Playing with the Nikon R1C1 wireless macro flash system in the garden

Today I was experimenting with Nikon’s venerable SU800 wireless (infrared) commander and two tiny SB-R200 strobes (Nikon calls them speedlights) that came together inside the R1C1 kit.

Closeup of a beautiful magnolia flower shot with a Nikon R1C1 wireless macro flash system on a Nikon D780. This is a 1:1 crop straight out of the camera, with a little sharpening applied.

I was skeptical about the R1C1 kit that’s been sitting in my drawer ever since I “re-appropriated” it from the lab where I work (nobody was using it anyway). The main reasons were:

  • The strobes and the commander use pretty rare CR123A Li-ion cells. The ones I got from Amazon were 1300 mAh (which is not a lot) and are not rechargeable. I don’t expect the strobes to go on for very long on these cells, and even if they were rechargeable, it’s another piece of equipment, unique to this kit to travel with.
  • The system is wireless, but it’s infrared. Modern strobes (I use the Godox X-pro system) use a high frequency radio system, which is much more robust, allows for a high shutter speed sync, and more range, and less delay.

On the other hand, what’s nice about the system is that it includes a mounting ring, which screws onto the lens (different adapters are provided) and allows a comfortable 360 degree rotation of the strobes that are attached to it. Alternatively, strobe stands with tripod screws are provided. I’m not sure how well this would work with the limited infrared signal from the SU800 commander. I expect it to work well indoors (e.g. for product shots) but poorly outdoors in bright light as soon as the tiny SB-S200 strobes are separated.

Closeup of a beautiful tulip flower shot with a Nikon R1C1 wireless macro flash system on a Nikon D780. This is a 1:1 crop straight out of the camera, with a little sharpening applied.

I mounted the kit onto the fantastic Nikkor AF-D 35 mm f/2 with a +2.0 D macro filter attached to it. What a macro filter does is it makes the lens “myopic” by shifting its entire focusing range closer by +2.0 diopters. This means that the far end, which was at infinity is now at 1/2.0 = 0.5 meters, and the near end which was at 25 cm (which is 1 / 0.25 = 4.0 D) is now at 6 diopters (4.0 + 2.0 = 6), which is (you guessed it) at 16.6 cm. This lens has a magnificent and smooth bokeh and is very sharp even at F/11, which is what you need to expand the depth of field which is razor thin in macro photography.

As soon as I started shooting I realized that the communication between the commander and the strobes was a hit or miss. Without having read the manual I couldn’t figure out whether it was good for them to blink green, red, or both. The strobes would just turn off at whim and refuse to fire at random. Sometimes it was necessary to remove the commander from the camera and attach it again. Yet other times it was enough to fire a test flash for the system to start talking to itself correctly.

Closeup of a beautiful tulip flower shot with a Nikon R1C1 wireless macro flash system on a Nikon D780. This is a 1:1 crop straight out of the camera, with a little sharpening applied.

In spite of all the abovementioned inconveniences and reservations I have to say that when the kit chooses to work, the results are wonderful. I used the additional tiny diffusers on both the strobes which makes the tiny setup (flower, camera, and the two strobes) behave similarly as a studio shot with a model. Everything is just scaled down. Tiny subject, tiny diffuse lights, and the camera working at the very near end of the focus range. I shot at ISO400, using 1/4 flash power at F/11 and 1/160 second exposure time (this thing does not have high speed sync). The tiny diffused strobes can be precisely pointed at the subject, and freely rotated around the ring, casting delightful soft shadows on the petals. They are more than strong enough to overpower the sun and provide crisp and contrasty shots. As long as you’re not in a hurry and willing to look past the very obvious limitations of this quite vintage macro setup, you should absolutely give it a chance and spend a day or two with it in a garden.

A Winter Weekend of Street Photography in New York

New York is a truly astonishing city[1][2][3]. It currently houses 8.4 million people distributed over a land area of 305 square miles. The city has the largest Polish population after Warsaw. The same goes for Jewish people (outside Israel), and it also has the largest Chinese population outside Asia. New York City is the most linguistically diverse city in the world, with its residents speaking over 800 different languages.

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Times Square is named after the New York Times. It was originally called Longacre Square until 1904 when the NYT moved there. The city is associated with the British Empire but the first settlers were Dutch. They established a fur trading post in Governor’s Island. Later, the Dutch established the colony of New Amsterdam in Lower Manhattan. They purchased the island from the locals for the modern equivalent of $1000. Many have called the transaction “the best real estate deal in history” (which probably is an exaggeration if you consider the Louisiana Purchase).

