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Archive for the ‘Equipment’ Category

Shaping Light, Simply

May 2

In Equipment at 6:53am

Back in January, I did some dance photography for Kelby Online Training, and was really happy with a couple of frames. (Those classes are working their way through the editing system as we speak.)

I’ve shown this on the blog before, a modern dancer, painted with tempura paint, and perched in a bird’s nest of tulle. It was lit with just one TTL flash, camera right, just out of frame. I used a Lastolite Ezybox hot shoe soft box (say that fast a few times) with a white interior, which is a wrinkle on their long existing design of soft boxes with silver clad interiors. It produces, predictably, a softer, more rounded light than the one with the snappy, contrast producing silver box.

Over the years, I’ve offered numerous photo manufacturers some suggestions, some complaints designed as suggestions, notes from the field, and a few WTFs. Most of the time (most of the time) in response to those suggestions, I’ve gotten a polite pat on the head, or potentially a bemused, bewildered smile, followed by a nod and a note that effectively says, “Thanks for playing, we’ll get back to you.” I’m sure all shooters have experienced this when they’ve offered an idea to a magazine, or publisher, or any of the array of powers that be that we routinely appeal to. It’s a bit like dropping a rock down a well. There’s a long period of silence, followed by a distant splash, as the idea makes its way to sleeping with da fishes. (In reality, that’s an appropriate resting ground for some of my nuttier notions.)

But the Lastolite folks, who make an array of light shapers I’ve become fond of, actually took action. I suggested the white interior box some years ago, and their peerless designer, Gary Astill actually made one for me, and then came out on location with me to see the light it produced relative to existing model. His verdict was to start producing the white version. Cool. It was a fun moment, actually. Kind of like being a long time golfer on the pro tour and then getting asked to design a course. (On a much smaller scale:-)

While in Vancouver, I took a day to just mess with light shapers, all of which I had either outright suggested, or had a hand in tweaking, and hopefully, making better. (I’ll write about the others presently.)

I took the white box, (Got my name on the side of it!) and dropped a fabric egg crate into it. The egg crate allows the light to remain softly directional, but it also corrals it, seriously cutting the spill and spread of it onto the set. I needed the light to stick with the model at the front edge of the set, and not drift to the background, which I wanted to remain dark-ish.

Reason being, I was going to try lighting the background with another lighting tool called the Tri-flash. This, too, had been on the market as an effective, small bracket onto which you can affix three hot shoe flashes in a coherent, singular direction. It eliminated the need for multiple sticks, clamps, zip ties, and other jury rig stuff myself and lots of shooters had been messing with to gaggle together multiple speed lights.

But, the cold shoe receptacles were fixed. In other words, for a unit like the SB900, which has light sensor panels only on one side, it automatically made it a tough throw for the commander flash signal to reach them all, especially if you had the three flash rig radically off to the side of the camera POV.

So, I suggested a ratchet. Make the cold shoes spin around 360, and thus enable a better, more unified directionality for the receptacles. They liked the idea, and made it.

For this shot, I did have the Tri-flash way to the side of camera, using it in a somewhat unusual way. Generally I put up a Tri-flash arrangement when I think I’m going to stress just one flash too much, and I want to get faster recycle, spread out the work load among multiple units, and just increase the volume, or surface area of the light. Here, I just pointed them through a couple of cucoloris boards that were hanging around David Cooper’s studio in Vancouver. Here’s the high tech setup.

Uh, bad model, but you get the idea. One light makes one shadow. Three sources of light, all slightly off axis to one another, gives a fuzzy, multiple edge to the shadows it creates. Flying it through the cookie and spraying it on the background gave out a sun dapple kind of effect, albeit not a crisp one, more like one where the leaves are swaying a bit in the breeze. (Actually, given the way the model is dressed and made up, maybe make that moon dapple.)

I ordinarily go for one light, one shadow, so this was in the realm of an experiment, and I’d thought I’d share it. At the end of the day, the light shaper for the background is a couple pieces of cardboard with some irregular holes cut into it, and the Tri-flash based speed lights, all zoomed to the max (200mm) just sprays across them, throwing unpredictable patterns and shapes on the wall. The model does her thing, and she is illuminated solely with the egg crated soft box. Commander flash on the hot shoe, at camera.

