Just before the start of FotoWeekend 2011 in Dubai, I had the good fortune to join Bobbi Lane for a sunset shoot at the Bab Al Shams Resort resort. Bobbi is a GPP-veteran — who mercifully shared her secrets about such things as dealing with a 12-hour time shift and also hauled me out on many great adventures in Dubai. Joining us for this shoot was Issa Saleh AlKindy, a talented Omani photographer (site here), who fortunately knows how to drive on highways that have many warning signs about random camels crossing the road.  I have to say, that even though I grew up in the desert of Arizona, I learned loads about desert shooting in the sands of Dubai.

Starting With A Vision

There is a long tradition of falconry among the desert peoples of the Middle East. For this shoot, I wanted to to capture the persona of my two subjects — Zia, the falconer, and his beautiful peregrine falcon. Being desert-born myself, I also wanted to capture the magical light of the desert sky after sunset.

Even though we arrived when Zia was still flying his falcons — a daily event for the guests of Bab Al Shams — I waited for the skylight to dim. Remember that, when shooting towards the west, even though the sun is below the horizon, right after sunset there is a load of light in the sky. Sure, some of the ambient can be reduced by shutter speed, but I find that it’s best to wait 30-45 minutes after sunset to shoot.

When I did start shooting, I made about 50 images in 13 minutes. If you click through on the Lightroom gallery above, you’ll see that about half of my shots were full-length and half were in tighter. For me, the hero shots from this shoot are all full-length.

Three Shots — Three Moods

One of the interesting challenges of this shoot was that I don’t speak a word of peregrine. While I could communicate with Zia, who, like many in Dubai, speaks English, the lady-falcon mostly did what she wanted — despite many prompts from Zia. Given the dim ambient, I made loads of shots when she was looking off in a completely different direction — including a few when her head was turned around completely. Oops.

When shooting portraits of multiple subjects, it’s important to consider the relationship of the subjects to each other and the relationship of each subject to the lens. Consider the differences in the following three shots:

> subjects (mostly) looking at each other
> both subjects looking into the lens
> both subjects looking off in the same direction

Subjects looking (mostly) at each other.

Both subjects looking into the lens

Both subjects looking off in the same direction.

Other Random Lessons Learned

1. As you’ll read below, I shot a single flash though a small softbox. There are issues with many of the shots because the softbox was too far to the side — which caused severe fall-off. This is somewhat of a problem in the first and third shots just above. The Fill Light slider in Lightroom was a bit of a help, but not a compete fix, for many of these contrasty images.

2. Even though the softbox was small (about 8″ / 20cm on a side), it created beautiful soft light. The small size is the reason that the light falls off — which I prefer since it forces your eye back up to the falcon and Zia’s face.

3. The level of the horizon also changes how the environment is portrayed. When I dropped low, to make Zia more iconic, the sky become a more dominant element in the image. When I shot from a higher vantage point, the sand became more dominant.

4. Desert sand has magical qualities that enable it to creep in everywhere. I used one lens because I did not want to risk getting fine sand inside my camera. If you are the type of shooter who wants to jump back and forth between a couple of lenses, in the desert, it’s a good idea to have those lenses mounted to separate camera bodies so that you can keep everything sealed up.

5. Focus was a challenge. Given that I waited for the skylight to dim, it was hard to see Zia’s eyes in the viewfinder. Despite my Boy Scout heritage, I did not put a flashlight in my kit. So focusing was hit-or-miss.

6. Take advantage of random bits of ambient light. The middle shot just above has a slight golden rimlight coming from the right. This happened when the resort briefly turned on nearby floodlights. The warm tone came about because the bulbs were tungsten. Could this been seen as golden light from the desert sky? It’s a happy accident for which I am grateful.

Gearing Up For A Fast Trip Into The Desert

The challenge of lighting on the road is hauling all the gear. For this shoot, I carried all my camera and lighting gear in a daypack. Here’s a rundown of the gear I used.

Lastolite Ezybox Speed-Lite Softbox This is my favorite strap-on modifier for small flash. It packs flat, pops back into shape after a rough trip, and creates beautiful light that approaches the quality of much larger softboxes.

