Desert for Dessert

I'm back from GPP in Dubai, and (mostly) caught up on the work that always piles up at home when I am away. It was great meet new friends and to see many of the folks from last year again.

After going hard for six days straight, our treat once again was to head out into the desert to get the chance to shoot in an environment like no other.

As a GPP Repeat Offender, I am now fortunate enough to have some contacts in-country. Or, rather, in-Emirates. Nigel and the guys in the Dubai Strobist group had hooked us up with Samir, who in turn hooked us up with Mostafa over at Sharjah TV, a national media outlet headquartered on the other side of the desert.

Next thing you know, we are all set to go into said desert to do a TV feature segment while shooting Omar and his falcon. I had always wanted to learn more about falconry -- right up to the point where Mostafa informed me that some of the birds can go for over a million dollars. Yet another thing that is beyond my tax bracket.

So we head off to the desert -- in a Jag, of course. I'd tell you what kind, but it was too cool to even have a model nameplate on it. It was much like my Scion XA, in the same way that Omar's falcon was much like my kid sister's parakeet.

Driving us was Hala, a supermodel masquerading as a super-producer for GPP. McNally was there, along with assistant Drew and fellow instructor Bobbi Lane. McNally, who was going to photograph Hala, learned his lesson from last year and brought along an Elinchrom Ranger. That's 1100 watt-seconds of battery-powered retinal burn -- enough to make any octabox happy in full desert sun.

Being reliably thick-headed, I went with my speedlights -- and ended up using only two. I can easily overpower the desert sun with a single speedlight -- if I get to choose the time. That's kind like waiting until Mike Tyson is 87 years old and showing up to beat the crap out of him. But as a strategy, it is very effective.

A Bird in the Hand

Fortunately, Bobbi knew all about falcons from an earlier stint at a birding facility, or falcon farm, or whatever you call it. So she was a big help in letting us know all of the stupid things not to do, which with me is a full-time job.

So we get to the shoot location and Omar pulls out just about the most gorgeous bird of prey you could imagine. Basically, a meat-shredding machine with wings and an attitude.

Our light is still six fingers from the horizon, so that tells us we have about a buck thirty, give or take, until sundown.

First step is to scout the angles and backgrounds. I use my hand to judge how bright the sun would be on Omar and his falcon, with a Sharjah TV cameraman in tow all the while. Bobbi, meanwhile, is already making photos of Omar in the late afternoon light.

I know that I cannot hope to compete against the sun with speedlights if I soften the light form the SB's, so I set up a quick crosslight around Omar where Bobbi is busy shooting available light. Normal process -- shutter on 250th, choose an aperture that underexposes just a tad, and power back up with hard crosslight. The ambient fill sets the shadows at a manageable level.

Only problem is, the color and surface quality of Omar's traditional Arab clothing (it is called a "kandura") is throwing back nuked gamma white from the hard strobes. I can put a dot in it in post, but mostly I am just biding my time here waiting for sunset.

The important thing is that I look like I am making good pictures. With the cameras rolling, this looks a lot better than wondering scratching my butt and around looking for camel truffles, right?

As the sun gets lower, my options start to improve. We find the spot where we will shoot Omar using the sunset as a backdrop.

The sunset looks good dropped down a stop or two, so we grab a couple of sillos as we wait. Just because the light is not flash-friendly, there's no need to waste the time not shooting photos.

I mean, seriously, how often are you in the desert with a man in traditional Arab dress and a falcon?

Next year we are going out as a group to do an overnight at one of the desert encampments, so we can actually enjoy the sunset and the cool night air that follows. When you are shooting, it all happens so fast you do not get a chance to savor it.

As the light levels start to drop, I kept my two-hard-light setup (just bare flashes on stands) and did a little sidelight / front fill on Omar. The backdrop is the still-live sunset, and all of the subject light comes from flash. Key is off to the far right and gives shape and lighting direction.

The fill is from a stand right next to the camera, and fills the shadows to control the contrast range without adding any new direction to the lighting. This on-axis fill, combined with a hard key gives a cool, 1950's kinda look which I am currently digging. You can see the fill shadow just to the camera left side of Omar.

And since we are using bare light, you can really get that key light far away, too. This gives very even lighting over a large area, which makes it almost look as if it is a soundstage with a backdrop.

One of the disadvantages of working with speedlights is you tend to have to work close. Makes for nice light, but it falls off fast. So you end up working with small framing areas. Not so when you can back those babies up.

