Conversation with David Hobby
David Alan Harvey: You are a force in the social media/blog world. You have hit it very big with Strobist. We both started out as newspaper photographers.
David Hobby: I didn’t know that about you. Where did you start out?
DAH: I worked with Rich Clarkson at the Topeka Capital-Journal right out of grad school. I was a U of Missouri photojournalism student.
DH: But you weren’t at A newspaper, you were kind of at THE prototypical photography newspaper.
DAH: Well, it was at the time, yes it was. That would be the only reason to go to Topeka, Kansas ha ha. I liked Topeka. First job out of school, a good job. That was the last time I was rich!!
DH: So it was Rich Clarkson and Jim Richardson? Wasn’t he there?
DAH: Jim Richardson was there, Chris Johns was there, Brian Lanker was there.
DH: Wow, a medium-sized paper with that staff?
DAH: Oh yeah, Clarkson built a real place “to be” for young photogs…Rich is my single best mentor for what followed in life.
DH: Now was there like a dud there too?
DAH: Not really. It was an elite little crew. All of us eager. Ready to of course get out of Topeka and head for Life or NatGeo. None of us figured Topeka was good for more than a couple of years. Clarkson knew that, and he wanted new blood every couple of years anyway.
DAH: I mean, the New York Times you didn’t have any control, or the Chicago Tribune…The big papers we knew were not really the place to be. I mean at the medium sized papers you did your own thing. Came up with ideas. Did the layout. Learned the whole process. Went deep into stories.
DH: I had that same experience. One year at the Patuxent Newspaper group (near Baltimore) I did a hundred and four cover stories. And a cover story was a stretch-tab, full-page cover and a minimum of four pages inside with no ads. I mean, your worry was that you’d come back with four pages worth of good stuff and they gave you eight pages.
DAH: Well that’s right, and at Topeka we were doing in-depth stories. I mean we were doing with the newspaper (and you were too) what Life magazine had done prior. There was no more Life magazine, but the newspapers became a great outlet.
DH: We were a magazine disguised as a newspaper. I loved that.
DAH: That’s right. And you had to produce on demand. You had to go out and make a picture today. Right now. You could talk about it all you want, but you had to come back with a picture. Now how do you think that translated into what you are doing now? Was there any part of the newspaper world that transferred into your blog?
DH: So many parts of what we were doing then transferred …and I’m talking about twenty or twenty five years ago…that was my peak experience in newspapers.
We were a newspaper unlike any other newspaper in the country. Sort of like the Galapagos Islands. We had evolved completely with our own ecosystem, and the best example I can give is that we had editorial and then design and production.
So, editorial were the word people, and designer/production were what made the paper look good and everything. Photography was under design and production, meaning we never answered to a word person. We talked to them as peers. I think every single newspaper should be set up that way, because you never had, “Oh well, that’s nice but do you have a horizontal for this space and actually we changed the story to be about this…” and that kind of stuff. We bumped heads as equals, and because of that the newspaper was a much better product.
We had our editorial meetings for every paper and every news cycle, which for us was weekly. And we had a section of fourteen papers, but that was just one of many little things that just by chance evolved differently. Well, not by chance, because the people who did the newspaper were willing to listen to the director of photography just as much as they would listen to the word editor of the paper.
DAH: Well, and that’s what we had with Rich. Do you know him?
DH: I’ve never meet him.
DH: I would bet he was a formidable person to be sitting across from.
DAH: Rich Clarkson was a tough guy to deal with. I am sure he says the same about me! But we had a similar situation. What I am trying to figure out is how you went from newspaper photographer, basically to Strobist, which led to all kinds of other things, which you’re involved in, including social media and blogs and everything else. What day did the light go off in your head that you were going to take lighting, which is a mystery to everybody, and take that out there, and turn that into an incredible business. When did the light go off? No pun intended.
