Passion for photography develops from Hobby to online sensation
By By Janene Holzberg and For The Baltimore Sun
Oct 19, 2013 | 6:12 PM
At 2 a.m. one morning in March 2010, photographer David Hobby was wandering, awestruck, around a gilded palace in Southwest Asia as the royal guest of a monarch.
"I thought to myself, 'Holy crap! I'm in the sultan's palace in Oman, and no one's even around,'" recalled the Ellicott City resident, who had been invited to the small Arab state to speak about Strobist.com, his photography website and blog.
"I've been pinching myself for the last six years," said the 48-year-old married father of two teens. He founded his website in 2006, then left his job as a Baltimore Sun photojournalist to make it his full-time career a year later. "It's been an insane experience."
Strobist.com, which teaches photographers how to get quality results with small flashes called strobes, currently pulls in 3 million page views and 250,000 unique visitors a month. Every day, 3,000 people take part in Hobby's free Lighting 101 online course. Those numbers led Time magazine to name the site one of its top 25 blogs in 2010.
But Hobby is choosing not to adhere to the if-it-ain't-broke-don't fix-it mentality regarding Strobist, a mash-up he coined to describe a strobe-lighting enthusiast.
Instead, he's setting in motion major tweaks to his successful formula, including preparing for what could be his last seminar ever on Oct. 21 in Columbia.
Despite — or perhaps because of — the hoopla surrounding the site, Strobist will soon undergo changes as Hobby undertakes the "gig of a lifetime." He has signed on to create a course in travel photography at Lynda.com, an online learning site that reaches more than 2 million subscribers.
While he already gives seminars internationally, he will soon embark on 10-day travel photography lecture tours to five cities each year, making stops in Hong Kong, Dubai, Paris, London and New York.
So, what will become of Strobist?
"Bigger articles will appear less frequently, and the site will rely more heavily on its archive of 2,000 entries," Hobby said.
When it was founded, Hobby's website and blog had no competition. Seven years later, there are 20 other sites working to deliver the same content that Hobby does.
"I decided I didn't want to scramble to bring traffic [to the site], and that it would be much better if I blogged about a new idea every two weeks instead of two times a week," he said. "I may be doing fewer things on Strobist, but they will be noteworthy when they drop."
Mohamed Somji, a photography instructor in the Middle East who writes a photo blog, said in an email that Hobby has had a commanding influence in the development of global digital photography during the last five years.
"Photography companies have been heeding David's insights and advice and many of their product introductions have been influenced by the content of David's posts," wrote Somji, who has hosted Hobby in Dubai at events sponsored by Gulf Photo Plus, the photography website for which Somji works.
"He is one of the smartest guys that I know and is always brimming with inventive and novel ideas," he wrote.
Despite similar high praise from multiple sources, Hobby has decided to make his Oct. 21 seminar the last of its kind, "if not ever, at least for a very long time," he announced in his blog. His adjusted work schedule will allow him to place a higher priority on family time, he said.
An 'average photographer'
Few people have built successful careers on the premise that they're average at what they do, but then there's Hobby.
"I'm a generalist and a good, average photographer," he said, though he snagged a job at the Columbia-based weekly newspaper group, Patuxent Publishing Co., now part of the Baltimore Sun Media Group, in 1988, right out of the University of Florida. "I'm good at some things and not others, but I understand the way things fit together."
He had been studying engineering on the side in college, where he was on a music scholarship. But after he started shooting for the campus newspaper on weekends, he got hooked, and eventually quit school one course shy of graduating.
His story has resonated with others who have the same passion for photography.
Lisa Shires, a Baltimore area freelance photographer since August, said when she surrendered to her passion for photography, she leaned on Hobby's blog to find the courage and know-how to make the career switch from her job at the Defense Department.
"Strobist was a great resource for a beginner like me because it not only breaks down how to light, but it comes with a side of technical prowess and wit," Shires said in an email. "Reading David's blogs gave me confidence because I started to understand the rationale behind every decision made on a shoot."
Such feedback from Hobby's core audience — 85 percent are amateur photographers — routinely inundates the site following his posts.
"When I started the blog, I thought I was leaving a trail of bread crumbs for the people coming up behind me, like I was addressing my 20-year-old self," he said. "I didn't like the idea of photography being so tight-fisted. I wanted to see a cross-pollination of photographers with different strengths."
Initially reluctant to leave his job at The Sun to build Strobist.com, Hobby came to realize that staying put was actually the riskier proposition. After ending a yearlong sabbatical to test the waters in 2007, he took a buyout and made the leap to self-employed blogger.
"If you've been shooting daily for 20 years and you don't have enough to share, then you're just a potted plant," he said.
The new gig
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Hobby's new gig will be as much about what he doesn't do as what he does.
"I won't be teaching people to be travel photographers. I want to teach [amateur] photographers how to travel with their cameras," he said. "If it's done right, they will be so much more observant of the world.
"First off, they need to back off being full-time photographers on vacation, since most of the time they are traveling with family," he said. "Second, they need to be well-researched and know what the trophy shots are. The course will be 50 percent technology and 50 percent psychology."
Jim Heid, photography content manager at Lynda.com, said he's been a Strobist fan for years, and he believes Hobby will bring "a powerful combination of creativity, practical teaching and an eagerness to share his expertise" to his new position.
Hobby will own the content, "so it will be my risk and my reward," he said.