Low Ambient = Easy Umbrella Light

As soon as the sun disappears, I know from last year that the light levels will start dropping faster than stock prices did last October. And as the ambient drops, the small lights become powerful enough to use with modifiers at reasonable power settings. This is important because the light won't last long so you don't wanna be waiting on the recycle.

We put a Westcott double-fold on one of the SB-800s. That flash will become the key light. The second is fitted with an Orbis ring flash adapter. That flash will become the on-axis fill.

Working quickly, I grab an exposure for the darkening sky behind Omar. It is dark enough now to where I can use an aperture to which my flash can easily bring up the subject.

Since I plan to have the key light 3-4 feet over Omar's head, I grab a quick shot of the sand, lit by the key light from the same distance, to make sure my flash is set at an appropriate power setting. If this is off, I can quickly correct either by moving my aperture and compensating for the background by moving the shutter in the opposite direction. Or I can just vary the power on the flash before we put it up in the air. This is much quicker than doing the testing with the light in the final position.

Here's the setup shot, thanks to Bobbi. The final picture is worth the trouble, but I am still washing fine, desert sand out of my butt. (Come to think of it, If Carson Kressley asks, I am exfoliating.)

We are lucky enough to have Drew, Joe's assistant, acting not as a voice-activated light stand, but rather a VAB: A voice-activated boom. The speedlights and compact stands are light, and can be used this way for reasonable amounts of time without killing an assistant. But no worries - Drew is not my assistant, so there is really no long-term downside if anything bad happens.

The Result

By dropping the light in right on top of Omar, lots of cool things start to happen. From a direction standpoint, you get fairly dramatic light on his face, which adds a nice mood. And the light is soft enough so that it wraps well, too. (Click the pic for bigger version.)

But from a distance standpoint it is also doing good stuff. Omar's face is fully lit by the close-in source, but his white kandura falls off a little as it travels away from the key light. This helps to control the tones on the bright white material in a way that we could not accomplish if lighting from a distance.

Also, as the light is right over Omar, the sand falls off nicely as it approaches the near foreground. This is a problem that you have to deal with when you light frontally. If you will remember last year, Joe did this by gobo'ing the bottom of the umbrella.

That top light is going to leave some eye socket shadows, and it will get pretty dark as you travel down the kandura. That is where the Orbis comes in. I use it not as a main, but to provide directionless, on-axis fill.

No magic ratio to report, either. Given that you have set your exposure for the key, you simply dial in the power on the Orbis fill to taste. You can see what the fill is doing in places such as Omar's eye sockets and the kandura under his arm.

As for the light, I love the combined effect of top soft light and on-axis fill. Omar gets strong, moody light and I can fill his eye sockets as much or little as I want. The kandura moves to a creamy white, with texture and detail everywhere. And the pool of light created in the sand again makes the scene almost look like it were done against a painted backdrop.

Waiting for the Light

With low-power speedlights, for some looks you have to wait for the ambient to come to you. And when it gets there it will be moving fast, so work out everything you can in your mind as you are waiting for the levels to get manageable.

Honestly, the whole evening comes down to just a few of minutes. And you do not want to mess that time slot up when it arrives. The earlier, hard light stuff is mostly a combination of experimenting for something I might want to do at a later date and getting Omar comfy with the process of being photographed.

Before the sun went down, Bobbi kept asking if I needed her to back out and stop shooting. But really, having her there to work around (and keep Omar occupied while I planned and thought) was a huge help. Much better than having Omar (and the TV guy) stand around and watch me walk around with that WhatTheHeckAmIGonnaDoHere look on my face.

After we wrapped up, collecting gear in the dark, Hala drove us all to a very nice restaurant, where Drew and I were promptly kicked out for wearing shorts. With sand leaking out.

It turned out to be a blessing in disguise. "Plan B" was a wonderful, casual Arab restaurant where the food absolutely could not have been better. And sand-leaking photographers in shorts were welcome, too.


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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jesus David... You are my hero... I should be sleeping, yet I'm typing this to thank you for your "giving back" to us losers out there, who are merely in search of a decent, frickin' exposure!... Peace my friend,


April 15, 2009 12:52 AM  
Blogger Behind the Shot said...

Perfect location! I loved the way you composed the shots using the trees, sand, falcon...
Thanks for sharing it!

Sam Robles

April 15, 2009 12:59 AM  
Blogger Tracer said...

Once again a very well explained post with an inspirational end result! I've only just started to get serious with photography again since January but I have to say that this blog is speeding me on my way to where I want to be in terms of technical ability and skill. I salute you sir!

