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David of the Desert

May 19

In Lighting, On Location at 4:44pm

The cool thing about teaching photography is actually how much you learn while you do it. Such was the situation in Dubai a couple of weeks ago. Amazing faculty. Felt like a kid in a candy store. Wanted to go to all the classes.

A big lure of teaching in Dubai of course, is teaching in Dubai. One of the truly strange, nutty, breakneck places on earth. So I was determined to get out into the desert before leaving. I mean, out there, where you see nothing but sand and sky. Got a model, a makeup artist, a couple of drivers with Rovers, David Hobby, a local assistant, a…..@#%%&**#$$&&%#….hey, wait a minute, David Hobby???!!!

David was teaching as well, and when he found out I was going to the hot sand he was in. Lessee….going out shooting small flash with David Hobby? Uh, wanna rate that on the cool meter?

Next thing, we’re slewing through the sand, riding dunes in a Rover like a surfer rides the waves, looking for a spot where the undulating sand and the play of light and shadow might be favorable. That kinda sorta is everywhere out there. Just wild and alien, so for both of us, the radar was way up, DEFCON 5, the way it gets when you are seeing something you haven’t seen before.

We picked a charming spot right by some petrified camel shit and went to work. Between me and David, we got a bunch of of the SB800 strobes, and of course, I never met a subject I couldn’t overlight, so we put up a mess of them. It was kind of this loopy strobe puzzle stuck on the end of a c-stand. A strobe clusterf–k, in other words.

Here’s the thing. We have both been messing with hi speed strobe sync, and, as I mentioned in a previous blog, the SB has a handy feature called Auto FP hi speed sync, where the strobe will stick with the camera even up to 1/8000 of a second. The problem is power. The FP deal knocks the oomph out of the flash, so to punch back, we put up multiple lights, and cranked out a decent picture of Lenka, our wonderfully bemused model.

We had a happy accident. (I love those! Always tell my editors I planned it that way.) Thought we would run the lights through a Lastolite diffuser, but the wind was such the diffuser was flopping around like a freshly landed tuna, and raw light from the top couple SB units hit Lenka. Hmmmm……looked good. The diffuser continued to behave like an unruly child so we dumped it and went with open, hard light. Now there was too much light, even in FP mode. Dialed ‘em down a touch, and started making frames.

David had the notion of a hard sidelight and grabbed a spare flash and circled slightly behind and camera left of the model. No diffuser dome. Zoomed it to 105 and used his hand as a gobo so there was no telltale spill on the desert floor. That’s a great trick right there. He shielded or cupped the light with his hand, holding the SB unit with his other hand and then running the video camera clenched between his teeth. Just an astonishing display of versatility.

So here’s a problem, or at least something to watch out for. See Lenka’s shadow? It’s not clean. Has no simple, hard edge the way you would get from the sun, or one, definitive light source. I was kind of sloppy putting these up, and the result is a variation in the angle of approach from the various sources. In the best of worlds, you could use one strobe, or at least gang them coherently so the direction is slightly more unified. Remember that once you set one of these puppies off, photons go everywhere, and once they get out they’re tougher to catch than a fart in a bag. So it is best to try to line them up on the same axis if at all possible.

We wrapped out of that position, and the sun had hazed out considerably, enough that we could shoot right into it. This, in alot of ways, was a more manageable setup. Went to a shoot through umbrella with 3 SB units on Justin clamps. Didn’t use multiple units to increase power, cause I was still dictating f-stop from the camera, but what this does is increase the volume, or surface area of the light in relation to the subject. Makes it more all embracing, wrapping, and softer in it’s rotation from highlight to shadow. Tried this first.

Not happy. Kinda flat. Moved in…..

Liked this better. Flagging off the bottom of the umbrella helps gradate the light. It’s very helpful when there is the desert floor in the picture.

Light started plunging after this, so we did a quick change and knocked out one last view before jumping back into the Rovers, going to the hotel, grabbing a quick bite and a shower, repacking and heading for the airport for the 14 hour romp to JFK.

