Speedlights at Twenty Paces

UPDATE: We got video now, at the bottom of the post.

DUBAI, UAE, MARCH 08, 2010 -- Wrapping up in Dubai and getting ready to head over to Muscat in Oman for some much-anticipated R&R.

Those of you who follow Strobist on Twitter knew that Saturday was a big day for me. After teaching at Gulf Photo Plus all week, Saturday night was the big shootout against Zack "OneLight" Arias and Joey "Not That Guy from Blossom" Lawrence.

My shootout results, and what it's like to walk into the belly of hell, inside.

Pucker Factor

All we knew is that we were were to have 25 minutes to use however we wanted -- including lighting, shooting, editing and post production. And the post was to be done on someone else's computer via projection screen in front of a packed theater.

They made us all leave so they could brief the crowd in secret. When I walked back in they threw me two curve balls.

Number one, there would now be two models instead of one. First words out of my mouth, as calmly as I could muster, "Do we have to include both models?"

"Yes, you do."

(So much for that little evasive maneuver.)

Second curve ball: Joe McNally, who was sitting in the audience, would be mic'd, and heckling us providing color commentary.

Oh, great.

The Game Plan

I had planned my shot -- a multi-VAL special -- earlier in the week and enlisted the help of a half dozen students from my Saturday lighting class.

The idea was twofold: First, to be able to do something a little risky and complex on the fly. And second, to do something that might appeal to an auditorium full of fellow lighting geeks.

So we planned a paparazzi scrum type of thing. The flashes were all SB-800s, mounted on their cameras with paper jammed into the hot shoe to allow me to control them optically.

I kinda liked the irony of doing this with, technically speaking, on-camera flash. The speedlights were all in SU-4 (slave) mode, and they were all set off by a hard-wired Profoto studio flash fired into the ceiling.

Why not a PW? Simple -- after what we did to Zack last year, I did not want to be in a position where he could pwn me with his Plus II's. Thus, a sync cord.

The Profoto light could provide a baseline fill exposure if we needed it, but it was essentially being used as the most expensive optical triggering device in the history of the world. Twelve hundred watt-seconds of trigger light should ensure we all fire, all of the time. You could almost smell the ozone.

I mentally divided my time into five, five-minute blocks: Meet/prep the models, nail down the technical (lighting) stuff, shoot something safe, shoot something more dynamic, editing/post.

Best idea I had all night: Crowd-source the editing to the audience up onscreen. After all, this thing was gonna be decided by applause meter. Whichever one they liked best was the right pic as far as I was concerned.

The McNally Factor

So to be honest, I get a little queasy even shooting in the same room with Joe McNally watching. Like many photogs, I pretty much idolize him. Kinda like cooking for Julia Child. And it was his job to say whatever he wanted into the house mic to try to unnerve me.

First thought: Do NOT let this guy distract me into losing track of my time. That would be fatal. And I was pretty sure he would smell the blood quickly, if I let him get a toe in the door.

Second thought: Do you ignore him and let him keep ratcheting up until he gets to you? Or do you engage him in an irreverent-yet-respectful way and hope you can keep it contained? I chose the latter and prayed he would be gentle.

Our Photo

So here's what we turned in.

I say, "we," because I could not have done it without my students Abdullah, Donna, Simon, Bernhard, Duncan and Carl. And thanks much to Sid for manning the Profoto Nuclear Optical Triggering Device. (If I screwed up any names, correct me in the comments and I will fix.)

The models were fantastic, too. I think the two-subject surprise worked out okay, because our plan was not really single-person dependent. Two celebs could be dealing with paparazzi as easily as one.

I was happy with the shot, considering. Hell, I was happy to escape with my life given the pressure before and during.

Zack and Joey

Zack followed me, and I got to watch because I had already gone. As an audience member, I have to say that it was quite entertaining and hilarious to watch a photog squirm under the lights, the audience and McNally's torments. Zack has already posted his final edit, here.

Last comes Mr. Cocky 20-Yr-Old. And the first thing out of his mouth was, "Do we have to use all 25 minutes? Can we just make it ten?"

He then proceeds to smooth-talk the models a little. After all, they had been tolerating the attentions of nervous middle-aged men all evening, and certainly Joey and his assistant Ryan had more to offer.

Then Joey whips out a Polaroid, pops off a direct-flash snapshot, tapes it up to the projection screen and we watch as the automatic "post production" begins to occur over a ~two-minute time period, dependent on temperature.

