossible due to how much of the store I was showing.

I've always been a sucker for shooting at weird angels to get a unique perspective. I was doing stuff like this even as a kid with my camera.

This shot was taken in the stockroom at the grocery store and needed to be lit. This is when the PocketWizard ControlTL system made me want to pull my hair out. First off, it  turns out that the Canon 580 EX II, 580 EX, & 430EX puts off a abnormal amount of electronic "noise" that interferes with the proper operation of the radio slaves. I didn't know this, so when they just didn't want to fire the strobe, I was baffled as to why it was not working. The batteries were good. Everything checked out. Well, I didn't find out till that night from Chris at PocketWizard that you need their AC5 RF Soft Shield to prevent the noise the Canon strobes emit from making the system malfunction on you. It is very frustrating when everything is set and working, except for your radio slaves for reasons you can't figure out while the client is standing there waiting on you. PocketWizard sees the issue of the Canon strobes emitting too much radio interference as Canon's problem. Unfortunately, it was my problem when I was standing there with my client watching me as I tried  to figure it out. I finally gave up on the Pocket Wizards and switched back to my own trusty radio slaves that are not near as fancy, but, they work. Why PocketWizard does not include this AC5 RF Shield with the FlexTT5 for Canon cameras is a mystery to me. It's sold separately unless they have since changed that.

Pocket Wizard Says:  "For all FlexTT5s sold in the US for Canon, we include the AC5 RF soft shield. We’re definitely going to ensure that all future review sets sent out include this, as this wasn’t fair to you during your loaner period."

On day 3 we shot at a shopping mall food court, a hotel, a pharmacy, and a gas station. A good bit of this had to be shot available light as well, due to where we were shooting and each place being in business while we were there. 

This was shot in Lenox Mall food court with available light. I was actually way across the food court shooting this with a telephoto lens. This served two purposes: One, it compressed down the shot so you wouldn't see the branding of the food joints behind him, and it gave me a very shallow depth of field so that whoever may get in the shot behind him would not be recognizable. We didn't have model releases for the customers so I had to be mindful of that.

My contacts at Coke emphasized to me that they wanted the shots to be as authentic as possible. It doesn't get much more authentic than this. This is a Coke rep talking to one of his actual customers. Also, you will notice in the shot above this that his computer has a obnoxious looking red identification sticker on it. I mentioned to them about pulling it off for the shots or removing it in post. They told me that they wanted it visible because it made it look more authentic to the Coke employee's that would be seeing the shots in training.

This was shot with available light in one of national pharmacy chains.  

Coke ask me to capture little things like their promotional stickers on doors and such, that's why the focus is on them here. You don't realize how much branding there is out there for various companies until you actually shoot for them. It starts jumping out at you then -- notice the Coke handle on the door she is cleaning. 

This is another shot that was a favorite of mine from the shoot.  It's just a unique perspective that shows their product at the same time. Yes, Coke owns Dansani along with numerous other beverage brands.

So, to wrap up my thoughts on the PocketWizard ControlTL system that was generously lent to me by the company: I think when they are working correctly they are awesome. Unfortunately, I found them to be very glitchy. Between something as major as the Canon strobes not working right with them, to something as minor as the batteries dying on you due to them not shutting down automatically when you are finished. Yes, I know it is my fault for not remembering to shut them down, but at the end of the day when you or your assistant(s) are tired, it's just an easy thing to forget as you're packing up.

Another issue that I found to be annoying with them is that the AC3 ZoneController only has a six stop range on it. My contact at PocketWizard explained to me why this is, and it is for good reason. But, if you are using them with Einstein monolight's as I was on various jobs, well the Einstein has an eight stop range. So, there were times that I would want to dial the power on them all the way down or up, but couldn't because the control wheel on the AC3 wouldn't allow it. So I would have to get up, walk over to the strobe and manually turn them down or up myself, which kinda negates the cool factor of the system. Well, what made it even worse was when I had got back in shooting position, which can often be awkward and inconvenient, did another shot, only to find that it looked as if I had not even adjusted the strobe power. I walked back over to it to find that the PocketWizards had told it to go back up or down a stop to fit within the six stop range of the AC3 and not the strobes'. So, let me tell you, when I manually tell a strobe what power I want it to be at and the radio unit decides to change it for me. That's not cool. Homey don't play that!

It is my understanding from Chris that you can program the units where they will be set to either work on either the upper or lower end range of the Einstein lights, but you have to choose between one or the other. This means you have to sacrifice two stops of power on the upper end, or not be able to drop two extra stops on the low end, which can be just as valuable in some situations as having more power. Needless to say, I gave up on the PocketWizards and switched back to my trusty radio slaves that aren't as fancy, but they work, and they don't decide to reset my strobe power for me after I've manually set it. I was a bit baffled as to why they had not put a switch on the units that would simply turn them into just plain old simple radio slaves. Had they, I would have done that and not worried about having to switch out the radio slaves all together.

