Q: I have just purchased my first camera. Could you tell me of any camera clubs that go on short field trips where they learn to shoot and help each other learn photography?
A: The P.S.A., Photographic Society of America, seems just the ticket for you. This nationwide association of active local camera clubs schedules discussions of techniques, field trips, speakers and contests. Besides the activities if the local clubs, there are also regional get-togethers. The dues are $15 per year with a one-time $5 initiation fee.
Nationally the address is: P.S.A. Headquarters, 2005 Walnut Street, Philadelphia 19103. Ask for the address of the P.S.A.-affiliated camera club nearest you.
Q: I thoroughly enjoy your columns for practicality for the amateur. However, in listing the photographic gear one should take on a trip, didn't you omit a tripod as an essential piece of equipment?
A: If you're an avid amateur with enthusiasm and lots of energy, a tripod is essential. But frankly, like most photographers, I find a tripod trying on a trip. It's an awkward piece of equipment that seems to be perpetually in the way, and if you carry it in a case it can even resemble a weapon and arouse the interest of sharp-eyed security types.
To be more inconspicuous and for lighter tripping, a tabletop tripod and some techniques to steady the camera are frequently all that you need. These mini-pods come in many styles. The trick is to get a sturdy one that stands firmly on three legs with a top that tightens up the camera so that it's not sitting on a wobbly head. The best way to chose one is to take your own camera into the shop and try it on the various models.
To make this shortie resemble its long-legged cousin, find a tabletop, a wall, the side of a house or even a tree or light pole. Press the tripod firmly against the support and you can take all the time exposures you want. Use the delayed release for exposures of a second or less and a cable release for the even longer exposures on B (bulb).
In an emergency, of course, you can get by with simple no-tripod camera support techniques. Use any flat wall surface and press your camera against it. But first prefocus your camera and set the lens opening and shutter speed as well. Then turn your back on the scene and concentrate on holding your camera plumb and steady, pressed against the wall during the exposure. (This technique is always good for laughs because people will wonder what you're doing with the camera lens pointing the other way.)
Sides of trees, light poles, any other handy support will also work. The trick is to press the base plate firmly down during exposure. Night shots of Amsterdam canals in our guidebooks were taken this way sans tripod.
Q: What kind of flash unit would you recommend I buy? I'd like to have an excellent flash unit that is dependable, with a wide range of features to permit creativity. What kind of flash unit do you use professionall?
A: I use different types of flash units for various kinds of shooting. The basic one is a Braun unit with a separate flash head that plugs into a power pack that uses a 510-volt battery. The flash head is equipped with a socket that fits on top of a light stand, and the battery power pack is hung on a hook on the same stand.
I fire one light off the camera by means of a synch cord that is 15 feet long. The other is tripped through a photo eye that's plugged into the unit. I used to carry four of these units in a Haliburton case with a 11A Polaroid roll-film camera for testing the light effect. Now I find that two of these units bounced off two white umbrellas makes a good basic portable light source.
Having the flashes -- all of them -- off the camera permits you to simulate all types of studio lighting in the field. The long synch cord permits one to move around looking for the best angle, and the photo eyes on the units make it possible to place the lights anywhere, without cords that someone may trip over.
This kind of light pro outfit is very basic. I have used many others, far bigger, heavier and with more light output. But even this "light" light outfit weighs about 35 pounds -- hardly the gear for tripping around. There are other, much lighter options that can produce comparable results.
The Vivitar line offers a wide range of options. Of these, my favorite is the 283 Auto Thyristor electronic flash. The advantage of this model is its light output (a guide number of 60, with slow ASA 25 films like Kodachrome 25) and its portability. I carried one throughout Europe and it performed superbly.
The Vivitar 283 has many options. One that is extremely handy and useful is the light bounce diffuser. This gives you consistently soft light results regardless of the height or color of the ceiling. There are added options with this model, such as a variable-angle lens kit and a selection of colored filters. The 283 uses four AA alkaline or NiCad batteries, which can be recharged. Vivitar has expanded this line with a 285 Zoom Thyristor and a 265 Zoom Thyristor and even a miniature 2500 model, a very handy small flash for emergencies.
I would suggest you start out with a basic flash unit and then buy the accessories as your technique improves. You can have a lot of fun with flash, and today's new units sure beat the old-style heavies.