He then thanks the crowd, and walks out of the auditorium.

Total time: Five minutes.

UPDATE: Joey has posted about Dubai on his blog now, here. And BTW, Joey's blog is currently a little NSFW.

There was much discussion here as to whether it was a ballsy move, or if Young Mr. L pulled the rip cord and bailed. Opinion is pretty evenly divided, and I can certainly see both arguments.

That said, all in all, it was great fun to do. Although I am not sure I would ever put myself in that same situation again. And I am thankful that Joey spared us, all things considered.

Word is, Gulf Photo Plus is editing the video and plans to make it available. I'll definitely post it when they do.


UPDATE: Here it is...

This is the official video, but if you would like to watch it unfold real-time (more sweating!) there is a set of bootlegs (of my session and Zack's as far as I can tell) which were shot from the stands. Not sure if he filmed Joey's session. But then, they did not have to compress Joey's shoot for the final video, anyway. Heh.


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Blogger point357 said...

Did you have to use Capture One? Sheeeet. Deep water. Nice job though, Hobby. Truth be told I'd have put my money on Arias, but I like yours better. V nice.

March 08, 2010 8:44 AM  
Blogger steve said...

Even though a winner wasnt't announced I know the amount of cheering that was happening in the auditorium registered your shoot as being the one that stood out the most.

Enjoyed your lighting in layers workshop immensly and learned ever so much from you will definately be back next year.


March 08, 2010 11:55 AM  
Blogger steve said...

Even though a winner wasn't announced I know the amount of cheering that was happening in the auditorium registered your shoot as being the one that stood out the most.

Enjoyed your lighting in layers workshop immensly and learned ever so much from you will definately be back next year.


March 08, 2010 11:59 AM  
Blogger Cesar said...

Sounds like a TV show Bravo will pick up next season, I can see it now, "Top Photographer"........Amazing how creative you can be while inside of a pressure cooker.

March 08, 2010 12:22 PM  
Blogger Rolsted said...

I'm speechless... Seems like you guys were having a blast once again. And I just love the shot. (Zarias' shot wasn't too bad either) Once again, thanks for sharing - this is why I keep coming back here over & over again.

March 08, 2010 12:37 PM  
Blogger Matt Hill said...

Entertaining. Hilarious! Awesome.

March 08, 2010 1:13 PM  
Blogger Josh said...

Might want to note the content on the Joeyl blog might be a little NSFW with the fashion shots he posted.

March 08, 2010 2:58 PM  
Blogger cricalix said...

@Ken - As one of the VALs, I think it was 1/32 on the two rear rims, 1/32 or 1/16 on the side/rear fills, 1/16 on the front fill and 1/4 on the key light. Holding up that key light was hard though, my muscles aren't used to hoisting several pounds of kit over my head.

@TheArtfulBurner - There was also the statement about 'age and treachery' trumping youth... we practiced that paparazzi shot a few times before hand, with David getting a feel for the lighting layout, and us VALs getting a feel for where we had to be in relation to each other and the model(s).

Watching (as much as I could when I was trying to hold a flash in the right spot) and listening to David run that shoot was a fantastic experience.

David, thanks again. Learnt a lot in the classes; while there certainly is a plethora of on-line knowledge, nothing really beats interaction with someone as you're shooting.


March 08, 2010 3:14 PM  
Blogger Craig said...

I work daily with 20 somethings in a college media center doing video and photo production. What 20 somethings have lost sight of is – OPPORTUNITY. I was not in the room but I have read your blog as well as Zack’s. Joey had an opportunity to show his skills and chose not to. In turn this became a lost opportunity for those in attendance looking to learn from three of the best in the business. I look forward to watching the video when posted.

I hope those in charge look at this when another opportunity is given for the crowd to learn from the experts and it doesn’t become another missed opportunity.

March 08, 2010 3:49 PM  
Blogger Craig said...

I work daily with 20 somethings in a college media center doing video and photo production. What 20 somethings have lost sight of is – OPPORTUNITY. I was not in the room but I have read your blog as well as Zack’s. Joey had an opportunity to show his skills and chose not to. In turn this became a lost opportunity for those in attendance looking to learn from three of the best in the business. I look forward to watching the video when posted.

I hope those in charge look at this when another opportunity is given for the crowd to learn from the experts and it doesn’t become another missed opportunity.

March 08, 2010 4:00 PM  
OpenID yo-sarrian said...

I adore the irony of your shot! Great job using on-camera(s) flash!

