For the past 12 years, David Hobby has been living his life as Strobist – one of the first and greatest online photography resources. Entire photo empires have come and gone, but Hobby remains stubbornly wedded to teaching people how to use off-camera flash to augment their photographic skills and inspire their creativity.
In an era of larger-than-life online personas and social media stars hellbent on hawking you another product, Hobby has never suggested you purchase anything more than a cheap flash and a trigger. Megapixels? Bokeh? Nah. Hobby would prefer that you pay attention to light and composition.
It has been a while since I had an opportunity to chat with Hobby, but a recent visit to his site inspired me to reach out and find out what he’s been thinking about all these years.
It’s been 12 years since you started Strobist, and the longevity of the brand is impressive to say the least. To what do you attribute the on-going success given how much the landscape has changed in that time?
I think the longevity of Strobist is at least in part due to the fact that it hasn’t changed along with the landscape over time. From the beginning, the approach was as if I was writing to my younger self. So the compass point was always to provide the best possible educational content on lighting. Everything else is secondary to that.
You’ve had a few forays into video, but nothing like the millenials on YouTube who are cranking out new content – sometimes on a daily basis. Was this a conscious choice on your part?
I have never really focused on video or frequency. If you are cranking out videos on a daily basis, you are chasing views and subs. Nobody wakes up with a great and additive idea for a video every day.
And as for written word vs. video, I have grown to prefer words because you can change them easily after the fact. I have done multiple revisions on every major part of the site. I think you are always going to be able to find ways to make your ideas better if you continue to think about them.
You have a pretty big following on Twitter and Flickr, but less so on other social media platforms – namely Instagram. Is this part of a bigger strategy, or more of a resource/sanity decision?
First off, when you are a one-man band everything a resource/sanity decision.
Flickr has long been the visual home base of the site’s community. They provide a giant meeting room/gallery space for Strobist’s readership, and have been a wonderful partner to have.
Twitter is great for its brevity and ease of access. It allows me to run Strobist without a comments section (best decision I ever made on the site) while still being easily accessible for reader questions and discussion. Twitter has also become my real-time connection to the rest of the world in many other ways. But like any addictive drug, it has its downsides.
Instagram is more of an experiment at the moment. Strobist Lighting Cookbook, a current book-style module under construction, has a small presence there. It is 100% photos pointing to educational posts, which makes it sort of an anti-Instagram. I’m curious to see whether that kind of stream can cut through the noise. But you’ll never see me asking you to guess whether those are hot dogs or my thighs.
I have to assume that at some point during the past 12 years, the topic of a site redesign came up in conversation. Yet, you’re still on blogspot using the same theme. Please explain!
Ah, Blogger and site design. Two separate issues, intertwined. Let’s start with site design.
I do occasionally get the urge to redesign the site. But whenever that happens I slap myself in the face to remind me that time would be better spent creating or iterating content. I think those changes are far more important. From a content perspective, in Strobist’s original form, it was basically a diary of how I learned. But over the years as I have taught more people in person, I see a much wider range of how other people learn. And that is usually what drives changes and iterations on the site.
As for staying with Blogger, they gave me both the opportunity and ability to start this side project for free and with zero risk while I was working at The Sun back in 2006. Hundreds of millions of page views later, I have never had any significant downtime, never had a security concern and never paid a penny for bandwidth.
Blogger was the catalyst for every single thing that has happened for me since starting Strobist. As long as they exist, I will never leave them.
Are workshops the financial engine of the brand? How do you differentiate your workshop from the myriad of other options out there?
One of Strobist’s best qualities is its very small footprint. I have never had an employee, never rented office space, etc. The expenses are shockingly low.
That small footprint philosophy applies to revenue generation as well. This affords a lot of flexibility on the “financial engine,” which honestly does not have to be very big at all.
Much like page views, I’m really not trying to chase dollars. Instead of, “What’s the most we can make from this?” it’s more, “What’s the best experience and/or content we can offer for [X] price?”
That’s the thought behind X-Peditions, which are week-long photo/travel workshops held in a collection of cities around the world. We started in Havana earlier this year, are adding Hanoi in 2019, and then Marrakech and Dubai in 2020. And that (four small workshops per year) is as big as it is ever going to get.
As with other projects, the goal is not to scale revenues. It is about finding ways to refine our approach and program to make the experiences better and better. And as we continue to improve, we don’t want to raise prices or grow the scale. We want to be a very small and exceptionally well-run program that is underpriced relative to what other people are doing.
