The cool thing about teaching photography is actually how much you learn while you do it. Such was the situation in Dubai a couple of weeks ago. Amazing faculty. Felt like a kid in a candy store. Wanted to go to all the classes.
A big lure of teaching in Dubai of course, is teaching in Dubai. One of the truly strange, nutty, breakneck places on earth. So I was determined to get out into the desert before leaving. I mean, out there, where you see nothing but sand and sky. Got a model, a makeup artist, a couple of drivers with Rovers, David Hobby, a local assistant, a…..@#%%&**#$$&&%#….hey, wait a minute, David Hobby???!!!
David was teaching as well, and when he found out I was going to the hot sand he was in. Lessee….going out shooting small flash with David Hobby? Uh, wanna rate that on the cool meter?
Next thing, we’re slewing through the sand, riding dunes in a Rover like a surfer rides the waves, looking for a spot where the undulating sand and the play of light and shadow might be favorable. That kinda sorta is everywhere out there. Just wild and alien, so for both of us, the radar was way up, DEFCON 5, the way it gets when you are seeing something you haven’t seen before.
We picked a charming spot right by some petrified camel shit and went to work. Between me and David, we got a bunch of of the SB800 strobes, and of course, I never met a subject I couldn’t overlight, so we put up a mess of them. It was kind of this loopy strobe puzzle stuck on the end of a c-stand. A strobe clusterf–k, in other words.
Here’s the thing. We have both been messing with hi speed strobe sync, and, as I mentioned in a previous blog, the SB has a handy feature called Auto FP hi speed sync, where the strobe will stick with the camera even up to 1/8000 of a second. The problem is power. The FP deal knocks the oomph out of the flash, so to punch back, we put up multiple lights, and cranked out a decent picture of Lenka, our wonderfully bemused model.
We had a happy accident. (I love those! Always tell my editors I planned it that way.) Thought we would run the lights through a Lastolite diffuser, but the wind was such the diffuser was flopping around like a freshly landed tuna, and raw light from the top couple SB units hit Lenka. Hmmmm……looked good. The diffuser continued to behave like an unruly child so we dumped it and went with open, hard light. Now there was too much light, even in FP mode. Dialed ‘em down a touch, and started making frames.
David had the notion of a hard sidelight and grabbed a spare flash and circled slightly behind and camera left of the model. No diffuser dome. Zoomed it to 105 and used his hand as a gobo so there was no telltale spill on the desert floor. That’s a great trick right there. He shielded or cupped the light with his hand, holding the SB unit with his other hand and then running the video camera clenched between his teeth. Just an astonishing display of versatility.
So here’s a problem, or at least something to watch out for. See Lenka’s shadow? It’s not clean. Has no simple, hard edge the way you would get from the sun, or one, definitive light source. I was kind of sloppy putting these up, and the result is a variation in the angle of approach from the various sources. In the best of worlds, you could use one strobe, or at least gang them coherently so the direction is slightly more unified. Remember that once you set one of these puppies off, photons go everywhere, and once they get out they’re tougher to catch than a fart in a bag. So it is best to try to line them up on the same axis if at all possible.
We wrapped out of that position, and the sun had hazed out considerably, enough that we could shoot right into it. This, in alot of ways, was a more manageable setup. Went to a shoot through umbrella with 3 SB units on Justin clamps. Didn’t use multiple units to increase power, cause I was still dictating f-stop from the camera, but what this does is increase the volume, or surface area of the light in relation to the subject. Makes it more all embracing, wrapping, and softer in it’s rotation from highlight to shadow. Tried this first.
Not happy. Kinda flat. Moved in…..
Liked this better. Flagging off the bottom of the umbrella helps gradate the light. It’s very helpful when there is the desert floor in the picture.
Light started plunging after this, so we did a quick change and knocked out one last view before jumping back into the Rovers, going to the hotel, grabbing a quick bite and a shower, repacking and heading for the airport for the 14 hour romp to JFK.
Had some hits and misses out there, to be sure. One thing about working TTL wireless in combo with aperture priority mode on the camera is shifting output and some exposure variance. This is not inconsistency, I don’t think, but rather the camera point of view changing ever so slightly, which is causing the camera and strobe system to exchange different messages, and producing different results. Afterwards, I realized I coulda/shoulda gone, at least for a bit, into flash value lock, or FV mode. You can program that feature into your function button on the front of the D3. Program it, then tap the function button and the flash output will be locked. Of course, I thought of that later. Had one of those “THWACK! Coulda had a V-8!” moments. It’s why I have a flat forehead at this point in my career.
On this last shot I used a gold Lastolite Tri-Grip reflector instead of my kneecaps. The tri-grip gives a nice warm fill, while my legs are much more neutral and give up only about a half stop of bounce.
So, all in all, fun in the desert. Over the top in certain ways, to be sure. 7 SB800 units is pretty wacky, I’ll be the first to admit. But the high speed sync is enabled with these guys, and that is helpful. I do use bunches of these units periodically, either in a teaching environment, or ganging them through a big silk or panel. The trigger for all these CLS guys was the either another SB unit or the SU800, which is a pretty directional, powerful trigger, which I have found works real well, even in bright sun.
Also, having David Hobby on location was pretty cool. David is one of those guys who just knows. I’m out there making wild-ass guesses, but a guy like David has got it locked. Plus he’s got a great recipe for camel shit shavings. Little melted mozzarella, some garlic and red pepper, quick garnish, and you are eatin’ in style.
He also cooked up this video to show what we were doing out there in the sand…
And if you wanna download the hi-res version, he’s got that posted as well.
The tools we have now are amazing. As David mentioned in his blog, I used to assist Mathew Brady, and that was a bear, shagging all those plates around in the back of a covered wagon. It is so much easier now.