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 tripâ€”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 itâ€”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.