David Hobby

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.

DH: Right.

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.

DAH: Really?

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…

DH: Internally!

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.


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76 thoughts on “David Hobby – Conversation”

  1. I’m glad to see I chose the right book with Living Proof way back on RoadTrips as my class book on lighting. Oh and the Magnum video about Living Proof where there’s a sequence David is somewhere in Africa holding in one hand the camera and the other is pointing a flash at an angle. That certainly was important point in learning just how to slightly lighten up a face and keep everything else just that little darker. Francisco Goya lighting…

  2. Imants…

    Yeah exactly like David’s Velvia work. No details in the shadows, sudden very controlled very specific warm highlights and extremely monochromatic even though it’s theoretically shot with a colour film…

  3. DH, thanks. I’ve learned so much from your site. Hadn’t been there for awhile and for that I blame both my bad brain and your SEO. Your SEO because I’ve done many google searches for “x100s review” and Strobist never came up. My bad brain for not thinking to try “x100s strobist.” Anyway, I finally got there this morning after reading this interview and I can see it will be very helpful for me figuring out the best lighting setup for that camera.

    As a related sidebar, I noticed this interesting line from your review: “David Alan Harvey spent several decades toting around just an M6 and a 35 Summicron. I am enjoying watching him get to know the Fuji X100s.” Watching DAH handle a camera is interesting (I attended that first lighting workshop in NYC and progressed light years, so to speak), but I bet he was trying to sell you on the GX-1 the whole time he fiddled with the Fuji.

  4. Imants…
    You’ll agree that when comparing different visual arts it’s probably all approximately and never exactly 100%. Another thing which reminds me of Goya’s work is the soul, spirit and gut passion they both manage to capture. The power of Goya’s work has nothing to do with virtuoso drawing technique, just passion…
    Here’s one of my favourite images by DAH which I think is highly underrated and reminds me so much of the Goya light. I hope I’m not infringing any copyright law by posting this on Instagram. My apologies if this wrong and I will be deleting the image tomorrow…

  5. flash is a mystery to me. I just put the camera in P mode and let it make the decisions. I’m paying extra for all the bells and whistles on the camera so they had damn well better bell and whistle when I need them.

  6. Nice surprise!
    Have been reading strobist for sometime but never really tried the “exercises”….yes, pretty weird….but it’s always a fascinating read! learning how to light is on my to do list…have been for a long time. Maybe that’s why I read strobist so often :-))))

    THanks David and Burn for this conversation!

  7. I was out today with a big soft box, manual flash and a X100s. I might have got there on my own but I doubt it. Strobist is a great resource.

  8. MW

    i do not “sell” any camera…i do talk about what i use and why, but i am not sponsored by anyone….different companies do give me stuff, but with no obligations of any kind….a free camera or a test camera really really does not make me feel obligated….i will use whatever seems to work best for me because i only care about pictures….so a gift camera that does not work for me , i sure as hell am not gonna use if i am missing pictures, my only stock in trade….by the way, Panasonic never gave me anything , ha ha…i bought my little GF1 and the Gx1 that i liked so well..hard to beat the files on the Fuji s100X..the only thing the Gx1 does better is autofocus in the dark…i have not seen any of the smaller cameras that can beat the little Panasonics in this regard…

  9. by the way, this fast in the lobby of our hotel shot of David Hobby was available light with my iPhone….yet as i said in the chat, learning basic studio lighting totally 100% helps the WAY one looks at available light….

  10. Another excellent interview. Thank you, David and David.

    I’m a big fan of flash photography and love anything from the kiss of the fill all the way to the extreme of the stun-gun. Natural light purists I don’t think are lazy, as much as they foolishly elevate the use of natural light to some sort of religious faith. Or fervour? The interview demystifies artificial light, and helps makes the photographic process agnostic and democratic. Let’s have more flash, and less high-ISO, ok?

    Paul, Imants:

    Cool discussion re: Goya. The interview brings up Hopper light and its impact on Crewdson, a new insight for me. I’ll have to check out what Hopper light is asap, but associating a photographer’s work with a painter makes me recall David’s love of Caravaggio. Is it for C’s lighting, colour, composition, or all? Caravaggio light I always thought was intense and tiny sourced, from on high; there’s a limit what a portable flash photographer can do.

