Much of the photography world that I pay attention to has been buzzing about The Flash Bus tour which swept the country this spring. I was able to go to the Pittsburgh session this week. Since the tour is now winding down, this post isn’t really directed toward anyone who might go–its more for me to help remember what I experienced.
I traveled to Pittsburgh the morning of the session, which meant I left home at 5:30AM, drove the wonderfully uneventful 207 miles to the venue and arrived early enough to be in a good position to get a coveted seat close to the stage.
OK, let me step back for a minute for those reading who are not completely geeked out on photography. The Flash Bus was essentially a traveling road show for two reasonably well known (among photographers) photographers, David Hobby and Joe McNally. David is the founder/architect/inspiration for the Strobist movement–photogs using (typically) small flashes off-camera. Joe is a widely published shooter for Time, Sports Illustrated, National Geographic, and more, not to mention having published several of his own books.
The concept behind the tour is that these guys tend to use flash in technically different ways. David uses manual settings, which is kinda like driving a stick shift. You gotta know how the various power levels, shutter speed, aperture, etc effect each other. Joe uses automatic settings to sculpt his light, but even still its not like “put it in drive, push on the gas”. In camera speak, the “automatic” flash stuff is called TTL for Through The Lens metering. So da Bus was billed as “Manual vs TTL”, to the death, playfully pitting these two opposing philosophies against each other.
Back to my experience…
As a forty something guy, its hard for me to admit a bit of hero worship, but I had dreams the night before about meeting these guys. These guys are doing what I would aspire to do if… hrm … not coming up with a good excuse here. Anyway, I very much admire both of them and what they’ve done for photography in the here and now. I’ve mentioned McNally, and I spent a good bit of time last year working through David’s Strobist self-taught lighting workshop. So, first picture of the day? Me, in front of The Bus, taken by another attendee, up top.
I crossed paths with Joe on the way in and stammered a “looking forward to it” with a manly head-nod. Geez. Felt like a school girl at a Mylie Cyrus concert.
I found my way to the entry area where other photogs were hanging out. No clear line had formed, which surprised me a little. So I joined the we’re-too-cool-to-let-on-that-we’re-really-stoked-to-be-here-to-show-it crowd and just chilled next to a wall. I estimated the assembled crowd at 90% male, and 70% over 50.
When they opened registration, I was among the first in line to get the much touted goody-bag and to get a seat up front. Many people were behind me. At one point David was greeting attendees, spotted a pregnant woman in line, brought her to the front, took her in before everyone else, and got her a very nice comfy chair, rather than the typical conference center chair. That was a nice touch.
They started promptly with David first. His session was entirely lecture-based with good photographic examples in a power-point presentation. He didn’t shoot a single frame of an actual subject. This was the most disappointing part for me–not seeing David in action. Alas, his presentation was filled with useful nuggets:
- light is always additive. adding another flash never makes the image darker.
- lighting a scene is always relative, more like cooking than chemistry. Salt to taste, light to preference.
- lighting is augmented reality
- Assess your lighting in this order: ambient -> fill -> key -> accents
- Ambient is the floor under the picture
- Lenses tend to be sharpest at their middle aperture
- Ambient supports the key light
- When assessing fill, look for legibility in the shadows
- David almost always uses 1/4 CTO on key flash
- fill lets you localize a contrast range, then take more risks with the key
- usually fill is on-axis with the lens. David loves ring flash.
- fill is usually set to the same color balance as ambient
- accents add three-dimensionality
- accent possibility: one light on background, raking across, creating a gradient
- small 8×9 softbox is very portable, can be soft up close or harder a little distance away, provides lots of control.
- no one but photographers ever mention catch-lights or bokeh. Ever. Not clients, not editors. This was in response to an audience question “Do you usually try to create catch-lights?”
- say to subject “give me a smart-ass look”
- say to subject “give me a mysterious look”
- get them out of the moment–get them to think about something other than being photographed (I really which they’d spent more time on this point alone. This could easily be a great two hour discussion).
During the breaks, David had no shortage of admirers, and that isn’t meant to sound snarky. I’d have been there my self, but I didn’t have questions per se. I’d have just said “thanks” which I’d done while standing in line.
Those were all notes from the first half. Joe McNally came out for the second half and actually did some shooting. I took two notes of interest during the remaining 4 hours:
- straight flash = recording, not interpreting
- low light sources tends to reflect off glasses
Don’t get me wrong–Joe was entertaining, but his style wasn’t conducive to note taking. And with good-reason. He was cooking, salt-to-taste, not giving us recipes. And though he was shooting TTL (automatic), everything got tweaked. So the net result was he was still adjusting flash power just like David would do, but the TTL infrastructure (and more expensive flashes) allowed him to remotely control the flash power from his camera. I mostly entertained myself taking pictures where I tried to capture his flashes.
This picture shows Joe’s patented, somewhat unusual, photog stance, with the camera braced against his left shoulder.
At the end, David and Joe got on stage to answer some of the remaining questions. There were lots of hands up, but I don’t think that was from a lack of understanding–I think most saw it as an opportunity to speak geeky photog stuff with two well-respected photogs.
I took off as soon as they said “good bye”. I thought about hanging around to say thanks, especially to David, one last time. I was still feeling a bit self-conscious about the bit of idol-worship I’d indulged in, and I figured they probably had to get moving to their next venue. Instead, I embarked on my 207 mile journey home. In the rain. All-in-all it was a day well spent.