Surviving Bear Grylls With The Nikon SB900

Press-style photography is not my normal forte, since the majority of my photo shoots are one-to-one with the model, either in studio or pre-planned location. However, on this occasion I took the opportunity to photograph a guest appearance by Bear Grylls at a Scout camp in Tatton Park, Cheshire. This was a short drop-in visit (literally by helicopter), so I was forced to think on my feet and act quickly as the event progressed.

Having only 20 minutes, or so to get the shots while being pushed about by competing photographers and other celebrity-hungry media was a new experience for me, as in my normal photographic domain I have control over the shoot and ‘call all the shots’. However, I believe that taking yourself out of your comfort zone and trying something different is a great way of learning new skills, whilst testing your own ability.

Due to the event moving so quickly, I found myself hammering the shutter button an effort to capture enough good images. I also made a snap decision that I later regretted, which was to switch from RAW to Jpg. I normally never shoot in jpg format, but on this occasion felt the need to save memory card space, which seemed preferable to changing cards or using a second camera.

The Nikon D700 handled exposures well in the case of the majority of exposure situations, but there were just one or two occasions when Bear moved up against a dark background and the D700’s exposure system became fooled and therefore lost a small amount of detail in the highlights in the case of a small number of images. These images were just about acceptable for press use, but would have been easy to rescue had they been shot in RAW. The tonal range both in the highlights and shadows is far greater in RAW and is a much better choice if the need arises to recover detail, especially in the case of lost highlight detail.

Problem number two was with the Nikon SB900 Speedlight, an issue I had suffered before. To lighten up Bear’s face and eyes, I used a fill-in flash setting on the Speedlight and a lens aperture setting of around F5.6. I didn’t want to go faster than this (in terms of aperture) as Bear was constantly on the move and I needed some leeway in case he moved slightly out of the focus zone.

In addition, it was important to clearly show the context of the event and I didn’t want the Scouts themselves too out of focus. I fitted the white Nikon diffuser over the flash to soften the light but this was probably part of the problem, despite my Camera ISO being set to 600 to take some of the strain off the flash. The problem was the flash overheating and refusing to fire, which happened after about 10 -15 minutes of continual shooting. Luckily, I have a second SB900, so switched Speedlights, but this was an inconvenience in a situation like this, where inevitably images are being lost during the switchover.

Okay, I could have had a second camera body and flash and switched over the whole kit, but this would have been twice the weight just to solve an issue with the flash cutting out, a problem I have never suffered with previous Nikon Speedlights. It is possible to switch off the flash cutout safety function on the SB900 but that leaves you unsure about how far you can push before frying an expensive piece of kit.

In conclusion, I guess for next time I have learnt not to use the diffuser when shooting a lot of images, raise the ISO, plus use the widest aperture possible to decrease the demand on the flash. Finally, consider carrying two bodies, both fitted with Speedlights – the expensive option!   And don’t forget – ALWAYS SHOOT RAW!!!

Equipment – Nikon D700, Nikon 24 – 300 lens, Nikon 70-200/2.8 lens, Nikon SB900 Speedlight (x2).

All images are protected by copyright and may not be used in any way without permission from Ian Thraves Photography ©.






Leave a Reply