The makeup here was done by the wondrous Tamar Ouziel, and we used long time friend David Cooper’s photo studio for the shoot. Thanks go out to them, and Syx Langemann, who helped out on the set. Also thanks to the Lastolite folks, who listened, about these and a couple others I’ll talk about, and went to bat and made them. Even more fair and square, much like a book, I actually get a royalty on these puppies, which is cool. They still haven’t sprung for my idea for the hydraulically powered 22 Speed Lite Lifter, complete with tank treads and a turret, but I’ll work on them.

More tk….

New PocketWizard Plus III

Feb 20

In Equipment, In The Field, News at 2:32am

When we were out on the road last year, doing the Flashbus tour, our intrepid driver Phil spun tall tales of the turnpikes for us—wild man drivers, white line nightmares, going fast, and staying ahead of Smokey the Bear. I asked him if he ever participated in the cat and mouse games out there on the highway. He resolutely shook his head. “Nope, I drive by the law,” he said. “You can’t outrun ‘em. Nothin’s faster than the radio.”

Thank goodness, ‘cause just the other week we attached the new Pocket Wizard Plus Three’s to a vehicle that certainly looked like it could give radio waves a run for their money. Driven by the high speed legend Ed Fenn, his current dragster (he’s built over 60 cars) is capable of going about 280 flat out. We took some of these new radio puppies out there, slung them on the car with zip ties, and told Ed to bring the hammer down. #notsmart????

The units, and my cameras, survived. We experimented in particular with the Repeater Mode, or RP, which is capable of extending the signal with additional units used as relays. You transmit from your position, and the signal then gets picked up by another unit downstream and so forth. Handy when you want to get a good run of frames and your subject goes past you like a dust spewing gun shot.

I’ll be direct here. I’ve got a mixed history, along with everybody else, with radio transmission. All sorts of stuff can get in the way–concrete walls, rebar, water, orientation of the antenna. A bazillion years ago, I used a Hawk radio, a boxy thing that was just a step above a garage door opener. (It might have been a garage door opener, actually.) The uncertainty of that system led me to have an emergency sync cord–a hard wire connect–to my flashes hanging on the nearest light stand if (or should I say when) the moment came when the radio failed. PocketWizard came to the fore, and I’ve used them for easily over twenty years. There have been times they’ve saved my ass so thoroughly I basically put them on small altar, lit up some incense and started chanting. And there’s been times, when, like all radios, they didn’t work.

So when something happens in the world of radios that makes them better and more reliable in a very practical, usable way, I pay attention.The big thing I noticed about these units is the enclosed antenna. The rubbery, stand up antennas of the presently available units are often a first casualty because I travel so much, and everything gets jostled on the planes. Now, they’re enclosed in plastic— much safer, and according to specs, more omni-directional. Thank you, thank you. Life on the road is just as hard on gear as it is on the shooter.

The PW IIIs I had performed like a champ, even though they are not production line units, and they all were short of final firmware, which might have affected their working distance. We paced things off, and I was about 350-400 feet up the track from the first repeat. The second one was another 350-400 plus feet down from that one. So, when I started the signal, I could see flashes in the cab starting a couple hundred feet up from me, and then the car would scream past me, and get picked up by the next repeater, and so forth. We generally got 20 plus frames per run, which was good, ‘cause sunlight moves fast in the desert, and we only got a few runs done before dusk hit hard and fast. I was limited, too, by recycle on the flashes. Because they were pointed backwards into the dark recesses of the driver’s cockpit, a lot of light got lost back there, and just bits and pieces of it radiated around the Ed’s helmet to be seen by the lens. They were generally at half power or so, with red gelling on them for the late afternoon attempts.

(I was also shooting D3X cameras, not the fastest of cameras. I had both of my X’s hanging on this car. What was I thinking?)

Other stuff: The PW3’s are light, small and side facing. You know how the current Multi-Max’s and Plus II’s have the controls on the back, or broadside of  unit? All the controls here are now on the side when the unit is hot shoed. In other works, you’re holding the camera grip in your right hand, and instead of pulling it straightaway from your face, you just turn the camera and the buttons and dials are there, and they are backlit.

