Tomas Whitehouse’s Self-Taught Journey to the Pros

For someone who’s been a guitarist in a punk band, an actor, and a professional critic of high-quality single malt Scotch, Tomas Whitehouse’s work doesn’t reveal a commercial photography career is something he came to relatively late in his 31 years. This ex-patriot Englishman now living in Finland is full of the unexpected. Physically imposing, he is gregarious, generous, and if you didn’t know him, you could easily think his photographs were taken by someone shooting professionally as long as Whitehouse has been alive.

©Tomas Whitehouse

While studying acting in college, he found himself taking compulsory sub-modules like makeup, theatrical dress, lighting, and live sound reinforcement. Although he loved acting, he was drawn to art and technical aspects of lighting. In order to avoid the massive debt for university studies which he saw his peers getting drawn into, he left school to follow another dream—writing songs and playing guitars. The Birmingham-native ended up playing in the band Farse, which recorded several albums, and became fairly well-known by British youth. By 2004, the UK independent scene was not enabling them to pay their bills, and they were unable to break out of their home country.

©Tomas Whitehouse

After a series of unhappy jobs in a variety of industries, Whitehouse had enough, and felt the pull of international travel beckoning. He brought his first Fuji FinePix S7000 camera, and documented his travels. He became interested in editing and postproduction as a hobby. By 2006 he met his girlfriend in Helsinki and began to transition to professional photography. Finding himself drawn to shoot figure skating events, he was noticed by an editor at the Finnish Figure Skating Association, who liked his work. She began hiring him, and then he discovered David Hobby’s blog, The Strobist. This information resource opened a new dimension to his shooting, and Whitehouse became a convert to the ways of off-camera flash. Soon he recognized he was combining Hobby’s information with what he learned in his theater lighting courses, and quickly felt competent when planning light setups for his own shoots.

©Tomas Whitehouse

It became apparent he was well-ahead of the curve of most other photographers in the area, and he continued to excel. Given Finland’s proximity next to Sweden, the home of Profoto, Whitehouse took advantage of the strong representation the company enjoys in Helsinki. Soon he owned an AcuteB 600R, a D4 head, D4 Ring Flash, soft light reflector, ComPactPlus 600 spare batteries, and other accessories. “Then I had this huge amount of power in a really small box which I could still take to and from shoots, so it opened up a huge door for me,” he says. “You can rely on it, as well as it gives an immense quality of light consistency.” He rents Profoto Pro-B3 units when he “needs bigger guns,” he explains.

©Tomas Whitehouse

Whitehouse picked up work as a stringer for Getty, shooting figure skating. He also worked for Canon, several media agencies, and a range of record labels. Finding himself drawn to larger productions, he enjoys all the preproduction involved in a complex shoot. He sees this as the direction he’d like to continue moving in. “I’ve never been an assistant for anyone,” he says. “It’s just literally from reading an awful lot and getting out there. You really have to get out there and get to know the equipment you’ve got, respect its limitations and make a whole bunch of mistakes. Then you find what you want to do and develop your own style.”

©Tomas Whitehouse

Seeing diversity in personal photography as a way keep his professional practice fresh, Whitehouse shoots in different styles on his own time. He recommends this to all photographers. “I love macro photography, love taking pictures of tiny microscopic things,” he explains. “A lot of photographers sometimes get so consumed by their career they don’t have enough time to create stuff off their own backs sometimes. It’s a shame. I understand it when folks are really busy and their spare time is really limited, but it’s very healthy to have your own personal projects—the stuff you don’t have to worry about working towards clients requirements. You can just go completely crazy with something and really get what’s inside you out and into the picture and manifest it. It’s a healthy thing. It gets harder and harder to make that time, but it’s a good idea to allow the time for it if you can.” Not to be taken lightly, much of Whitehouse’s personal photography is as accomplished as his professional jobs.

©Tomas Whitehouse

Whitehouse is a Nikon shooter, relying on the D3 model for his main camera body. For portrait work, he uses the 50mm f/1.4 lens, which he dubs “my usual choice of lenses.” He continues by saying “I like the small primes, because when you’re using the Profoto D4 Ringflash, everything’s nice and compact and tidy. When you stick a big 24-70mm zoom, everything gets a bit bulky, and it slows me down a little.”

Connecting his Nikons to his Profoto gear, Whitehouse uses four PocketWizard Plus II units. He’ll next be trying the MultiMAX, but the Plus II’s have been working fine. “They’re about four years old, now, and still going strong,” he reports. “Out of all the equipment I’ve had so far, those are the die‑hards. They just refuse to stop working. A few friends of mine said, ‘Yeah, but they’re really expensive.’ It’s not what you get, it’s what you pay for. If you want something that’s going to survive come wind, rain, or nuclear holocaust, then you buy a PocketWizard. If you want to keep recycling all your stuff, or changing it over or upgrading year after year, then go ahead and buy something cheaper.”