April 15, 2009 1:18 AM  
Anonymous matthew Neumann said...

looks great! i love the balance of light

April 15, 2009 1:21 AM  
Anonymous Nigel Walker said...

Hey David I'm glad the shoot worked out without too many issues. Hopefully the fine sand didn't damage any of your camera gear - it gets everywhere, as you no doubt found out! Very informative post! How did the falcon behave with the flash light? Regards, Nigel

April 15, 2009 1:43 AM  
Blogger Todd Johnson said...

Great post, thanks for sharing how this photo was made. I'm new to strobist I just found your blog a couple of weeks ago and I really aprecheate your informative posts. I'm now shopping e bay for a couple of SB's, Thanks.

April 15, 2009 1:44 AM  
Blogger David said...

that was a great read and an awesome shot of omar. i love ho you got so much detail in the white yet the rest is still so wonderfully exposed. you are a great teacher!

April 15, 2009 2:10 AM  
Anonymous Muzz said...

The results of this shoot are fantastic - almost studio-like. I think you're starting to show off now. If you can be getting results like that with a sandy crevice and a hungry falcon eyeing up the leg of your shorts, where does that leave the rest of us. I'd love to see you re-do the shoot at feeding time with a gerbil covered in BBQ sauce in your underpants - now that would be something (I'd definitely hold the boom for you on that shoot).

But seriously, the light is everything and until I can "see it" before I shoot it, I'm just gonna have to get my satisfaction from reading your blog and drooling over your photographs. You're starting to get further away from the pack now, and not sure I can ever catch up!

April 15, 2009 3:32 AM  
Anonymous Cafer Inceoglu said...

You're all doing such a nice job,I mean David,Joe Mcnally,Zack Arias(and all the other nice people that I haven't had a chance to learn about yet).

You're all great photographers and more important you know how to inspire other people by sharing youre knowledge in a very down to earth way.

Jealousy is not the right word I'm looking for, but you're all doing things that aspiring photographers as myself can only dream of and I wish you all the best luck so you can continue sharing all this fun stuff for a very long time in the future.

April 15, 2009 3:40 AM  
Anonymous Charles Verghese said...

Hiya David,

I think that the Dubai Strobist group have done a few shots like this in the desert (but ofcourse without the falcon & the handler). But this doesn't seem to be on their flickr site anymore. Maybe I'm wrong.

On this post: Tx fr the step-by-step.

I hope to do this type of shoot biggest problem was the flash glow on the sand.


April 15, 2009 3:48 AM  
Anonymous David Brown said...

Fantastic, evocative shots. Excellent lighting, obviously. You make it look so easy...

April 15, 2009 3:50 AM  
Blogger Vincent said...

As (almost) always cool stuff! thanks for that. Beautiful pic that last one!

Still no plans to come to Spain?


April 15, 2009 3:52 AM  
Anonymous Mark said...

Falconry and photography!! All my boyhood dreams come true.......

Great post, thanks for sharing

April 15, 2009 6:02 AM  
Blogger Pepin said...

Hi David!

Question: How were you able to trigger the Orbis and the umbrella flash?

I'm assuming it's PW on hotshoe then PW on the each of the 2 lights.

Wasn't that cumbersome?

April 15, 2009 6:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Phenomenal! Very much enjoyed this insight into your field work methodology, and the results are interesting too.

Minor grammatical aside, we use Arabic to refer to our language only - the restaurant would be an Arab restaurant; hope it was tasty!

April 15, 2009 6:14 AM  
Blogger Rockhopper said...

Really enjoyed reading that post, I would in your position gone to the f8/f16 rule done my shot and walked off with something and be disappointed.

Me thinks I will try this out, and as for the subject kneeling, good pose.

Thanks for sharing


April 15, 2009 6:40 AM  
Blogger losalamos666 said...

Excellent post. Sounds like you had a lot of fun and the results are excellent. A great lesson for us all. Thanks for sharing


April 15, 2009 6:50 AM  
Blogger Thanos Siozos said...

Good job there David.
For near twilight portraiture everyone should check out the portraits of Bill Brandt and esp. the one of Francis Bacon.

April 15, 2009 6:59 AM  
Anonymous Jim,, the Dubai desert dweller said...

Heh, that's Dubai for you "You ain't got trousers, you ain't comin' in" Just be happy they didn't try and confiscate your camera gear at the same time, LoL!

Love the silhouette of the local with the falcon. Gorgeous stuff. Shooting at sunset is really tricky round here because the sun plunges really fast.

