Why is This Pepper Smoking?

Because it's about to blow up.

Today, a glance into the explosive still life photography of Adam Voorhes.

I first got introduced to the work of Austin-based photographer Adam Voorhes through our mutual friend Chris Crisman. But I immediately recognized his still life work from the pages of Esquire, one of my favorite magazines.

Oh hang on, it's about to go off:

Adam's still lifes (still lives?) always seem to have have something extra. It might be a smart concept or distinctive lighting. Or perhaps an explosion of some sort.

Sometimes the explosions are be literal, as in the photo above done for Men's Health. But he also has a reputation for images of meticulously exploded images of mechanical objects, as in the motorcycle video below.

For the pepper shots (several others of which you can see here) he used actual explosives. Or, as more appropriate for the scale of a small pepper, firecrackers.

Said Voorhes:

We did have the technical hurdle of acquiring firecrackers off-season. I mentioned the idea to my cousin Sterling who was having drinks at my house.

He asked how many I needed. Just one pack should be plenty, I said. Oh no problem, he told me, I have a bunch of fireworks in the trunk.

You have fireworks in the trunk of your car? In Texas? In the heat? Yeah, he explained, you never know when you’ll need some.

My kinda guy.

So, just stick a firecracker into the back of a pepper, light the fuse and stand back, right? Hardly. There are actually a lot of variables that come to bear. Fortunately, Voorhes is in his wheelhouse for this kind of thing.

As you might have already guessed, Vorhees set up his camera (a PhaseOne P65+ back on an Arca-Swiss medium format view camera) in a darkened room. The flash is triggered by the sound of the explosion with a Mumford Time Machine equipped with a sound trigger mic.

(Note to self: WANT.)

And in a darkened room, as we all know, the flash pulse duration (AKA: t.1) becomes the effective shutter speed. But there are actually a couple of 'flashes' happening here: the photo flash and the explosion itself, which both has a specific speed and generates its own light. So you have to take that component into account, too.

Voorhes found that a t.1 of ~1/6,000th of a second mated the two together pretty well, so he used a flash chosen for that exact power level and t.1 spec: Paul Buff White Lightning 1600s (660ws monos) at quarter power.

He lets his t.1 needs drive flash selection for motion photography. For instance, he also has banks of Vivitar 285s built just for that purpose.

Here's a diagram, which includes an all-important suggestion to shoot through Plexiglass to protect your camera:

It's a pretty straightforward setup, assuming you could figure out the whole flash-explosion-t.1 marriage without pulling your hair out. Otherwise, well…

But Voorhes' whimsical and technical approach to still life work makes him much in demand for both editorial and commercial clients. If you have not seen his stuff, take a moment to check out his site and/or his blog.

I'd strongly suggest you RSS his blog, BTW. He does not post super often, but when he does it is totally worth the read. Just consistently great stuff.

And finally, for your viewing pleasure, Adam Voorhes will now blow up a motorcycle (no firecrackers required) in this time-lapse video of a shoot of a Kawasaki motocross bike for ESPN:

Cool, huh?


New to Strobist? Start here | Or jump right to Lighting 101
Got a question? Hit me on Twitter: @Strobist
Have a passport? Join me in Hanoi: X-Peditions Location Workshops