I didn't see the ships on the horizon

Photographers beware: Sometimes experience is your worst enemy. I was shooting in the studio yesterday and trying out some new flash and flash trigger equipment. Having shot in the studio for many years, with the same equipment, I feel generally pretty comfortable making everything work smoothly. My friend Benjamin needed a new portrait of him and his wife, Lauren, for an immediate press request, so I told them I could grab it while I was setting up for another shoot. That's when the ship appeared on the horizon.

I remember reading a great book not long ago about the nature of people (and most animals) to only "see" what we are already somewhat familiar with. The author gave the example of early natives who stood on the shores as European sailing ships came towards them on the horizon. The natives didn't "see" the ships until they were literally entering the bay because they had never seen such things before and they had no frame of reference for the new experience. I thought of this during my shoot yesterday.

I took a few test shots and showed them to Ben. He liked them, but commented on the darker area on the bottom of the frame. I, of course, had seen the darker area, but assumed it was light falloff from my strobes and wrote it off to "natural vignetting". But then he said, "Is that from the shutter curtain?". I didn't see that ship coming. I just assumed because my camera had always synced properly with my strobes at 1/250th of a second, that it would be the same no matter what. I have seen and dealt with the effects of the shutter curtain and flash many times before, yet the fact that it could be happening now never crossed my mind - because I didn't think it could happen. So, I changed my shutter speed to 1/160th and the image changed completely. The dark area was gone. Duh. Apparently this new strobe or trigger system doesn't keep up at 1/250th - or maybe my camera needs some tuning. In fact, I should have clued in to that because a week ago we were testing a different flash trigger system that said it could sync at up to 1/250th, but it never worked above 1/200.

Lessons learned: If your flash system doesn't seem predictable, check the shutter speed to make sure you are safely within synchronization speed - even if it's supposed to work, it may not. Never assume everything will always work because it always has. Have "beginners mind" and be open to any possibility and variable. Life changes quickly these days and we don't want to get run over by passing ships.