Some of my favourite late night shots of Dubai are where you hang off the Sheikh Zayed Road bridges and get light-trails from the motorway. And the fact that there are no security guards around really helps!



April 15, 2009 7:47 AM  
Anonymous brett turner said...

great post. What about the g9 for dropping
The ambient while waiting for the sun to go down. You would have had a chance to try the setup before the magic ten seconds. it is never really an hour is it?

April 15, 2009 7:57 AM  
Anonymous Scott Slattery said...

David - wonderful shoot and great information! Thanks again for the great teaching!

April 15, 2009 8:11 AM  
Blogger Scott said...

Dave, arent you older than Tyson? Waiting until he is 87 might not be such a good idea.

April 15, 2009 9:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

David, great images! It was a pleasure to work with you in the desert with our fabulous falcon. Fun to be a part of the Strobist!
Bobbi Lane

April 15, 2009 9:04 AM  
Anonymous David Dettmann said...

At first I didn't know what to expect but that final image shows how your vision and planning is stellar. I not only have learned much from this site but I have been inspired by your consistent updates and passion to help the photo community

April 15, 2009 9:06 AM  
Blogger David said...

To Michael and Ibad- Thanks much for the fixes! (Corrected, but used a Wikipedia spelling for "kandura".)

April 15, 2009 9:07 AM  
Blogger James Scott said...

Six killed my father! Prepare to die!

Oh, and thanks for all you do for us basement-dwellers. I hope I get to try some sunset shooting this year.

April 15, 2009 9:21 AM  
Blogger John said...

Awesome post! Since you posted the photos on your Flickr stream, I was really anticipating some details on the shots.

I really like these desert shoots, and every time you have come back from the GPP, you've come back with something cool.

The falconer shots were awesome! Thanks for posting that setup shot too, it really puts things in perspective.

April 15, 2009 9:21 AM  
Anonymous Fotografi said...

Really a great result. I like your way of illuminate the subject.
Is always interesting to see all the set an how you take this picture.

April 15, 2009 9:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Omar's traditional Arab clothing (it is called a "kandura") is throwing back nuked gamma white from the hard strobes."Uhm, my first reaction when I saw the photos was "What? Not even a 1/4 CTO gel?" Am I the only one to think that the blue/white-ish colour from the flashes is "wrong" in that sunset setting? Any reason you didn't gel the flashes, David?


April 15, 2009 10:12 AM  
Blogger O'Leary said...

Dave. Why didn't you go for high speed sync to battle the sun? Is the big drawback the close proximity needed to be effective? Mike.

April 15, 2009 10:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

really enjoyed the post... what an amazing opportunity!

now if I can only find where to get those camel truffles.. never heard of that variety... sounds delicious!

are they as delicate in flavour as the traditional B&W ones?

April 15, 2009 10:57 AM  
Anonymous Jennifer Gionfriddo said...

The shot is so looks like it was taken in a studio! I love this photo.

April 15, 2009 11:25 AM  
Anonymous Craig Thompson said...

Wow, once again I'm blown away by the final result. I shoot a lot of weddings with white dresses at sunset and you better believe I know how quickly the light changes. Barely gives you time to think about what you want to accomplish. I just finished reading Joe's "Hot Shoe Diaries" (twice cover to cover) and if you ever write a similiar book it would be a best seller. Thanks Dave for all your teachings.

April 15, 2009 11:38 AM  
Anonymous A Photojournalist Who Blogs said...

Where's the shot of the jag and the driver?!

April 15, 2009 1:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Better than any book! Your Blogspot is spot on! Best Lighting, affordible [almost] and portable [kind of]-- a winner every time[definately]

Now I have to fo look for a desert out here in Hawaii or I'll just have to "make do" with the sand at the Beach, Hula Girls and Rainbow Sunsets. But unlike you Pros [David and Joe] I like to avoid dunking my camera in the water. [Lost my cell phone to a dunk on the very first shoot.]

April 15, 2009 2:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"almost studio-like" kind of a funny thing to say on your blog.

The World is my studio, I shall not want!

A friend and Teacher once said that the studio is an attempt to mimic real world lighting. [window light, top light].

In the field he likes reflectors and screens. I'm guessing that a good reflector gives more power [light] than an SB.

April 15, 2009 2:48 PM  
Blogger CrowNology said...

I was looking for instructions on making a light box, to photograph jewelry for my (soon opening) Etsy store. I found yours the best. I linked the article on my blog.

Thanks so much.

April 15, 2009 2:56 PM  
Anonymous Markus said...