DH: So that actually goes back to the early days at Patuxent still, because one of the other things we evolved differently was the idea that there was really no ceiling on what you could do. You know, at the bigger newspapers you’re actually part of a machine and we don’t want you to put too much time or resources into this; we just need to get this page out and this section out. Patuxent would actually give us the time to do things in ways that we hadn’t tried before, and more and more of that started including bringing lights to basketball games for instance. This was in 1990 or 1991.
DAH: You’re a super sports enthusiast?
DH: Well yeah, we each had to be jacks of all trades because it was a group of seven photographers and they shot for fourteen weekly papers. Some of those weekly papers were two hundred and fifty pages long stretched out, so we were busting.
DAH: Well I heard you say something the other night that I would like for you to say again somehow. And that was how lucky you felt to be a photographer.
DH: I don’t see it is a job so as much as a religion. And you don’t know that until maybe you leave newspapers and you realize how much of a religion that process was. But, I still have that dream like I am on an assignment, this is, you know, six years later, and I can’t get the camera out of the trunk fast enough. My hands just aren’t working and I realize that I am right back in newspaper photography. I said “we” about the Baltimore Sun for four or five years after I left.
DAH: But you felt lucky you were just being paid to go to the football games and such.
DH: Oh yeah. Eighteen years old, shooting high school football on Friday and college football on Saturday, and pro football on Sunday? I mean, how much would I have paid to do that? It’s not that you’re getting paid, but fast forward to 2005, 2006 at the Baltimore Sun, I was kind of getting comfortable in the position and it’s a completely different experience than working for what I think of as a tight-knit small paper.
I asked my DOP—Dudley Brooks, who was fairly fresh off of being a staff shooter at the Washington Post, so he is definitely like one of the guys director of photography—if he would mind if I would start blogging about how I lit some of my assignments and he thought that was cool. So he gave me verbal permission to do that, and I just started leaving a trail of breadcrumbs for guys that were twenty years behind me. I had no idea in the world that the amateurs would find it. I thought I was writing for maybe a thousand people tops. You know, late photojournalism students, early photojournalism career types.
DAH: Were you self-taught with lighting?
DH: I don’t think anybody is self-taught really. You hang out at the light table and ask, “How did you do that?” At the Orlando Sentinel, where I was interning in 1988, there was a guy named Tom Burton who was actually kind of into this stuff. When we would come back from a cool assignment, he would have us put a picture in a notebook on one side of a double-truck and on the other side of the double-truck you would write down how it was lit. That actually worked well for a while. Then somebody would take a picture of a dead frog on the road and on the other side it would have a diagram pointing, like, “dead frog on road” and then there was another diagram pointing “sun at ninety-three and a half degrees from you know, whatever.” So nobody wants to admit that they are really studying or learning from other people at these papers, but you’re doing it full-time.
DAH: Sure. And that’s what you do now. I was always kind of an available light guy and you’re Mr. Light and you have managed to turn that into an incredible business. What made that happen? Was lighting required at the paper or you just picked it up and it was just a natural thing for you?
DH: I have this theory about adding light or shooting available light. My theory is that for instance, you see somebody who says “I’m just an available light photographer… I’m a purist.” Well nobody is really a purist. Heisler said that you’re a purist if you’re fifty thousand feet up in the air with a Leica, a fifty mil and tri-x, shooting straight down so they don’t know you’re there.
But, for those of us who do things the way we do, you hear a photographer say “I’m a strictly available light photographer, I’m a purist…” I hear, “I’m scared shitless of using light so I’m going to do this instead.” Well, for me it was kind of the other way around. I’ve always been a weaker photographer when it came to just having patience and waiting, and that interpersonal and that social stuff, so for me lighting was a way to start to create interesting pictures in a way that I could do it. So my weaknesses were almost certainly your strengths.
DAH: Yeah, and well nothing changes a picture as much as lighting. I use lights. Clarkson made me use lights. So so glad he made me!!!
DH: That’s true.
