Tough Mudder- Cause Life’s just better with strobe

Last weekend I was asked to cover a Tough Mudder in Chicago for ADWEEK Magazine. Like everyone else I’ve seen the plethora of Facebook Ads for Tough Mudder, Spartan Race, Warrior Dash, and others like it but, until Saturday, I had never witnessed or raced in such an event.

Before the race I wasn’t sure how I felt about the hybrid running event. It was kind of like a running event, just more “bro-ey” and “cross-fit” infused.  The course was about two hours from Chicago in Seneca, Illinois. It featured 22 military-inspired obstacles including 10,000-volt charged wires that hilariously shocked people into face planting in the mud (hey, they signed up for it). The whole course was 11 miles long and played host to 17,000 runners over two days.

As a runner I wasn’t used to the “leave no buddy behind” race mentality.  When people would complete obstacles faster than their friends they would wait and cheer them on or help them up before continuing on together. A more sentimental competitor might have been touched, but being a cynical running purist, I was appalled. I would've seized those precious seconds and thrown down the hammer while my friend was still in the mud. I’d also expect them to do the same to me.  That being said, after observing this Survivor-style race, I may have to team up with some people and try it out.

Now on to the photography part (WARNING: its gonna get nerdy, I won’t be offended if you just look at the muddy people)

During my research about the event I scoured the Internet for photos and material about the race. For a race made with photo ops in mind, most of the photos were pretty tame. Most were shot with available light relying on the drama of the event to make the shots look cool.  Of course the midday sun wasn’t helping with the drama either.

With that in mind I decided to strobe away. Someone once said that personal style is just self-plagiarism, who am I to argue? Strobes just make life better. Some people like bacon, I prefer 640-Watt Seconds released in 1/256,000 of a second.  I can’t explain it beyond that.

To change it up I decided to try a new lighting setup. The MENSA-level geniuses at Pocket Wizard released a new product called HYPERsync. This technology lets you control the output of the flash attached to a receiver. It also, and most importantly, lets you “sync” up to 1/1000. Now this is a game changer for me. I normally can only shoot during the "magic hour" to get my desired dark background.  Overpowering the sun during other times takes too much “light power,” and requires crazy f-stops. Usually I am limited to shooting at 1/200th of a second. That doesn’t stop much motion (if available light is present). However, by shooting at 1/1000 I can get the sky a few stops darker, and the aperture value won’t change, meaning my strobes can now overpower the sun during normal hours.  It also stops motion in its tracks.

Shooting with a high-speed synced strobe was amazing. It allowed me to make 11 a.m. look dramatic. Adding that ability to a mud fest, made for some pretty cool shots. Droplets of mud coupled with dramatic lighting was a dream come true. During the shoot I had an assistant hold an Einstein light with a magnum sports reflector.  The light was powered by an external battery, which was in a backpack. If HYPERsync has a negative its that in order to sync, the light must be at full power. That means the strobe is putting out a lot of light. It also chews up a lot of battery, so I knew we would have to make the shots count. My assistant was great, and held the steaming hot light and heavy backpack for three hours. I hope you agree that it was worth it. Let me know if you have any questions.