Back Up More Than Pictures

A recent post by Sfiso reminded me of my first paying photo shoot, as a teenager, photographing the kids on Santa’s lap at my siblings primary school. It was still in the days when film ruled the earth and I had equipment dreams far bigger than my pocket. With all my equipment lust I would bargain and price beat for the best cameras I could afford – or not when you consider my parents contributions to my camera gear – making sure I looked the part of a professional. Wait, I am getting side tracked. Let me take you through my first paying job and the nightmare it almost became.

As I said, I was asked to shoot the Santa pics for my former primary school where my siblings were attending. At the time I was a Pentax user and had gone to great lengths to own two of what some would argue were the best manual focus cameras from Pentax, the Super A. One of these was fitted with the full Motor Drive (not the ME Winder) which also had a vertical release shutter button making it the ideal set up for portrait shooting. Accompanying these two formidable cameras (that was my view at the time) was a bag full of Pentax prime lenses like the 35mm f/2, 50mm f/1.4, 85mm f/2 and 200mm f/2.8. There were others but those were my favourites.

Image by Kieran Turner - Part of Wikipedia Article

Just a few weeks before the shoot I bought a plastic, completely manual Cosina camera for a tenth of what one of the Pentax bodies cost just because it was so cheap. I must be honest, I never really gave this poor black box much thought.

On the day of the event I picked up the rental studio lights and background. I had tested them before leaving the store and was happy all was well. Even though the Pentax Super A had a sync socket for the studio lights I decided to get a hot shoe adapter just in case, this would prove to be a life saver for me.

The setup was simple. I had the lights at 45 degree angles from the subject. I had one set slightly lower powered than the other and was ready to start shooting the 100 odd kids that were expected to sit on Santa’s knee. With the 85mm f/2 set on the camera and the first child on Santa’s lap I fired the first shot. All of a sudden my motordrive went in to over drive and the flashes started going off like a strobe light at a rave. What on earth was going on? By the time I had got the camera turn off the drive had gone through half the roll of film. Bummer.

I pulled out the second Super A, without the motordrive and prepared to take the portrait again – just to be on the safe side following that malfunction. I looked through the viewfinder, focused and fired. The viewfinder blacked out and… stayed black, what was going on. My second prized camera had just jammed on me.

All in a moment it dawned on me what was going on. I had had this problem before my first Pentax camera, the MZ-M when I used a non Pentax flash. The technician I took that camera to told me that with non dedicated flashes or older studio lights the (excuse my non technical terms here) feedback to the camera’s flash system could cause the camera to short. What could I do now, I was on a night shoot and two cameras down. While I knew they would both be fine in a few minutes, using them with these studio lights was out of the question.

In desperation I look at my camera bag and there, staring at me from the bottom, was the lonely Cosina. I pulled it out, grabbed the hotshoe adapter I had got earlier and put the 85mm f/2 on this little plastic camera that I had bought for even less than bargain bottom. Saying a little prayer I lifted the camera to my eye and took the portrait again. While the clank sound it made was not nearly as refined as that from the Pentax bodies that little Cosina shot the entire evening going through some 8-10 rolls of film without a single complaint.

What Is The Lesson We Learn?

Sometimes you need a back up for a back up and always test your gear before you shoot. I came close to getting my first grey hair there and I was only 16. I also learnt that its not about the gear. In fact, preparing to write this article inspired me to try something else. I will share with you my recent experiment shooting in a studio, with flash, and a camera you least expect to see in the studio.