How to Smash Watermelons in the Dark

Here's how to get an action packed strobist shot on a budget.

Over a year ago now, I found a book in Easons. A strobist book. On the front cover there was an amazing picture of a young lad smashing a pumpkin. It was the Speedliter's Handbook and when I flicked through how it was done, I was disappointed. Syl Arena, the photographer involved used TWELVE SPEEDLIGHTS to light the scene. I only owned three - and one was broken at the time. Syl used so many because he was utilizing HSS, High Speed Sync, an at the time new piece of Strobist technology - and as a result he needed all the light he could get. I was convinced there was a way that the average strobist with a few brollies and lights could get similar results. I think the above image proves it was possible at the very least.

What I had:

  • Nikon D700
  • Sigma 70-200 f2.8
  • x2 Yongnuo Speedlights
  • X2 Brolly Stands and Generic Brollies.
  • Yongnuo Triggers

I mean I was just out of college by this stage. I'd no money to be throwing at fancy equipment just yet, so I made did with what I had. I mean that's a great camera and a fine second-hand lens, but it's not out-of-this-world expensive stuff. Better equipment would have improved the shot, no doubt, but this is a lesson in using what you have to get what you want.

After a trip to the nearest Tescos where we purchased 5 watermelons, 10 or so onions and a six pack of the cheapest beer, we headed back to Sean's back garden to set things up. But not before we got some strange looks for woman at the till. "We're having a party".

So I knew we'd need the faster shutter speed available. For me that was 1/200. Not all that fast - nowhere near 1/6,400 like Syl's shot had - but the best I, and many others, will have had access to. I also knew I would need an aperture where everything would be sharp - I settled on f/10 which I firmly believed was the sweet spot on my 70-200. Everyone says f/8 and I've seen the graphs to show why, but my copy seems to be different to that. Typical. Anyway at ISO 2000 this was the scene I was looking at:


Yeah it was dark. But then again this was Dublin. Unless it's the Summer, it's always dark. So those were the parameters I was working with. ISO 2000 was pushing it, but the shutter speed had to be the highest to maintain sharpness in the bits of watermelon as they were smashed and the aperture was at it's sweetest. I could have changed this, making it wider but it would have risked bringing in a depth of field I didn't want, or worse have the lads fall in and out of focus as they were swinging (wildly) at the fruit and veg being lobbed at them.

So I set up one light  at a right angle to the guys as they faced me and adjusted it until I was happy with it:

one light set up.jpg

And then I added another.


It was nothing more difficult than that. In fact the hardest part of setting them up, was changing the batteries halfway through the shoot. I did set the Flashes Zooms' to 85mm, to keep the light relatively straight on and avoiding spilling too much onto the background. I would later add a Gobo to the flashes for when we turned around positions, to totally eliminate this problem:


I was fully zoomed in at 200mm on my camera - about 25 metres away from the action. I wasn't putting myself in the direct firing line. And as the strobes were shooting through two cheap umbrellas, they were as safe enough and it would've been no loss had they been hit, anyway - I'd bubblewrapped the edges of my flash. Falling on grass wouldn't have been a problem for them. That all said, I was still covered with bits of onions, peppers and watermelon during the night, but nothing too bad, or that caused any damage.

Now that everything was set up, it was just a case of having fun, flinging things at old friends and catching that perfect moment. Even though it was great craic, some of use really learned something that day.

strobist set up.jpg

Stephen learned smashing peppers could be cause for some 'eye irritation', for one.

But near-blindness aside, I learned that there are reasons people use sound triggers for things like this. We had no sound triggers or anything fancy, I just used my radio trigger as a remote trigger to fire the camera and lights when I felt it was most accurate. I was off some times, but given the budget I was using for this shoot (the Watermelons cost more than my triggers at the time) I was happy with the results. It took practice, hence the onions, but it wasn't too hard to get the timing right.

The biggest tip I can give you if doing a shoot like this, is, well... cheat.

trick photography.jpg

I could stick up a plethora of unflattering images of the guys swinging-a-miss, tongue lolling out as they did so. But I won't. Not yet anyway. So to avoid further 'lovely faces', we made things simpler. We stuck the Watermelon on a metal pole, and this helped it stay in place. It allowed the guys to look more relaxed whilst swinging at it. Best of all, it also had the added benefit of weakening the structure of the watermelon, meaning it smashed up more spectacularly when walloped

At the end, a small bit of cloning, layering and colour correction in photoshop helped make the dream a reality. 

So I could do it with 10 less lights. I still had the detail in the weapon, and relatively sharp spray of fruit and vegetables! I'd be happy to answer any questions anyone has, but I think you'll see it's a pretty simple process. Nothing to worry you, and nothing to stop you from doing it. Unless you too fear 'Eye irritation'.