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Holy Sand Dune!

May 27

In Lighting, Travels at 9:09pm

Been reading Strobist, which I do on a regular basis, and it seems like David and I stirred up a mild sand storm with our lighting efforts out there in the vast beyond. Some folks have weighed in on the potential excess of multiple multiple SB 800 units on location. I did myself actually. In my blog, I wrote “……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…”

I also owned up to my tendency to overdo things. I think it must be a bit about being raised Irish Catholic. I go out there anticipating disaster. I look for the simple, fatal flaw that will dash my hopes, crush my spirit, befuddle my brain, corrupt my flash cards, estrange a client, and generally doom me to a ruinous fate. This flaw, mistake, gaf, miscue, misdeed, or error is usually self inflicted.

So, I bring more stuff than I need. Mostly for backup. Sometimes I even use it. At LIFE, Eisie always used to say, bring it, even if you don’t use it. It does you no good back at the studio.

Nowadays, of course, one needs to be more sparing in what one brings in the field, cause it just costs so damn much to bring just about anything. But I did go to Dubai with multiple SB 800 units, which I often bring along when I teach.

So I needn’t go over the reasons I popped 7 SB flashes on a stick in the desert. David spoke of the technical reasons for the number far more eloquently than I can, and with more solid reasoning and backup than I can muster on any given day. When David does his book of strobe, it will go on the shelf right next to the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. We’re talking stone tablet truisms here. I do things by the seat of my pants, based not so much on the absolute certainty of knowing the deal before I get there, but by the feel of things at any given moment. Needless to say, after operating like this for some 30 years, the seat of my pants is wearing pretty thin.

But there is a bit of history that pointed me towards the big flash tree. The day before the shoot, I went into the near desert, just outside Dubai, with a wonderful dancer who had worked really well in one of my classes, and is just a terrific, easy person to shoot with. This is just off the highway. No need for land rovers or camels. I shot a few things, experimenting, as I tend to do.

I used 3 SB units on these pix, and here’s what I found. They weren’t enough. Again, I was using FP hi-speed sync, pretty much a given in this sun blasted land, and I was pretty skinny on power. The specs on the above were running at 1/600th @ 5.6. As you can see, it’s pretty dead. Looks like a fairly blah available light rendition. Certainly nothing like I had set up in my class on the beach in Dubai, with one of our gymnastic stars, Salim.

With the above pic I used 6 SB units, just out the frame, without the dome diffusers, and zooming them to 105. The light stands are three quarter back of my subject, and it gives me almost an angle of incidence/angle of reflection efficiency for the light. (He was also oiled up, which some of the women in the class were happy to help him out with:-)

Back to Alessia. Moved her much closer to the lights and racked the camera out to 1/8000 @ 2.8. She continues to move in eloquent fashion, and now, because of her closeness to the light, and the wide open f-stop, I can see strobe punch, and exert a little control over the landscape. But here’s the giveback. (Always!)

She is working so close to camera (D3, 14-24mm lens) that some of her begins to get the edge of distortion. Just a touch here, but I am, in this iteration, compositionally constrained to a degree. Also, light on power, I am working with the sun here, not against it. Danger there is the shadow of your own gear on the desert floor, as you can see in the background. Doesn’t trouble me overmuch here, but it is something to be aware of.

Okay, I used 3, and that wasn’t enough. Figured for the deep desert and wider views (meaning strobes further away from subject) I gotta have at least one more f-stop. One more f-stop means twice the light, so 3 units becomes 6 units, nutty as that may be. That formed the basis for putting up that gaggle on the shoot with David.

It’s not that unusual for me to do this. I use multiple SB’s on lots of occasions.

There’s 8 SB-80 units under this experimental aircraft. Individual splashes of light. They are triggered by two larger strobes, camera left and right, running through strip lights, which are long, skinny softboxes. Used those cause the wings are long and skinny, and wanted the light to travel with the shape of the plane as best I could. The small units make great kickers in a scenario when you are using larger strobes.