    Goya, or Caravaggio, I don’t know…

  11. David, to be fair, I was careful to say you probably tried to sell him on the GX1, not actually try to sell him one. I admire the extent to which you go to remain sponsor free. ANd I, too, was very impressed with it’s focusing speed and the file quality is top notch as well. There’s always a trade-off or two.

    Jeff, regarding flash and high iso, look a little deeper and you’ll find that both Davids have excellent success combining the two.

  12. painters give themselves a lot more time to explore and the stuff can weave its way around the grey matter. What intrigues me is what light cannot do

  13. Michael, I was referring to the natural light purists who think higher ISO camera systems are the way to shoot in low, artificial light situations. The two David’s are about as far removed from that group as I can think. :) The interview touches on the way bringing your own light to a situation reduces the possibility of failure; having a flash at the ready can (usually)give a photographer something to take home. Ever increasing ISO quality, or faster and faster lenses, aren’t the solutions the purists think they are.

    I’m thinking about this primarily in a street situation, at night, where if the purist is lucky, the only way to make a good image is to pray there is interesting light at hand.

    Thanks, Imants. I’m sure to get a good headache today on that concept!

  14. I agree with Jeff. I’m personally not interested in high iso quality and I was surprised and let down when I saw the lowest iso setting on my GX1 was 160. Give me 50 iso and 400 and that’s all all I need…

  15. “painters give themselves a lot more time to explore and the stuff can weave its way around the grey matter. What intrigues me is what light cannot do”


    ME TOO!!!!…then again, i was a painter before a photographer, which i guess explains my own belief system and how i work within (and with) dark and light…to explore what light cannot do and what shadow, lack of light can…..

    though i love what flash can do when used antithetically!….(meaning, washing over things so that, while lit/bright, it really becomes a white shadow )

  16. Well, I wouldn’t know anything about purists. It’s all about the look you’re after, or the reality, as you see it, you’re trying to capture. If high ISO works for that, fine (questionable example here). Low ISO, just as fine. Either/or and flash. Fantastic!

    For me, a lot of my enjoyment from photography derives from figuring out how to make the technology produce the image I see in my head. Mastering flash techniques opens up a lot of possibilities. And often, the answer proves to be counter-intuitive. The use of radical ISO in different lighting situations provides a few prime examples of that counter-intuitiveness.

    Those of you unfamiliar with David Hobby’s site should check it out. Read through the strobist 101 course (cough, Akaky). And even if you don’t have or want an x-100s, his review of it has some intriguing insights into counter-intuive ways to use flash.

    Not that I’ve mastered anything by a long shot. In my head, I tied flash photography to my DSLR (example here)and only used it for serious projects and assignments. I know I need to take it to the street, be like DAH with his M6 and Vivitar 2500. One more psychological hurdle to jump.

  17. Not to make this about cameras, but the x100s is the first digital camera I ever used that really felt like an M to me. Much more so than Leica’s digital offerings.

    Bigger picture is this talk is not about cameras but about adapting to your ever-changing environment and using it to help you plot your true course. I have nothing but total respect for what Dave has done through his career. That he has ported it to the web and in the process helped to transition pure documentary photography to the web is just icing on the cake for me.

  18. I am pretty certain that of all the photographers who regularly visit this site, I am the one who shoots the most in low light, given that the sun leaves my regular beat altogether for a significant amount of time each year. Yet, I almost never use artificial light. It is not a religious thing, I just want to capture the world as it appears before me. When I do have to use strobe, I do all I can to make it look as the light looks. I fire it into lamp shades, bounce it off chandeliers and I have even discovered I can point a flash right at a window and it will bounce enough light back to expose a picture.

    But maybe it is time for me to rethink this. In fact, David has already got me rethinking it. Now, I have bookmarked Strobitz and plan to give it some serious thought. I thank you both for making me think.

