Nikon F6 + CLS (Creative Lighting System)

The setup: The F6 with the Nikon SU-800 Commander head mounted in the hot shoe; the Nikon SB-800 Speed Light (at left behind the diffusion panel) and the Nikon SU-R200 Speed Light at right with the white diffusion panel in front of it.

I’ve wanted to do a CLS write up for a while and finally had a nicely suited project to use. When the warm weather ends I clean out the shop from summer projects and get ready for some indoor fun through winter. This almost always turns up something interesting I forgot I had. This time it was this antique STANLEY Thermos, complete with frayed, knit sock. I thought it would be an appropriate entry to my Shop Series. So I’ll use the Thermos shot to introduce a few CLS components and how to work with them. You’ll see it’s pretty simple, but without a “quick start” it’s easy to file CLS into the “I’ll get around to it some day” bin.

Film photography with off-camera flash using Nikon's CLS is one of the truly great things about shooting film with the Nikon F6.
STANLEY Thermos Project – black and white: Film photography with off-camera flash using Nikon’s CLS is one of the truly great things about shooting film with the Nikon F6.
The setup: The F6 with the Nikon SU-800 Commander head mounted in the hot shoe; the Nikon SB-800 Speed Light (at left behind the diffusion panel) and the Nikon SU-R200 Speed Light at right with the white diffusion panel in front of it.
The setup: The F6 with the Nikon SU-800 Commander head mounted in the hot shoe; the Nikon SB-800 Speed Light (at left behind the diffusion panel) and the Nikon SB-R200 Speed Light at right with the white diffusion panel in front of it.
Stanely Thermos Project - color. Nikon F6 + Kodak Ektar, developed in Cs41 color developing kit.
Stanley Thermos Project – color. Nikon F6 + Kodak Ektar, developed in Cs41 color developing kit.

One of the key attributes of the F6 is the circuitry it contains to run Nikon’s Creative Lighting System, or CLS. No other Nikon film SLR has this ability. If you’re not using your F6 + CLS you’re missing out on one of the features making it unique. There are two components (besides the camera) you’ll need to run CLS on your F6:

a) The SU-800 Commander head. Because the F6 does not have a built-in flash, access to the CLS control is through the SU-800 mounted on the camera’s hot shoe. The SU-800 looks a little like flash but doesn’t actually contain a strobe unit. This is the brain, so to speak. You could also use a CLS capable speed light like the SB-800. This also has a “Commander” mode allowing access to the same functionality.

Nikon F6 with the Wireless Speedlight Commander SU-800. At first glance it looks like a flash - but there's no strobe unit.
Nikon F6 and Wireless Speedlight Commander SU-800. At first glance it looks like a flash – but there’s no strobe unit. The red center emits a beam allowing focus assist in low-light conditions. The SU-800 retails for about $250 and uses 1 3-volt CR123 battery – the same battery as the F6 without the grip.
Nikon SU-800 Commander flash head, required to access the F6's CLS functions.
Nikon SU-800 Commander flash head, required to access the F6’s CLS functions. The letters and numbers visible in  the SU-800 display indicate the Channels each flash can use for individual control. Light levels are set on the Commander head and wirelessly communicated to remote Speed Lights. Pretty slick.
The SU-800 Commander head allows control over each "remote" flash via the menu. Here the SB-800 on left is shown in Group A; the SB-R200 on right is shown in Group B. Each group allows independent control of power levels.
The SU-800 Commander head (center) allows control over each “remote” flash via the menu. Here the SB-800 (left) is shown in Group A; the SB-R200 (right) is shown in Group B. Each group allows independent control of power levels.
Nikon SB-800: the long-time workhorse of the Creative Lighting System. The SB-800 menu system is a little more cryptic than the newer SB-900 series, but not prone to shut off due to overheating issues like the 900 is.
Nikon SB-800: the long-time workhorse of the Creative Lighting System. The SB-800 menu system is a little more cryptic than the newer SB-900 series, but not prone to shut off due to overheating issues like the 900 is.

b) At least one CLS-compatible flash, which means anything after the Nikon SB-300 and up. For this shot I’ll be using the SU-800, SB-800 Speedlight and the diminutive SB-R200 Speedlight.

