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Advanced Questions
by Chuck McKern

With over 12 years of retail and professional experience Chuck thought he'd heard it all - until he took this job.

Send us your questions for either the Beginner or Advanced columns by clicking HERE.  Please include as much detail about the technique, camera, lens, or film as you can so Chuck can answer your questions.

I managed to bend one of the tension knobs on my beloved Star D tripod, then broke it when I tried to straighten it. Do you know how I can get parts for a Star D?
Paul DeRanek

After several attempts to locate Star D, I wasn't able to find any information as to where they are today. However, parts such as tension knobs can be manufactured by a good machine shop.

One such company that specializes in photographic repairs and has their own machine shop is Tempe Camera. They are located at 606 W. University Drive, Tempe, Arizona 85281. Their phone number is (800) 836-7374 and they are open Monday through Friday 8:00 am to 6:00 pm and Saturdays 9:00 am to 5:00 pm.

I had contacted them to see if they felt they would be able to handle such a request and they said to send them the knob so they can see if they can manufacture it. You may want to contact them to see how they recommend shipping it and if they would charge to look at it.

Also, if you know of a good machine shop in your area, they may also be able to handle this job.

I'm a self-taught amateur photographer with about nine year's experience. I've been doing available light portraits for a while now using my Canon EOS-3 and Canon 540EZ flash. I want to set up a studio in my garage and start doing portraits as a part time income but I'm a little confused by all the different lights and flash systems available. If I want to keep my budget between $1,000 and $1,500 what kinds of things, should I be considering when looking for equipment?

Getting into studio flash systems can be a very rewarding experience but it can be frustrating looking for the right equipment. 

The most forgotten, but most important piece of equipment is a flash meter. A basic flash meter that does both flash and ambient incident readings will do the trick. Try to get one that you can add reflective or spot meter attachments to later so you'll have some flexibility down the road. I personally like the Minolta Auto Meter IV-F. It sells for a little over $200.  For portrait work a color meter isn't really necessary. 

With the meter out of the way, we can talk lights. First think about how many lights you want to work with. You will most likely need a main light, a fill light, and either a back light or hair light. Some photographers prefer to use both. Some will add an additional accent light.  Make sure that your power supply will support all the lights you want to use today, and still have room to expand in the future.

For portrait work don't get the most powerful units on the market. You'll find yourself compensating every possible way to cut the light down enough to open up your aperture and you may still not get there (not to mention blinding your model). 

When looking at lights, consider units with a separate modeling light. The modeling light makes it much easier to position the flash units and pre-visualize the results. This is a big advantage over flash only units.

There are even lights that have independent power supplies built in, and have both variable power and a model light. These are great when building a system since they usually have slaves built in, so you do not have connect them to each other. This type of system allows you to add lights at your pace without outgrowing your common power supply.  Unfortunately this flexibility has a price as these are usually among the most expensive units. 

As for as manufactures, there are several great ones out there. Folks like Speedotron, Novatron, Balcar, Bowens, Dynalite, Comet, and Calumet, to name a handful, are some the most common you'll find at shops catering to professionals.

Also don't rule out used lighting equipment.  There are some good buys out there in used equipment.  Check out the buy/sell board at your local camera shop and our classified section for deals. 

This outlines some of the basics of this very broad subject, we will be doing an in-depth look at the different types of lighting systems in a future article.  

I realize that refrigerating film before you load it is a good idea and especially for the pro version stuff. Is it also a good idea to store the film in the fridge after you shoot it and before you get it off to be developed?

Refrigerating film helps to slow the aging of the emulsions in film. The emulsions in professional films are designed to give a photographer richer color saturation. There for these emulsions are not as stable as consumer film emulsions. Keeping the film refrigerated will help maintain the freshness before and after shooting. Be sure the film is taken out long enough to adjust to the temperature where you will be shooting. If you are not going to have the film processed right away, throw it back in the fridge until you are going to have it developed. Be sure the film will be warmed up before you give it to the lab. Film is made of acetate. If you take it from the cold refrigerator to the near 100-degree developer too fast, you will crack the acetate in the film.

I'm an above average photographer. Over the years, I've shot some stunning images with my 35mm equipment. Lately I've been looking at those Mamiya ads that show the difference in the size of medium format and 35mm slides. I don't mind shooting with manual equipment. I only shoot with manual 35mm equipment. How much better will my images really be if I buy a medium format system?

35mm films have improved dramatically in sharpness and detail in the last few years. The once obvious difference between 35mm and medium format is becoming less evident in "normal" size prints (3" through 11x14). 

Is there still a difference? Yes. Those dramatic improvements in 35mm films made to the medium format films as well. Even though the visual difference in our normal size prints is not as obvious, the detail and sharpness are still stronger in the medium format. This is because the amount of magnification needed to make a print from medium format is much less than that needed to make the same size print from 35mm. 

Before making the jump consider a couple of things:

Do you intend to project your slides?  If so, you will have hard time finding a medium format slide projector. They are available (Mamiya, in fact makes a high quality unit) but may be a special order and will be significantly more expensive then 35mm projectors.

How big are the prints you'll be making?  The larger you print the more apparent the difference will be, but the differences will be much less apparent in prints under 11x14.

Do you intend to publish?  Medium format slides are still very popular in publishing because of the minimal loss of sharpness through magnification that will happen.  Medium format slides are also much easier to view on a light table.  They are actually addictive.  Once you view medium format slides on your light table you'll never want to look at your 35mm slides again.

Are you OK with the size and weight difference?  Most medium format cameras are larger and heavier than their 35mm relatives, so, you may need a tripod for stability - otherwise the sharpness advantage goes out the window.  Few people can handhold a heavier medium format rig down to the same shutter speeds as a 35mm.