March 08, 2010 4:05 PM  
Blogger Jenny and Evan said...

Joey L. Rockstar photographer :/

March 08, 2010 4:08 PM  
Blogger Ingomar said...

david, I was in the crowd and I have to say, that this was the perfect FINAL for this amazing week in dubai! was so pleased to meet all this great photogs! enjoyed your class and the mcnally's 4 day bootcamp a lot. you all rock!
and joeyL is just that was a 20 year old guy should do, be cool and rock 'n' roll, and that's what he did! I still laugh about the 5 min he performed on the stage.
take care and cu sometime again.
ingoman @munich

March 08, 2010 4:08 PM  
Blogger martyn said...

Hello David,

Congratulations on your presentation, you created a great image. I love the composition, the photographer at bottom left, really turns on the dynamic and, your lighting technique creates a lovely feel of depth.

March 08, 2010 4:08 PM  
Blogger David said...

To Isabell, from your unmoderrated comment:

Of course I can send you an image, but will need your email address to do so.

Please leave it in another "DO NOT PUBLISH" comment. I am traveling Tues and Weds and will not have net access. But I can get it to you Weds night.


p.s. You guys were great subjects!

March 08, 2010 10:23 PM  
Blogger John said...

Oh how I wish I could have been there to see that ...and of course the rest of the GPP. The GPP seems like an up-and-coming photographer's wet dream (pardon the expression). I hope someone here in the U.S. gets on the bandwagon and throws an event like that.

I love the shot you and your group did and that fact you pulled it out so quickly. I even more love the fact that you "Zarias-proofed" your shot by using the Profoto as the most expensive trigger ever made. :)

Zack's shot was really cool too but I have to say, I'm a bit disappointed in what Joey L. did, even though I haven't seen it. It could be a great shot but it seems like he would have done more, just my opinion though.

I really hope they make that video open to the public when its finished. I bet McNally's commentary was hilarious!

Another awesome post and thanks for sharing your experiences!

March 08, 2010 10:24 PM  
Blogger amitjain05 said...

David..you were simple amazing during the GPP. It was pleasure to attend the panel discussion on photo friday and the ultimate shootout event. I really admire the pre-shootout work you did and the thought behind it. Love the final outcome. It was such a pleasure to meet a great guy like you.

Amit Jain

March 09, 2010 12:06 AM  
Blogger Ranger 9 said...

Gosh, what rascally hijinks you fellows get up to in the Pho Blogga Plugga fraternity! This is "the belly of hell"?

March 09, 2010 12:12 AM  
Blogger Heipel said...

I really have to talk my partner into letting me spend my "holiday" in Dubai next year. This sounded like a hoot -- easy for me to say, not under the pressure :)

Surely the Joey thing was part of the overall game plan. If not only the results will tell.

Thanks again David for your blog with its 5 star educational benefit and 6 star entertainment factor!!

March 09, 2010 1:10 AM  
Blogger Vineet Modi said...

David Hobby is the funniest, wittiest and the 'jerkiest' (?) person I've met in my life. He's so cool that when his wife asks him "Honey, do you know what time it is?", he replies "Yes I do" and does not tell her the time!! Woof.. and I thought I crack up my viewers! :)

I had a great time at GPP and your "Lighting in Layers" workshop was absolutely marvelous. Thanks a lot for the 'Strobist OCF magnetic sign'.. I wanted to get it signed after the shootout, but I missed.. That thing is definitely going on my car! Please send me images from the class whenever you get time, no stress.. just don't forget :)

Hope you are in India soon.. And I just saw your full-length pants on Mcnally's blog. Couldn't stop laughing :) Enjoy your travels!

March 09, 2010 6:41 AM  
Blogger Rajkumar said...

Hi David,
i have uploaded my videos of the GPP 2010 shootout here

i had checked with mohamed before and he told me to go ahead!!!

so here it is!!!

it was rocking and had an awesome time watching you guys shoot!!!

March 09, 2010 9:16 AM  
Blogger Rashad said...

David, I am a print journalist getting into photography and have convinced my crazy editor to let me take pictures for my stories every now and then. I'm doing a story on biotechnology and want to photograph a lab at the American University of Cairo. Any tips? I'm going in about a week (date not set yet). I saw your halophile and CERN posts, which were helpful.


March 09, 2010 12:31 PM  
Blogger JT said...

