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AI Comes to Speed Lights

November Blog Post

Artificial intelligence seems to be everywhere these days. Photography is no exception. A number of software programs, including those from Topaz and Adobe boast of using AI to help simplify and speed up your photo editing. But now AI is entering the world of hardware, most recently with a new speed light from Canon, the 470EX-AI.

A few months back I purchased a Canon 5D Mark IV, upgrading from my very old Mark II version. Part of the incentive from Canon was that I would receive a free speed light. Enter the 470EX-AI. 

Now I really didn’t think that I needed another speed light; I already owned 3 so why did I need another? I even asked the dealer if I might trade the speed light for something more useful to me. No luck. So, I came home with my new camera and a new speed light which sat for a long while still in its box on my desk.

But, finally curiosity got the best of me and I began to play with my 470EX-AI. The flash features an auto bounce mode. Now I’ve used bounce flash for years whenever I am shooting with flash indoors. Ceilings and walls can easily become giant soft boxes eliminating the “deer in the headlights” effect that you get from direct flash. And I know from my high school days, angle of incidence equals angle of reflection, so I would point my flash at the ceiling at an angle to create an isosceles triangle between camera and subject. And generally it worked. But this new artificial intelligence built into the 470EX-AI is teaching this old dog some new tricks.

Image taken with direct, on-camera flash. Note the harsh shadows behind the head and sleeves

The flash has 3 settings. First you can turn off the AI-Bounce feature entirely and use it just as you would any other flash. Then there’s the fully automatic mode. When set to this position, a touch of a button on the back of the flash causes it to fire two quick flashes: one straight up to measure the distance to the ceiling and one directly ahead to measure the distance to your subject. Then it calculates the “perfect bounce angle” to generate an image with no harsh shadows. And you know what? It’s right most of the time! I’ll admit that I was blown away by the results. What’s more the flash often didn’t choose a spot on the ceiling mid-way between camera and subject. Often, especially when the subject was quite close, the flash pointed behind me and the results were great.

Image with full automatic bounce. Note the shadows are much reduced even though the doll was very close to the background.

But here’s the real magic! If I decide to change the camera orientation from landscape to portrait, I simply double tap the shutter button and the flash head rotates to maintain the same flash angle.

There is also a semi-automatic setting, in which I choose the bounce angle and set it by pushing a button on the flash head. Now, if I change my position relative to the subject or the subject moves, double-tapping the shutter button will cause the flash head to move to maintain the bounce angle that I chose. I can’t wait to try this with my grandchildren who never sit still.

Camera rotated to portrait mode. Double tap of shutter button and flash head rotates to keep the same relative position.

Apart from the AI Bounce features, the 470EX-Ai looks much like any other speed light, allowing the user to choose between  ETTL and manual, add or subtract flash compensation and most other custom functions that we have come to expect.

Now I am not trying to get people to run out and buy a new speed light in order to have AI Bounce at their disposal, but If you need a new flash, and are a Canon shooter, this one might be worth considering. At this time, only Canon offers a speed light with AI, but, if this catches on, I expect we’ll see other makers put their own versions on the market. And I have no doubt we’ll see other new products boasting of artificial intelligence. I, for one, will be less skeptical in future when such products reach the market. I’m not about to quit using off-camera flash when I can, but for those occasions when it’s easiest to work with an on-camera flash, I think I’ll keep my 470EX-AI.

Bruce Carmody

To Adobe Or Not To Adobe

With apologies to the bard.

October 2019

Most advanced digital photographers shoot in RAW. The advantages of using RAW format are well documented in the literature.  However, the question “What is the best RAW converter?” often comes up. As is often the case, the answer is “It depends”.  It is even more complicated because things keep changing.  Photo processing software is in a constant state of evolution.

There is a view that Adobe, the market leader in photo processing software, is inhabited by Canon shooters and therefore, LR (Lightroom) and ACR (Adobe Camera Raw) are in some sense optimised for Canon RAW files.  Even if that is not the case, given that Canon is the market leader in ILC’s (Interchangeable Lens Cameras), it’s completely logical that Adobe would be able to handle Canon files very well.  Further, given the market position of Nikon, it’s not surprising that Adobe would make sure that LR and ACR can handle Nikon RAW files as well. But what if you don’t use Canon or Nikon cameras?

On March 19, 2019, Thom Hogan published an article on his website, sansmirror.com, entitled “Is There a Preferred RAW Converter?” (http://www.sansmirror.com/newsviews/is-there-a-preferred-raw.html).  In this article the authour provides the following list of his recommended RAW converters:

Canon Adobe
Fujifilm Iridient Developer
Nikon Capture NX-D or Adobe
Olympus DxO PhotoLab 2
Panasonic DxO PhotoLab 2
Sony Capture One

On July 24, 2019, Robin Whalley published an article on his website, lenscraft.co.uk, entitled “RAW Format Photography for Maximum Quality” (https://lenscraft.co.uk/photo-editing-tutorials/tutorial-understanding-raw-format-photography/).  The article includes a link to a video entitled “Tricked into Changing Cameras” in which Whalley relates that over the years he has sold cameras that he believed were providing poor image quality.  He had used LR and ACR to perform the RAW conversions.  More recently, he used DxO Photolab 2 to open the same RAW files and found the image quality was very good after all.

So, if you don’t use Canon or Nikon what do you do?  If you are like me and have spent years learning LR and PS (Photoshop) you likely don’t want to switch to another photo editor and face another steep learning curve.  In addition, there is the license fee for the recommended software.  I use Olympus cameras.  The recommended software is DxO Photolab 2.  The license fee is US$129.99.

At the conclusion of his article, Hogan wrote “there’s something to be said for choosing a converter that fits your workflow and sticking with it. Moreover, choose one that has plenty of tutorial instruction and instructor support”.  For most photographers, that means Adobe software products.

What is the next step if any?  Since I use Olympus cameras, I can install the trial version of DxO Photolab 2.  I can open some .ORF (Olympus Raw File) files using that product and export them in .TIFF format.  I’ll compare them to the same files opened directly using LR and see if there is an appreciable difference.

If I believe there is a significant improvement in the conversion of Olympus RAW files, I will need to consider whether a change to DxO Photolab 2 would be worthwhile. More likely, I’ll devise a way to integrate the DxO product into my post processing workflow and continue to use PS and LR for photo editing.

Jim Spurgeon