©Tomas Whitehouse

Aside from their quality and reliability, there’s another reason Whitehouse uses PocketWizard. “I’ve always been a PocketWizard guy after making too many mistakes with cheap Chinese triggers. I was at an ice tour taking pictures of a figure skating team. I had three or four flashes all with these cheap triggers. Every time the organizers went past me carrying the walkie talkie radio and pressed their transmitter it would fire my triggers and my lights. We call them PovertyWizards. I’ve tried pretty much every brand of Chinese PovertyWizard there was. You wind up buying them over and over. You end up spending more in the end, don’t you? To students at my workshops, I say, ‘You can buy these if you’re just taking pictures for pleasure,” because it’s not so bad if they misfire, or something strange happens during the shoot. But, if you’re ever thinking of doing this for money, and where you absolutely, positively have to rely on your equipment keeping up to your pace, then don’t buy cheap. Buy something reliable, something everyone from all around the world will rate, and tell you, or swear by.”

©Tomas Whitehouse

Whitehouse is beginning a new series of photographic lighting workshops. The first is entitled An Introduction to Flash. Watch his blog for developing details.

Next year will be the European figure skating championships in Switzerland, which Whitehouse already has his eye on. He’s also aiming to shoot more elaborate and theatrical on-location stories. “I don’t care if I’m earning pennies, or if it’s costing me thousands. That’s the stuff I want to do and that’s the stuff that I’m getting sucked into,” he says. He plans on living in Finland from now on, with periodic trips to the U.K. for both work and family visits. Considering how far his technique and vision have developed in such a short time, we look forward to a long and exciting career from this accomplished autodidact.

Tomas Whitehouse Photography
Tomas Whitehouse Blog
Tomas Whitehouse on Twitter
Tomas Whitehouse on Facebook

Written by Ron Egatz

Clane Gessel’s Before and After

Seattle-area wedding photographer Clane Gessel has posted a few cool photos showing what the PocketWizard FlexTT5 and MiniTT1 have done to his photography.

Be sure to check out his blog and his site for more examples from this photographer who employs the tagline “celebrate your life.”

Joe McNally’s on the D-low!

We know you’ve been wanting to see more. We know you’ve been wanting to know how they work.

Joe McNally has a set.

Joe McNally did a test.

Please watch this blog, our site, and Joe’s blog for further developments.

Firmware 5.15 Corrects Data Table Issue in 5.10

We recently released the latest official ControlTL firmware, version 5.10. Based on continued internal testing and feedback from users, it appears a couple of the exposure and timing data tables became corrupted somewhere in the process. We’ve had reports of improper exposures with several camera models as well as shutter clipping with the Canon 1Ds Mark III and 1D Mark IV. We have corrected the tables and the revised firmware is available as version 5.15 and can be downloaded via the PocketWizard Utility now.

We recommend upgrading to 5.15 as soon as you can.

The manual addendum for v5.10 is still the same for v5.15.

Chris O’Connell Stops Time

Chris O’Connell first appeared on our radar when he set out to accomplish the first 500 shutter speed remotely-synched flash sequence in action sports, complete with HDR morph shot in RAW. This is the story of how he got there.

©Chris O'Connell

Virginia is not the first geographic location you think of when extreme skiing comes to mind. That’s where Chris O’Connell grew up and began talking photos at the age of 12 or 13, when his father gave him his Mamiya Sekor. O’Connell began shooting his friends skateboarding and riding bikes. “A lot of action stuff. I mean, that’s my roots,” he says.

Unaware he could make a living as a full-time photographer, O’Connell went to business school and moved to Colorado after graduation. His first job was at The Vail Daily. He also shot freelance. At that time, the area was the virtual epicenter of the snowboarding world. Ice climbing, rock climbing, and kayaking were not far behind. O’Connell shot them all, and then some.

Time in business school paid off for O’Connell. “I focused on the business end of things a lot. It made magazine editors feel comfortable when I started doing submissions and then I’d write little articles. I would package my slides very professionally. I think that gave me a boost over some of my peers at the time,” he says.

He became Senior Photographer at Snowboarder Magazine in the late 1990s, and began shooting many snowboard and ski events for editorial avenues around the world. “I had a few Senior Photographer gigs for different magazines throughout the world, and the commercial stuff came next,” O’Connell recalls. Corporations like Oakley, Nike, and Burton began hiring him for commercial work. He eventually left Colorado for the Tahoe area in Northern California. A few years later, he made a radical shift to Orange County, “to be away from the mountains but still closer to the action sports hub of the world, Costa Mesa,” he says.