Above, shooting Mr. Olympia Ronnie Coleman’s hands, the principal setup is a pair of Elinchrom Rangers. But the photo lives because of those little sidelights off his body behind his hands. That light is coming from 4 SB units, running on SU-4 mode, 2 on either side of him. Why four? Two (one per side) would be plenty for this view. But I knew I was going here.

I thought I might need good pop and some spread on the sidelights, so I put up two per side, which I knew (or felt I knew) would give me good coverage through a range of his moves. Last thing I want to do is interrupt the flow of the shoot by stopping for not enough light. Rather have too much already up, and then just turn ’em off. Also, redundancy in this mode, SU-4, means the lights work less hard, and I have faster recycle time, while he’s got the weight up. Even Ronnie Coleman gets tired.

Out in the desert, there’s another important reason I didn’t use a bigger strobe with a single pop. I didn’t have one. I can’t speak to Alien Bees, cause I’ve never used one, but I can pretty much guarantee the Elinchrom Ranger units (1100 ws) I use could have done the job. I use them religiously, and especially when you put them through a long throw reflector, they give a pretty good wallop of light. A long throw reflector is a deep dish, polished reflector pan that gathers the light and throws it a good distance with less dispersion than the basic standard issue pan that comes with the head.

So in the time honored tradition of shooters everywhere, I went with what I had. How I got into the desert with that particular gear set is a mildly interesting parable of the modern photog interfacing with the wondrous miracle of flight. Ahh, flight! Remember Spencer Tracy magnificently lecturing the stacked jury in Inherit the Wind? He’s talking about the price of progress, and he uses air travel to make a point. “Mister, you may conquer the air but the birds will lose their wonder and the clouds will smell of gasoline.”

Flight has distinctly lost its wonder, especially if you are a bedraggled photog on a budget and gotta get yourself and a bunch of gear from here to there. I am exhibit A in this regard

This trip—flew to Venice with a little bit of grip and a bunch of SB units to teach small flash at VSP. Flew Delta. Checked 4 pieces. Cost me $150 in overweight.

Okay, didn’t break the bank on that one. Finished Venice. Loaded the exact same gear onto Iberia for a hop to Spain. Cost me almost two grand! Thankfully for the that leg, I was Spain bound on assignment. (Iberia was one of the worst experiences ever in 30 years of flying claptrap, bucket-of-bolts airplanes all over the world. The plane to Spain charged me the dough, then tried to pry my camera bag from me and check it—unsuccessfully. Their personnel opened the counters in Venice late, with no stanchions to establish lines. Pushing and shoving occurred, so intensely the police were called. Lots of harsh language. I don’t speak Italian, but “Push me again with your suitcase and I’ll punch your lights out ya scrawny ass sumbitch” sounds pretty much the same in any language. Completely, totally, Iberia’s fault.)

Meanwhile, the intrepid Mr. Moore was loading 8 pieces aboard Delta in NY, and heading for Spain. Those bags cost about a grand. We met in Madrid and headed north. Was planning on flying Iberia back to Madrid, but I was terrified of the potential bank breaking luggage deal with them, so we got a van, loaded the gear, and drove 7 hours so Brad, who was returning home, now with 10 pieces, could interface direct with Delta. That leg cost $1500 in overweight, and took years off Brad’s life as he negotiated 10 pieces on 3 luggage carts through the Madrid airport to Spanish customs, signed off a carnet, and then got it to the counter without the aid of a skycap. Wonder of wonders, it all showed up at JFK.

By then I was flying KLM (love the Dutch!) through Amsterdam to Dubai with a vastly reduced inventory of gear. Still, getting it to UAE and home again (this time on Etihad Air, a first for me) cost about $800. All this is why I only had SB units in the dunes.

It tries one’s soul, and tests one’s patience and just generally makes you feel good about yourself when your stuff costs more to ship than you, and is probably more comfortable down there in the luggage hold, where there is presumably more leg room.

