Welcome to The f/64 Club: A Front Row Seat at the 2013 GPP Shootout

Sure, the Gulf Photo Plus shootout might be fun to watch. But for the photographers competing, it is all about a week of anticipation, stress and nervousness. And come shootout day, all of that is on display live in front of an audience of 350 armchair quarterback photographers.

Below, the shootout video, how each photographer handled the stress and a challenge for you.


In case you don't know the rules, here they are:

1. You have 20 minutes to conceive, shoot and post-produce your image in front of a crowd of 350 and two mic'd hecklers—this year, McNally and yours truly.
2. You don't know what the assignment will be until the moment you have to start.
3. Those are the only rules.

So here's the video, which obviously pales in comparison to the actual event. Bear in mind you are seeing a 10:1 compressed version of the evening. It's like editing Das Boot down to a YouTube short. One day, you'll wanna go see it live.


A View From the Cheap Seats

When I say cheap, I don't mean bad seats. McNally and I were right down front, mics in hand. I mean cheap as in we did not have to pay for the experience with a week of stress and nervousness.

And let me tell you, it is a nerve-wracking way to spend the week, much less the evening itself. Like being thrown to the lions in the Colosseum.

Your assignment? To photograph, live, one of the pre-eminent portraitists of our time, Gregory Heisler. No big whup. Kinda like throwing a dinner party at your house, only the guest list includes Julia Child. No pressure.

"Are you not entertained!?"

So here we go.

Channeling the Stress: John Keatley

All BTS photos by Juliette Bisset/Gulf Photo Plus

I am gonna say right out that John Keatley gets my vote as winner. He didn't win, as Zack clearly grabbed most of the applause meter juice. But Keatley is the only one who, IMO, took a deep breath then went out there and made a Keatley picture.

He was smart: he brought a device, a gimmick that could have been useful in a few different situations. And God only knows what else he had secreted away in that bag.

And while you could tell he was nervous, he was sorta like juiced nervous. He channeled it. He seemed to thrive on it.

Here's the thing: Keatley was the only one of the three from whom I really learned something while watching. He took control from minute one, painting a scene and developing a narrative for his portrait. Much of this progression and patter is lost to the edit, but it was a thing to see.

He started off by having Heisler imagine an "alternative path" to his life, and went from there. It's a wonderful device to knock a subject off guard—and, I suspect, something Keatley pulls out pretty often. At least it looks like he does, 'cause he was pretty good at it. It also gave Heisler an excuse to step outside of his persona, which is gold for a portraitist.

Finally, it short-circuits the dreaded What do you want me to do? question from your subject and gives you creative control as a photographer. I love it, and I am so gonna steal it.

Photo by John Keatley (under extenuating circumstances)

To my mind this is a Keatley photo. It's quirky (John's all-but-trademarked adjective) and funny. Almost something out of a Saturday Night Live skit. It's not a revealing portrait of Greg, per se. (Honestly, none of them were.)

But there was a showmanship to the process—and to the result—that I thought no one would be able to top. I thought Keatley had won it right out of the gate as a rookie.

As it turned out, I was wrong.

The Kobayashi Maru: Lindsay Adler

Faced with the challenge of shooting a portrait of Gregory Heisler in the Dubai Knowledge Village Auditorium, fashion photographer Lindsay Adler did a complete end-around. Much like the fictional test at Star Fleet Academy on Start Trek, she attacked the test itself by rewriting the rules.

She photographed Heisler then composited him into a stock backdrop.

Now, as someone who has competed in the shootout twice, I was split on this one. Part of me was like, this is Polaroid Boy II (hi, Joey!) and the other half was like, if it works, it will have been genius..

Plus, it was a great device to figure out in advance how to control what you could not hope to control: subject and environment. You could drop anything into anywhere with this trick.

Photo by Lindsay Adler (under extenuating circumstances)

The risk to this strategy is that it is binary. It's either gonna be a walk-off home run, or a routine fly ball out to end the game. So if you do it, you gotta bring real power to the swing.

In other words, this risk-averse concept lets it all rest on the one thing you can't control: Your subject's expression on the frame you are going to composite. After all, that's the only thing that is real.

And that is where Lindsay dropped the ball, IMO. She literally used the first frame where she was happy with the light, and that moment was a somewhat of a dud. No life at all. If she would have spent two minutes coaxing different responses out of Greg, I think she could have pulled it off.

But the armchair QB's job is an easy one. And in Lindsay's defense, the time pressure and it all happening live really grinds on you. It'll make you do things you would not normally do, especially when those things seem like efficient use of time during the crunch.