SU-R200 Speedlight, part of the Nikon's R1C1 Macro Kit. I use these little guys all the time. They're small, portable, just enough power to breathe life into - but not over power the scene.
SB-R200 Speedlight, part of the Nikon’s R1C1 Macro Kit. I use these flexible little guys for all kinds of things. They’re small, portable, just enough power to breathe life into – but not overpower – the scene.
The SB-800 set to "REMOTE." Interacting with flash settings is accomplished from the Commander head.
The SB-800 set to “REMOTE.” Interacting with flash settings is accomplished from the Commander head.

To reinforce how simple CLS is to use I’ll keep it brief. The concept is simple: the SU-800 commander head communicates wirelessly with the other flashes and tells them when – and how bright to fire. The other flashes are simply set to “REMOTE” mode – ready to receive instructions from the Commander.

Because I’m going through the trouble to do this on film – film is cheap and I’m going to make the most of the opportunity. I devoted a full roll of Ilford FP4+ to bracket flash output and depth of field. Another nice thing about having plenty of images to choose from is if film acquires some imperfections in processing such as water spots or scratches there are plenty of other frames to choose from. Sometimes those analog anomalies add to “the look,” other times they don’t.

Here is a sample of the EXIF data generated from the chosen frame:

07, 2″, F13, 105, F2.8, Color matrix, M, Front curtain sync, 0.0, +0.2, 0.0, non-TTL auto flash/Optional speedlight/Multiple flash, None, AE Unlock, VR off, 2016/11/06,17:09

You can see there’s no specific flash power output; i.e., what the flash on Channel 1A was set to vs. 1B. Keeping notes on such things helps in future projects. The PhotoMemo Photographer’s Memo Book below (picked up from Mike Padua’s shootfilmco.com web site) came in handy to record the different steps – things that weren’t recorded in EXIF data.

After shooting, developing (Ilford DDX at 1:4 for 10 minutes) and scanning (Nikon LS-5000), Meta35 was used to marry the EXIF data with each frame.

Using Nikon's Creative Lighting System with black and white film.
Shop Series: STANLEY Thermos, Fort Collins, Colorado (2016)

The final result was the frame I felt best balanced light levels, depth of field and overall look and feel. To state the obvious – yes, it would have been easier to do this digitally. But for my creative goals there was no substitute for representing this vintage item in anything other than black and white film. I was particularly interested in how film rendered the different textures and imperfections in the smooth but aged metal finish of the thermos, the shiny metal cap and of course that beautiful knit sock complete with frayed threads dangling. From the moment I saw it – it had to be film.

Photographer's PhotoMemo book from shootfilmco.com. Inexpensive, well thought out and easy to have with you in a shirt pocket.
Photographer’s PhotoMemo book from shootfilmco.com. Inexpensive, well thought out and easy to have with you in a shirt pocket.

If questions come to mind as you explore CLS shoot me a note on our newly re-vamped contact page. I’d love to see anyone with a F6 look into Nikon’s Creative Lighting System. It’s a unique feature and will change your photography for the better.

Pushing Kodak Ektar 2 Stops

Angels of 7A Dahlia

Can it be done? Yes! Here’s the story:

The other day I was on an assignment and pulled a rookie move. I became so preoccupied talking and laughing with the client, fiddling with light – diffusion panels to knock the sun down; fiddling with power levels on the SU-800 and SB-R200’s  – that I forgot to change the ISO after previously shooting a 400 speed film. I don’t typically use the DX setting  – preferring instead to set ISO manually, especially when using custom rather than rated ISO’s. I realized my mistake halfway through the roll and was pretty embarrassed – though the client never knew.