Canon 580EX II Speedlite I carried two Speedlites, but intended to only use one for the shoot. Why the second flash? It would have been tragic to go all that way and have my only light fail.

OCF Gear 33’/10m ETTL Cord The ability to control every function of a Canon Speedlite from the LCD of my camera (including zooming the flashhead) is a huge part of my workflow (which I wrote about here). To control a Speedlite that’s off-camera, you have to have an ETTL connection between the camera and flash. This cord enabled me to move around the subject and still control the flash that was parked on top of the light stand.

Manfrotto 026 Swivel Adapter This durable swivel adapter is made of metal rather than plastic. Sure, it costs and weighs twice as much as the plastic brackets. But, it also won’t break in transit and cause heartache on location. To attach the flash, I threaded the flash end of the OCF cord directly onto the swivel adapter.

Manfrotto 5001B Nano Light Stand This is my favorite light stand for a minimalist kit. The unique design allows the legs to fold upwards, so the stand is extremely compact. Yet it reaches to about 6′ / 1.9m. If there’s any breeze, you’ll want someone to keep hold of it.

Canon 5D Mark II Camera This has been my go-to camera since it was introduced. I’m addicted to full-sensor cameras. My next camera will likely be the Canon 1Dx.

Canon 24-70 f/2.8L Lens I’ve used this lens for years as my one-lens-when-stranded-on-a-desert-island lens. That said, I wish that I had had the Canon 24-105 f/4L IS for this shoot. The 24-105 has image stabilization; which the 24-70 does not. As I was handholding the camera in dim light, I think the IS would have helped in a few shots.

Zacuto Z-Finder Pro 3x Although designed for HDSLR cinema shooters, the Z-Finder has become an indispensable part of my stills work. Using LiveView and the Z-Finder, I can focus manually with great precision (provided that I can see the eyes of my subject). I snap the Z-Finder onto the back of my camera with a Zacuto Mounting Frame. I’ve pushed the Z-finder on and pulled it off hundreds, if not thousands, of times without issue.

Syl, Zia, and Bobbi. Photo courtesy of Issa Saleh AlKindy.

Issa, Zia, and Bobbi.


14 Responses to Anatomy of a Shoot: Dubai Falconer at Sunset

  1. M.D. Welch says:

    Great post Syl. Love the different angle and use of the single Speedlite.


  2. Bobbi Lane says:

    Great post! Fabulous time in the desert with Zia, Syl, and the falcon. Thanks!

    • Hussain says:

      hi thi is Hussain falcon boy i like your comment zia he is my big brother

      • Liliane says:

        Hi, this is Liliane. I would like to know how I can reach the falconer Zia. I called Bab Al Shams, they promised to look for a contact number but apparently he does not work for them anymore. Great pictures by the way. Thanks!

  3. iamzediam says:

    Thanks Syl. Reading your book (which is fabulous) and I’m very appreciative of you sharing your knowledge and great work.

  4. Rex Gigout says:

    Syl, thanks for sharing this! I am far from the desert, but shoot my work photos primarily at night, with a few sunrise and early-morning scenes, many being outdoors. The lessons here, and gear used, are quite relevant.


  5. Very informative article, thanks Syl. I find the images
    striking considering the lighting conditions, my only comment is that I am surprise you did not use a slight
    fill on the opposite side of the subject. Thanks again.

    • Syl Arena says:

      @Jose – Thanks for your kind words. I get your point about the fill…but a fill light would have meant carrying a second stand and swivel adapter. This was strictly a one-light gig.

  6. Mick Mason says:

    Hi Syl. If you want to search the web to see if anyone has plagiarized your material, you can use http://www.copyscape.com. The free version limits the number of scans that can be performed against a site in a month, but they also have a premium version.
    It will go out and find any sites that are using your material.



  7. Jules says:

    Thanks Syl, very interesting.

    How far was the speedlite from the subject? At which height was the speedlite? (6′?)

  8. JC says:

    This is a perfect example where less can be more. A fill might have created some separation but it would also have distracted from the beautiful light of the sunset…great work.

    how did the falcon handle the flashes?

  9. Max says:

    Thank you for this article. It was very interesting and refreshing also to see how a clean and simple approach can yield beautiful photos – It’s easy to overcomplicate sometimes.

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