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In 1664, the English took the territory of New Amsterdam from the Dutch settlers living there. King Charles II named the territory New York after his brother the Duke of York and gave it to him as a gift. Manhattan comes from a Lenape word meaning “island of many hills” (mostly flattened by now to provide room for urban development). New York is known as the “Empire State” due to its growth and prosperity early in its history. George Washington is said to have seen New York as “the seat of the empire”. It was the first capital of the United States. The designation lasted only a year.

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There are more than 380,000 millionaires in the city and that’s why there are so many expensive stores and establishments in Fifth Avenue. One out of every 21 New Yorkers is a millionaire.

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The price to operate a hot dog cart in Manhattan (for a year) ranges between $150,000 and $300,000 (in the most expensive pars of town, like Central Park).

The city has been struggling with the problem of homelessness for years, and since 2007 it pays families to leave the city, as a way of keeping them out of the expensive shelter system which costs $36,000 a year per family. All it takes is for a relative in any other part of the world to agree to take the family in, and the city of New York sponsors the ticket.

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From a photographer’s point of view, New York is an infinite source of inspiration. The people, the architecture, the never-ceasing movement and flow of faces, cars, bikes and events in the “city that never sleeps” is something that leaves a lasting impression. I had the time and opportunity to walk the streets of NYC taking pictures for two days with my trusty Nikon D800. Continue reading “A Winter Weekend of Street Photography in New York”

The piercing beauty of rocky moors of the Peak District National Park

The Peak District is an upland area in England at the southern end of the Pennine Chain – a range of mountains and hills in separating North West England from Yorkshire and North East England.[Wikipedia] It is a wonderful place to discover. There are mountains to hike, caverns to explore, skies to glide, charming little towns and villages with teashops to visit and real taverns where the locals serve you free beer. You heard right – after you prove to have come down from the mountains (for example by showing the pictures you had taken) you are served a proper pint of the local lager. Or perhaps it’s just the case at the charming Old Nags Head in Edale.

The hike that my friends and I did started in Edale, and took us all the way up to the Kinder Scout – the highest peak of the Park at 636m (or 2.087 feet). If you’ve ever been to the UK you will probably agree that the weather there is somewhat unpredictable. “Fierce Mild” as Dylan Moran once coined it (you have to say it out load with a strong Scottish accent or it won’t work). As a photographer be prepared for mostly overcast days, with occasional glimpses of sunlight. Even without the sun the landscape is astonishing in all its barren, rocky and windy beauty.

Almost all of the photos in this gallery have been shot with the first version of Nikon’s 70-200mm f/2.8 IF ED VR lens. It is heavy but its medium telephoto focal length range is perfect and versatile for landscape shots while hiking. The vibration reduction elliminates the need to use the tripod even with a high resolution, small pixel size body like the D800. The only reason to bring a tripod would be shooting at close apertures like f/8 and the day was very cloudy. On the other hand, the wide aperture of this lens makes it possible to achieve separation even in case of relatively remote objects (like trees) against far away background. Amazing!

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70200mm britain hiking landscape nationalpark Nikon peakdistrict travel uk

70200mm britain hiking landscape nationalpark Nikon path peakdistrict road travel uk

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70200mm britain hiking landscape nationalpark nature Nikon peakdistrict travel uk

70200mm britain hiking landscape mountains nationalpark Nikon peakdistrict travel uk

70200mm britain hiking landscape nationalpark Nikon peakdistrict rocky travel uk

70200mm britain hiking landscape nationalpark Nikon peakdistrict rocky travel uk

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Street Photo: Man making a living by playing saxophone on the street in Murcia

I met this street saxophone player while waiting at the Cathedral Square in Murcia. In exchange for a few coins he agreed to pose for the photo. It was tricky because I had to go all the way down to the ground to take it, and also because of the very high dynamic range present in the scene. The cathedral was blazing in the sunlight while the artist was in the shadow. For the D800 this wasn’t a problem at all, and in fact I feel that it could still handle 1 or 2 more stops of light level difference, which is remarkable. The 20mm f/1.8 Nikkor is very good at separating the subject from the background, despite being a very wideangle lens. My lesson from today… never hesitate to ask strangers to pose!

Nikon D2x 14 years later. Is it still relevant? A top pro camera for under $200.

Nikon D2x first hit the stores in february 2005 after a very long delay. People were waiting for a high-resolution camera ever since the lower-resolution, high-speed model, the D2h had come out almost a year earlier. It received rave reviews and was praised for image quality (the new APS-C CMOS imager was advertised to be able to resolve detail several times better than the human eye – 90 cycles per millimeter), improved handling and outstanding battery life (over 2000 shots without and 800 with VR), and at the time the best  LCD screen in the world with 2.5 inches and 235k pixels. Click here to see the original brochure.