His new home base is also home to many surf and skate companies, as well as snow gear brands and optical companies. Hurley, Billabong, Quiksilver, and Volcom all have headquarters there. “It’s a great place for an action sports shooter and catalogue guy like myself to be based, because I’m right here. A good percentage of my clients are within ten miles of me,” says O’Connell. He also cites his proximity to Samy’s Camera, Los Angeles rental houses, and the five hour drive to the Sierra Nevada mountains as further reasons for his location. Those mountains have “some of the most epic light and consistent weather patterns of any mountains I’ve been in the world,” he says. “Tons of snow, and there’s always a high pressure system behind it. Then we go grey a lot, so there’s really good opportunities to shoot around here as well.”

©Chris O'Connell

Exclusively a digital photorapher, O’Connell relies on digital gear to get it right the first time. “When you have a guy jumping off a 50 foot cliff and it’s super dangerous, you don’t really get two takes. When I get controlled environments, that’s when I can really excel. That’s why the catalog and commercial stuff is so easy for me because I’m so used to only getting one shot at a photo,” he explains.

Last September, inspired by his friend Chase Jarvis shooting in New Zealand, O’Connell got the competitive idea to one-up him. Jarvis shot 20 pops per flash at 250 shutter speed tethered. O’Connell’s mind quickly had gears turning. “I want to be able to do this and shoot it wireless. I can’t really speculate on why he did it tethered. When I started looking into the PocketWizard FlexTT5, I got the idea I could really push this to the next level and shoot RAW files with the wireless sync,” he says. “With action photography, one f-stop is everything, so that’s really what I wanted to do. I started researching it a lot before we shot it, but Chase was the inspiration, for sure.”

O’Connell’s big challenge finally happened on June Mountain in the Eastern Sierras of California, which provided a special jump for the complex morphing shot.

©Chris O'Connell

Pulling off such a technical challenge made O’Connell do a lot of homework, including investigating a multitude of manufacturers who might be able to execute this photographic feat. “I used PocketWizard Plus receivers, because I think they have better range and are a little bit more stable in colder weather than the MultiMAXs and even the Mini,” he says. “They’re my workhorses. If I’m going to be far away from a shot, I still go to those, even though I’m on the transmitting mode. The TT5 allowed me to shoot at 1/500. I’ve never been able to do that with the PocketWizard Plus. That usually maxes right around 1/320. I used the Broncolor, the Scoro A4 and A2S packs. Those packs are really quite incredible. They’re expensive, but the control you have over the flash duration and having a digital readout on the pack was integral in being able to make sure I was shooting it at a fast enough flash duration. When this shoot came down to it, it was all about magic hour. Things have to be functioning right, and I can’t have room for error. It gets cold at night in the snow, and it’s hard to change things around, so I think that was really integral, as was the TT5. I used Honda generators, the EU series. They’re quiet so I can hear when riders are dropping, and they’re just not obnoxious to use on a shoot; they’re clean and quiet.”

The cameras which helped him pull all this together were Canon EOS-1D Mark IV. “I shot Zeiss lenses. I’m sort of a lens geek, and I’m just finding that a lot of the Canon wides don’t do it for me. The 14mm is just pretty sharp all the way across, but when you get a rider or anyone, for that matter, up into the corners in some of the other Canons, they fail. I think the Zeiss are super expensive and they’re heavy. For a guy like me who has to hike around the mountains, your pack starts getting really heavy when you’re throwing a bunch of Zeiss in there, but the crispness of the lens all the way across is truly unmatched. You give up the autofocus, but I can deal with that. I don’t shoot a hell of a lot of autofocus anyway. That was one reason I chose to shoot the Zeiss. I was really happy with the results.”

©Chris O'Connell

O’Connell discovered a tip and would like to share it with our readers. “I see a lot of snow sports photographers all around the world have some misfire trouble. They just set their flash pack on the ground, have the head six feet off the ground, but not the PocketWizard. I set up a separate light stand, ran a long extension cord for my sync and got that thing eight feet off the ground. That dramatically increased my reliability on the syncing. The ground is bad enough as it is for the radio waves, but the water and snow I guess just really throw it off. I never really knew that in years and years of misfires. I always figured because it’s too far away or I was around the corner too much. But it’s really something that could dramatically reduce the amount of misfires is to get that thing. Buy a long extension cord for your sync and get it off the ground. Bring it up eight feet. That does help.”

O’Connell’s next challenge? To stop even smaller increments of time. “Basically this whole process has left me with the desire to learn more and push it more on how fast it could sync and what else I can do,” he says. “If I could shoot a sequence at 1/1,000 sec., I’d be elated. Maybe that’s my next project.”