Maximizing the value while capping the scale creates a strong supply/demand imbalance which lets us know we are always going to fill a workshop—and generally within a few days of it being announced. When you have confidence that your trip will fill, you can further tweak the value proposition. It’s a positive vicious cycle.
You famously left a staff photographer position at The Baltimore Sun to run Strobist full-time. I can’t imagine you have many regrets about that move, but could you spend a moment to comment on how photojournalism has changed since that time? Do you have concerns about the future of photojournalism in the era of “fake news” and animosity towards the press?
First off, remember that “fake news” in its original form was all about the actual fake news generated by Russian election meddling. It has since been effectively co-opted by the beneficiary of that meddling to mean anything he doesn’t like. It’s a term driven by a cult of personality, and I honestly don’t think it will outlive his presidency in any meaningful form.
But the ongoing destruction of traditional media is both sad and fascinating to watch. There are so many new sources popping up, many with very strong covert (or overt) agendas. I mean, no person or organization is without its biases. But we have never seen anything like this.
That said, I believe that photojournalism still has a critical power to cut through a lot of the noise right now. Sure, you can and should have a point of view. But you have to back it up with imagery. And while you can fake stuff, you are usually going to be caught. That’s the nature of photojournalism, especially in a world at least potentially filled with sophisticated consumers. It only takes one person to catch you in a visual lie.
I think as photographers we are much better equipped than word people to push back against fake news. And photographers who do strong work can easily circumvent journalism’s crumbling traditional gatekeepers. Photos can go viral from nearly any original source via Facebook or Twitter or whatever.
Maybe the good news is that 7.5 billion people with cameras means the important visual stuff that needs to get out, can actually get out. But the flipside is, do you really trust the people you follow on Twitter to be the picture editors of what you are now viewing?
Who can say where this will end up. Right now we are still flailing around in the dark. But on the visual side at least, I’m optimistic.
Since you started Strobist, there’s been an explosion of RF-triggered flash options from companies like Yongnuo, Nissin, and Godox. What, if anything, does this mean for people who are experimenting with off-camera flash?
Certainly there are far more choices. Companies are competing with each other and getting kinda crazy with feature creep, IMO. But I get it, from the manufacturers’ perspective. TTL/embedded remotes, for instance, also means people are marrying into your whole system.
But it still remains that all you really need is a basic flash and trigger that is well-built and reliable. You know what feature really impresses me these days? Warranty length.
Are there other technologies that have surprised you over the past decade?
Photo gear-wise? The iPhone. It’s pretty nuts as a camera today. My mom is 73, and she carries a high-def video camera in her pocket all the time. That’s remarkable.
Do you feel any pressure to evolve your visual style or aspects of your business to “stay relevant”?
Actually, the reverse. The pressure I feel is to make sure I don’t sublimate my visual and/or business style to the idea of staying relevant. I think it is more important to keep your bearings, stay true to who you are and be cool with the fact that not everybody will appreciate it. But some people will, and that’s good.
Social media has been incredible for information sharing and networking – but insofar as photography is concerned, some critics would say it has led to a lot of visual sameness. Any thoughts on this topic?
In the 1970s when fuel prices went insane, car manufacturers started chasing better gas mileage. Engines got more efficient, and everyone was looking to reduce their drag coefficients as well. As a result, many cars started to approach the same jelly bean shape. Large external forces pushed everyone toward the same result.
Similarly, it’s pretty obvious that a lot of people are chasing likes and followers on social media. It’s a near-perfect optimization cycle that constantly nudges your photography into a specific visual ethic. If you are chasing that dopamine hit, you’ll adjust your style to cater to whatever gives you the bigger hit.
I think you have to be conscious of that. When you stop chasing likes, those forces go away. It’s a pretty simple choice, IMO.
You’ve inspired hundred of thousands of people (if not more), and taught thousands of them in person. Do any success stories come to mind?
It’s pretty crazy. Like, four million people have completed Lighting 101. And since Strobist has been around for 12 years now, there are people who are well into their careers that learned lighting primarily through Strobist. I regularly get upstreams on Twitter from people telling me about their path. It’s really cool. But it also can make you feel pretty old, given I was already 25 years into my photo career when I started the site.
What’s cooler, to be honest, are the personal and family photos people send. Or even better: a parent and their teenage kid learning this stuff together and using each other as subjects. That is fantastic to see, on several levels.
It’s all cool to me. I’m pretty agnostic to the gradient that exists between amateur and pro photography today. No matter where you are on that continuum, if you would like to learn how to better use lighting in your photos I’m happy to help.