Here’s the thing. They seem very durable, user friendly, and simple, as opposed to the Multi Max, which nearly requires a Ph.D to operate at its most complex modes. I mean, it’s wonderful technology, and if you’re Bill Frakes, running 40 cameras at the finish of the Kentucky Derby, then it’s Multi Max all the way. But, seriously, how often do the rest of us need all that? The III’s will get you covered, I would think, for most of the work I can imagine. And, from what I hear, they’ll be about $30 cheaper than the II’s. When was the last time you heard about new, updated gear with more features, durability and potential getting cheaper?

David Hobby’s got the real rundown on these guys, by the way. He has really looked under the hood and figured them out. So check out Strobist today.

For me, I was thankful to get the assignment. It’s not often you get called up and get paid to use some new gear and do literally anything you want. They sent me the units and told me to mess around with them and see what I could come up with, and then, of course, send the units back, and do some reporting. The field report is excellent. They’re solid, tough to break (I tried), and at the price point, they’re a no brainer compared to the PWIIs.

FYI….. Drew did a terrific job on the video as a one man band, and Cali shot the production pix. Definitely a team effort out there.

More tk….

Shooting video with the Nikon D4

Feb 13

In Equipment, Videos at 6:41am

Hey guys, Drew here to go over a bit of the tech/production side of the  Little Freddie and D4 BTS videos, the gear we used, and hopefully clear up a few questions.

First and foremost, this was definitely an amazing assignment for all of us at the studio to have been a part of.  Having started working for Joe after the D3 campaign, I was excited at even the thought of being involved with a project like the D4 campaign.

Faces of Ground Zero was our first serious video effort at the studio.  Though the setups were fairly basic, it was a proving ground of sorts for ourselves.  We essentially had no clue what we were getting into, but came out with a final product that was effective, and we were happy with…

When Nikon Japan approached us about shooting a chunk of the D4 campaign, producing a multimedia piece, and shooting BTS video, we definitely had a few drinks. Initially, and right up until the last day on location, we were 50/50 stoked and nervous.  As the “tech guy” in the studio, it often comes down to me to figure out the video side of things, and this was most definitely something we needed to hit out of the park.

A huge thanks goes out to Manfrotto, and specifically to Marco Tortato for introducing us to, and supplying us with a whole new realm of video supports we used on this shoot.

We also turned to Victor Ha and Brian Hynes at Cinevate for insight and inspiration.  After a few hour-long phone calls, and a bunch of tutorial videos later, we more or less knew what gear we needed to pull this off.  Cinevate was cool enough to send us a bunch of amazing gear to play with.

I can’t begin to emphasize the importance of pre-production- finding a location, building a story-line, storyboarding, etc.  Lynn came across a plantation home just outside of New Orleans, which sounded amazing- but being that our timeline was extremely tight, we didn’t actually see the location, or even meet Little Freddie til the day before we started shooting. *Luckily*, things came together as we had hoped- the location was simply beautiful, and we couldn’t have asked for a more perfect subject.

To build the general storyline, we did a 30-45 min. interview with Little Freddie, just before the primary video shoot- which we shot with three cameras (see above).  The remaining video was shot entirety within the next 5-7 hours.  We had him play 3 songs on the porch, which Grippi and I shot with two cameras, and then worked on tons of environmental shots and B-roll.

Throughout the whole process, we strived to keep as simple of a gear pack and setup as possible.  Here’s a basic rundown of the essential gear we used for the videos, and timeline examples of how/where we used them in the Little Freddie video:

Tripods/Sliders/Shoulder Rigs

Manfrotto 504HD Fluid Video Head w/546B Aluminum Tripod (heavy duty tripod with an amazing head…incredibly smooth horizontal and vertical pans.  i.e. 0:27)

Manfrotto 561BHDV Video Monopod w/ Fluid Head (great for small spaces, quick repositioning of shots, and fairly simple tilts and zoome. i.e. 2:00, 2:14)

- Cinevate Simplis Pro Shoulder Rig (ideal for smooth, run & gun shooting, and can easily pop on and off a tripod. i.e. 0:40, 0:51)

- Cinevate Atlas 10 35″ Camera Slider (fairly compact slider that was the perfect choice when there wasn’t much room or time to set up. i.e. 0:18)

- Cinevate Atlas 30 58″ Camera Slider (much longer, incredibly smooth slider, which we used the majority of the time.  i.e. 0:37, 1:42- raised on stands about 8 feet, 2:04)

