Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Your powers are *not* weak, old men...


Yesterday was the FlashBus stop here in Pittsburgh. Today my brain hurts (no, really; I’ve just exceeded the daily recommended dose of ibuprofen). Something approaching a review after the jump….
Back in January Dave Hobby & Joe McNally announced a cross-country, small-flash bus tour. The day on-line registrations opened I didn’t hesitate to sign-up. Yesterday, like a kid on Christmas morning, I involuntary woke up at 6am for a thing that wasn’t going to start until 10am. What the H?
What the H indeed.
Look; let me being by jumping right to the end. There are still a bunch of dates left on the tour. If you somehow stumbled on this page because you’re looking for an opinion, then here’s mine: just go. It’s great and well worth your time. You may now stop reading, forever.

First impressions:
The venue was a business-class hotel in the suburbs. In retrospect (and given the two guys in question) the place that was exactly what I should have expected it to be; no-frills, get-the-job-done, functional. I also didn’t know what to expect in terms of the crowd; I figured there might be some over-flow from people that didn’t get into the NY or Philly stops – but, honestly, a small part of me was kinda hoping that the turn-out would be low. Really low. Like twenty people low (and, come on; how much fun would it be to have McNally & Hobby damn near one-on-one for a whole day?)
Yeah. Well, when I got to the hotel (30 minutes early to get a good seat) there was already a line of 200 people. In Pittsburgh. So much for dreams. My final estimate for the crowd was about 350 or more. Friggin RockStars.
Or perhaps not. While standing in line, here comes Joe McNally. Shaking hands; everybody’s hand. Personally welcoming and thanking every single person that showed up. I’m not even in the f’n room yet, and the teaching has already begun. What do you think Joe’s day-rate is? His gig doesn’t start until much later in the afternoon; but here he is. Greeting everyone like they were coming into his home.
That seems like such a little thing… and perhaps it is. But, man, if you want to dismiss even the thought of someone being a (well deserved) diva, well then there ya go.
Check-in was quick, swag-bags handed out. Everyone on the staff is super friendly and cheerful. The room had seats for 400; and like I said it was at about 90% capacity. Adorama had one small table in the back. Again, nothing fancy; just exactly what it needed to be. 10AM on the dot and Hobby takes the stage.

They call him “Mister Strobist”
I’m not gonna lie to you – I loves me some Dave Hobby. Four years ago (give or take) I’d honestly have to say that my photography was precisely nowhere. Then I found strobist.com. And as amazing as strobist is on it’s own, it also opened my eyes to the wealth of great teachers that are available on-line. Perhaps more importantly, it’s the de-facto filter for the dreck; leaving you only the sweet filet mignon.

Dave was exactly the guy you’d expect him to be – smart, excited, and down to earth. He spent the first two or so hours meticulously breaking down example photos; showing exactly where he started and then building up each layer of light. The data is at T3 speeds; hard and fast… so proper attention is necessary. While he never strays into the truly esoteric realms (you don’t, for example, have to do inverse-square in your head) he does expect everyone to have a solid understand of the basics.

One thing that did surprise me was that, given the size of the audience, questions are actively encouraged. Dave (and later Joe) almost insists that the audience ask about things that are unclear. You’d think that this would bring things to a screeching halt; but both David and Joe were able to field questions just as fast as the audience could throw them out. Pretty cool.

Hobby’s second half consisted of more photo dissection, but also a healthy dose of new-media philosophy. In ways that make marketing directors salivate, Dave is firmly entrenched in the center of the social media sandstorm. In his case the big success has been with Strobist.com; but he spent a good deal of time talking about his HoCo360 project. Clearly, this is a guy that gets “it”. He could do a whole separate tour just talking about leveraging the synergies of near-zero-cost media distribution (and I would go to it). Point is: this is clutch stuff for anyone who wants to, you know, actually do something with their photography (or any other interest, really). I’m glad it was given a place in the tour.

They call him “Mister Numbnuts”

Lunch break, and we’re back with McNally. Look; CLS (and specifically it's TTL function) is straight-up voodoo, I don’t care what anyone says. It makes me itchy. But from the very start Joe picked up his camera and was shooting tethered – and the audience got to see every one of his frames (bad ones included). So it was interesting, to say the least, to watch what was going on. Joe started simple; with a single flash – then worked up to increasingly complex setups (at one point he was using four).

Again, like Hobby, McNally was more than eager to answer questions. At one point someone asked about range; Joe had one of the assistants walk to the far and of the room with a flash (about 70 feet) and Joe kept remotely firing it. When it finally started to fail, he showed his little tricks to get it back (zooming the flash head, bouncing the signal). It’s exactly that kind of stuff that only someone very experienced with the tech is gonna know, and is never going to be in the manual.

To here -and watch- McNally do it, it would look like he was just triggering the flashes optically (with the added bonus of being able to control the output from his camera body). But watching the output, I could see that TTL was doing whatever it does; meaning that the consistency from shot-to-shot just wasn’t there. Clearly, it’s a style that he embraces and has learned to control. But the really slick part was watching him set up a few flashes, grabbing someone from the audience, and in a single frame kick out a million-dollar portrait. Clearly, it works for him.

Wrapping it all up:

The show started at 10am, and Joe finished up by 5:30pm. After a quick break Dave & Joe took the stage together for an informal Q&A. After that, both of them stuck around an shook every hand, signed every autograph, sat for every picture that was asked of them. Just two of the nicest guys you’d ever want to meet. And considering that these two can spend their time practically anyway they want, it’s amazing to me that their doing this.


End of line.


  1. Great write-up! I wish I could have put it as well as you did on my own blog. I was also there in Pittsburgh yesterday and I was wishing the same thing you were about the small crowd! Was an amazing day overall though. I am in the same boat as you, ie: david hobby saved my life, and ttl makes me have nervous tics. :)

  2. Louis ... excellent recap. You have a nice voice in your narrative.

    I caught the tour's next stop after Pittsburgh -- Indianapolis -- and am so glad I did. I'm at the novice end of the spectrum when it comes to flash, so my objective in attending was to find the inspiration to help push me along to go after it more enthusiastically, and Joe and Dave did just that.

    There was a guy attending the Indy presentation -- I believe his name was Jeremy -- who volunteered to try and launch a flash meetup group in Indy, and I spaced it at the end and forgot to stop and ask to get on his mailing list. Maybe he'll see this post and my comment, and get in touch with me so I can hop aboard.

    Again, nice job with your writeup ... it sounded very much like the stop in Indy.

  3. Joe - throw a post on the strobist group on Flickr. I (shamelessly) put a post there about this review, and ended-up learning that there was a Pittsburgh Strobist group (who knew?). I'd bet dollars to numbnuts that your Indy guy reads the Flickr Strobist board.



  4. Fantastic write-up (much more articulate than I was able to manage!) I was a VAL at the Pittsburgh stop, so I most likely gave you a wristband.

    Also, I'm another one for the Hobby camp, TTL gives me hives.