I decided to continue on, hoping the lab would bail me out, and was blown away by the results. They were perfect. Kevin at Digi-Graphics said, “I’ve never pushed Ektar 2 stops before but it’s great film. It should be just fine. If it were junk film not so much. Who knows… this might be exactly how you should shoot Ektar…”

Dahlia, Water Lilly, Angels of 7A
Angels of 7a, Water Lilly Dahila

As it turned out, those were prophetic words… with a few caveats.

These images are scanned in using the Nikon LS-5000 and VueScan. I ordered prints with this roll – something I don’t usually do – and they were awful – unusably awful – the red channel completely flooded blocking up the center of the flower in one, big, featureless blob of red-ness. When I saw the prints I thought, “Uh-Oh… I’m busted” and the negs sat on my light box for nearly a week as I mulled over what to do. I’d also made a few digital frames as back-ups and began considering tweaking them into what I wanted for the final images.

Last night I took another look at the negs on the light box with a loop. I could see plenty of detail in the red regions of the film and thought what the heck, it wouldn’t be the first time the prints were disappointing but the images were still good. I sat down and started scanning and was – once again – blown away by what film does. Even though the original prints were unusably awful there was plenty of information there. The question was, how to get to it. A little VueScan magic did the trick. Switching to Manual mode I began adjusting values in the red channel for scanning. Turns out about half of the standard setting did the trick and all that lovely detail began to reemerge.

Light:
The F6 has the unique ability among other film cameras to leverage Nikon’s Creative Lighting System and this was a perfect opportunity to see what the R1C1 Close-up Flash kit could do. The flowers were in direct sunlight, so a diffusion panel was used to neutralize the bright, Colorado sun. The SU-800 Commander head was mounted to the F6 and set to an even 1:1 Group C, Channel 1. I typically use Group C for my Macro work because Groups A and B are used more often for the SB-800 and 900 for more common lighting tasks. The Flash Sync Mode on the F6 was set to “Slow,” and the Sync Speed (Custom Setting Menu item E-1) was set to 1/250FP allowing sync speeds greater than the 1/250th of a second using Auto FP High Speed Sync. The SW-11 Close-Up Adaptors were used to position the light extremely close to the center axis of the lens, providing a very mild, straight-on, diffused light source, but perfect for picking up reflected detail in the water droplets. The goal was natural-appearing lighting with that little extra something. Though it hadn’t rained in a while, I flicked some water on the leaves, then hit it with a spray bottle for a little extra sparkle on the petals.

Nikon F6 shown with: Nikon R1C1 Macro Close-Up Flash Kit (Nikon SU-800 wireless speedlight commander, Nikon SX-1 attachment ring, Nikon SY-1-62 adaptor ring, NIKON SB-R200 wireless remote speedlight, NIKON SW-11 extreme close-up adaptor) Nikon DR-5 Right-Angle Viewer; Nikon AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED Lens.
Nikon F6 shown with: Nikon R1C1 Macro Close-Up Flash Kit (Nikon SU-800 wireless speedlight commander, Nikon SX-1 attachment ring, Nikon SY-1-62 adaptor ring, NIKON SB-R200 wireless remote speedlight, NIKON SW-11 extreme close-up adaptor) Nikon DR-5 Right-Angle Viewer; Nikon AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED Lens.

I’ve said before but it bares repeating: the Creative Lighting System is indeed one of the unique attributes of the F6 causing it to stand out amidst other film cameras. At the end of the day photography is largely about how light interacts with medium. Being intentional then about how to use that light is one way to direct, or shape, the contents of the frame. In the spirit of Tomohisa Ikeno “Value of Unique Pictures” discussion (please click here), the more I shoot the F6, the more interested I am in exploring the unique images it’s capable of.  Nikon’s CLS figures prominently into that exploration.

Kodak Ektar, pushing 2 stops: This image shows how well Ektar's grain held up despite the 2-stop push. Incredible detail is still within its grasp.
Just Married, Lacinated-Cactus Dahlia. This image shows how well Ektar’s grain held up despite the 2-stop push. Incredible detail is still within its grasp.