Had some hits and misses out there, to be sure. One thing about working TTL wireless in combo with aperture priority mode on the camera is shifting output and some exposure variance. This is not inconsistency, I don’t think, but rather the camera point of view changing ever so slightly, which is causing the camera and strobe system to exchange different messages, and producing different results. Afterwards, I realized I coulda/shoulda gone, at least for a bit, into flash value lock, or FV mode. You can program that feature into your function button on the front of the D3. Program it, then tap the function button and the flash output will be locked. Of course, I thought of that later. Had one of those “THWACK! Coulda had a V-8!” moments. It’s why I have a flat forehead at this point in my career.

On this last shot I used a gold Lastolite Tri-Grip reflector instead of my kneecaps. The tri-grip gives a nice warm fill, while my legs are much more neutral and give up only about a half stop of bounce.

So, all in all, fun in the desert. Over the top in certain ways, to be sure. 7 SB800 units is pretty wacky, I’ll be the first to admit. But the high speed sync is enabled with these guys, and that is helpful. I do use bunches of these units periodically, either in a teaching environment, or ganging them through a big silk or panel. The trigger for all these CLS guys was the either another SB unit or the SU800, which is a pretty directional, powerful trigger, which I have found works real well, even in bright sun.

Also, having David Hobby on location was pretty cool. David is one of those guys who just knows. I’m out there making wild-ass guesses, but a guy like David has got it locked. Plus he’s got a great recipe for camel shit shavings. Little melted mozzarella, some garlic and red pepper, quick garnish, and you are eatin’ in style.

He also cooked up this video to show what we were doing out there in the sand…

And if you wanna download the hi-res version, he’s got that posted as well.

The tools we have now are amazing. As David mentioned in his blog, I used to assist Mathew Brady, and that was a bear, shagging all those plates around in the back of a covered wagon. It is so much easier now.

57 Responses to “David of the Desert”

John says:

on May 19, 2008 at 4:55 pm

I love the ingenuity of the lighting and location. While I’m sure she is a lovely woman, the lighting actually makes her look a little “rough.”

I am always curious with all the effort put into this, what is the final intended usage of these photos. I assume beyond just for the fun of it or instructional.

Mark Leach says:

on May 19, 2008 at 4:57 pm

Wow Joe, that’s an incredibly educationally blog post. The landscape shot of Lenka kneeling brings together perspective, lighting and location for an amazing shot.

Having read David’s post at Strobist what amuses me though is the symmetry of yours and David’s mutual admiration and shared modesty. A great attitude to see from two professionals.

Jim Cutler says:

on May 19, 2008 at 5:08 pm

Joe, we’re both of the same Irish background and the same skin…so how the heck were you out in the DESERT SUN with shorts, no hat, and short sleeves? Forget the brilliant lighting you guys did with a tree of SB-800s, the REAL miracle was how you avoided desert sun! :)

Cheers from New York.

Greg Furry says:

on May 19, 2008 at 7:12 pm


What len(s) were you using for this shoot?

Daniel says:

on May 19, 2008 at 7:28 pm

Great post Joe, I’d have to second what the second poster said.

@ Jim Cutler:
Coming from that region myself, it is not the sun you should be worried about.
The heat and humidity are way more dangerous.
The sun in the Middle East doesn’t burn as much as the sun in California! Because the air is filled with particles & pollutants that screen out some of the power the sun a bit.

Ken says:

on May 19, 2008 at 7:43 pm


Great shots, man what kind of SB800 monster was that???

I got 3 SB800 and I can now use them thanks to you blog several weeks ago, thanks again.

I going to my therapist office on Thursday and shot a portrait for a publication she is doing. Kinda nutty (pun intended, thats me, my wife says). I am going to take my my 3 SB800′s and my new trip grip Lastolite TriGrip Diffuser, One Stop – 48″ (1.2m). I hope I got the one you did Joe.

So any help for Ken in KY on this one……well I got a D300, thinking of my 15 to 70mm 2.8 or the new 14-24 2.8mm. Any advice on lens I would appreciate.

But you gotta know, I take all the credit here in my town, but give you credit here on your blog.

Know you now why I see a therapist.

Affectionately Nikon
Ken in KY

Chris Welch says:

on May 19, 2008 at 10:25 pm

Inspirational as always!

Dennis Kielhorn says:

on May 19, 2008 at 11:46 pm

Great! More videos, please! That “Making-of”-Stuff is really the best way to learn lighting. And it’s inspiration.

