The Camera Flash Experiment

Digital Video: Agents Adams, Cacy, Caruth, Joseff, Martin, Savage, Schackman, Shafer, Slocum, Winckler
Digital Photography: Agents Fountain, Nicholson, Scott, Sokoler, Brypace, Clgregor, Eppink, Fawnandfauna, Mirka
Waveleaders: Agents Fountain, Spear, Todd
Mission inspired by: Agents Gee, Taliaferrow
edited byJamey Shafer
song byTyler Walker

For our latest mission, 700 agents lined the length of the Brooklyn Bridge a week before its 125th birthday. In the rain and cold we created a wave of camera flashes across the bridge from Brooklyn to Manhattan. Enjoy the video below and then read on for the report and tons of photos.

We get lots of mission ideas emailed in to the site. Sometimes they’re great, and we end up making them happen. Sometimes they inspire us to think of a new idea along the same lines. In this case, we had two ideas sent to us in one week that seemed to work perfectly together. Agent Taliaferrow suggested that we do “the wave” across the Brooklyn Bridge and Agent Gee suggested that we create a wave of camera flashes on a Manhattan street. We put the two together and The Camera Flash Experiment was born.

We would have agents line the length of the Brooklyn Bridge and then film and photograph the mission from the Manhattan Bridge, about 500 yards to the north. We weren’t sure how the flashes would look from that distance, so a small crew conducted a test run about a month before the mission. Agents Shafer, Adams, and I set up on the Manhattan Bridge pedestrian walkway and shot video of Agents Fountain, Walker, Gallagher, and Sokoler creating camera flashes on the Brooklyn Bridge walkway.

We were impressed with how four flashes looked, and were excited to find out how it would look with hundreds more. Still, capturing the flashes on video was going to be a challenge. They looked much more impressive to the naked eye than they did on the camera’s view screen. Capturing the mission via photography was going to be even more challenging, as our photographers would have to use long exposures to show the wave of light.

The biggest challenge of all in this mission was the weather. As Friday neared, the forecast looked worse and worse. We had over 700 RSVPs for the mission and a few agents had made travel plans. Agent Nicholson, our longtime photographer, had already bought plane ticket to fly back from a trip to Los Angeles to shoot the mission. We decided to move forward rain or shine and hope for the best. The mission should still work in the rain, and it would be a crazy adventure either way.

The crowd gathers

Mission briefing
Despite the awful rain and the unseasonably cold weather, 700 participants showed up at our meeting point ready to go. I explained the mission idea and our plan of attack, and instructed everyone to set their cameras to “force flash” (fearing “red eye” or “automatic” mode would put the wave out of sync.) We figured each camera would have a different lag on its shutter button, so we took some practice shots with everyone trying to take a photo at exactly the same time, first holding the shutter down halfway to pre-focus.

1… 2… 3!
The plan was simple (and as it turned out to be, too simple!) We would walk over to the bridge in a single file line with me in the lead. We would line up on the bridge from the tower on the Brooklyn side to the tower on the Manhattan side, single file. I would start the wave by taking a photo and yelling, “1!” Whoever was next to me would then yell “2!” and take his shot, and so on down the line until it got to Manhattan. Just like a wave at a football game, participants would wait for the person next to them to cue them to go. We’d send the wave back and forth a couple of times and then finish with a finale of everyone flashing.

The crowd heads toward the bridge enterance

Agent Nicholson’s pre-mission shot from Brooklyn Bridge Park
When planning this mission, it was difficult to know how many people we would need to span the length between the two towers. It’s also tough to know how many people are going to show up to our missions these days. In many ways, we were lucky the weather was so bad, because had it been beautiful out we could have had 2,000 people show up to participate. Believe me, managing 700 people on a bridge is more than enough to handle. After the front of the line made it to the Brooklyn side, I walked back along the line to see if everyone was in place. Once I got to the other side I realized there were some people who weren’t even on the bridge yet. We had way more people than we needed. With the help of Agent Terracio, I started directing the extra people past the Manhattan tower to walk forward and create a second line, filling in the gaps.

We were excited to see what kind of reactions we would get from the regular people on the bridge who encountered our giant single file line, but I’m not sure if anyone saw us. The weather was just too awful for any sane person to be outside. In retrospect this was probably a good thing. We didn’t need anyone else on this bridge, and we certainly didn’t need any bikers whizzing by us.