Audio Gear

Sennheiser EW100 G3 Wireless Lavalier Microphone System (for the interview, we double-lavved Freddie, each on a different channel)

Rode NTG-2 Condenser Shotgun Microphone (for the interviews, the Rode played the roll of a 3rd mic, and for Freddie playing, this was the only mic used)

Zoom H4n Mobile 4-Track Recorder (we recorded all songs using the Rode mic, plugged into the Zoom, and as backup audio during the interview)

Video Lighting

Westcott Spiderlite TD6 Continuous Output Halogen/Fluorescent Light (used for sit-down interview footage shot of Joe)

Westcott 24″x32″ Softbox for Continuous Light

Westcott 36″x48″ Softbox for Continuous Light

Litepanels MicroPro LED Dimmable 5600K Video Light (used on, or just off-camera during BTS shooting at the circus and snake shoots)

External Monitors

- Manhattan LCD 8.9″ HD Pro Monitor (this played an essential roll in composing shots, especially when doing very high or low slides or pans)

Overall, it was a fairly basic gear pack, and being that this is a new world for us, was perfect for a few reasons.  It allowed us to work quickly and efficiently, and it meant that we could put our energy into shooting, and not lugging out tons of grip for every shot.

We’re pretty happy with the outcome, and are looking forward to playing a lot more with the D4 and D800 in the very near future. And many thanks to Mike Corrado at Nikon for shooting the behind the scenes pix above, and being our tech advisor for this whole new adventure.

Beautiful Music, High ISO

Jan 11

In Equipment, history, Thoughts at 9:04am

The recent D4 project was a terrific project for the studio, made more so by the company I shared shooting it. Bill Frakes did his usual wonderful sports stills, but also filmed a beautifully evocative video of Istanbul. Take a look at his site, Straw Hat Visuals. Corey Rich once again defies gravity in his adventure sports video work, seen hereMatthias Hangst shot amazing action, and Vincent Munier once again took on difficult and daunting landscapes. Humbled and honored to be in their company. Bill Frakes and I, especially, go back a long ways. He is one of the truly significant standard bearers in the history of sports photojournalism.

Charlie Gabriel, Preservation Hall Band. Nikon D4, 200mm, f2, 1/160th, ISO 12,800, Tungsten AWB.

Technology marches on. We now have cameras that perform well in the realm of ISO numbers previously only associated with highly complicated math problems. I took the prototype D4 into Preservation Hall, and made some portraits during the day, then lingered for the evening show, and shot available light. Below is Charlie that afternoon, under flash conditions. D4, ISO 200, 1/80th, f5.6, cloudy WB, lens at 26mm.

The Hall is tough to work. Wonderful ambiance, and almost zero usable light. I found this out years ago when I shot there for Sports Illustrated prior to a Super Bowl. I squeezed a few pictures because that night because they gave me a pass to put up a flash–a Norman 200B–in the ceiling. It amped up the light just enough for Kodachrome 200. But the stuff I tried with existing light was pretty much DOA.

So shooting the picture up top at 12,800 ISO was definitely a revelation. The quality of the light in that venerable music hall is still super warm and soupy, but…I could work. That’s the bottom line with new gear. Does it help? Does it make the job easier? Does it open the door to a picture?

Technology and me have always had a love/hate thing. I love that fact that it can help create pictures I want to make. I hate the fact that even relatively simple items come with a manual the size of War and Peace.  I’m still pretty much a Neanderthal on the computer, and of the fancy gadgets I own, like an Iphone, I probably use about 20% of its capacity. (I’m definitely not one of those folks who pitch a tent outside an Apple Store for days and days when a new gizmo is announced.) The younger guys at my studio either chuckle or turn away when I attempt post production, or the loading of new software on my computer. And certainly, my blog is not where you would come for a highly evolved technical discussion of the shape of the pixels. There will certainly be sites out there which will, eventually, take this camera apart, like a car in a body shop, and look at every gear, bell and whistle. Not here. I work at the technology stuff a bit, but, you know, life is short, and I’d rather shoot. Or dream up a picture I want to shoot. Or write. Or, best of all, be at home with Annie.