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And then there was the price – it cost over $5000. NASA took it into space many times and it was also extremely popular with news agencies, which appreciated the optional wireless capability. It was made kind of obsolete specifications-wise when the Nikon D200 hit the market in december of the same year, but as far as the build quality went, the D2x was far superior. By the end of its flagship DSLR lifespan, Nikon released the D2xs which carried numerous firmware tweaks and improvements, a gimmick in the viewfinder and an improved LCD. All of these (except the LCD and viewfinder of course) were later made available to the “regular” D2x users through firmware, and so for all intents and purposes both cameras have the same nice features – yay!

camera d2x dslr gear Nikon nikoncamera parts photography professional repairIf you have ever updated the firmware of a Nikon DSLR you probably noticed that it was comprised of two parts – Part A and B. This is a curious relic of the development of the digital SLR. If you look at how the cameras evolved, you’ll see that Kodak, the American company that invented and patented the digital camera, had always had a hard time catching up with the state-of-the art Japanese SLRs. They partnered-up with Nikon (and later Canon) to slap CCD imagers and electronics onto film SLR bodies and make use of their metering and auto-focus systems to build big, expensive news cameras like the Kodak DCS760 (which also got into space). Back when the Nikon D2x was being developed, and even today, this two-part heritage exists and so the firmware for the digital image processing is separate from the one controlling “traditional” photographic systems such as metering or focusing.

camera d2x dslr gear Nikon nikoncamera photography professionalThis brings me to the point where I tell you how I got my own Nikon D2x. I bought it off eBay broken, for only a little over $150. The body arrived in mint condition except for a significant impact mark on the side. A fall must’ve hit the camera very hard, as small fragment of the alloy under the prism got chipped, leaving a hole. Scary stuff. After I disassembled the camera it became obvious that the dent had torn the electronics underneath and so they had to be replaced. Luckily I found the necessary part on eBay. It was a long PCB-and-flex (PCB stands for printed circuit board) piece of electronics that starts at the top of the prism, goes under the top LCD, and ends under the main grip. It is none other but Part A – the true SLR heart of the camera! Here is a handy D2x Service Manual for those of you who need to repair their own camera.

camera d2x dslr gear Nikon nikoncamera parts photography professional repairAfter the replacement, the camera came back to life and as I started playing with it and taking test photos I noticed that the shutter release counter was off the charts with over 600 000 clicks! This couldn’t possibly be right with such a mint condition body so I must conclude that the internal shutter release counter is located within the Part A of the camera. If you look at the photo of the parts you will see another curious detail. To the right there is a tiny “improvised” PCB with red and blue wires coming out and connected further away. This is different from the part that I had replaced it with, which indicates that Nikon kept making small tweaks and improvements even after the D2x was launched.

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Today the D2x looks very outdated on paper. The imager is only 12 Mpix and it’s an APS-C sensor, which means that it is a little smaller than what is called “full frame”, or FX. The autofocus system has only 11 points, and can’t be fine-tuned. There is no live view and no video. How could it possibly compare or compete with even the cheapest entry-level DSLRs? Well… the Nikon D2x represents, to me, the purest “back to basics” way of taking photos. I admit – the camera feels sluggish by todays standards while reviewing exposures on the LCD screen or navigating through menus, and the 11 autofocus points could’ve been spread wider throughout the viewfinder.

camera d2x dslr gear Nikon nikoncamera olympus olympusom photography professional zuikoHowever, at the time of taking pictures, the camera is extremely responsive. The viewfinder is large,  beautiful and shows 100% of the scene. In your hand the camera feels rock solid. The control layout and handling are perfect – it doesn’t get any better than this. The D2x offers 5 FPS of burst speed (it does have an optional 8 FPS mode, but then it makes use of only 6.5 Mpix which limits its usability). Using the modern RAW processing software you can easily get away with shooting ISO3200. The sensation that you have using the D2x is one of reliability and freedom. If you ever miss a photo opportunity with a D2x in your hand, it will not be the camera’s fault for sure.

Should you get it? This, of course, depends. Today you can find them for under $400, or even for as little as I paid for mine – if you feel adventurous. 12 Mpix (think 4000 x 3000 pixels) will both fill a 2-page spread in a journal with crisp detail and look great on social networks or blogs. The D2x, in addition to being a piece of history,  will keep you mindful of correct exposure and framing while offering no distractions. It will probably not sync with your phone to send a picture via Snapchat but if you were looking for that, you wouldn’t have reached the end of this article. The Nikon D2x is an elegant tool for more… civilized times.

At the end of this page there are four full-size straight out of the camera samples of Nikon D2x photos.

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