Opportunity Knocks

As Halloween approaches, a timely story about a little prank available to any lighting photographer. All you need is a remote flash trigger, a clueless friend and the maturity level of a 12-year-old.

The TSA Problem

Have you every traveled by air on assignment? You always want to carry a skeleton kit of gear on your person, so if your bags get lost you can still complete the job. For me, that means a camera, a couple lenses and a one-speedlight kit.

That one light kit will contain a remote for my flash. To photographers, remotes are a benign little pair of gadgets that give us wireless freedom from our lights. But to anyone who is not a photographer, it looks a lot like a remote triggering device. Because it is a remote triggering device.

Mental exercise: try to find a way to explain your flash remotes to a layperson during an airline security search without sounding like a potential terrorist. It's pretty much impossible—especially if you are in a foreign airport and language barriers are an issue.

But for our purposes today, the important thing is that your Phottix Ares (or whatever flash trigger you may use) is not just a flash remote. It is also an electrical switch that can be activated from 100 meters away.

Late October, Mid 1980s

I appreciate a practical joke as much as the next person — maybe a little more. And Halloween night is a particularly ripe time for jokes. One Halloween back in the mid-1980s I was going to be hanging out at the house of a non-photographer friend, and was determined to pull a joke on him.

(NOTE: The chances he will ever see this are small. But still, I'm not using his name just in case.)

To do this, I would need a bit of prep. My plan was to wire his doorbell to my flash remote receiver. So I could then ring it from across the street. Or in his living room.

All I needed was some thin bell wire, a male PC cord (it was still the 80s) jack and my remotes. Testing on my own doorbell, I wired the remote in parallel with the doorbell. Now, when I pressed my doorbell button, my doorbell rang. When I pressed my flash remote transmitter, the doorbell also rang. This was going to work.

Halloween afternoon I transferred this little improvement to my (absent) friend's doorbell. I used thin wire, ran the wire down the outside of the door frame's moulding, and into the PC jack of my remote receiver. I put the receiver in a ziploc bag and buried it under leaves near the front door.

Halloween Night

I arrive at his house. Jack O' Lantern is lit. Little kids are out in the neighborhood collecting their due. And we hang out, having a few beers. I wait awhile. Then I head to the bathroom.

I pull the remote from my pocket, and press the test button. BING BONG. It is hard not to giggle.

Obviously, a little bit of this kind of immature, knock-and-run-away stuff is expected from the neighborhood kids on Halloween night. And it is taken in good fun. Ha ha ha, very funny, neighborhood kids.

But as the night went on I got increasingly agressive with it. I mean, if you think about it, there is a lot of psychological space to explore here. Beer in your left hand, right hand in your jacket pocket on your transmitter. You can literally ring his doorbell remotely while making eye contact. It's a thing of beauty. And it works.

The early bells were singles, like any trick or treater would use. But a double, or a triple sounds more ... urgent. Cocky, even: BINGBONGBINGBONGBINGBONG.

And remember, however fast he gets to that door the cocky little kid is going to be gone. Again.

First thing I learned: This is even more fun that you would expect. The best part was ringing the doorbell just as he was sitting down after returning from yet another false alarm. Because after a while, this shit gets personal. And he really wants to catch the little bastard.

And as the person on the trigger, you have to be careful. If the timing is too good it can quickly get to be obvious.

Eventually, he did exactly what you would do: hung out in the foyer, waiting for that bell. Which means the best doorbell rings weren't even mine. The best ones were legit trick or treaters, because he would immediately throw the door open like a psycho.

As the evening went on, I dialed back the frequency. I did not want to be obvious. And besides, he was getting pretty itchy.

Here is what I learned that night. With this kind of control over your friend — at point blank observation range — it gets progressively harder not to laugh. And that's what made me wrap it up. It wasn't that I thought I was gonna get busted, it was that I thought I was gonna bust my spleen.

The most satisfying part? I never told him. If he reads this, I genuinely hope he will ping me via Twitter. At that point I will consider myself to be offically busted.

But my bigger hope is that one day, I'll get the opportunity to do it to him again. And if I do, I will definitely revisit this post.

For Novelty Purposes Only

Fair warning: If you decide to do this, choose a friend who won't punch you out. And I can guarantee you the above wiring diagram will work. If for some reason it doesn't, reverse the wires.

If you do it, don't tell your mark. And for sure please report back to me via Twitter.

Filed under: Rant, Essays and Humor


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