Pocket Wizard Says: "There’s a few different ways to do this in the system, and we’re constantly striving to make it easier. For your Einstein situation especially, the quickest way would be to switch from CTL to CH on the channels setting on the back of the of Einstein. CH would get you Standard Channels, with no power tracking features. If you program it ahead of time, you can set your Configuration C1 on the side of the radio to your AC3 settings, and then adjust Configuration C2 to be “No Change (Trigger Only)” under the power tracking tab. This will ignore all settings from your camera side of things and allow you to set things from the strobe itself. The 580EX II can be switched right into Manual mode on the Speedlite itself, or used with the AC3 from camera while the Speedlite is in TTL.While using the Utility is not as easy as having all the controls on the trigger unit itself to begin with, setting up your configuration on the computer for C1 or C2 allows you to have much, much more control and flexibility than traditional units."

I can see where the ControlTL system would be invaluable to certain shooters, but to me, well, I might be old fashion, but I'm a big believer in shooting on manual, and that's what I do 95% of the time. I want to control my gear, I don't want it controlling me, or doing what it thinks I want it to do. I want it to do what I tell it to do. So, I would be just as happy with a set of basic PocketWizard Plus II's in most cases. For the times that I think the ControlTL system will be of use to me, well there are two great rental houses here in Atlanta.

The system has great potential, but I think it needs to be a little more refined before I'd be able to get really excited about it or consider buying it for the type work I currently do. If I shot nothing but weddings or events -- I'd be all over them and just work around the issues they have -- their new Pocket Wizard Plus III's look mighty appealing though. Chris and Heather at Pocket Wizard: Thank you for sending me the loaner kit. I hope my thoughts on it are seen as helpful insight into how to make the system better rather than me just bad mouthing your product. I just wanna give honest feedback on them and feel that I have here.

In regards to the Coke shoot overall; it turned out to be a big success. It was a huge relief when I went up to their headquarters to deliver the files and heard that the photo web gallery I posted with all the images in it was making its way around to various departments and getting all kinds of compliments. Shooting for a product that I grew up drinking and loving was pretty wild, and let me tell you, having a brand new shiny hybrid Coke truck to work with as a prop isn't such a bad thing as a photographer.

Edit: As a courtesy to PocketWizard I sent this post to them prior to posting it online for them to review and give any feedback they might have. This is where the "Pocket Wizard Says" segments in italics came from. I should add that the company seems to have excellent customer service and knowledgeable employees to help you through any issues you might have with their products. The thing is, is that you rarely would have time to stop and call them in the middle of a shoot when you're having issues to get it worked out. Nor would I want to, not in front of a client. It is good to know that they do in fact include the AC5 RF Soft Shield with Canon units, but they should be aware that the rental house that I rented the same units from did not give them to me when I rented the units prior to PocketWizard sending me the loaner kit, nor where they included in the loaner kit, so I had no clue that they were needed. This could be a MAJOR source of frustration for those that are simply unaware of the issue when they have rented them. Another issue I experienced with the units I rented was that the rental house had not updated the firmware on them when I picked them up, so they were giving me other glitchy issues due to that as well. Once I updated it, via my computer, they worked better. 

As you can tell from their response on my suggestion of them adding just a simple switch on them to turn them into a standard radio slaves -- well this system is anything but that. They are capable of some awesome things, but there is a learning curve to them. So, I'm partially to blame for my frustration with them since I simply did not have time to really sit down with them and learn about all their capabilities prior to getting them out and using them in a real world way. I just did not anticipate the issues that would arise with them. A firmware upgrade is simply something you wouldn't associate with something that has a basic function like radio slaves. So yeah, they are not something you should expect to just buy, pull right out of the box, and have them operate beautifully for you. It takes more effort on the users part, which I have mixed feelings about. Their versatility and capability is great, but there is something to be said for being user friendly too. It's like today's DSLR's. All the cool little functions in the world don't really matter much if the basic key functions do not work well. Is the exposure, white balance, and ISO controls easily accessible? How about the file quality and its autofocus capability? These are the things that really matter to me as a working photographer, everything else, all the cool little settings and features, is secondary to that. I wouldn't want to have to plug my camera into a computer and set it a certain way, just so I could have basic functionality in it. That's the point I am trying to get across by suggesting a physical switch on the units that will quickly get the system back to its roots.

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