Are you really OK shooting manually?  There is a new crop of auto-focus medium format cameras out there that offer more automation.  However these cameras typically have center weighted metering and a level of automation equal to the 35mm cameras of 10 to 15 years ago.  Medium format gear is built for pros, so there is typically little automation to fall back on.

Are you ready for the cost?  While a medium format body is in the same price range as the top pro 35mm bodies be prepared for significantly more expensive lenses.  There is also far less variety of lenses to choose from.  But the cost doesn't stop there.  Medium format film is more expensive, as are processing and development costs.  Only professional labs are set up to print or scan from medium format, and if you work digitally at home only a few pro quality scanners can accommodate medium format.  Scanning medium format slides or negs on a flat bed may yield acceptable prints but will give you a digital file with less information then a good 35mm scan.

Should you go medium format?  If the cost, required skill level, and weight don't intimidate you then medium format can be tremendously rewarding.  Those Mamiya ads that show the difference in size between 35mm and medium format slides only hint at amazing difference you'll see on the light table.  

The only gray card I can find locally sells for an obscene amount of money (given that it is essentially poster board). Anything around that is close enough to a gray card that can be used? Or perhaps something that is consistently known to be a certain number of stops off of 18% gray that can be used? If I knew someone with a gray card, I would probably just take the back of some gray matting board and meter on both to determine how far off the matting board is, and then just use that-but I don't have a "real" gray card available.

The closest thing that I know of that is consistently close to 18% gray is green grass. Ideally, if you can take several shades of gray mat board and lay them out, one at a time, on some healthy green grass, in good light, you should be able to find a board to come very close to matching the exposure of the grass. This would give you a card you can use to get you very close to 18% gray. 

Another trick, provided you know someone with a gray card, is to meter the card with your in-camera spot meter.  Now meter your hand check the difference.  Most people have hands that are around one stop off of 18% gray.  Your skin color will vary the amount of difference.  In a pinch, or if you forget your gray card, you can meter off your hand.

Professionally manufactured gray cards are expensive mainly because of the production process.  The color of the dyes must be carefully calibrated and the amount applied to the the board carefully controlled so that the dye will dry on the board to a consistent 18% gray.

I'm retiring next year and I would like to spend more time on photography. Can you set up a color darkroom at home? What do you need? How expensive is it? Is it safe?
Sy Tullman

I always enjoy hearing from people who want to attempt color printing at home. Although this can be extremely challenging, it can also be very rewarding. 

I would recommend that anyone who wants to do this should have some experience with a black and white darkroom. Granted color and black and white printing are very different, but the fundamental approach is the same. A color darkroom requires  you have a completely light tight room with good ventilation. 

You will need a controlled water bath to maintain chemical temperatures. Color chemicals need to be used at higher temperatures to obtain optimum results and are more critical to timing. Color film developers usually have a tolerance of a half of only a degree (F) one way or the other. Starting out you may want to have a good one hour lab "develop only" your film since this is the most crucial part. Once you have the temperature control down you can start developing film yourself. Experiment with "throwaway" shots not your best pictures.

You should get a small tabletop agitator base and drums for developing your prints. Since color paper is sensitive to all colors of light, you can not use a safelight; therefore, you will want to take the daylight approach which uses sealed drums and allows you to work in room light rather then a truly dark room. It's no fun trying to tray process color prints in a pitch-black room. 

You'll need an enlarger.  Many of the better black and white enlargers have a cousin with a color head. If you already have a good black and white enlarger, check into getting a color head for it.  

Color paper, like professional film, must be refrigerated. If you do not have room in your refrigerator, or photo paper in the fridge is a threat to marital bliss, think about one of those nice micro units to put in your darkroom just for paper and film. 

Color chemicals have a short shelf life once mixed. The best way to keep from wasting chemicals is to plan your printing. By this I mean have an idea how many prints you will need to do and plan when you will be doing them, whether it is one day on the weekend or a couple of consecutive nights during the week. 

The cost of setting up the home darkroom can run from $1000.00 to $2000.00. This is a wide price range that has some heavy influencing variables like whether or not you need an entire enlarger or just a color head, the size of the prints you'll be making (larger prints need larger drums), and whether you're buying all new or some used equipment. 

Chemicals, paper, storage bottles, and thermometers are some of the other necessities. You can use the same thermometers, graduated cylinders, and mixing rods, as long as you clean them well to avoid contamination. Get new storage bottles for your color chemicals, it will save you headaches in the end. Home color darkrooms are relatively safe. The chemicals can be a little more corrosive but if you follow the precautions in the data sheets, exercise some common sense, and don't drink the chemicals, you should not have any safety problems.

I have a chance to pick up a 12 year old manual Nikkor 15mm lens for about half the price of a new 16mm auto focus lens. I really don't care about auto focus on a lens this wide. But I've read a lot of articles about flare problems with wide-angle lenses. Since a lens this old won't have ED glass, will it be more trouble then it's worth?

Lens flare can be a problem with any wide-angle lens. Especially when you get into the 15 and 16mm ranges. However I do have a question about the new 16mm lens, is it a fisheye or wide angle? Nikon is currently making only a 16mm fisheye lens and a 15mm wide-angle lens. In any case, most lenses this wide have built in lens shades (or hoods) to help control the lens flare. If it does not, you'll want to get one. 

Both of the current lenses mentioned have the hood built in. As far as ED glass goes, it will give you a better-recorded image. ED glass allows light to stay better "focused" while traveling through the lens to the film plain. This will allow for truer color and better contrast in your images. This in my book is a good thing to have.

That said only your wallet can tell you if you should spend the extra money for the new lens.

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Getting into studio flash systems can be  very rewarding but it can be frustrating looking for the right equipment 





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