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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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