As it turned out, shooting Ektar at ISO400 – while not something I’d have thought to do intentionally – produced great results. It allowed working with higher shutter speeds to combat a slight breeze shifting the flowers ever so slightly. Pushing Ektar also amplified the natural tendencies of this already vivid, contrasty film.  “Yup. Pushing a color film increases grain, saturation and contrast at the expense of latitude. Pushing an already saturated film super saturates it,” said my buddy Eric, well versed in matters of darkroom chemistry. Given that Ektar is already a finely-grained film, the increase in grain is nominal, if noticeable at all. But the increase in saturation is very noticeable – and to a lesser degree a bump in contrast may also be seen. This explains the flooding of the red channel in the initial prints.

Kodak Ektar pushed 2 stops pushes Ektar's already vivid color and contrast into overdrive. Straight out of scanning with no contrast or saturation boost.
Tahoma Sarah, Mini-Dahlia

These images are directly out of VueScan with no adjustment to color or contrast at all. Normally when scanning Ektar there’s a certain degree of color adjustment required to get the images looking right to my eye. Here – they just jump off the screen with no adjustment what so ever.

So in case you ever need to push Ektar, do it with confidence. It works great. Just be mindful when you go to print the images that you adjust the color properly. The resulting super saturated images may exceed most printers’ ability to reproduce the results. This I know for sure: I’ll be shooting my next roll of Ektar at 200 and pushing it a stop to experiment. Who knows… I may have just stumbled bass-ackwards into a new look.

Opening Post

Nikon F6 shown with: Nikon R1C1 Macro Close-Up Flash Kit (Nikon SU-800 wireless speedlight commander, Nikon SX-1 attachment ring, Nikon SY-1-62 adaptor ring, NIKON SB-R200 wireless remote speedlight, NIKON SW-11 extreme close-up adaptor) Nikon DR-5 Right-Angle Viewer; Nikon AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED Lens.

Welcome to the Nikon F6 Project. Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated.

Nikon F6: I had in mind when I sat down to write this introduction a eloquent, thought-provoking soliloquy capable of convincing anyone, anyplace that shooting a film camera in 2009 still had meaning; that it wasn’t only worth doing but a good thing to do. Smart. An essay that would appear in blogs around the world extolling the virtues of film; of ardent, stubborn truth and idealism, old-school virtues, staying the course despite the appearance of what today appears to be. Nikon would have a parade for me in Japan and I’d throw yellow and black confetti on children as they … well, you get the idea.

Recently I put up a gallery on my zenfolio site entitled “nikon F6“. The only traffic it receives is me checking it from my iPhone. It’s becoming more obvious that no one really cares about 35mm film (except Ken Rockwell-God bless him). At first this saddened me. Then the other night we were at a family gathering and I was talking with a fellow photographer, a commercial pro from Denver. We were extrapolating years down the road and he said “no one will know how to shoot film… it will be the domain of the few, the eccentric, the creatives, the artists… it will be a specialty, a niché, desirable because it’s rare; a lost art.” An idea was born.

The Nikon F6 was introduced in 2004. There are plenty of detailed, very well written compendiums and chronological essays of the camera and some glimpses of the potential thought processes surrounding Nikon’s decision to build it. Honestly, I don’t know anything about any of that. It’s all cool stuff, but it doesn’t really do it for me. Google Nikon F6 and you’ll come up with a wealth of information. That’s not what this site is about.

Nikon F6
Shooting fall colors in Gunnison National Forest, Colorado (2011)

The Nikon F6 is of course a 35mm film camera. The thing about 35mm film that makes it special to me is the quality vs. portability matrix – and of course the fact that it’s analog, not digital. I remember a while back I was reading about one of my favorite photographers, the late Galen Rowell, (Galen Rowell, A Retrospective, Sierra Club Books, 2006) who said no way was he going to lug a large format view camera up a mountain to take pictures. If 35mm film is good enough for Galen, it’s certainly good enough for me. The key for me then, is to make sure I get that little, luggable camera up the mountain, into the canyons, under the waters, into the rivers, caves, air ways, flight paths, game trails, every other hard-to-get-to place you can think of and all those you can’t imagine. In other words, get out there and shoot. Go places. Do things. Meet people. See stuff. Which should come as no coincidence, is what I love to do.