John says:

on May 27, 2008 at 10:15 pm

Somehow I think you are probably one the last person who needs to be explaining himself, ….but I love it when you do! Great post, thanks!

MOAB Robbie Preston Class of o6 says:

on May 27, 2008 at 10:43 pm

Joe you just made me feel good. Jan. 07 Toronto to Miami on American airlines my tripod and two fishing poles taped to geather– No charge as Carry on Cabin Luggage. Return trip two weeks later Clasifid the stuf as dangerous weapons It cost me $ 80.00 to freight it home. Soon it will be cheaper to fly nude and by all new dudes when you get there.

Keep writing mate

Janne says:

on May 27, 2008 at 10:58 pm

What I wonder most – and it sort of got lost in the mayhem over at Strobist – is why you needed the high speed? If you would have put a 4 or 6 stop neutral-density filter on your lens to bring the shutter speed down into flash sync range and used one or two speedlights at high power instead, what would the drawbacks have been with that? A neutral-density filter is easier and lighter to bring for travel too (unless you’re filtering nuclear reactions or something).

Kem says:

on May 27, 2008 at 11:00 pm

Hello Joe,

Thanks again for a wonderful story and about the SB800.

I did my first on site portrait with 2 SB800’s and a wescott 42 in umbrella. I also use my new radio poppers and the system was simple and it worked.

And I am learning to be a improved photographer, thanks to the strobist, Kelby training and you.

Many thanks
Ken from KY

Rick says:

on May 27, 2008 at 11:01 pm

No worries mate! Love your work and the Blog. Been watching you on Kelby Training and learning tons. Thanks for all you do to help me get better at this sumbitch sport of photography.

Fantastic Post…..

AaronVan says:

on May 27, 2008 at 11:13 pm

Here here, thanks so much for taking the time to post that though, those stories are definitely a learning experience, especially for those of us who think an assignment in North Carolina is a trek from Florida. It really is a much bigger world isn’t it.

On the topic of high speed flash I was wondering if you’ve heard anything about the new Radiopoppers ( and what kind of advantages a system like that might have in a setup like your desert shoot.


Mark K_NJ says:

on May 27, 2008 at 11:35 pm

You explain…and I just don’t get. I MUST read up.

And…no where ever…EVER…has Ronnie Coleman and Spencer Tracy been mentioned in the same blog.

What’s next, Franco Columbu and Ida Lupino?

Terry F says:

on May 28, 2008 at 12:08 am

One in the eye for the critics; and one hellava instruction post for the rest of us.
Thank you!

Jack says:

on May 28, 2008 at 12:14 am

Joe there is no reason for you to explain yourself. Your photos do all that. GREAT BOOK by the way. I read it cover to cover in one sitting.

Steve says:

on May 28, 2008 at 12:55 am

Nice explanation. Thanks for the inspiration to push the envelope. There is always more than one way to solve a problem. Not only that but there is usually more than one “best” way.

Keep up the inspirational and thought provoking ideas.

Grega says:

on May 28, 2008 at 1:23 am

@Janne: Use a 6 stop ND filter and you have just killed your flash power too. 6 stops mean that your full power pop will act like a 1/64 power pop. Which means you need multiple flashes again. I know Auto FP eats some serious light too, but I don’t think it’s 6 stops.

Gary says:

on May 28, 2008 at 3:04 am

No need to explain yourself, but I did enjoy the post and the examples.

I am also curious as to what you think about the RadioPoppers.

Ken Anderson says:

on May 28, 2008 at 3:23 am

Iberia sucks. So does Ryanair, Easyjet and BA. They might as well use cattle prods and drive you through a bath of tick dip while they are at it. The “headline fair” has no relationship to the real fair paid.

As far as the criticism goes. I have seen a couple of posts by PC technobabble jockeys who write in jargon to impress other technobabblers, many of whom have never left their bedroom. Apparently it is hard to find the door when your head is so far up your own ass.

Love your work. Thanks for sharing!