    As I read this conversation, I had an almost mystical experience, thanks to my cat Jim. I just recorded it on my blog, via Instagram. It reads slightly smoother on the blog than on Instagram and the picture is bigger:



    you had some really nice photographs in the last week which i saw on Instagram…all of it available light (i think)….some very very nice moments captured…and totally reflective of Bill Hess the man….you integrated, got in close, had obviously the respect of your subjects…..nice work Bill…

    cheers, david

  20. It would be nice I think if Fuji made a full frame X100 or whatever they want to name it camera with a fixed lens… All these smaller formats just don’t have the same out of focus blur F4 or F5,6 gives you with full frame…

  21. Regarding lighting, and the fact that I’m currently agonizing over which flash to buy, I have a question for both Davids, but especially Hobby. Although for me it’s about a specific camera, I think the issues it raises are more general and thus of possible interest to a lot of burn readers.

    There are two strobes I’m considering. Both are small, both function as slaves, one is 4 times the cost of the other. The expensive one is built specifically to work with my camera (Fuji ef-x20, x100s) has TTL when on camera or tethered to the hot shoe with a cord, and has many increments of manual power settings. The less expensive one (sunpak pf20xd) has a few manual power settings and — I’m not sure what you call it –the set up where it tells you what aperture to set at what ISO, like F11 at 400, like DAH’s Vivitar 2500 of yore.

    Any thoughts on the pros/cons of TTL vs. the old fashioned way? Does the flash and the camera being from the same manufacturer matter? Any different recommendations?

  22. MW,

    I’m on the same boat….have been doing some research and came across this:


    I’ll be honest…I don’t know about all the specifics nor the basics of flash….all I want is something I can carry on my hand ala Bruce Gilden….know what I mean? a flash of camera…thats all. Not even wireless….I don’t mind a sync cord.

    The one above is pretty cheap and seems to do everything the more costly ones do…or so the reviews say….

  23. Paul,

    The Gregory Crewdson movie is great. A bit slow…I mean that in a good way.
    Worth watching.
    It’s on Netflix here in the US…..for those of you here in the USA ;-)
    I don’t know how you will get in Europa…

  24. MW and Carlo…

    Have you looked at Metz flashes? I’ve got two Canon 550 I use in manual and a marvelous 14 year old little Metz flash I use in automatic like DAH and the Vivitar. By far my favourite is the Metz.

  25. I think I’ve told this story on burn before, but, years ago I was at a seminar with the late lighting guru Dean Collins. Talking about using natural light as opposed to creating the lighting you need, he said something to the effect “Yah, I tell all my friends who use only available light that they are like vultures, who have to wait for something to die to eat. Me, I’m an eagle, I just go out and kill something.”

  26. Hey Carlo, I’ve noticed some positive chatter about the Yongnuo’s. Of course they are Chinese, which is why they are cheap, probably made by prison labor with mercury emitting lead paint or something like that. Of course those possibilities exist with any of them. The world is flat. And increasingly toxic.

    Of course I bitch about Walmart but shop there whenever I get the chance and can pick up regular items cheap. The Yongnuo was quite a bit bigger than I wanted. I ended up buying both the expensive fuji ef x20 and the inexpensive Sunpak PF20XD. I’m not going to be doing any large group shots, mostly just lighting subjects very close to me, so I very much like the small size and don’t mind the low guide numbers. I figured I’d take good care of the packaging and return one, the other, or both if they don’t work for me, especially considering the possibility of using two $50 strobes instead of on $200 and one $50. We’ll see. I’ve been too busy to do much so far, but I played with it enough to make sure it works and I’m thinking I’ll probably keep the Fuji and use the Sunpak as a second unit. On camera, the Fuji has so far nailed it and the Sunpak required quite a bit of fiddling. So I figure mostly I’ll use the Fuji off camera and trigger it with the built in flash. Then, if I want a second off camera light, I’ll use the Sunpak. That’s pretty much what I was doing with my Canon 580 and 430 ex’s, but they are humongous.

    Trying to keep this about the the two Davids, I’ll note that both are strong advocates of slave flashes. I recall being surprised when DAH said he wouldn’t buy a camera that didn’t have a pop up flash. The reasoning being that it can be used to trigger off camera strobes. And at the Strobist site, David Hobby recommends never purchasing a strobe without wireless slave capabilities. Maybe one or both will want to speak to that?