But I have to admit, despite my stumbling gait, my path as a shooter has fortuitously crossed over with new camera tech at some crucial times. When I made climbs up the mast on the Empire State Building, I was fretting as to what single lens to bring up with me. Didn’t want to do the fisheye. I was working for Geographic, and many editors there are not wildly enthusiastic about distortion. The available older versions of super wide rectilinear glass were problematic. I was chagrined. But–presto! Right about then the 14mm f2.8 rectilinear came out. Fast, sharp, and not flare prone like its predecessors. I immediately went in to rent it for my last climb. The guys at the counter, who knew me pretty well, casually asked me what I was shooting, and, excitedly, I told them I was climbing the antenna on ESB. They took the lens off the counter and said, “You know, dude, you really should just buy it.” Which is what I did. Later that week, on my fourth climb up there, I got lucky with the light, and the lens.

The above version is not the select Geographic ran. It’s later in the morning, as the sun got stronger. Here’s what I was worried about up there. It wasn’t falling. It was repeatedly loading new film cassettes into the camera. I was levered backwards at about a 45 degree angle, pushing off the mast with my feet, hanging onto the aerial with my left hand, and shooting with my right. Because even back then I couldn’t see anything up close, I also had a pair of granny reading glasses taped and tethered to my neck. Juggling a bunch of stuff, in a word. My panic time was those moments I reloaded. A dropped film canister from that height, if it finds the street, could kill someone. I would have loved a 32 gig card, but those were many moons in the future.

When digital dawned, I had no idea. I stuck with film as long as I felt I could, and then made a jump for survival to this fancy camera known as a D1X. First thing I shot with it was a Kentucky Derby, and my brothers Mike Corrado and Skip Dickstein had to show me what do with my cards after the race. I was hopeless, but I didn’t care. The digital camera felt like a film camera. There was a shutter, and a lens. I frankly didn’t care what was happening inside of it. Plunging on, and resolutely placing faith in the old adage that the Lord looks after a fool, I ended up shooting the first all digital coverage in history of National Geographic some months after this first outing.

Fast forward to a camera I was just tickled with, the D3. Thought, as I have mentioned, I would go to my grave with that camera. It simply suited all the needs I had in the field. Then, the D3S came out. I thought, nah, don’t need it. I’m cool with what I have. But then, Geographic assigned me to a story on the electrical grid of the United States, and I realized I was about to spend a ton of time in helicopters at night, observing the illuminated grids of various cities. The D3S promised better chip performance, and improved results at high ISO. So, I re-upped. Sold my D3 cameras and bought D3S models.

It was good that I did, I think, as the lead to the story was a night view from a chopper, with long glass. The technology I employed, at this point unthinkingly and reflexively–excellent high ISO, VR in the lens, bright viewfinder, accurate AF–the myriad of camera advances I often now just take for granted, helped me come back with pictures that night from that very expensive chopper ride.


D3S, 200-400mm lens, ISO1600, f4, 1/125th. Lucky shot. Goldman Sachs building, lower Manhattan, with virtually every room lit up.

D3S, ISO 1600, f2.8, 1/60th. Lucky with the sunset.

So I guess that’s one big question that drives all this. Our eternal responsibility as photographers is to deliver the best possible quality image we can manage back to the client. And that’s become a part of the digital equation every shooter has to work out as a personal and professional decision. What’s the best gear for me, relative to my work flow and my mission? Shooting night sports for the wires back in the day, when everybody on the sideline was pushing the hell out of tri-x, it didn’t really matter too much if you were still shooting an F2, and the guy next to you was shooting an F3. But now, shooting ones and zeroes, the machinery used to shoot that same game has an impact on the quality of the pictures produced, for sure.

That night in Preservation Hall, I got to test high ISO response at 12,800, which is an ISO territory that is completely alien to me. And the results, relative to that speed, were terrific. Now, if you’re always shooting in that realm, you’re probably working a tough gig, photographically. Being at that ISO a lot might mean you’ve got a badge and a gun, and you’re up very late at night. And you might be sitting in a non-descript car that’s filled with candy wrappers and crumpled fast food bags, sipping bad coffee, and trying to sight a lens through a rain pocked windshield as Tommy Two Toes passes yesterday’s New York Post with an envelope in it to Mikey Gaga on a street corner somewhere in the Bronx. I mean, maybe.

Or you could be shooting sports at night under bad light. Or you might be a music shooter, or perhaps theater and dance is a specialty. Or, you’re a news shooter whose job it is to observe and record, despite the adversity of the conditions. The mission at hand is, at least partially, the driver for the choice of gear.