It took much longer than expected to get everyone in place, but most of the participants managed to have lots of fun despite the conditions. Many came alone and made friends with the people standing next to them. There were even a few “missed connections” posted on our site and on Craigslist the next day. Strangers and friends alike made the best of this ridiculous adventure.

Some didn’t even have umbrellas!
Once everyone was in place, it was time to start the wave. I took out my camera, shouted “1!”, and grinned excitedly as I heard my neighbors taking their flashes, “2! 3! 4!” Then a few seconds later, looking down the line, I realized it had stopped. The wave only made it to 15 or so before ending. I’m not sure how it stopped, but I guess it was easy to get distracted. It was pouring, noisy cars were splashing in the rain below, and folks were trying to keep warm. I realized it stopped because it hadn’t traveled too far, but how would I know if it stopped 200 people down the line? We had to figure out a better plan. I remembered that waves at football games are usually started by a cheerleader running in front of the crowd. It was time to be a cheerleader. Agent Spear, Agent Fountain, and I devised a plan to take turns running the length of the bridge, screaming “go!” at the top of our lungs down the line. At this point we wished we hadn’t given Agent Spear’s bike to the camera guys on the Manhattan Bridge.

Agent Spear and Agent Fountain take off running

I nearly lost my voice from yelling “Go!” about one thousand times

Agent Spear runs and ducks to avoid covering the flashes

Agent Spear ran so fast he wound up in this photo twice
We had two photographers in charge of documenting the mission from afar. Agent Sokoler was stationed on the Manhattan Bridge and Agent Nicholson was at ground level in Brooklyn Bridge Park. Both were working with multiple cameras and tripods, in attempt to get as much coverage as possible. On one camera, Agent Sokoler took six 30 second exposures, capturing six sections of the wave as it crossed from Brooklyn to Manhattan.

I put together a small animated GIF of the wave crossing the bridge using these photos.

(this animation may not work in all browsers, get Firefox.)
Agent Sokoler got some beautiful longer exposure photos as well.

Agent Nicholson had a tougher time getting good shots from Brooklyn Bridge Park. Being at ground level made it tough to capture the flashes. Here are a few highlights.

Back on the bridge, things didn’t go exactly as planned for the finale. Everyone was so wet and cold that mob mentality took over after the wave had gone down and back twice. Some stuck around and kept firing for the finale, and others assumed it must be over when they saw a few people beginning to leave. In the end, it didn’t matter. We had done what we wanted to do– create a wave back of light back and forth between the boroughs.

Agents looking at their photos as they leave
Some agents convened at a nearby bar for an afterparty. Others got on the train and headed home to dry off. This made for a very wet car of 6-train riders.

We learned a lot at this mission. We learned more about how crowds work together (especially under bad conditions) and how communication does (and does not) work in single file lines. Next time we try to pull something like this off, we’ll be much more prepared.

Although the weather was miserable to deal with, in many ways the night we picked was destined to be the night for this mission. The next night, which was to be our rain date if we had decided to cancel, it ended up thunder storming at the exact time of the mission. Had we moved it to then, an unexpected storm would have hurt us even more, as people would have been unprepared. We also found out that Manhattan Bridge walkway was closed for construction on Saturday and Sunday nights, meaning we wouldn’t have had access for our photographers and cameramen.

Despite the glitches in the plan, we had a blast pulling this off and it seems most of the participants did as well. We never know exactly how our missions are going to work out, but we do know that they will always be an adventure. This mission was different for us in many ways. Most noticeably was the fact that we did not have direct interaction with our audience. In fact, we can’t even be sure that anyone even saw what we did. But we can hope that at least a few folks driving or taking the train across the Manhattan Bridge, living in a downtown apartment, or walking home in the rain looked up at the right time and saw something spectacular.

Mission Accomplished


Agent Sokoler’s Flickr Set
Agent Scott’s Flickr Set
Agent Fountain’s Flickr Set
All photos from all participants
All photos from all participants


  1. Glad to see that we came out of that with at least a successful animated gif!

    It was cold, but not as cold as it was during the Cell Phone Symphony, so it’s really hard to complain.

    I had fun and I hope most others did, as well! Thanks as always, IE.