DAH: And you can be in a terrible situation and make it interesting with lights, which you prove all the time.
DH: Right, or I could wait and just be a better photojournalist, but I have the time nor the ability to do that.
DAH: That’s right, if you’re bringing your own lights you can turn anything into an interesting picture situation.
DH: Short answer is I am running around my back hand, and my back hand is a weakness in the more classic photojournalism skills.
DAH: Strobist started in what year?
DH: I started writing it in March of 2006. I wrote most of Lighting 101 with the flu, which explains a lot of the grammar and such that you see. I was on a lot of the good drugs at the time. And literally, I was writing about five or six articles a day. As soon as I started writing that module I knew pretty much everything I wanted to say. It’s like I was writing to myself as a twenty year old. That was exactly the compass point. Sort of like, man, if I could go back and grab you now and show you this, you would have a completely different career.
So I wrote maybe thirty articles over the course of March. I took the first article and backdated it to February and then waited until April to launch, so when I first started telling people about it I would at least have what looked like three months of archives. I figured looked a little better than just this asshole who put twenty articles down in a month and said “Hey, take a look at this.” So that was it. It was on.
DAH: Were you always a businessperson? I mean you’re a natural entrepreneur. You’ve got amazing positive energy. I watched you meet people. You’re enthusiastic with every person you meet. That’s obviously in your genes, but I mean energy and positivity I think are your hallmarks. Plus you know how to do something that people want to learn how to do and you’ve monetized it. That’s pretty damn good.
DH: So, I think people see the world differently. We see different systems. For example, I’ve watched you, and you really see the way that people interact with each other and the way people interact with their environment and you see that in a compositionally profound way. I suspect that you actually see those pictures in your head before they are happening and you’re just kind of waiting for them to happen.
I see ecosystems and connections, and not necessarily just with photography, but with just about anything. So for me, I can see thing A and thing B and then thing C off in the distance and my brain just starts to say “wait a minute, if this and this and this happen…” And I start to visualize the D, the E, the F and the G that don’t exist yet, and I’m looking to find those things and put them together. I compose ecosystems sort of the way that you compose dynamic moment pictures.
DAH: And you’re able to diagram them and put them down on a piece of paper and explain them to other people.
DH: Yeah, I can’t not see that. And I literally do physically write down diagrams. I am big on multiple positive feedback loops, whether it is money or whether it is creating something that does something really cool for the community, or the combination of those things. It might not be a paying job for me, but I know that this will create the energy that will make something else happen and a better paying job will come than I would have gotten if I just didn’t do anything and waited for a job that might have been to shoot Bobby’s Bar Mitzvah or something.
I’m not interested in just sitting around and waiting for whatever job may come in. I think in the same way that you don’t just sit around aimlessly and wait for something to happen. You see things converging and then you try to get to be in a position where you can take advantage of all those things while they converge. That is exactly what I am doing but more from an ecosystem kind of way.
DAH: So yeah, the elements are all there and you just put it together.
DH: It’s the same skill.
DAH: You compose the ecosystem and make it digestible for people.
DH: So, I’m composing ecosystems in the way dynamic photographers compose pictures. I’ve never had that analogy before in my head, but I think that’s exactly it.
DAH: I think that’s it, too. It’s amazing. I always knew that lighting was a struggle for most photographers, and now even more than ever, but I never thought of lighting as a base for another whole thing, and you saw that.
DH: Well no, I didn’t see it as a base for any kind of a business. When I started Strobist it was purely altruistic, just get all this stuff out, and I’m going to help people the same way that guys helped me when I was a young photographer. Guys like John Ashley in particular, at the first paper I worked at. And all of that co-photographic help that happened at Patuxent and then later at the Baltimore Sun.
I think the secret was I didn’t start it trying to be a business. I started it with a really true compass point and that made it grow so ridiculously quickly because of the combination of the compass point and the need that was out there. And then once it grew into what would be bigger than any photo magazine in the world if it were a print magazine… and it has no major expenses associated with it really, because it is all built on Google. You’d be pretty much an idiot not to make that into a business.