Jon says:

on May 28, 2008 at 3:48 am

The FP sync is nothing new, I tried using it with the N90s and SB-26 10 years ago but found as was pointed out here that you have to be right on top of the subject for it to work with just one flash. As you also mentioned, the FP sync is not something that is widely used let alone understood. Which is why all of the fashion shooters you see getting these dramatic images in the middle of the day with strobe pretty much are shooting with studio strobes on location and cameras with leaf shutters that can sync at any speed right out of the gate. There are a lot more variables that go into the FP sync that make it tricky to use unless you have a tree of SB units available.

Tom Godart says:

on May 28, 2008 at 7:49 am

Joe, you are the last word!
Fantastic post, but then all of yours always are.
The way you explain everything makes it simple for us to understand and utilize.
All one can say is THANK YOU and please keep the tips comming

Terry Reinert says:

on May 28, 2008 at 7:58 am

Southwest tried to get me to check my camera equipment a few times on my trips from Florida to New Mexico. Wasn’t going to happen. Eventually they gave up. I didn’t care if my clothes were lost but I wasn’t about to put my camera in their hands!!

Chris says:

on May 28, 2008 at 10:33 am

That was a great story….thanks for sharing it and your thoughts on the lighting setup.

Richard Cave says:

on May 28, 2008 at 10:36 am

Hi Joe really feel for you, I flew to Chicago from the UK on a national guard plane. What they failed to tell me was that it was a cargo plane. I always pack a small sleeping bag in my hand luggage. I fell asleep and woke up at the back of the plane having rolled round the floor for two hours.

I flew to the Falklands on assignment, I was billed 1,500 quid for excess baggage. Luckily my boss payed it, only after watching me squirm for five minutes.

I had to carry my camera bag on one trip, it never goes in the hold ever and the amount of airlines that try and put it in the hold are amazing. Considering your camera kit can cost up to £40,000.

I am now collecting strobes, and yes they are better than flash units. I gave up trying to transport a bowens gemini kit across London, never again!

Cracking post as always,


Mitch says:

on May 28, 2008 at 11:26 am

FP question. I was under the impression that the FP mode only works if you have the flash connected directly to the camera. In the video it looked like you were triggering all the lights with a command device. Is it because you are using sb-800 vs. the sb-600 which is what I have?


Kurt Shoens says:

on May 28, 2008 at 2:59 pm

@ Mitch: fp mode works with both the Canon and Nikon systems over their IR links. I don’t think fp mode works with a 3rd party trigger like a Pocket Wizard.

I was amused at the comments about the 7 SB-800s over on Strobist. I’m surprised no one complained about shooting on location: “Wouldn’t it be cheaper to shoot in the studio with a desert background and a bunch of sand???”

I like that there are lots of ways to do things and am always thrilled to see that there’s a way to do it with Speedlights.

I saw a blog post elsewhere that claimed there is exactly one correct way to light each scene and that you just have to find it. Wouldn’t life be simple (and oh so boring) if that were true?

Doug Chinn says:

on May 28, 2008 at 3:17 pm

Hi Joe, et al, very new to your site, but already wish I’d found it a long while ago. Would have saved much head scratching! Did like your dessert shots, and REALLY liked the logic as only an Irishman could set it out. I followed all the discussion on various sites about your flash tree, but one thought did occur to me, and apparently no-one else. The original piece, as far as I’m aware showed up on STROBIST, and you copped a fair bit of stick for it. The main gist was, why the hell didn’t you just use one large studio strobe? Did everyone miss the point that STROBIST is supposed to be all about off camera STROBES not bloody great studio units. If nothing else, the cost alone of buying the studio units is somewhat prohibitive to an amateur like myself. I have, and use, three Canon speedlight, bought one new (£350), one used (£30) and one with a vintage Canon A1(£10). I got a really versatile set-up, I use optical slave cell triggers and ND filters on the older lights, for a lot less than a studio set. I couldn’t afford some of the gear the ‘Big Boys’ use, but by building up a bit at a time, one day I’ll be in a position to tackle shots like yours! Now, Please, Just send your spare, old strobes to….