Chris O’Connell Photography
Chris O’Connell blog
Chris O’Connell on Vimeo

Written by Ron Egatz

Rick Sammon Keeps it Simple

Rick Sammon is a shooter we’ve admired for a long time. Last week he posted a great how-to article on his blog. Fashion Week Day 2: Try the KIS Lighting Technique has some serious gems regarding off-camera flash. Sammon details how he augmented the sun with his Cannon Speedlight 580EX II triggered by a PocketWizard.

Sammon includes the following gems, which we quote directly.

  • The closer the light, the softer the light.
  • The larger the light, the softer the light.
  • For a softer light, don’t aim the light directly at the subject. Rather, feather it (tilt it away from the subject) so that the light “spills” onto the subject.

Great post, Rick!

Rick is currently working on an iOS app called Light It!, which is about, of course, lighting, and should be available in September. Always a source of great information, tips, and examples of great off-camera flash, don’t miss the regular posts to Sammon’s blog.

Rick Sammon Photography

Rick Sammon Blog

AC3 ZoneController Photoshoot – Behind the Scenes at Switchback Brewing Company

Every now and then we manage to sneak out of the office to get behind the lens of the camera.  Our need for an image to launch the new AC3 ZoneController for Canon seemed like the perfect opportunity. We made a few phone calls and put a plan in motion to visit a local  craft brewery. Having always been told to pursue our passions, the opportunity to combine beer and photography sounded almost too good to be true.

Vermont is known for its legendary craft brewery culture, having one of the highest brewery to population ratios in the country.  Switchback Brewing Co. based in Burlington, VT was founded in 2002 when they started brewing their wildly-popular, unfiltered Switchback Ale.  You’d be hard pressed to find a bar in the greater Burlington area that doesn’t have this tasty ale on tap.  Since then, they’ve started brewing a Roasted Red, a Porter and most recently a Slow-Fermented Brown Ale.  The catch with Switchback is they only sell in kegs, no bottles.  So you either enjoy it at your favorite watering-hole or you take a keg home and enjoy it with some of your closest friends.   After getting a tour with the brewmaster and listening to his detailed explanation of what makes his beers different (he’s a former microbiologist), we discovered what makes their brews so good.  But we have to keep that a secret!

The beer is the second reason why we went to the brewery; the classic German copper kettles and lauter tun used in the brewing process was the first.  Switchback has two, 46-year-old, handcrafted copper kettles complete with a copper control panel all purchased from a brewery in Beerfelden, Germany. They were about to be sent to the scrap yard when they were discovered.  Reportedly, it cost more to ship the kettles to Vermont than they were to purchase.


We contacted the owner/brewmaster a few weeks ago and asked if we could come in and take some pictures of the kettles when they weren’t in use.  We wanted to get some shots while the kettles were empty so we could put flashes in them (safety first!).  As luck would have it, that would happen the next day.  We packed up some gear and headed off to the brewery for a few hours.

The image we wanted was pretty straightforward, highlight the kettles with lights on the inside and make sure the authentic control panel was in the picture.  Getting the shot we wanted quickly was important as the temps on the upper deck hovered around a cool 95˚ F (35˚C).  Normally they can easily hit 110˚ F (43˚C) when the kettles are in full operation!

The ambient lights were large warehouse fixtures, which made balancing them with our flashes a bit of a challenge, especially due to the reflective nature of the giant, polished copper and steel kettles.  We started off working to control the ambient lights with two medium soft boxes powered by an Elinchrom Ranger pack and controlled with a PowerST4 Receiver. Our next step was to light the inside of the kettles with a few Speedlites and FlexTT5s, which ended up being a bit of a challenge. One of the kettles was almost twice as deep as any of us were tall.  Needless to say, we were asking more of our light stands than they could offer!  One strategically placed Justin Clamp later and we were in business.

Shooting with a 5D Mark II and 17-40mm lens, we borrowed a ladder to get the perspective we wanted, which was further exaggerated by the wide angle lens.  After adding a few kicker lights around the back of the kettles we added some gels to the mix to give the image a little more punch.  After a few AC3 power tweaks, we were happy with the image and we’re off to do some taste testing.  The final image as seen below and on the homepage of PocketWizard.com was taken with a Canon 5D Mark II; f/8; 1/15 sec.; ISO 800.

Author, Dave Schmidt, VP of Sales and Marketing at PocketWizard, is also an avid photographer.  He along with Ian and Zack, our tech support guys and avid photographers themselves, spent a few hours at the brewery taking the image which is featured on the homepage of PocketWizard.com.