  2. Capturing this entire mission on video and photos would have been a daunting task even under the best of conditions, so, seeing how it came out so magically beautiful even with the wind and rain . . . well, it just goes to show the kind of incredible scenes that Improveverywhere can make happen under any circumstances.
    It was a great adventure, and I was happy to be a part of it.
    Thanks Charlie, and everyone behind the scenes, and all of the agents on the bridge – IT WAS A WONDERFUL!

  3. Although definitely not what I was expecting, and sad that there was no active audience, this results in one of the most beautiful things you guys have done. I’m going to have to take one of those panoramic pictures and frame it.

  4. I found that a bit boring as the fun for me is seeing the reaction of the non-agent spectators.

  5. Very interesting mission. I was up there from Atlanta for the National Stationery Show and signed up… then couldn’t get the details because I couldn’t access my computer. Bummer. So close and yet so very far. I do know first hand it was a really miserable night. Even though you had plenty of bodies, it would still have been cool though to be in it. Good show!

  6. Most of your others are far more interesting, but very neat idea. I guess it is the quality of the pictures, but all the flashes look photo shopped. Great job with all those people and the weather.

  7. @Cronner,

    The flashes are not photoshopped. We used photoshop and other software to stitch photos together in some cases, and to saturate the colors (most obviously in the black and white one), but the flashes are very real.

  8. This is beautiful and for some strange reason it feels patriotic to me. Improv Everywhere is making this world a better place.

  9. This was awesome. Managing to do this with a crowd of over 700.. impressive to say the least.

  10. I really liked the video for this one. Everyone looked so happy and the music was very well suited.

  11. As two people put it…

    1> Heyyy, How come I wasn’t notified about this mission?!

    2> Interesting, and yet surprisingly lame.

  12. Cool stuff — I forgot both my camera and umbrella that morning so I missed out this time!

    Too bad all those point & shoot digitals had such a long delay, I think it would have been better if it was a lot faster – eg people just look for the wave of flashes to get closer and shoot when it’s their turn.

    But still cool!

  13. I thought this mission was a great idea, the rain sucked, and I’m sorry to hear about the communication problems. I wasn’t there when the mission actually happened, because my shoes were soaking wet and I was freezing so I left, but I really thought the numbers thing was going to work. I mean, how hard can it be? The person next to you says one number and then you say the next number.

    But I guess not everybody would agree with me that that’s simple. For example, before I left, the guys who were standing to my right were saying “this is going to take forever. They haven’t even gone by giving us the numbers yet.” Then I tried to explain that nobody was going to come by giving us a number, that you got your number as the thing was happening and so on, and then five minutes later they were AGAIN saying “I wonder when they’re going to come by and give us our numbers?”

  14. Awesome!!
    I will like be with them please try to make that in France!!
    And you’re courageous to make it with rain !!

  15. Good job despite the rain and all that. I’m actually surprised no cops stopped the experiment for “possible terrorist activities.” I know they do keep an eye on the bridges.

  16. I think the counting would have worked better if we had done a wave first of “ready” or “we’re starting!” to get people in place. I know my little area was all clumped up while people were waiting, and we were totally disoriented by the time you came by yelling “go!”

    Despite the rain, my fiancee and I “adopted” three other agents and brought them home with us to dry off and drink up to a successful(?) mission. The videos turned out better than we thought they would!

  17. I was there that night and it was a ton of fun — thanks so much for organizing it. I moved from NYC to Philadelphia the next day and it was a great way to end my time as a New Yorker — for now :).

  18. I guess you guys expected we would only be like 50 or so agents, which would have made the counting easier. In my section of the bridge, I think we were about 4 rows of stacked people, trying to protect each other from the horizontal rain, like a pack of buffaloes in the middlke of the winter. It’s true that there was probably one spectator for every 2000 agents but… 700 people staying for two or three hours in the freezing rain, DOES mean we put up a big show!
    Hey, for whoever didn’t like it, there are a lot of missions you can enjoy. Next time, we’ll ask for your opinion on how we can please you!

  19. I got chills and tears in my eyes watching this. Great idea, great execution, great music. Thank you!

  20. I was out all night and day in that rain waiting in the standby line for SNL tickets. I must say, the fact that you pulled this off in those conditions is incredible, I know how cold and miserable it was. I was originally going to bring a video camera with me to the standby line, but decided against it when I read the forecast, and knowing how much I hate shooting in the rain.