This is a complete 180 from Heisler's performance last year. Sure, he was nervous. But even so, he went a full eighteen out of twenty allocated minutes before pressing the shutter for the first time. Dayum.

I'l let you in on a secret. As hecklers, Joe and I had decided to go easy on the two newbs (John and Lindsay) and save it all for Zack.

That said, after Lindsay had her photo safely in the can and was just going through the compositing motions, she looked up at us and said something to the effect of, "I sure haven't heard much out of you guys…"

Easy to say now, Lindsay…

Eff Nervous: Hurricane Arias

The photo up top, by GPP's Juliette Bisset, pretty much says it all. Zack Arias faced his nervous jitters head-on and then kicked them in the groin. He danced his way in looking like G Love and Special Sauce meets ZZ Top, with a Daft Punk-esque flash-poppin entourage to boot.

Holy shit. McNally and I were rendered speechless. Which, for the record, does not happen often.

What do you say to that? How do you heckle that? Oh, I tried. But … I got nuthin'.

There is a strategy to winning the GPP Shootout that says just try to win the crowd with something different. I went that route my first year, choreographing a five-flash VAL assault that looked like random paparazzi but was in fact carefully planned.

It's a good strategy to wow—and thus win over—the crowd.

Zack did just that with his entrance, and then proceeded to do it with his photo. Which, good photo and all, but I think he got some applause juice from his entrance, too. Plus the photo was certainly a crowd pleaser:

Photo by Zack Arias (under extenuating circumstances)

Zack swears he came up with the idea live. A week of sipping water from little plastic foil cups to avoid dying of dehydration, funneled into a moment of inspiration.

This was a one-shot deal. Heisler would only be dry for one attempt. Zack nailed the timing, and the audience ate it up.

One of the water throwers was none other than your own Sara Lando, who had just finished spending the week as Heisler's assistant. (Oh, yeah, posts coming this fall…)

I asked her what she would have thought six months ago, if someone would have told her she'd be coming to Dubai, would work as an assistant for Greg Heisler all week, and at the end of said week, would throw a cup of water in his face.

(Unintelligible answer.)

But Zack won the crowd, and thus the shootout. Not even close. And like in previous years, you can't really just vote on just seeing the photo. You kinda have to be there. And you kinda should find a way to just be there one year.


What would I have done? That's the question I ask myself of every GPP Shootout in which I did not have to compete. But it's different when there is no pressure.

And the moment I heard what the subject was, I knew how I would have shot it—my own version of the Kobayashi Maru, if you will. I would have thrown the spirit of the competition under the bus and taken advantage of having twenty full minutes of Heisler having to sit for me for a portrait.

I would have explained this to the crowd—only chance I'll ever get, yada yada—and apologized to them that I was going to ignore the main goal of the shootout and make a portrait for me. Might have worked. Might not have. But I'd have my photo.

So that was them, and that was me. What would you have done?

Before yu get all cocky in the comments, remember that it's different when you are the one up on stage. And trust me, if you don't get the "f/64" reference in the headline, just compete in the GPP Shootout one year.

You'll instantly know exactly what we mean by the f/64 Club.


Brand new to Strobist? Start here | Or jump right to Lighting 101
Connect w/Strobist readers via: Words | Photos

Comments are closed. Question? Hit me on Twitter: @Strobist


Blogger S/V Laura Ellen said...

Arias better look out next year, pay-backs are hell!

March 18, 2013 10:19 AM  
Blogger Rufat Abas said...

That was an unforgettable experience! Thank you for the great post David!

March 18, 2013 11:39 AM  
Blogger budrowilson said...

Heisler is known for photography - he's a master of creative lighting. Why not include what he's most known for in the picture - a view camera, lighting tools, and a bow tie? Sure, it'd look like a Profoto ad, but it would be more representative of him and his body of work.

If it'd been my shot, I think that's what I would have done.

March 18, 2013 12:02 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

What a great Shoot-out!

Zack Arias just absolutely nailed it.

Thank you for sharing this with us mortals.


March 18, 2013 12:08 PM  
Blogger Mike Levad said...

Keatly FTW!

March 18, 2013 12:36 PM  
Blogger Richard Wintle said...

That was amazing. Thanks once again for posting the video, and for the notes on the three shooters and their approaches.

Like others, I'm also a bit surprised nobody tried to capture "Heisler as Photographer", or light him up like his Alonso Mourning shot, or use a view camera as a prop. But maybe those are all just really uncreative and obvious things to do... which could explain why I thought of them. :P

Easy to say all this in hindsight, too, I guess. And easy to wish I was a tenth as talented as any of the competitors this year. :)

March 18, 2013 2:30 PM  
Blogger Larry said...

