Pros you should know: Syl Arena

Pros you should know: Syl Arena

“Pros you should know” is an ongoing Q&A series with photographers that the folks here at admire and follow.

Syl Arena at Rayko Photo in San Francisco, at a recent workshop.

Syl Arena at Rayko Photo in San Francisco, at a recent workshop.

Welcome to the first in a series of articles talking about some of the professionals in our field that the folks here at think you should know. Today, we’d like to introduce you to Syl Arena.

Syl Arena’s profile is pretty distinctive. If you want to spot him in a crowd, look for a head of fiery red hair. Chances are, if it sticks out in a halo, it’s Syl. Friendly, gregarious and blunt, he’s likely also talking to five people at once about everything from small flashes to motion and more.

Syl first gained a steady following as a teacher and photographer when he started into the wilderness that was Canon flash photography at that time. His book, The Speedliter’s Handbook, is now considered required reading for anyone getting into Canon Speedlites, and has been recommended by no less a master than Joe McNally. The level of detail and effort that went into the book is staggering, especially when you consider that Syl was suffering from major back issues at the time.

But if you think that speedlites are all that Syl is into, you’d be wrong. As you’ll see below, he’s into a whole lot more, from studio still shoots to location video shoots. Talk to him and you get the sense that Syl isn’t going to be known just as the guy who pretty-much conquered Canon flash photography.

We were fortunate to get Syl to take time out of his schedule to answer the Q&A we sent him. Without further ado, here it is:

1. How did you get started in photography?
I was drawn into photography as a child. I blame it on Edwin Land (inventor of the Polaroid camera). About the age of 8, I “borrowed” my dad’s new-fangled Polaroid camera–which had bellows focus–and snuck it outside. The magic of crack-n-peel Polaroids totally captivated me. My dad wasn’t thrilled at the time–I kept “borrowing” his cameras for years. I’ve shot and studied photography at every stage of my education. In college, I went to Brooks Institute for a time and them jumped down to Tucson where I obtained by BFA in photography from the University of Arizona. So, I think my start in photography took 20 years or so.

2. How has photography changed the way you see the world around you?
At its core, photography is about capturing light. So, I’m constantly looking at the light around me – not at the objects around me, but at the light coming off those objects. Learn to truly see light and your photography will improve automatically. Then learn to craft light and you’ll find that your horizons as a photographer blow wide open.

3. What is your favorite subject, and why?
My photography is about creating portraits of personas. Sometimes the persona is real. Othertimes the persona is created. It’s that old documentary/pictorial split. I’m not interested in making a photograph of the person in front of me. Rather, I’m interested in making a photograph about the person in front of me. I use light and shadow to convey emotion. Change the light, change the shadow, and you’ve created a different persona. As for why? For 15 years or so, I specialized in shooting subjects that could not talk to me. Talk about a niche within a niche, for a time, I was the best rose photographer in the world. Eventually I came to understand that, when it comes to pix, there is nothing we are interested in more than images of other people. So, at a time when the horticulture industry was capsizing, I decided to reinvent myself as a people photographer. It’s taken a bunch of years, but I’m finally developing a body of portraits that I’m proud to share.

4. Is there a market that you want to break into or simply just try?
I’ve been working at shooting motion for the past two years. Two weeks ago, I received my first paycheck for shooting motion. As I expand upon below, I see the future of photography as being in motion. So, I’m working hard to convert my skills and vision as a stills photographer into the skills and vision needed by cinematographers. My focus is commercials and corporate image pieces for websites.

5. What client/project are you most looking forward to shooting next year?
My producer is chasing down a motion project with a charter jet company. It will be the biggest project we’ve ever done–involving air-to-air and aerial sequences. Those cool segments and the idea of shooting interiors in a million dollar tube that’s about 7’ wide is intriguing.

6. What do you derive inspiration from?
The lighting in movies–new and old–provides much of my visual inspiration. Those guys–the gaffers and grips–have to shape the light across a large space, so that the actor can move across without running out of light and without throwing an errant shadow. They have to do it efficiently and they have to make the lighting fit the director’s vision. That manipulative approach to lighting resonates with my pictorial sense as a photographer.