  27. I don’t think Mr. Strobist knows about those little flashes (though far be it from me to speak for him,) however he is big big BIG on this $200 item: http://strobist.blogspot.com/2013/07/lumopro-lp180-speedlight-full-walk-thru.html

    nothing automatic about it, but it’s a solid, fully adjustable manual flash. no ttl, no ettl, no “old fashioned” vivitar-type feedback.


    of course, if it’s mounted on a x100s you’re going to be very top heavy.

    the yungnuo’s price is right. for “i have to rely on it” assignment use, however, they’ve been known to fail.

  28. “And at the Strobist site, David Hobby recommends never purchasing a strobe without wireless slave capabilities. Maybe one or both will want to speak to that?”

    NERD ALERT — what you can do with a built in flash:

  29. MW,

    Don’t shoot the messenger….just sharing info, no more no less.
    We all try to be good guys no? but let’s not be so judgemetal….instead let’s try and be more pragmatic.
    Toxicity….that’s a whole ‘notter discussion as is the “CHINA” topic.


    David Hobby did do a review of one of the older models BTW….

  30. Oh hi, Carlo. I meant no offense and it never occurred to me you were any kind of messenger I might want to shoot. Was basically just babbling, providing something of a writerly introduction to my tech talk, and more or less half joking as usual. And I thought it was clear that as an occasional Walmart shopper and regular buyer of Asian electronics without doing any kind of due diligence on factory conditions, that I am in no more position to be judge than most people.

    Though since you bring it up, I think I actually should be less pragmatic and more judgmental in these matters. Horrible wrongs are being done to both humans and the environment by all the cheap crap produced at sub-living wages by virtual slaves. If a photojournalist does a story on low wage workers in China, would any of us get upset about him or her being judgmental? Or would we just marvel at the tonal quality and skillful use of flash without considering the actual story?

    Anyway, I hadn’t thought about the Yongnuo in that light before I started riffing on it, but it is rather amazing that they produce working knock-offs of cameras that cost 8 or ten times their price. Don’t know if what, maybe Canon treats their workers the same and just has an 80 percent profit margin, or Yongnuo is selling at a big loss to gain market share, but it sure seems something ain’t right.

    dq, I do almost all my flash work in manual mode, but it’s nice to be able to be able to pop on the flash and just point and shoot if the need arises. That never really worked for me with the dslr, but the x100s is looking really promising so far.

  31. Mr Webster,

    Oki doki… No offence taken ;-)
    Sean Gallagher is doing something of the sort to bring awareness…

    To stay on topic maybe Mr Hobby can share his thoughts on the yongnuo?

  32. eduardo sepulveda

    DH DAH

    Simply great. THANKS!


    Bill, you have one of the coolest strobes of the planet – as the earth was a ball in a studio, it has the coolest position and light direction there. I can figure what you say. I used to live at similar latitude but south hemisphere as a kid, if you don´t want to use the word ‘magic’ i’d say something just happen to your brain that gives you a very recognizable and special perception of things in terms of light and space, and perhaps intensity/subtlety of ambient and mood too. I’m curious how you go with others lights.

  33. Part of me’s thinking that if a guest like David Hobby can’t inspire interesting questions and comments, then the comment section on burn is truly on its last gasps. The more optimistic part of me thinks maybe it’s august and everyone is on vacation.

    It’s just that for me, this interview has happened at an interesting time. The two Davids are my biggest influences for strobe photography and I am at this moment transitioning to an entirely new strobe kit. Putting it together, I think of what I’ve learned from both. From that perspective, I don’t personally think I need any feedback, and I ultimately make my own decisions anyhow, but I think answers to my questions would be interesting for many readers.

    Regarding the Fuji ef-x20 flash, for example. It strikes me as DAH’s dream strobe. It’s the smallest I’ve seen by half, it has the widest incremental power range I’ve seen, and it can be triggered off-camera by another flash. On strobist and related sites, several people have asked David Hobby what he thinks of this flash. If he’s answered, I haven’t been able to find it. From what I know of him, I’d think he’d like it for build quality, manual options, and size, but dislike it for its hefty price. Of course, for purposes of having an interesting conversation on the subject, it’s not necessary to talk about a specific item, but it would be interesting to read the experts’ generally think about small flashes and their possibilities.

