Talking About Inspiration and Photography with Syl Arena

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The Canon strobist specialist Syl Arena recently chatted with us in the B&H SuperStore in between his presentations at the B&H Event Space. We talked about photography, his workshops, and what's on his wishlist. Here's our quick interview.


Here's his talk at the Event Space on Speedlites.

Chris: Syl, thanks for talking with us. I really appreciate your taking the time right before your second event. So let's get right into this. You do the Paso Robles workshops. What differentiates those from other workshops out there?

Syl: So Paso Robles is a small program. I mean, it's literally off the map from all the workshops around the world. Basically, it's my own private workshop program that is in my hometown.

Paso is a small town halfway between LA and San Francisco, and it's on the map because we have 200 wineries. So it's the hub of the Central California wine district. So for a small town, we have an amazing array of restaurants.

One of the things I love to tell my students is that if you come to Paso Robles, be prepared for a lot of great food. We do review and critique in the morning. Then we haul off somewhere and have a really nice lunch. After that, we haul off on location to actually shoot.

Chris: So in the middle of each day is a giant siesta?

Syl: Yeah, it's a time to have some great food, talk shop, relax—and every day it's a different restaurant. Paso is a beautiful part of the world, and in the spring and fall when I do my workshops the weather is usually great. So it's a homespun deal, and maybe one day when the economy is stronger, we'll look at expanding and bringing in a lot more.

Chris: How long have you been doing this for?

Syl: We started in 2009.

Chris: Cool. Now here's a different question. On the cover of your book, you have a photo of a guy smashing a pumpkin. Where did you get that idea from?

Syl: So the guy on the cover of Speedliter's Handbook is my #2 son, Vin. And the idea came about because I needed something to put in front of the camera and speedlites. I borrowed 10 speedlites from Canon with the understanding that I'd try to figure out if it was possible to set them all off at the same time. I was using first-generation Radio Poppers at the time, as well.

Vin was about 13 at the time, and to get his interest I said, "Hey, what would you think about going out and smashing a bunch of pumpkins?" It was early November; Halloween had come and gone. We had a half dozen pumpkins outside the front door. And of course, being a wholesome young kid, the idea of taking violence to vegetable really appealed to him.

Chris: So it had nothing to do with the Smashing Pumpkins Band at all?

Syl: It had nothing to do with the band. In fact, I have to confess that while I was familiar that there was a band called Smashing Pumpkins, I really wasn't familiar with their music until I started a Pandora subscription about a year ago. And now, every once in a while I hear Smashing Pumpkins tunes come through the queue.

I'd love to meet them one day; perhaps they'd love to smash some pumpkins.

Chris: All right, here's another question. On your old blog, Pixsylated, you have a section called "Lessons I Didn't Learn in Photo School." What's one major piece of advice that you'd give to aspiring photographers and college students to help them be successful? (Syl's new site is called Speedliting.)

Syl: The most important thing that I would share in college today is that even if photography is your passion and it's what you want to do in the world to earn a living, you also have to realize that photography needs to be a business. It's important to find your passion because when you do, you'll be able to find the endurance to work through a lot of the hurdles the world is going to throw at you.

And certainly the photo world and other industries will put lots and lots of challenges along the way, and your passion will help you get through it. But the reality is that when the day is done, bills have to be paid, and you have to be paid. And photography becomes a business. So you need to understand that at least 50% of your time, if not more, will be spent running the business rather than making photographs or playing in Photoshop.

Chris: That's so true! I'm curious about one other thing about Pixsylated. You wrote a post back in July of 2009 about your Speedlite Wishlist. Do you still get emails about it, even though you closed down the comments?

Syl: I had to shut down the comments on that post because after around 300 comments I didn't think that there was anything new for people to add, and it basically saved me the time to have to go moderate all the comments. I still get emails literally every week, asking me about future sets; so it really is an area of concern not only for myself, but for a lot of other people too, in terms of what future functionality will be.

Chris: Did Canon pay attention to it at all?

Syl: Canon Europe paid a lot of attention to it, but not too sure about Canon USA.

Chris: Last question: What's on your holiday wishlist?

Syl: Oh that's a great question to ask while I'm standing here at B&H. Can we start on the first floor and work our way back up?

You know, for me the holidays are really about hanging out with my family and eating more amazing food than I normally do. But since we're here (at B&H Photo) and considering that I love Apple, I don't have an iPad yet. And my MacBook 17 inch is too big and too old, so I'm looking at a couple isles over at the MacBooks there. It'd be nice to get a new MacBook 13 inch to go along with my new iMac 27 inch that I got last month. So I think I'm going to need to be a very good boy in the next few weeks, but maybe an iPad is a place to start.

Chris: All right, well thanks a lot for talking to us and sharing your insights on the industry.

Syl: It was a pleasure!