I bought my F6 new in August of 2008 just before leaving for a photo trip to Zion National Park. Really more just to have one, just in case it was their last. But after reading up on it, running a few rolls of film through it and seeing the results I realized this was no camera to sit on a shelf gathering dust as a collector’s item. Rather, an instrument of precision and perfection to be exercised, pushed to the limits, run wide-open on high-test; a weapon against the ordinary; a domineering force of photographic Nikon F6 35mm film camera, Nikon SU-800 wireless speedlight commandernature born to destroy the bell-curve of “good enough;” a hunter of Barthe’s punctum with every release of the refined, kevlar focal plane shutter; the visual can-opener to life exposing to those willing to venture its deep, complex circuitry and technical capabilities exploration of things in a way never before able with 35mm film. Folks, film isn’t dead. It just needed a new champion to help take it to the next level. That champion is the NIkon F6.

Nikon F6 35mm film camera packed and ready to travel in the Lowe Pro Photo Trekker AW.
Nikon F6 35mm film camera packed and ready to travel in the Lowe Pro Photo Trekker AW.

The Nikon F6 was built with a strong pre-disposition to seize the moment. It’s an incredibly sophisticated film camera – beyond what most people realize, employing the at-the-time latest digital technologies in terms of metering, auto focus and electronic sophistication including advanced flash capabilities being deployed in the top-end digital cameras – all in a highly refined, unsurpassed durable, rugged yet elegant package drawing on previous Nikon legends for what could be one, final, jaw-dropping, show-stopping, drop-dead perfect camera: the last of its kind. A final exclamation mark by the authors of photographic exclamation.

I grew up seeing the photographs the pros shot with high-end Nikon gear and think, “man, if only I had a camera and glass like that…” well now I do and I still can’t take photos like them. But I continue to try, schleppin’ around my bag, burning through film, squinting through the loop at the light box, scanning image after image, scrutinizing in Photoshop and even printing a few decent efforts… all this for the love of the process. You see, I believe the process of photography bares more examination, more attention, than it receives today. Back in the day, photography was pondered; studied; explored. What I fear is happening today is, there is such an overwhelming volume of meaningless, throw-away images shot millions of times a day that the notion of a photograph being “special” is as incomprehensible as someone pondering the bigger ideas behind why the sky is blue or the earth is round. It’s simply taken for granted. But photographs are special. They do warrant attention, study, examination and excellence in technique and approach.

Nikon F6 at work
The Nikon F6 at work: Zion National Park; Utah, Allenspark, Colorado; Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

So what is this site about? This site is about using the Nikon F6, and what incredible photographs it’s capable of taking. I say this realizing I’m inferring that my photographs are incredible. While even a broken clock is right twice a day and I’ve gotten lucky a few times, for the most part they’re not. And that’s not feigned self-deprication – it’s simply my today’s version of the truth. This site isn’t intended to self-grandize me and my work, but to show what this camera can do – yes, even in my ham-fisted mitts. The reason for this site is to honor, pay homage to, respect, revere what, at this writing, appears will be the last in the long, legendary line of NIkon F-series film cameras. And how to get every drop of performance out of it.

This site is my attempt at examining some of those photographs and some of the reasons for the photographs and how the F6 helped make them. It’s my attempt to hop off that relentless, speeding train of technological progress always apparently late for something – greater convenience, ease of use, digital sterility, simplicity of automation – and take a step back. Years from now, when the film market has all but dried up save for a few, stalwart romantics, and a film Renaissance rumbles through the pile of point-and-shoot castaways in our land fills, people will scour the web, whatever fashion it assumes in that day, and maybe come across this site.

To those people I extend a warm welcome, inviting them to explore the unique, wonderful and even romantic side of photography as it once was, and could be again with this fine instrument. Welcome back.

John B. Crane
Fort Collins, Colorado
08/26/09