Finally the vid of GPP! It's pretty awesome to see the mindset and thinking that goes into each one of these shots. If you think about it all three had their own Kobayashi Maru... Zack had his (who thinks about throwing water into Heisler's face?), Keatly brought props, and Lindsay with the digital magic. So now basically the gloves are off - all the way off ... and I can't wait for next year.

March 18, 2013 2:36 PM  
Blogger BrendanJ said...

As one of the citizens seated in the GPP Auditorium-come-Colluseum for the shootout, it was a "gladiator-esque" spectacle....replete with the cheering, catcalling & expectation for battle.....it didn't really matter whether it was going to be a glorious victory or a ignominious defeat it was all fodder for the baying audience & damn good fun to watch.
Folks, you really do owe it to yourself to get here for GPP just once.....there is nothing like it anywhere in the world. It really does rock & the quality of the classes & workshops has to be experienced to be believed.

Cheers & good to see you again Dave

March 18, 2013 3:13 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

You had to be there ...
David, as a member of the audience, I agree we gave it to Zack, and yes, it was a close call with john's shot. Don't forget though all the tech issues Zack faced **extremely** gracefully. I would've thrown Mac and Camera on the floor in a fit - he just commandeered someone else's camera and soldiered on ...
As for not planing in advance, hum. He did let on later that there was a reason he'd packed a raincoat :-)
And just imagine if he'd gone first...

March 18, 2013 4:06 PM  
Blogger diegonyc said...

that's it, put me down for next year.

March 18, 2013 4:27 PM  
Blogger Sara Lando said...

The shootout was such a cool experience! Nerve wrecking to even watch, but so intense.
And even though the videos are great to watch, I don't think they can channel the adrenaline.
How would I have shot Heisler? McNally asked me the same question over dinner.
I'll give you the same answer:
- since he says he's uncomfortable in front of a camera (lier, he did amazing...)
- since I would have been uncomfortable with him watching me through the lens
- since he's been talking a lot about always looking for "the opposite photo"

I think I would have shot his back, but with the jacket and glasses facing the camera.
Using a single narrow beam reflector gelled with a double CTO, duct taped the *right* way.
It would have probably sucked (because focusing and puking at the same time is hard), but that's what I was thinking about while Ketley was shooting.

these are the other options:

Option 2: a silhouette wearing the hat, with juuust his glasses lit. Not something I can pull out of my butt in 20 minutes, though. And I think I need more post for this than I'd be comfortable admitting.

Option 3: I would have sneaked in the picture with him 'cause hell then I'd forever have proof I was somewhere near him.

Option 4: I would have cut a hole in the white seamless for his head to go through and placed a light stand in front of the seamless, to make it look like his head was the light on the stand

Option 5: I would have cut two round places of gel (one CTO, one green) and placed them in his glasses and I'd have taken a tight headshot.

Option 6: Set myself on fire and long exposure, duh.

March 18, 2013 4:42 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

What a shootout! Zack was IMO head and shoulders above the others, but I did like what Lindsay and John brought to the table

March 18, 2013 5:13 PM  
Blogger richardsonad said...

Great stuff as always, I enjoyed the last minute water shot by Zach.

My very first thought when they said Heisler was the subject was that I would have either brought about 20 audience members up and have them seated around him, posing as if they were shooting up at him. My second (and preferred) idea would be to bring up 2 smaller audience members and have them stand behind Heisler with arms spread Shiva-style, holding a camera in each hand. That last idea I think could have turned out really neat.

March 18, 2013 5:38 PM  
Blogger Pm said...

Agree wih you. Keatley.

March 18, 2013 5:41 PM  
Blogger StudioBlu said...

Here's an idea, David: How about next year GPP picks two celebrity photogs and one randomly selected from the audience? Would definitely add an element of unknown. (Sorta like Duke playing UAlbany in the NCAA's.)

March 18, 2013 9:26 PM  
Blogger Wonderwall said...

I didn't quite hear as much heckling as I thought I would from you guys.

PS. You were an awesome teacher at GPP- so glad to have been in your class. Also, FULL marks for remembering everyone's name and just being so involved.

People who haven't been to GPP-it's about time you did!

March 19, 2013 1:33 AM  
Blogger Ami Siano said...

yes, indeed,
he provided the real interesting image.

March 19, 2013 5:12 AM  
Blogger Good old Clive said...