Greg says:

on May 28, 2008 at 3:31 pm

What no ‘advertising’ about where to get the Elinchrom Ranger units ?

Bryan says:

on May 28, 2008 at 4:37 pm


I’m really not kidding about this: With the thousands in baggage charges, your personal flight charges, risking assault in airport lines, questionable aircraft, etc., what about using a private charter or fractional ownership aircraft? Travel when you want, no body cavity search (reminder to self: get “EXIT ONLY” tattoo) to board and no additional charges for equipment. For someone of your talent and station in life, it seems reasonable.

Trude says:

on May 28, 2008 at 5:49 pm

Uh….ditto what John (the very first comment) said. I’ve been lurking your blog for a while now, and I just had to say thanks for your awesome sense of humor and honest perspective on the industry!

And I immediately sent a link to this blog to my family members who work for Pratt & Whitney (they make airplane engines), because that is by far the coolest night shot of a plane that I’ve ever seen!

Sharan Balani says:

on May 28, 2008 at 7:43 pm

Looks like you too can have the pleasure of having an Ibera story ! (or in your case its an addition to your many adventures). It is Indeed a horrible airline, I beeing spanish myself and thus beeing forced to live here prefer flying other airlines such as spanair. However if you need to come via spain again, you might want to consider comming with British Airways through London (as long as you avoid heathrow you should be fine) i just flew back home and their quite friendly with camera gear, ive never been hassled and at most ive been congraulated on fitting as much as I do into a handcarry piece (the xray monitor guy spent 5 minutes looking at the screen only to cal his partner over to ask if that was possible) but aside from that there were no inspections and they let me go on my way. The only downside with British Airways is their lovely track record of loosing luggage, if you bother to confirm it at the gate 90% of the time it will arrive. (dont know if thats true for everyoen though but thats how it has been with me)

I hope that adventure in Spain hasnt deterred you from further visiting us mediterraneans, and it would be an honour if you ever dropped by the shores of Costa del sol :)

Sharan Balani says:

on May 28, 2008 at 7:45 pm

oh yeah, and if you do fly ba, in most cases if youre REALLY nice with the lady at the counter and you check in in the club class area they will generally let you get away with overweight/a couple of extra bags (unless the managers are around )

jason says:

on May 29, 2008 at 2:56 am

sounds like moving of gear internationally is quite truamatic, I will remember this lesson when i start moving about.

JM says:

on May 29, 2008 at 2:21 pm

I hate to say it, but I did give in and let them check my gear on a flight last year JRO->AMS->SEA. Of course the body and two lenses they broke are absolutely and totally not KLM/NW’s responsibility…. They didn’t charge me overages on that trip though.

Emile says:

on May 30, 2008 at 8:48 am

I’m a bit puzzled over the added value of the FP high sync feature. Isn’t shooting at 1/250 at f/11 a viable option to get control over the ambient (still room to close it further)? I don’t even like the limited dof at f/2.8 or f/5.6 so why would this be desirable in the first place? Perhaps the FP mode means less power loss but then i’d be curious about the difference.

Another problem is that when using poverty wizards or pocketwizards this function doesn’t even work which doesn’t seem to make this a very good technique overall ….

Woody says:

on May 30, 2008 at 3:38 pm

Joe, you’re little experiment got me thinking, which is a dangerous thing sometime about something I read on Strobist a while back. One of David’s posts was about cheating the sync speed on the Nikon D70 by using older SB units and a little tape. I took an old SB22 and taped over all the contacts on its base except the center one and then stuck it on top of my D70. I then used the D70 in manual exposure mode and in manual flash mode to set off 3 SB80DX units at 1/4000th of a second. The 3 flashes were all dialed down to at least 1/4 power or more and were still able to over power the sun at noon. Here is the link to the photo I took

According to my D70 manual I was able to sync at any shutter speed because the D70 has a mechanical/electronic shutter. What are the advantages and disadvantages of having an electronic shutter?