    Anyway, I’ve been very busy and have only been able to do a few experiments when I just can’t take it any longer. I find this pic somewhat fascinating: Off camera, F8 @ 125. Tweaked.

  34. MW. maybe its because people have better things to do than gear fondling. A particular flash will not make you a better photographer just as not having a particular flash(or any flash at all) will not handicap you if you are.

  35. learn the craft of lighting as best you possibly can, but never be a slave to tools. And all these things are just that;tools. to be used as creatively as we can. Once again it bears repeating; A perfectly exposed picture of nothing is still just a picture of nothing.

  36. A perfectly exposed picture of nothing is still just a picture of nothing.

    Yea, but if you can’t get a perfectly exposed picture of nothing quickly, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to get a perfectly exposed picture of something on demand.

    I agree about the gear and slave to tools, which is why I’ve tried to take the questions outside those narrow limits. A particular flash might well make you a better photographer if it allows you to get the pic you envision where a different won’t. We have one of the foremost experts on the subject in house. What’s wrong with asking him to expound on these questions? John Gladdy has valid and interesting insights on the subject, but we already know what he thinks. Why not hear what the guest expert has to say?

  37. MW

    I’ve seen the Yongnuo 560 flash mentioned on both Strobist and also Zach Arias’ blog frequently – both seem to use it,

    it’s part of Zach Arias’s “desert island” kit, along with the X100S and X-Pro1:


    I’d say go with the more powerful, cheaper model as long as it has decent build, ability to manually control, and remote firing capabilities….


  38. Actually, I don’t think there’s any good way to avoid being a slave to tools. You are definitely limited by their limitations. A hammer, for example, isn’t that great when what you really need is a screwdriver. Same with cameras and flashes and accessories. In that light, one can posit that one of the things that separates the better photographers from the lesser is the degree to which they manage to be the best possible slaves to their tools. Attempting to do something that just won’t work can be problematic. Fine for learning experiences with pictures of nothing, but a serious waste of time on a professional shoot.

  39. You dont get it do you?
    Seeing as how you like DAH’s work so much lets use that as an example. Now David sure knows light, and he knows how to see light(and he sure as shit knows how the craft of lighting backwards) ….but..many of his great pictures are NOT exposed perfectly. They are exposed CREATIVELY…they have some magic that comes from seeing and utilising craft and artistic flair to pull of the magic trick of an image. I look at the work of the other david (our foremost expert) and I do not see any magic. great images for what they are, and lit so very well…but I dont see magic. I dont see any soul. And maybe in the world of corporate portraits and sports illustrated thats not the gig.
    Question.How do you measure success in the visual arts?

  40. No, John, I get what you are saying, but let’s see if I can communicate it. The first level of separation is that one needs to be able to light a scene as envisioned. The second level of separation is to be able to envision something enlightening.

    DAH only excels at the second level because he’s mastered the first. DH is a master at teaching how to master the first.

  41. MW

    If you have a Fuji Camera and enough money get the Fuji flash, sometimes it’s nice not to think about what you are doing and just take pictures. I use a Lumopro LP160 with my my Fuji and it works fine but it’s all manual on the odd occasion I’ve missed a picture pressing buttons.


    If my wife looks over my shoulder and says “oh that’s nice” it’s a success ( happens about once a year) More generally good pictures have nothing to do with focus or exposure or anything really (certainly not which flash you use) It’s something unknowable that should remain so. Saying that I’ve not met a photographer that is not a total gear nerd, I know I am.

  42. Sheesh, John, so combative! Why?

    Having the right tools on a professional shoot makes one’s life much easier. It doesnt of course make the pictures any better without adding skill and imagination and a dollop of magic… but some shoots don’t have room for magic, that’s not part of the brief. That’s why people shoot for themselves when the can.

    I agree that DH’s photos lack soul. Yes, well lit, or better, competently lit, but they just lie there. That doesn’t negate his teaching talent, and his skill in creating a way to live off the tether of a fulltime newspaper job. Kudos to him.

  43. hey ellie. absolutely. No doubt the guy knows his shit,and has many fondlers at the temple gates.
    But People claim Guru all the time(especially online). I say Cool! show me the money. 99% of the time it goes quiet for a while.