7. Where do you go for inspiration when you reach a creative plateau?
I reach creative plateaus all the time. To recharge, I put the project down and let it digest–sometimes for a few hours or days. Sometimes for months or longer. Being creative is like any other activity–you can’t do it forever. You need to rest. I have loads of projects. So, when I hit saturation with one, I’ll set it down and pick up another.

The Zacuto Z-Finder: Syl's favorite piecce of gear

The Zacuto Z-Finder: Syl’s favorite piecce of gear

8. What’s your favorite piece of gear? Why?
My Zacuto Z-Finder Pro–without a doubt–is my favorite piece of gear. I first started using it two years ago for my motion projects. Then I started using it for my still shoots. Now I’m an addict. Focusing stills off of the camera’s LCD in Liveview is so much better than looking through the viewfinder. For critical focus, I hit the 5x button on the camera and can focus on eyelashes. I have the Zacuto adhesive frames permanently affixed to the backs of my cameras. So I can snap the Z-finder on and off quickly. Those little frames create a light-tight seal – which is the real advantage of the Z-Finder. There’s no better solution for focusing outdoors under full sun. And…having the Z-finder snapped onto the back of your camera makes it look like a medium-format rig, so your clients will be even more impressed with your skill as a photographer. @:–)

9. Where do you see the future of photography technology taking us? How will the next generation take photos?
All signs point to the continued convergence of stills and motion. Magazines and newspaper are dying as the internet and personal tablets become more ubiquitous. As bandwidth becomes faster, motion will continue to grow on these channels. I look at those huge LED billboards along the freeways and think “those pix will all be moving some day.” That’s already happening on smaller LCD marquees at malls and other public spaces. So, if I was starting out and looking to maximize my options a couple of decades down the road, I would absolutely think of myself as an “imagemaker” rather than a “photographer.” Some images need to move. Others don’t. Being able to produce both will become the norm in the future. We will continue to have to do more with less. The convergence of stills and motion will continue for a long while and will likely be accelerated by technologies and media that have yet to be invented.

10. What do you do when you’re not shooting?
First and foremost, I’m a dad to three great lads and husband to the girl who moved across the street from me when I was six. So, I’m really happy to just have time to hang out at home with Amy, Tom, Vin, and Tony. When I’m lucky, I get to do some serious cooking and hopefully, fire something great up on the grill or smoker. For community service, I stay active as an Assistant Scoutmaster in our local Boy Scout troop and serve as the Advisor to our local Venturing crew (the BSA’s co-ed program for teens).

The Speedliter's Handbook.

The Speedliter’s Handbook.

11. What is the biggest challenge you face currently in your photography that you are trying to overcome, and what are you doing to overcome it?
Thanks to the success of the ‘Speedliter’s Handbook’, the world wants to think of me as that “Canon-shooting, small-flash dude.” The funny thing is that I shot monolights and studio packs for a long, long while before I began exploring the potential of small flash. It wasn’t until I gave up my medium-format and view cameras, in favor of DSLRs, that I took a serious look at small lights. Speedlites definitely have a powerful place in the world of digital photography (high-speed sync is one huge example). I don’t want to be pigeon-holed by the success of my book. So, I’m looking to throw off the yoke of being a “small-flash only” shooter. I’m shooting more large light projects and will soon add large lights into my workshop offerings.

12. What’s the best piece of advice you can give someone just entering the photography business?
Be realistic about why you’re getting into the business. If your main reason is that you “love” photography, keep your day job. Photography is a business that’s getting more competitive every day. Approach the craft of photography as a business person – you are providing a service and perhaps goods (like prints or albums). Do all you can to learn the business and legal side of the industry. Check out the free photo biz tutorials on Also, become an expert on copyright. Check out and join UsePLUS and

Below, we’ve included a sample of Syl’s work. His website his

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Sohail Mamdani is a writer, filmmaker, and photographer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Follow him on Twitter or find him at


  1. Thank you Syl!

  2. If you haven’t seen Syl Arena in action at a seminar, you’ve missed something! I consider myself an intermediate to advanced hobbyist. I learned more during a one day Speedliter Intensive seminar that I had at anything else I’ve attended. Yes, he’s that good.

    And fun, too….

  3. Syl is an incredibly great guy, generous with his time, advice, and – something he has a mountainous amount of – knowledge. Buy his book. Go to his lectures. You will be a richer person for having done so.



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