Craig Lee says:

on May 30, 2008 at 5:19 pm

I saw those comments over at Strobist. Can’t a couple of guys go out into the desert with a bunch of strobe and a beautiful model without somebody getting their knickers in a knot? Looked like you guys had a good time, played around and had fun. That was more important than carrying the “proper” lights half-way around the world.

Have fun. Shoot. Have more fun.
Keep shooting and posting.

Kevin G says:

on May 30, 2008 at 8:49 pm

Hey Joe, it was great meeting you at the Paier Art School talk on Thursday, wish we could’ve shared a couple of beers!! :)

Ruben Parra says:

on May 31, 2008 at 12:32 am

thanks joe !

i couldn’t agree more: Iberia sucks!

Ken Yap says:

on May 31, 2008 at 5:05 am

Hi Joe,

I think it’s great of what you did back in Dubai. The photos are great and an explanation of the gears you used for the shots are really unnecessary but nonetheless it’s fun to read about your adventures :) . I am a programmer by profession and I know that there’s always different ways of doing the same thing. Methods used could be different but the results are the same.

I just got my first DSLR the Nikon D80 about a year ago and for a guy who have never touch a DSLR before, I start to read a lot of books, mags and visited websites to learn more about photography. I just got your book last week and I learn a whole lot more after reading it. The connections with the people and the tips are great. And YES, you book inspired me to go out more to shoot photos.

Thanks Joe.

P.S.: I just watch the video about your talk in Google. I think that it’s great :)

Dave Hutchinson says:

on May 31, 2008 at 1:21 pm

Loved your story on Iberia. I have flown them to Spain twice. Agreed, they are the worse airline flying. We were flying from Costa del Sol to JFK, connecting in Madrid. We arrived on time for our connecting flight. Only problem, the connecting Iberia flight decided to leave 15 minutes early…leaving us behind! It was a major fight to get Iberia to put us up overnight in Madrid in a sleezy hotel with a black pool and a bag lunch! Love your blog! -Dave-

PShorten says:

on June 5, 2008 at 8:14 am

Brad – I had to laugh out loud when Joe describe your getting on a flight home, you deserve a reward! I just got back from China and understand long flights and too much of some elses baggage!

Rebecca Gillis says:

on June 5, 2008 at 11:35 am

Great Post… seen your video on Strobist… really enjoy your work… hopefully I’ll be able to catch a workshop in the future.

Stefan says:

on June 10, 2008 at 2:45 am


last time I looked, you needed _four_ times as many flashes to crank up one f-stop. It’s that inverse square kadoodle or whatever it’s called, which makes photographers’ lives hell 😉

Seriously: Twice as much flash gives you “only” 1.4 stop more to work with. Halving the distance between flash and subject gave you one full stop more power, from which you can easily derive the flash factor you’d have needed from the original distance, namely 2² = 4. (If you would have needed to bring the flashes in to 1/3 the original distance, you’d have needed 3³ = 9 times the flashes at original distance, which would have been… wow, 27 SB-800s. Talk about budget there…)

I’ve just got up, so if there is some serious miscalculation on my side here, please somebody correct me ;D

Mikko Reinikainen says:

on June 11, 2008 at 12:59 am

Auto-FP high-speed sync eats up more flash power than a ND filter would. That’s why a neutral density filter is a more efficient way to overpower ambient than the pulsating high-speed sync mode. This was confirmed at the flickr discussion forum:

A camera with a fast electronic shutter gives some more ambient overpowering capability.

Stefan, you are confusing distance and f-stops. Twice the distance needs two stops more light, which is four times as much light. Double the amount of flashes and you get one stop more light.

OxyElite Pro says:

on January 28, 2010 at 12:08 pm

Ha that’s cool that you got to shoot Ronnie Coleman :)

Healthstrong says:

on March 6, 2011 at 6:53 am

Quotes says:

on May 2, 2011 at 10:59 am

I am amazed to see this blog..Really cool..

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