    Combative? yeah I guess. But im a pussycat in real life. honest. just ask Thomas B…although to be fair I cant remember much of the night I met him, so maybe not such a good example. I do remember a Donor kebab though, and thats Always a bad sign :)

  44. i think homo sapiens have evolved at an amazingly rapid pace simply for one reason…sharing information….one caveman knows how to hunt, the other knows how to cook and another knows how to build a fire…

    there are some people on the planet i assume who know how to do everything…have it going in every direction…i am 69 years old dammit, have been around the block a few times, and i just have not had the pleasure so far of meeting such a person….

    when i met David Hobby four or five years ago in Mexico, he had been doing Strobist for a couple of years i think and was pulling down 50k per month in ad revenue off of his website…all by himself from his desktop on his messy desk in the basement in between his kid’s soccer games….dah loses 5 bucks a minute, missed a few soccer games, so you sure as hell won’t learn THAT from me!!

    the boy has mastered social media and entrepreneurship at a time when many of his ilk are flat out without work…so, he has survived nicely i would say and at the same time given others a basic piece of knowledge that few photographers possess…i will not name names (tempted tho) but some of the super stars at NatGeo and Magnum also find strobe lighting a total mystery…so the hunger for knowing how to do this has made Hobby a wealthy man….even at a time when “anyone” can take a “good picture” with their phone camera, using strobe lights remains a mystery for 99% of the amateurs out there and 85% of the professionals….

    after meeting Hobby in Mexico, and seeing with my own eyes the HUNGER from photographers to learn strobe lighting , i thought to myself “well yea i know that and doesn’t everybody?”….well the answer is a big fat no….i decided to see if i could teach lighting…so i announced a lighting class which filled up in 5 minutes….faced with a roomful of about 100 students i suddenly realized i knew how to do it, but i did not necessarily know how to teach it….two totally different skills….i have had to learn how to teach what i know so well..

    from the chat with David Hobby he says right here that he had to make up for some skills as a natural shooter by mastering lighting…why? he needed a job that’s why….most people need a job….and the skills David teaches may be used by his students any way they want…the tools he gives allows one to be as creative as they want after learning basic technique….some may use these skills to keep a job, pay the rent, fix the leak in the roof, and others may have their work in art books at the Tate Modern…

    either way i think David helps people..always a good sign…and if he got rich doing it, well that is the capitalist system and a mastery of the social media which almost all of us use one way or another….

    my philosophy is to learn one thing from one person and something else from another person, throw in my own instincts and then give all of that away to another person….and that other person well you know…and so it goes and so it goes….

    cheers david

  45. eduardo, indeed, the light here can often be magical. It can also be almost non-existent. I just checked the latitude of Cape Horn and found it is just under 56 degrees, south. Here where my house is in Wasilla, we are 62 degrees north and Barrow, where I just came home from and which is the base for a great deal of what I do, is almost 72 degrees north. The sun leaves entirely for over two months in winter but does not set for almost three in summer. Anyway, its a great place. A tough place – one that can wear you down in a hurry physically, but a great place. I haven’t been there, but I know South America is too. I have seen pictures of mountains and glaciers that look like they could have been taken in Alaska. I hope to go there someday.

    I am not quite sure what you mean by how I go with other people’s lights?

  46. Well put, DAH. you shoot AND you write, as does David Hobby. Didn’t know he was pulling down THAT kind of dough, but whatever — whether or not be is a nat geo shooter he’s a good teacher with a gift and relentless drive. I know a lot about lighting, but learned a bunch for him as I grew tired of dragging studio strobes on location and transitioned to the Strobist model. He even coined a word, now that’s cool

    All power to him, I say. And he is a solid photographer…

    Thanks for bringing him onto Burn.

    Looking forward to your piece about JR. When? “Soonest?”


  47. Although I was at that first lighting class, the great majority of what I’ve learned from DAH about lighting is from looking at his published work and trying to figure out how he did it. From the class and personal interaction I’ve gotten a lot more about attitude than how-to use the equipment. The how-to can mostly be communicated in one sentence. Set the aperture for the subject, the shutter speed for the background. The big thing I got from the strobist was more about attitude as well. That, and an actual versatile and very lightweight lighting kit. Common to both their attitudes, is the preference for going small and light. That’s why I’m so excited about the new Fuji stuff. I went from two honkin Canon speedlights to two small flashes that put together aren’t much bigger than a pack of cigarettes.