Hi David,

Great post and great pics. Thanks again for putting on a great 2 day course. Being a newbie at this flash stuff I came away with lots of new info. I was the guy in the middle of the group shot .... and you said you'd send a copy of the pic. Also during the course of the 2 days you mentioned about a soft cheap 50mm (I beleive it was) that you use. Could you also send me the details. Good to hear you had a good time


April 15, 2009 3:03 PM  
Blogger Michael Zelbel said...

Thank you so much for sharing. And the result is really great.
How did you trigger the hotshoe flash and the umbrella flash at the same time? Is there an adapter for your camera hotshoe that allows you to operate a remote trigger and a flash at the same time?

April 15, 2009 3:31 PM  
Blogger Heipel said...

Why I love this blog -- side splitting irony and wit with spot on practical and great results oriented advice.

Nice work.

And welcome back.

April 15, 2009 11:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Really enjoy reading strobist in my work lunch hour... but flickr is blocked! Is it possible to have all blog pics uploaded to blogspot rather than linked to flickr versions? I see the blogspot images fine but normally miss out on the finished shot! Alex

April 16, 2009 7:14 AM  
Anonymous Diyan said...

Nice picture, thanks for sharing how this photo was made.

April 16, 2009 12:42 PM  
Anonymous Michael Gratton said...

Very nice! The finished result and last picture looks great. Perfection!

April 16, 2009 12:55 PM  
Anonymous Cham128 said...

Great post and great photos, I had an overnight camp in the desert whilst i was there in dec... nothing better than getting up at 4:30am for the sunrise, if you get up high enough on one of the dunes there's a really strange mist that hangs in the lower areas.

it's a shame i ended up out there the week before though have been dying to get to a GPP event!

April 16, 2009 7:35 PM  
Blogger Heipel said...

The shot rocks. Nice, nice work.

April 17, 2009 8:21 PM  
Anonymous tony said...

excellent walkthrough of a greata session!

April 18, 2009 11:44 AM  
Anonymous Dean Ritola (FriedRabbit) said...

This blog and the previous blog (Zack) inspired me to try something with my camera. I love your pictures and explanation and Zack did a excellent job also. Don't know if my results measure up, but at least I tried:

Thanks David, love your blog and visit here often.

April 18, 2009 3:31 PM  
Anonymous Ryan Scott said...

You probably know this already, but it looks like PW Plus IIs have dropped $20 to $159.99 a piece, and the Nikon TTL version is now listed on B&H so it will most likely be available soon.

April 18, 2009 7:31 PM  
Blogger Dishin And Dishes said...

Thank you thank you! My blog is a different world now that I built my lightbox off your site...if you ever care to take a look. Man, now I want to just erase the old pictures off all my posts!

April 18, 2009 8:52 PM  
Anonymous Stevo said...

Great shot. The strobe on a stick looks like it has a lot of possibilities. I look forward to more great stuff.

April 18, 2009 9:39 PM  
Blogger Susan Tuu said...

What a pity I missed you this year!

But what a great day to learn something new again! Like you telling how to use the hand in studying the lights on the spot. This following line I am also stealing from you:"The important thing is that I look like I am making good pictures. With the cameras rolling, this looks a lot better than wondering scratching my butt and around looking for camel truffles, right?"

Thanks David!!!!

Dubai Susan

April 20, 2009 2:50 PM  
Blogger Buddy dela Cruz said...

Hello David,

Nice to have you here in Dubai David... Hope I can come on that Photo shots... Thanks for sharing all the thoughts with a great results...

It me... Buddy

April 28, 2009 1:12 AM  
Blogger Tony Murphy said...

Excellent work, absolutely inspirational.

June 15, 2009 4:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i love your expertise and advice...period!

June 17, 2009 3:33 AM  
Anonymous Aspen Photography said...

Beautiful Lighting. This site is so useful thank you. Can't wait to get all my equipment and start lighting.

June 29, 2009 7:00 PM  
Blogger Brien A said...

David, as always you are awesome in giving back as freely as you got it and we all appreciate it.

I do have one comment. I like the image but you discussed the Orbis filling in the eyes sockets. I would have like to see a little more fill. At least a catch light in the eyes. I think the eyes sockets are still a little to dark.

Does the Orbis used only as a fill like you explained not give enough light to have a catch light in the eye?



June 30, 2009 8:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for interesting article, but sorry I just don't like final result - Omar is looking like he is siting in studio and background is just photosoped from diferent pic. Where is all that magic of the dawn in desert? All that nice atmosphere is gone. I think that desert is important element in this pic and for that culture.


July 02, 2009 8:40 PM  

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