DAH: And you did that and now you have another business that tells other people how to do your business. So you created a business out of this need, seeing these different ecosystems, and now you’ve turned that even into another business, right?
DH: Well, I’ve taught a blogging and social media class for three years here at Gulf Photo Plus. I don’t think of that as being a business, I really only came over to teach lighting for Mohamed Somji, and he’s like “well what else are you interested in doing?” I thought that there was a need for people, especially for photographers in a time of digital. You know you can be that one-person vertical, you can have the whole shooting and curation and publication kind of thing. So as photographers we can kind of own the entire operation if you think about it that way. So the operation should be able to actually produce income for you and allow you to be sustainable.
So I’ve done a blogging and social media class. Then last year I did a digital business models class, which for me was an eye opener because I hadn’t really sat down and articulated the way that I think about things. I started drawing these flow charts and they would literally be as tight as I could make them, but the sheet of paper would be 11×14 and Im writing all these tiny letters and pointing arrows to these boxes and such. That was an eye opener for me. It kind of articulated the way that I think about it going forward
DAH: It seemed to me that you could hire yourself out, and you probably do, as a consultant to other people wanting social media to create their business. I was noticing half of your class yesterday and that’s the picture I got.
DH: Well, it’s funny. I’ve always considered myself a photographer, and I think that teaching lighting is sort of one derivative up from that. What I started to realize when Strobist was expanding was the same forces that were killing us as photographers, that everybody had a camera and everybody would be happy to take pictures to be published. That was putting real pressure on long-time people who had been doing this for a living.. Then taking a step back (which we call a derivative in math) and that is its own audience and its own market.
So, I saw that and developed that with Strobist. But with the digital business models, I think I am still trying to keep that as pure as possible. Because if you start doing that for money there gets to be a suspicion that there is an ulterior motive, like you just want to consult to make $20,000 this week. So, everything that I had done up to this point, in terms of taking ideas that will marry two different things going on and marry them in a way that is really synergistic and accretive, has been just to do it because its the right thing to do.
My reward is seeing it happen, and creating a relationship between two different parties, or a three-way, very strong relationship. I’ve been thrilled with how receptive the guys at Fuji have been to a couple of ideas I had that I know no other camera manufacturer would consider. And these guys at Fuji just stop and listen to you and they think, “wow, that could really work.” I mean, they are a company of 400 people. On the other hand, if you’re Nikon, you can’t turn the battleship.
DAH: How big is your company?
DH: My company, counting me? One.
DAH: You’re a team of one?
DH: Yeah, I am. Meetings are always really easy. We have consensus on everything. When stupid stuff happens you know exactly who to blame. You know, I’m both the pointy-haired manager and Dilbert.
DAH: That’s amazing. Well, you obviously have got many skills.
DH: You’ve got to learn them if you don’t have them. If you’re chief cook and bottle washer you’ve got to learn to wash bottles and cook and everything.
DAH: Did you ever look at having two or three people help you with this stuff? Or you just don’t need it?
DH: Yeah, my wife looks at that a lot, I think.
DAH: Well so your wife is on your team?
DH: Well, we are a team but she’s not really involved in Strobist or anything like that.
DAH: What about on the business side?
DH: No, and she’s actually offered. She would be way more organized, because my weaknesses are organizational weaknesses. Like my desk is super messy, etc.
DAH: Yeah, well you are obviously highly organized in…
DAH: Yeah, I am like that too. My office is a total mess, but I can actually go from point A to point B.
DH: Exactly. And I think if you are internally, like mentally, organized, it allows you to be physically just a total wreck and total mess. Google Calendar saved my life actually. I couldn’t go without Google Calendar.
DAH: No, in that way we are very similar. Obviously I get from point A to point B, but the people around me are saying “well how could you possibly do that because your office is such a mess”…”how do you find anything in here?”.