For me, I’m looking down the pipe of a six week job, starting pretty soon, and, given the parameters of that job, this tech evolution known as D4, is, I feel, another one of those fortuitous bends on this long road, and it arrives just in time for a task at hand. High ISO capability is yet another one of gifts placed on our doorstep as shooters. I honestly hope to not have to use it too much, but it sure is nice to know it’s there.

More tk….

Shooting the D4!

Jan 6

In Equipment at 1:15am

It’s here, officially. Which I’m sure is bringing a smile to the face of many just as wide as Little Joe Lastie’s here in this picture. Shot in Preservation Hall, with the Nikon D4, 24-70mm lens, ISO 200, and several speed lights. We’ve been involved with the prep for this camera for several months, and been shooting with it for the last few weeks. And, man are we happy to be able to finally talk about it.

Whew! Done. It’s out. We can officially say that letter and numeral together. Out in the field, as a team, we just referred to our cameras as the Millennium Falcons, One and Two. It’s come through rain, wind, weather and all manner of natural calamities to be real, and here, on our doorstep. Here’s one of my first questions. What are those wonderful fellas over at Nikon Rumors gonna do now? I mean, how to fill up the time? They’ve been bulldogging this camera now for months. I suggest they all go out, have a nice meal, and get hammered. Their work is done. At least until the D5. Which is a helluva camera, by the way. I’ve been shooting the prototype.

Kidding.

I have no need of a D5. When the D3 came out, honestly, I thought I was done. Okay, I thought, this is the camera they gently fold my lifeless fingers around when they dress me in a nice suit and send me away for a long nap. There were plenty of pixels in that camera to keep me company, and they all seemed to behave quite well. I was raised on transparency film, and the D3 settled forever any nostalgic issues about going back to slides. But this camera makes the reverential memories of Kodachrome 25 fade like an old color print.

The D4 is an entirely new chapter in the history of the pixels. It arrived in a nondescript box. We all stared at it, like it was something that got sent from a sci-fi movie, and if we opened it, we would find the still beating heart of an alien life form.

We were, of course, expecting the box, having been involved in the discussion of the camera for over six months. We knew it was on the way. We knew it was gonna be cool. We just didn’t know how cool.

We hammered our prototypes, honestly. Showed them no reverence whatsoever. First stop was the swamps of Florida. About a day into that adventure, I told Drew that if I ever mentioned working in the swamps again, he could just go ahead and shoot me—with a gun. First location we showed up at was highly desirable from a photo point of view. Less so after we noticed the large water moccasin curled up right about where I would have put a tripod. The ranger commented, “They’re pretty territorial, and aggressive. He probably thinks this is his location.”

I thought about giving the snake the camera and having him shoot the job, but, seeing as I’m the one with the opposable thumbs, and (theoretically) a larger brain, we continued our search.

We found our way to a picture, through the muck and the mud. And, right off the bat, I was impressed with the file. It was, in a word, smooth. I know that’s not a techy description, and there’s some folks out there right now counting every pixel, but I was impressed by the detail and the creaminess of the pictures. No sharpness of contrast, and harshly defined lines of demarcation between highlights and shadows. Smooth, in a word, and great skin tone.

We had a ball, quite frankly. We took the camera from the swamps of Jacksonville to the studios of New York, and back down again to a circus in Florida, and then to the music scene in New Orleans. Through it all, I was continuously impressed with:

Skin tone, for one thing.

File detail and forgiveness in the shadows.

Responsiveness of the camera in terms of intuitively good exposures and autofocus.

Video quality and new features.  Wow.  We’re in the final stages of post right now for what we shot.  Check back sometime next week for the full scoop.  It’s a game changer.

New rocker buttons for moving the auto-focus cursor.

Ease of shifting the auto-focus modes.

Size and clarity of the lcd.

The fact that I dropped one and it kept working.

Plus, none of us had tried to light an elephant with an SB-910 and a Lastolite tri-grip before.

Cora, our wonderful elephant, is 9600 pounds. Mike Grippi is back there trying to put a catch light in her eye. Awesome!

For the next couple of weeks, we’ll be reporting on field adventures with the D4. Stay tuned for stills, video and BTS stuff. For now, I think I’m going to get some sleep. More tk….