Special Report: photokina: Studio Update--Lighting And Assorted "Weird" Gear

We were profoundly grateful to George Schaub--our Beloved Helmsman, Chairman, and Leader--for telling us that he didn't want a laundry list of new products. Listing every improvement in electronic flash would take up half the magazine, and it would come down to one generalization for all anyway. Everyone's flashes are becoming more powerful and more efficient; control is being improved, with reliable 1/10 stop graduations in many cases; and wireless remote control (usually radio rather than infrared) is becoming more and more widespread.

Hot (tungsten) lights are once again increasingly popular, and hot-light softboxes are coming down in price. Many softboxes melt or (worse still) catch fire when used with hot lights instead of flash, but Paterson's new Interfit Pro Soft (www.patersonphotographic.com) comes in 15 sizes and is heat-resistant up to 400Þ C: we hope to test a couple of them soon, possibly alongside their new flash units for a hot light vs. flash test. Photoflex (www.photoflex.com) was another maker stressing hot-light softboxes, especially the OctoDome nxt (sic) with their own Starlite 3200 hot light.

A major trend was the appearance of small lighting enclosures for product photography: several manufacturers specifically stated that their products were invaluable for people who wanted to sell on eBay. One of the cleverest products (from Lastolite) was a series of gray focusing targets, at approximately 12 percent, 18 percent, and 30 percent, for fooling fully-auto digicams. The idea was that you focus-lock and exposure-lock on the appropriate card, then whip it out and shoot the product instead. Using the dark card (12 percent) will result in slight overexposure, meaning a pure white background, while using a light card (30 percent) will result in slight underexposure which will give extra detail in light subjects such as silver trinket boxes. We hope in due course to run a side by side test on two different approaches to the same solution, from Kaiser (www.hpmarketingcorp.com) and Lastolite (www.bogenimaging.us).

In fact, the range of studio equipment is now bewildering. Where 30 years ago we built our lights and sets out of bamboo and black cardboard and bulldog clips and string, you can now buy almost anything "off the shelf": there is literally too much to describe, and if you are serious about studio photography you would do well to visit photokina to see the extraordinary range of products available, including even complete room and "outdoor" sets from companies such as Off The Wall Productions (www.otwp.com) in Canada.

Accessories And Weird Stuff
One of the sad things about photokina is that there are ever fewer tiny booths selling weird stuff: the cost per square meter is now so high that few small companies can afford to go. Even so, there are a few big companies who still sell weird stuff, and there are a number of accessories that aren't weird at all but deserve coverage.

In the latter category there is a very basic continuous-light slide copier from Kaiser, albeit only in prototype form. Slide copier? Yup. Suppose that (like me) you have thousands of slides and you want to use them on your website or send out reference pics. Sure you can scan them, but if you have a reasonably versatile digital camera (best of all an SLR like my Nikon D70) it's an awful lot quicker to use a slide copier, where basically you can shoot them as fast as you can put them into the carrier and take them out again.

Another excellent "old-fashioned" introduction was the Sekonic L-558 (www.sekonic.com), a do-it-all spot and incident meter at an attractive price. Digital cameras have lamentably low latitude, even worse than slide film except perhaps when shooting "raw," and even then, you dare not err on the side of overexposure. Precise exposure determination is therefore more important than ever, and a meter like this allows you to get it right.

Another increasingly important product in the digital realm is a daylight-balanced viewing source for prints: many inks exhibit appalling metamerism when transferred from daylight to artificial light. I've been using a British-built DW Viewtower for years, but in the US I'd look at GTI (www.gtilite.com), who had a couple of new models. They are not cheap, and it's not exactly a glamorous accessory, but a few hundred dollars spent here could greatly improve your ink jet printing.

Kapture Group, Inc. (www.kapturegroup.com) showed some very clever stitching and non-stitching adapters for high-end digital backs: panoramic, twin exposure on Fuji 680, digiback on 35mm lenses (Nikon, Canon FD, Leica R, Canon, Olympus, Contax), and more.

Swanson of Jiangsu (call: 513 570 0127) in China showed a magnificent array of brass telescopes in almost 18th century elegance, but it is hard to see how they could justify "My products have patent in China."

Several people have begun to address the problem of digital pictures disappearing into hyperspace, and two of my favorites were a ring-bound album from MyPhotoFun (via uploaded files; www.myphotofun.com) and properly bound hard-back books from Fotobuch 24 (via a home-burned CD; www.fotobuch24.de). Prices for the latter range from 24.90 euros for 24 pages to 49.90 euros for 64 pages: that's about $30-$60. Soft backs are 5 euros ($6) less.

For my money, Fotobuch 24 hard backs are the ultimate photo albums, making use of modern printing-on-demand technology: a thousand times better than either the old shoebox approach that most of us use or the Internet solutions that the more overheated futurologists predict. Who, after all, wants to go online every time they want to look at the family album, when they could pull out a book and take it anywhere?

The only other book I picked up at photokina--and there are many publishers and book dealers there--was Flash...The MOST Available Light by Quest C. Couch, III of LumiQuest (www.lumiquest.com). If (like me) you dislike flash, this should do a lot to break down your prejudices, and if you do like flash it will show you the very best way to use it. What Couch did was to try to answer all the questions he is asked all the time, and he has done so in a clever format. The reason for mentioning the book here, instead of in a book review, is that it marks an interesting departure: far too few manufacturers nowadays realize the value of a book that tells people how to use their products (and those of others).

Barely in the photographic realm, but still intriguing, was the proliferation of binoculars and telescopes with built-in digicams. The most fascinating was from Meopta (www.meopta.com), built into a hunting rifle sight. It is only VGA resolution, but it takes 15 frames per second without capturing any--until you fire the rifle, and the recoil captures that frame.

For inspired and truly photographic high weirdness, though, my prize goes to the digital Rollei TLR (www.rolleiusa.com). The big problem with digicams is seeing that silly little screen, right? And what you need is a hood, right? And which sort of camera always has a hood? Step forward the TLR with waist-level finder. The new 2-megapixel square-format Minidigi weighs just 100g (call it 3.5 oz) and has a 9mm lens focusing to 0.7m. The LCD monitor is just 23mm, 0.9", across. It's a snapshot camera, sure, but it's a sweet little thing and of all the non-serious stuff at photokina (e.g., the stuff that won't help me earn a living) it's the one I'd most like to have taken home with me.

Finally, ignore all those people who say that photokina is "just a European show" or "just a German show." It could be less Teutonic, it is true, but photokina 2004 saw 1589 exhibitors from 50 countries, and 973 of those exhibitors were from outside Germany: that's over 60 percent. There was one exhibitor from each of Argentina, Australia, Bulgaria, Finland, Latvia, Lebanon, Lithuania, Macao, Malaysia, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, Syria, the United Arab Emirates and White Russia (Belarus)--but Iran had three, Norway five, Turkey eight, India 11, Canada 14, France 54, China 79, Great Britain 104, and the U.S.A. 123--the biggest number from any country except Germany, and only a dozen fewer than China and Japan (56) combined. To me, and clearly to a lot of American exhibitors (nearly 8 percent of the stands), photokina doesn't look like a regional show. And the fact that a number of the companies I mention don't have American distribution does not mean that they are irrelevant to the American market. Rather, the exact opposite. These are opportunities for American importers or innovators.