Extreeeeeeeemly entertaining and informative. I for one would need the best part of a bottle of single malt to step up on that stage.

March 19, 2013 7:53 AM  
Blogger Mike said...

Keatley should have won - it was the only actual portrait as it showed the very real humorous side of Heisler. Zack Arias used a gimmick to get the crowd going, and Lindsay Adler's made Heisler look old and miserable with a total cliche look.

Next year I want Albert Watson, Platon, and Michael Thompson.

March 19, 2013 11:31 AM  
Blogger wonderlens said...

Is it my imagination or did Lindsay Adler make Heisler look exactly like Steve Jobs?

March 19, 2013 1:33 PM  
Blogger John said...

I always look forward to seeing this and also enjoy all the tweats from the photographers participating in this event. I will probably never get to participate in something like this so its fun to watch it unfurl through everyone else.

I like all three portraits, but I have to say, I like Zack's the best (and not because I'm a Zack crony) because his portrait seemed to illicit the most interesting response from Mr. Heisler ...obviously. That response seems to me to be one of shock, yet somewhat enjoying the moment in a really weird way.

I think Zack definitely went in with a gimmicky way of getting crowd favoritism, but that was his plan all along I'm betting.

FWIW, while I like all three portraits, I don't think any of them say "This is master photographer Gregory Heisler" and I'm most definitely NOT saying that I could do better... although I sure would love the opportunity! :)

Thanks for sharing!!!

March 19, 2013 1:38 PM  
Blogger S@yf said...

As a audience member,Zack def got my vote on the basis of his entrance alone.But you are right David in saying the way Keatley used the 'alternative path' narrative was interesting to watch. Lindsey was....alright
On a desperate note David,when you get a chance,can u send us the pics we took of each other in the 'art on a deadline workshop :-) !

March 19, 2013 5:58 PM  
Blogger Reid Bowie said...

OK, trying to get my head around the "f/64" club thing. Can someone explain to me how it relates to the old Ansel Adams movement??!?

March 19, 2013 6:21 PM  
Blogger Reed said...

I'd imagine it's a reference to the quality of the participants - That is a collection of some of today's most preeminent practitioners of photography...

Not unlike those original members of Group f/64

Ansel Adams
Imogen Cunningham
John Paul Edwards
Sonya Noskowiak
Henry Swift
Willard Van Dyke
Edward Weston

just my take on it...

March 19, 2013 9:15 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Nope, you're thinking WAY too highbrow.

Two words: Pucker Factor.

March 19, 2013 9:44 PM  
Blogger Iden Pierce Ford said...

I like Arias' the best but in fact theyre all great. My favourite of these photos over the past few years is when u had all those audience members come up onstage and hold the speedlights at the subject. That's the top shot of the Booker prize so to speak......imo of course

March 19, 2013 10:47 PM  
Blogger Scott Campbell said...


f/64?? No way, dude. For me that would be f/0.7 and for hours afterwords.....

March 20, 2013 6:36 AM  
OpenID kenkyee said...

20min including retouch would have killed me...amazing Lindsay Adler managed to do a comp that quickly. Just wish Heisler didn't look so bored in that shot :-)

Zach's shot was the obvious win this time...and I'm glad we didn't have Joey L's weird polariod joke this year ;-)

March 20, 2013 11:09 AM  
Blogger ToddH. said...

Does the f/64 refer to the tush-puckering pressure of having to do what they did on stage, in front of lots of people, and a few photo icons?? LOL

March 20, 2013 1:31 PM  
Blogger Justin said...

great blog as always....nice to see that "OneLight" is alive and well.

most of all I'm super impressed with your G Love reference, well played!

March 21, 2013 2:49 AM  
Blogger wonderlens said...

Another try on f/64: number of times an average photographer would be using the f-word while coming up with an idea, setting up, managing the subject, shooting and retouching in front of crowd and hecklers?

March 21, 2013 1:12 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

@ToddH - That's exactly correct.

March 21, 2013 2:40 PM  
Blogger michael anthony murphy said...

Awesome. Arias cracks me up. Hilarious.

March 22, 2013 9:19 AM  
Blogger D.Meds said...

"You kinda have to be there. And you kinda should find a way to just be there one year." Amen

I feel that need every year and any told stories about the fact keep burning the wish even more at least we have David to bring it close as always, thank you

March 24, 2013 3:32 PM  
Blogger Grant Wells said...

Loved watching the Vid...tech question...what set up allowed the audience to view the shot almost in real time?

April 08, 2013 1:26 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home