    All of the agents and camera people have my respect for taking on this challenge in those conditions.

  21. I wanted to be part of this mission so badly that I dragged my wife and sister into the pouring rain. We waited on the bridge until past 10:15, and still no flashes. We left thoroughly soaked, and I’m glad my wife didn’t:
    A: Divorce me (which was a very real end result)
    B: Bring her DSLR (which would have been soaked and ruined).

    So I hope you guys plan a mission better next time – I’d very much like to have fun with this.

  22. This was a great idea, but It think a few things would have made it better:
    1) use flashlights – this eliminates the lag time between camera flashes and gives more control of the light.
    2) do this in a more public setting – i.e. where people will see and notice it. I think of “look up more” as a perfect example.
    3) use the “conductor” kind of direction like in some of the other missions (again, “look up more”). Using flashlights, you could even change the length of time the lights are turned on and off to create an eye-catching pattern that would definately “cause a scene”.

    I love your missions! Keep ’em up. Even ones that don’t quite impress are still awesome and create a memory for the participants and viewers alike.

  23. Looking at the video, I couldn’t see any wave. Just a lot of flashes going off randomly. Neat idea, but it doesn’t look like much.

  24. am i the only one who thinks it’s lame?! once again modern arts (if this is considered) failed me. is there any significance to it? have you thought about your ability to summon hundreds people like this event and ask them to volunteer for the needy? thanks. no thanks.

  25. In answer to Gary:

    How do you know that all 700 of us aren’t already volunteering to help the needy?

    Also, I’m quite sure that none of us went on this mission hoping to qualify for your definition of modern art, whatever that might be. “Going on an adventure” would be a better way to describe what we did. Participation is its own reward.

    There is nothing wrong with having a little harmless fun sometimes. No precious resources were wasted here. Lighten up a little (we did, one flash at a time)!

  26. Like warm water after a basketball game, this was okay. Wasnt Grand Central mind provoking but I say it got the job done.

  27. I gave it an hour and a half, but had to leave before the flashing began. I was disappointed because I had an out-of-town friend with me and had bought a disposable camera specifically for the occasion. I agree that the result was anticlimactic and I don’t see any “wave” pattern in the flashes. It’s too bad IE is getting too big for missions like these to go smoothly. At the same time I’m thrilled you are finally getting the attention you deserve. The website looks great, the videos so professional. I’m actually glad there are adds now to fund the site and future missions, and maybe even let you quit your day jobs! Keep up the good work!

  28. Ugh. That is tough. I’ve been carrying a digital camera forever and I still have trouble getting the flash to fire on demand. I sympathize for mission frustration.

    Wish I had been there!

  29. You guys who are being critical of this are crazy. It’s a great idea and it’s a GOOD THING to continually expand the parameters of what you think is possible, whatever you are doing. Yay, IE!

  30. It’s so funny that Rob Cockerham posted here. This was kind of like his Super Bowl prank. Great idea, but tough to see from far away. Anyway, keep on reaching for the stars. It’s entertaining no matter how it turns out on video.

  31. Wow, I wish I was there but apparently my camera lens broke and I was sick… :P… I knew it would’ve been awesome… Great job!!! Must been the most exciting mission ever! YAY, AWESOME, HORRAY, :D!

  32. its sad, they got my stepbrother screaming like a girl on camera but its not in the video! im not either. it was my first mission, my friend amanda and i met two amazing people- scott and adrianne. we also got to stand under their kickass umbrellas, which were bright green and blue. i wish i could find them on facebook, but i cant find them! >.> i do have awesome pics though -not yet uploaded-
    by the time i got to my car, we were drenched, but it was the best possible night i could have had! :)

    when i was on my way down, there was a group of about five asians that came up to me. i guess the leader(?) asked me “what are you all doing?!”
    my friend amanda replied with “i…uh..i dont know”
    and my stepfather almost blurted out what we were doing.(what a silly man!)
    i quickly intervined, stating “we are a photography class, and are doing a project”
    since getting 3 different answers in about 5 seconds, they accepted mine, and walked along.