Understandable that people might feel "cheated" from Joey L, but c'mon, how much would you've learned from that 20 min that was totally new, especially after the other 2 contestants and the workshops etc? Joey got to his heights at 20 by being 'that guy'. We're all talking about it now. Pure genius. Even if it was a bailout, it was the ballsiest bailout I've ever heard of.

March 09, 2010 12:48 PM  
Blogger Alex said...

If Joey was making a point, heres a stab in the dark at what it was, or a point of my own at least.

It doesn't matter how good or bad your photo is, if you cant create hype you wont ever be successful.

I know of some really talentless photographers who are the top of the game. They're there because everyone wants what theyre selling, they want a slice. Even if the cake isnt very good, if the icing is amazing you will keep going back.

I've also assisted and worked with some exceptionally talented photographers who wont ever be at the top of the game or make any 'decent' money. If you don't have hype and commercial value, ultimately you have nothing as a photographer.

I'm not saying Joey L has or hasn't got talent, I'd personally form the opinion he has some talent, he's in the middle. Even if he just shoots very simple one light octa portable set ups a lot, he is a go getter and a self-promoter to the max, which i why the he and the likes of say chase jarvis will always be sought after.

I'd say his point was sometimes you overcomplicate things to try and understand why you're not successul at them.

March 09, 2010 1:10 PM  
Blogger jking said...

Here is the video of the shoots in case you want to watch them: http://www.youtube.com/user/Lightography#p/a/u/0/GrnYopPsMuU

March 09, 2010 5:22 PM  
Blogger Sodabowski said...

Dude, photo gear is overrated. Joey pwned you all in style. Pure genius.

Can't wait for that very part of the vid!

March 09, 2010 7:37 PM  
Blogger GlenF said...

Nice work by all the crew.

Bring LaraJade for next year (see JoeyL's blog) - she's ultra talented.

March 10, 2010 12:56 AM  
Blogger qmamzmwmsmxm said...


March 10, 2010 2:53 AM  
Blogger the_djxtc said...

David, your originality still amazes me. It would definitely be a challenge to light the model in such a short time with standard equipment (I caught the umbrella in Zack's setup in the posted photo), but to include all the students not only as VALS’s, but to add story and depth to a photo... Brilliant!

I hope McNally wasn't too hard on you, because this just looks awesome!

March 10, 2010 11:14 AM  
Blogger linda said...

this is my first time in your blog.. the photos are fantastic..
I will follow your blog of course!

March 10, 2010 1:43 PM  
Blogger Jonathan said...

Awesome, looks like you guys had a blast. Definitely like the paparazzi style... great use of limited resources in a tight situation.

And good thing Joe wasn't in the challenge either. He probably woulda duct taped 30 speedlights to a broom and blinded those poor models.


March 11, 2010 1:04 AM  
Blogger Kristofor Jensen said...

I'd really like to check out Dubai someday...looks like neat place.

Not somewhere for romantics though...at least not the public kind:


...get a hotel room if you want to give your significant other a smooch! ...and bring your wedding certificate too, it's your get out of jail free card.

March 16, 2010 1:24 PM  
Blogger Sledgeweb said...

In the vid, you talk about using the profoto to bump the room up to 400 at 5.6. What were you trying to get with this? Just the faint wall in the BG? Just trying to get a handle of what you were going for with the studio flash, other than setting of the other lights, which provide most the light. And, wondering how you think it turned out? I love the photo, just trying to understand your thought process and what each light is doing. Thanks!

March 30, 2010 11:52 PM  
Blogger mleonv said...

I don't know who won that. But for me, David Hobby's photo is the best regarding technique and composition, way better than Zack and Joey’s.
David behaved as a photographer instead of trying to be a "superstar" like the other 2 guys did. Zack’s photo wasn't impressive at all, and Joey (the one who behaved more as a "popstar" than as a photographer) his photo, considering what I have seen from him before is a piece of crap. I think fame has gone way up to his head to the point of forgetting how to make good photographs.

April 26, 2010 7:21 PM  
Blogger NYSTAN said...

gosh----not sure why the critical comments here....I was totally knocked out by all three of you guys....WOW....goes to show you how different everyone is. And since this is commercial photography here, anyone who finds Joey a bit much, this is part of the reason he is so successful.....on top of his talent, he has a great, winning personality. All three photogs have both in trumps....talent and personality....man, am I jealous! Thanks for posting.

March 09, 2011 3:28 PM  
Blogger Larry said...

You definitely won that one! I thought Arias' looked like a truck was barreling down behind the models!

March 10, 2011 9:30 PM  

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