How David Hobby’s simple idea for a blog turned into a really big deal

David using a scrounged plastic bag as a light modifer.

Hobby

While David’s Lighting Bootcamps at the Focus on the Story International Photo Festival are sold out, you can still catch him speak at the festival’s opening session.

You could say David Hobby was in the right place at the right time, or better put, he had the right idea at exactly the right time. When Hobby started Strobist.com in 2006, he was a full-time photojournalist on the staff of the Baltimore Sun. His idea for a blog was to create an online space that gave insight and tutorials on the lighting techniques he used on assignments for the Sun.

It would be an understatement to say that the idea was well-received. Strobist.com quickly established itself as the “go-to” destination for the new tidal wave of enthusiasts who were discovering digital photography. What they found was a site that explained seemingly difficult and technical lighting techniques in a way that non-professional photographers could understand.

A year after founding the blog, David left the Sun to work full-time on his brand. By 2010, Time magazine was listing Strobist.com on its annual “best blogs” list. Since then, he has become a regular instructor at the annual Gulf Plus Photo Week in Dubai, and was part of the popular traveling pop-ups that also featured Gregory Heisler, Joe McNally and Zack Arias. And he has more recently begun leading travel photography workshops.

He is also often cited as one of the most influential photographers on Twitter, where he has  nearly 300,000 followers.

David will be teaching his “lighting bootcamp” at the Focus on the Story International Photo Festival and will be one of the speakers during the festival’s opening day.

Mike Lee: Your background: How did you come about to become a staff photojournalist? Why did you leave The Baltimore Sun and move on to where you are now?

David Hobby: I started shooting at age 7, and was developing and printing my own film by age 9. I shot for the high school yearbook and was also stringing for local newspapers in high school. By the time I went off to University of Florida, I had shot several hundred assignments.

I then worked for 20 years as a staff photojournalist, ten years at a very visually literal chain of weeklies (Patuxent Publishing, c.1988-98) and The Baltimore Sun (c.1998-2008). I started Strobist in 2006, to pass along what I had learned over my time as a photojournalist who had developed a specialty in lighting.

It pretty quickly became obvious that I would not have enough time to publish the site and be a BaltSun photographer. So I left The Sun.

Lee: What motivated you to create Strobist.com?

Hobby: The idea was just to pass along what I had learned, just as others had done informally for me throughout my career. I did not foresee any commercial potential for Strobist when I coined the word and started the site. (I did not anticipate the workload, either…)

At the time what did you see that was lacking in the knowledge base and learning curve involving lighting?

Well, there was precious little info on small flash lighting out there. Most photographers were not prone to share, to be honest. One guy, Neil Turner, a photographer for the London Times, had a site with quite a few “On Assignment”-style posts. But that was about it. So, basically, nearly everything was lacking.

Lee: Can you tell us the impact Strobist.com has had in improving production mechanics and the work of particular photographers who have accessed the site?

Hobby: Well I think you’d have to ask them that. But to date, over four million photographers have taken the Lighting 101 course on Strobist. And I have gotten feedback from many photographers that Strobist has been a big help to them both avocationally and professionally, which is always nice to hear.

Lee: Discuss some of the projects you’ve engaged in the last decade, including photographer expeditions and also the Photographer’s Oil Collective.

Hobby: I try to always keep something going on the side, to keep things fresh and motivated. I’ve worked with the Howard County Arts Council for ten years now, photographing young artists. (You can see some of the photos, here) In 2014, I spent a year traveling the world for Lynda.com to produce the video series, The Traveling Photographer.

The Photographer’s Oil Collective was founded in 2016 as a way for photographers to offer museum quality oil paintings for their clients—and to capture more value from their work, always an issue in the business of photography. We spent years training a small group of (already very talented) reproduction oil painters from Xiamen, China to produce work that more closely aligned with the tonality and visual ethic of Western photographers.

X-Peditions was begun in 2018, and will hopefully run for the next ~ 10 years. I travel a tremendous amount as a photographer, an instructor and just as a traveler. The idea is to teach a week-long photo class, but to do it in one of the world’s most interesting cities. We try to both merge and improve our students’ skills in both location photography and out-of-the-bell-curve travel. It’s been very well-received so far, and in 2019 we’ll be holding classes in Havana, Cuba and Hanoi, Vietnam.

Lee: Tell us more about the upcoming Lighting Bootcamp. What would you like to say to those interested in attending and what should they expect?

Hobby: I’ve taught the Lighting Bootcamp classes dozens of times, in many different countries—it’s my favorite class to teach! Here’s the idea: you arrive being comfortable with f/stops and shutter speeds, and I will get you very comfortable (and even intuitive) about being a lighting photographer before you leave. And it is not just cookie-cutter, money-see-monkey-do stuff, either. We build a strong base of understanding to the knowledge pyramid. So when it is time for you to progress beyond what we are doing in class, you’ll have the knowledge and confidence to do so.

We’ll be shooting pretty much all day, and you’ll totally get what you are doing before you leave. Or I won’t let you leave. I have seen hundreds of people come through this class, and we have yet to leave anyone behind. In fact, I see people come in with practically zero confidence in their ability to learn the “dark art” of lighting with flash. And then to see them leave at the end of the day, damn-near cocky about their new skills and way of looking at their work—that’s the coolest feeling.

All images © David Hobby

Mike Lee is a photographer, labor editor, journalist and writer based in New York. His photography was featured in several group shows in the last several years. His short fiction is published in a myriad of journals, including The Avenue, The Ampersand Review, Reservoir, Ghost Parachute and The Airgonaut. You can see more of his work on his website

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