On Location: Strobist – Lighting in Layers

(Welcome, Strobist readers!)

I had no idea what a Strobist was.

Can you spot the Strobist in this photo?

My earliest recollection of David Hobby is that he was the buzz cut Dad who showed up at events at our kids’ school in shorts and a sweatshirt, and when he used his DSLR he always held the flash off to the side. (“Hmmm…maybe this guy knows a thing or two about lighting…”)

Somewhere along the way he and I figured out that we share a love of geeky gadgets and subversive humor. When we’d run into each other we’d end up quizzing each other on the latest gear, me asking him about photo stuff and him asking me about video, along with the occasional intellectual sparring over the latest Macbooks or iPhones.

Last year, over lunch, David shared that he was formulating his plans for his next round of Strobist instructional DVDs, and wondered if it was a project Pixel Workshop would be interested in. I put on my best poker face and said, “Well, tell me more about the project…”, all the while thinking, “Are you frickin’ kidding me? Interested?”

Ideas flew back and forth. His previous set of DVDs had proven popular and well-received with Strobist readers, and he wanted to take this set to the next level, with more advanced lighting techniques and higher production value. We agreed on a behind-the-scenes feel, as if you were tagging along on a Strobist shoot. Nothing too polished. Mistakes teach us as much (if not more) than success. Al dente was the phrase David used.

Field Production – Shooting the Shooter

The schedule was aggressive but achievable. We had multiple locations to shoot, plus a series of studio segments with David sharing what’s he’s learned about what motivates his work, and how to make a successful business blossom from a love of photography. Multiple HD video cameras would document the action, and give us creative options in the edit suite.

Here are some highlights.

Howard County Conservancy – This was the first thing we shot. David put a call out to his readers to come out and volunteer a few hours to help gather representative beauty shots for the conservancy, a local land trust and environmental center. We both figured it would make a nice way to ease in things, and weren’t sure what, if anything we would end up using. It ended up being one of my favorite segments, stylistically different, more of a magazine-style documentary than a how-to piece.

Bees – “Turn out bees don’t work when it’s below sixty degrees,” David lamented. We were in the middle of fall, and each day the high temperature was getting lower.  So we high-tailed it out to a local beekeeper’s, before it was too late. The bees cooperated, and no one got stung. David even wore long pants. (Really. What’s the worst that could happen?)

Sticky the Frog / Blacksmith – Back to the conservancy to shoot a tree frog in a tank and a blacksmith in a black box. The frog was cooperative, and never hopped off his branch. (I guess we just got lucky.) The blacksmith segment was more challenging, shooting in a small, dark, dirty, dusty room. We were lucky to have a set of Rosco LitePads that we could clamp to the rafters to bring the levels up a bit. Not to mention +18db gain.

Dancer – Capturing a gravity-defying dancer in front of a sheet of white seamless paper. How hard could it be? This shoot was as much about establishing rapport with your subject as it was about the nuts and bolts of lighting. Freezing the shot while she’s in mid-air is one thing, but capture her beauty and emotion? That’s something else. We had three cameras on this shoot, including a handy GoPro Hero HD cam for high wide shots.

Soccer – We’d already shot with animals, so why not kids, too? (What could possibly go wrong?) It was a cold, windy day, but the boys came out in their shorts. (And by “boys” I mean “David.”) We set up and walked through the technical stuff before the players arrived, so they could focus all of their pre-teen energy on soccer.

Studio Segments – Shooting with David was challenging, and I mean that in a good way. It’s unusual for me to work with a client who knows lighting, who knows not just what they want their project to contain, content-wise, but how they want it to look. Throughout the shoot, David would challenge me to be edgy with the lighting, to take risks. “This isn’t one of your corporate or government gigs!” he would tease, but he would also respect my expertise when I told him something just wasn’t working, and that we needed to come up with other options.

The Edit – So Many Stills

Meanwhile, back at Pixel Workshop, footage was ingested and logged into our edit systems, and rough cuts were strung together to make sure there were no gaping holes.

After some experimentation, we chose a technique for showing both the live video of the shoot, as well as the photos David was shooting. Each still we wanted to include would have to be manually placed, but it made for a much more interesting and educational experience for the viewer. It also made for a much longer edit, even with a few automation tricks we cooked up, but it was worth it. (By my estimation there are over a thousand still images edited into the project.)

In choosing a slower yet more creatively satisfying route for the edit, our comfortable post-production schedule suddenly got a lot tighter. Large projects like this are notoriously challenging to schedule, because of the sheer size of them. It takes an entire day’s worth of man-hours, for example, just to watch through the entire set of DVDs. We had a drop-dead date for getting the master files out for duplication, because David had other projects on his plate. The last week of editing was intense, and we even did an overnight in the studio when a snow storm made travel ill advised.

The Finished Product

We all had a blast producing this project, and I think it shows in the finished product. Everyone involved put in the extra effort to make this something special, something that we’re all proud to put our names on, something that Strobist readers will find valuable.

Special thanks to Dave, ErikLisa and John for all of your help on the shoots. We couldn’t have done it without you.

But most of all, thanks to David Hobby, for bringing us on board and being such an amazing creative collaborator. I learned a lot, and had fun doing it. And it doesn’t get much better than that.

When he gets back from that bus trip, we’ll have to spend some quality time tooling around town.

Here’s a sneak peak at one of the segments from Lighting in Layers.


Clip © 2011 David Hobby / Strobist.com. Used with permission.