DH: I think once every six months or so, my wife invites a bunch of people over to the house sufficient that I feel pressured into cleaning the entire office. And I think she does that by design, which I appreciate. But, I feel that my business could be significantly bigger, but rather than do that I consistently make decisions not to make it bigger, not to have to hire a person to do that. I try to maintain an equilibrium between being happy as a photographer, having a successful business and maintaining enough of my life to have been a good dad and husband.
DAH: How many children?
DH: I’ve got a boy of twelve and a girl who is 15, and my goal is to not miss soccer games.
DAH: Do you make the soccer games? When I look at you online you seem to be everywhere all the time. How do you do that? You appear to be all over the place.
DH: I really try to maintain through the Saturdays in May and November and such when the soccer seasons are really in full force. Good luck getting me to go someplace. In fact, literally right now, my daughter is performing in a high school play for the first time (a musical). And that just killed me because the Gulf Photo Plus dates were set far enough in advance, and that was a variable that popped up, so it was tough. A lot of Skyping back and forth and making sure when the DVD comes out we get to watch it together first.
DAH: Well you are a fascinating guy. You’re certainly a teacher for me. I never did any lighting classes until I met you in Mexico and I thought “well I could try that”, and the first time I did it I filled up a room of about 100 people in New York, but I don’t know how to teach it the way you teach it.
DH: That’s funny, I was looking at some of your pictures and they were either in Mexico or Brazil and you were doing something that I don’t think I’ve seen anybody else do in a neat way. Like some of the Cuba stuff, you’re always walking down the road with an M6 and a Vivitar 2500, just to kind of kiss things. And that was cool, and I get that, but the thing that I saw which I thought was really smart was you had a speed light on automatic mode… like old school automatic. Not TTL. And you had a camera that was pretty far away from it, kind of working at a 90 degree angle. And you had an assistant who was smart enough to have that light where people could see.
DAH: Well I lit the whole hip hop story.
DH: Yeah, thats exactly what it was. Well the beauty was that the light stand was intelligent, and he or she is walking around in a way where the flash could see everything you need to see—it’s lighting from a 90-degree angle.
DAH: Yeah, she learned how I thought and moved. Every once in a while I would give her a look… you know, get a little bit over here… and she would figure out where to be.
DH: And the beauty is that you’re building an ambient exposure that is probably a stop underexposed and you’ve got the flash going off with a flash exposure at about a stop underexposed, and they are married together to make this motion and cross light, and you can see every face you want to see in the frame. At first I thought, “well that’s brilliant, he doesn’t have a wireless TTL, he doesn’t have this off camera cord, he’s not using high technology.” And if your flash is coming out a little hot you just close down your aperture a little bit and that fixes it… you open up your shutter speed and you’re back in business.
DAH: That’s right. Well, the thing is, while I was in high school I worked in a portrait studio so I learned basic lighting, and when the studio would close down at the end of the day I said “hey, can I play in here”… so I learned basic lighting really early on. It made me a better available light photographer. I think by learning what you know how to do with lighting… if you decide to go available light, you will know how to work available light a lot better.
DH: I think painters see light better than photographers do because they have to invent it whole cloth. I mean, you look at Edward Hopper, and see that that guy could light. Edward Hopper was Gregory Crewdson before Gregory Crewdson was Gregory Crewdson.
DAH: That’s right, Gregory Crewdson is totally derivative of Hopper. Exactly. He says so.
DH: And God bless him for working on the scale of a Hollywood budget, but Hopper could do that with a paint brush and his brain. And then to replicate that you have to have a hundred thousand dollar budget for a picture, which to me is fantastic.
DAH: That’s exactly right. Well listen, we both have to get moving here, but much appreciated. You are a fascinating guy, and again your energy is absolutely infectious. That’s your greatest asset besides being able to put all these ecosystems together.