  33. I’m proud to tell you guys there were not only Americans trying to make the flash wave :) I’m Belgian and took part to it, and the rain was nothing because where I’m from is at least as rainy as London :p

    I’m looking forward to seeing you arrive in Belgium. Maybe I should start something ? :)

  34. I can back you up, Theo — Belgium is definitely as rainy as London.

    I was situated with Agent Savage (the most savage of agents) at the east end of the Manhattan Bridge. I opted for a static shot, doing my best to keep the camera dry and still when the J/M/Z trains went by, and shouting “now” to Agent Savage when the flashes started so he could get those quick zoom-outs.

    Let me say one thing to the naysayers: this was probably the hardest mission to coordinate, from crowd control to flashes to camerawork, in the history of IE. Agent Savage and I discussed the mission as we warmed up on the way home and thought the chances of good documentation were middling to slim. I’m happy to see that we were wrong. :)

  35. Thats great!!! Next time im going to the mission alone or not, I regret letting my parents talk me into turning around to go home so much more now that I see how cool this was.
    I love improv everywhere and cant wait for the next mission im really looking forward to it. Great job guys hope I can be with you on the next one!!

  36. Very good attempt. I think the only problem is that since everyone’s camera isn’t the same, its extremely hard to do… the best thing you could do if you try this again, is too see if everyone can get those disposable cameras with a flash, since, unlike digital camera, they only flash once, and flash exactly when you push the button.

    Very good though…

  37. I was trying to listen for my turn to flash but it was hard to hear over this one guy singing “Woddy Doddy Ding Dong.”

  38. The umbrellas seem to make it all look even more poetic … Great to see and read about this. I was in Bali at the time where people make art and ceremony continually, every day, whatever the weather, for every reason imaginable and then some..

  39. I love it! Next Saturday I’m meeting some friends on a bridge for a solstice celebration, and I’m going to suggest a little creative lighting like this.

    I have to agree with the person who said that the umbrellas and wet weather added to the visual impact of the photos. (Great reflections on the bridge!) I know how hard it is to get clear photos at night and like how these pictures turned out.

    One idea, if you do this again: Photographers USE umbrellas to reflect and magnify light. Next time, have people bring light-colored umbrellas whether it’s raining or not, hold the umbrella facing out and flash the camera into it. You could also put reflective tape inside the umbrella for more effect.

    For the critics here who don’t “get” street theatre: It’s not about “results,” “goals,” or harsh judgments about outcomes and photographs. It’s about showing up, participating, meeting new people in this grand adventure called life. It’s about the adventure itself whether you get rained on, or cheered on, or arrested, or your flash doesn’t go off at the right time. It’s all good when you get up out of your La-Z-Boy and go out and play.

    Keep havin’ fun, IE! i gotta try getting something going like this in Minneapolis (again)!

  40. Yet, another reason why people with photosensitive epilepsy have a hard time going out at night. I like your other improvs but this one kind of bothers me.

  41. it was a good idea, although i’m not sure if all the flashes will be caught on video? this eludes to using a flashlight instead. but let’s say camera flashes are ok… i think people should have waited until the person next to them took their flash, before they took theirs, that way it’s a complete lineags. Or better yet since flashes are often lagged, make this rule:

    take a photo as soon as you see either of the two people to your right make a flash.

    that’ll move things along quicker and have more assurance of a steady flow, not to mention it would actually look like a wave.

  42. Didn’t come off very well – but I love the other performances.

    What WAS cool was the test firing in a crowd,rather than the bunch of isolated, very tiny lights. The crowd with umbrellas up catches the light and diffuses it. That one pic in the video was cool. When everyone shot their flashes off together it looked like lightening going thru a cloud, and if you had done that in a public square you’d have the benefit of uninvolved folks reacting as well.

    The timing wasn’t thought out: does it really seem like it would work to have the call-off going along: “Five hundred and sixty six *FLASH* five hundred and sixty seven *FLASH* ”

    Interesting idea -but I think you need to think about the ‘story arc’ of the idea a little more sometimes… Keep up the innovations. If a few don’t fail, it means you aren’t pushing the boundaries.

  43. This is a really good idea, but a little different from normal! The lack of reaction footage or stories really sets it apart from the rest, not necessarily in a bad way though.

  44. I came across your site while searching on MSN and have now added you to my rss reader. I Just though i should say “keep up the good work” and pass on congratulations on a job well done and great advice too!