    And since John asked, here’s the link again to the first project in which I put together everything I learned from both Davids about strobe lighting. It’s not copying any of their techniques but using the basics to do my own thing. I’m a bit better at it now, or I was anyway until I just switched all my gear. Still, there’s always a lot further one can go.

  48. David, you are right about many working photographers not knowing much about lighting with strobes, actually not knowing about a whole lot of tech stuff.

    I learned to do multiple flash lighting with Graflex flash guns wired together and #25 flashbulbs, shooting with a 4×5. No flash meter, just guide numbers and a tape measure.

    I can still set up a shot with 3 or 4 lights, (I use a flashmeter now) and tell you what the photo’s going to look like before I trip the shutter. Hell, isn’t that what we HAD to do before digital? A flash-meter is still more accurate than ttl.

    Few photographers today could even tell you what a guide number is, let alone how to use it.

    Having said all that, I seldom use flash for personal work.

    sorry for getting all tech-like

  49. Carlo and MW…

    My trusty 13 or 14 year old 28 guide number Metz flash died a horrible death yesterday afternoon as it fell from my first floor flat. So I went out last night with one of my Canon 550s, usual band aid and sync chord with my Panasonic GX1. Shot all night on manual, dancing at a fiesta, aiming flash sometimes through beer bottles when necessary and shooting and on camera flash when beer bottle was half full.
    Yes the Canon flash is big in fact larger than the Gx1 but I had no choice. Don’t get intimated by manual flash it ain’t that tough. So don’t worry too much about gear just get out with whatever you’ve got and get the damn image.

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  53. I’m still really bummed this thread never went anywhere. Still, it meant a lot to me. If you click the Brooklyn Carvinal Children’s Day Parade link here you can see some walking around photos I took today that owe a lot to the Strobist. I would have eventually come around to the strategy by myself, but thanks to Hobby I got there a lot faster. And man, if you want to get technical and consider how things have changed: a lot of those pics were taken at 1/2000, F2.8, ISO 200, with strobe set to 1/64 power in bright daylight. You couldn’t have done that even a few years ago.

    Regarding other threads, it’s not only iconic photographers or artists whose authorship is easily recognizable. One can be spectacularly bad as well. Witness Ed Wood as probably the most well-known example.

  54. Paul,

    I bought the yungnou online from amazon…the price is right and does the trick just like the others.
    Made my decision after checking out the canon ones at the local photog shop.
    Didn’t walk out with a flash….just a monopod since I also like to shoot video :)


    Saw the ones you posted in Instagram. I like them.
    Can’t see the link right now…will do so another time.

  55. MW…

    Very nice images and that Fuji has absolutely outstanding colors! Once again great stuff.
    BTW I’ve got a niece who’s just turned 13 last week and I’ve got some BW images I shot on her first birthday with my Canon 1VS and 550 flash at high speed sync with broad daylight. So it’s been round for awhile.

  56. a civilian-mass audience

    Welcome home DAVID H.

    “For light I go directly to the Source of light, not to any of the reflections.”

    MR.HARVEY thank you for bringing “light” in our BURNing home !!!

  57. Paul, to get high speed sync to work with the DSLR’s focal plane shutter requires something of a kludge. The leaf shutter is a wonderful thing. What impressed me most though about the new set up was the ease-of-use compared to the Canon system. I’m really in love with the little fuji ef x20 flash. It easily fits in a shirt pocket and is tripped by the on camera flash, making it incredibly easy to do off camera work. Doesn’t seem to bother the subjects near as much as the bigger flashes either. The color has more to do with my development strategy than any difference between Canon and Fuji. I can achieve about the same color quality with either. But again, the Fuji flash system is so much easier. The biggest difference, quality-wise, that I can see is sharpness. Apparently the lack of an anti-alias filter is important. And man does size matter. Going from Canon as primary and Fuji as backup to Fuji as primary and IPhone as backup is the inverse of huge. All weekend I carried two cameras, two strobes, and four batteries in a small messenger bag with room to spare and nary a backache.

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