Danie Nel Photography says:

on May 20, 2008 at 12:15 am

Hi Joe, great storytelling! Shooting in high summer down in here in South Africa produces similar challenges. I’ve had to hack my old Sunpak G4500, Vivitar 225, Nikon SB-16, Amity and my Speedlite EX’s together to fight back the sun.

Well done.

Tom says:

on May 20, 2008 at 1:54 am

great shoot, I just wished i had a forest of sb800′s like that :)

note: is it just me or is that last picture not very flattering ? there is a spot of brown/gold (reflector highlight?) on her right cheek that looks rather weird. her skin is also a bit weird, she looks 10years older in that last shot.
or is this a compression problem? would love to hear what you have to say about this.

please don’t see this as negative commenting because you are the master to me.

Ken Anderson says:

on May 20, 2008 at 2:09 am

Joe, Ditto on the lens, to bring the discussion down a bunch of notches; what are the red and green pieces of tape on the SB 800′s?

John says:

on May 20, 2008 at 7:17 am

Oh, come on – we all know that CLS and other infrared triggering systems don’t work well outdoors. Or during daylight. Or beyond three feet.

I got so tired of hearing that sort of thing that I (and some buddies) deliberately started shooting under as extreme as I could still make CLS work. The results can be found on Flickr with the tag “extremecls”.

Thanks for the updates, Joe. It’s always interesting to me to note the differences between what you and David carry away from the shoot.

Michael Tissington says:

on May 20, 2008 at 8:33 am

Joe, Why in some shots are you using an SB-800 as commander and in other the SU-800 ? Are there some situations where one performs better that the other ??

Andy P says:

on May 20, 2008 at 9:41 am


I’m very, very glad that ROUSs didn’t get you. It would have been a great loss to world of photography.

Thanks for sharing guys!

Andriy says:

on May 20, 2008 at 10:02 am

What kind of fertilizer you use for you SB800 tree. I tried this, I tried that … they just don’t grow as nice as yours :)
On a more serious note, could you advise what to do if I use built-in commander, 2 flashes on both sides of the camera and camera is in vertical position. There are no walls around, so bouncing commands becomes a problem for the flash that’s on opposite site of built-in one. Holding the hand, so that some light is reaching problematic flash helps on occasion but not 100% fool proof.

Jason Bell says:

on May 20, 2008 at 10:43 am


Let me get this straight. You assisted Mathew Brady…. who died in 1896. That must put you at over 120 years old :)

The heat must have got to you….

The blog is inspirational as ever. Thanks a million.


Alessandro Rosa says:

on May 20, 2008 at 10:59 am

What a great idea! Add lights to counteract the power drop-off of High Speed Sync. Does Canon have a similar function?

The Video was very informative too. Interesting to see you work. By the way,

R.O.U.S – The reason you didn’t see any was that they have all been shipped to the NYC Subway system!

Long live Princess Buttercup!

Nick Fancher says:

on May 20, 2008 at 12:20 pm

So so rad. I love that first shot of her with her front leg leading into the left of the frame. Not only do you have the technical stuff locked down and pushing the front lines but you also have an amazing eye for posing and composition. I love this post on every level. Thank you so much for sharing.

As you wish,

Andy M says:

on May 20, 2008 at 2:41 pm

“We picked a charming spot right by some petrified camel shit”

“A strobe clusterf–k”

“they’re tougher to catch than a fart in a bag”

How many brilliant photogs are out there that could write like that? you and Mr. Strobist are in another witty universe. :)

educational and inspirational as usual, love reading your pearls of wisdom.

debbi smirnoff says:

on May 20, 2008 at 2:59 pm

Why do you have red and green stickers on your strobes…it’s driving me crazy

Khuong Hoang says:

on May 20, 2008 at 4:08 pm

Hi Joe,
Thank you for the blog, between yours and Strobist’s blogs I am learning so much about lighting and photography. Watching your videos is absolutely the best way to learn lightings and how the great ones operate, thank you for sharing.
I’ve got your book ” the moment it clicks”, just awesome, stuffed full of invaluable advices and inspirations that have made me a much better photographer already. I really appreciate that!

Richard Cave says:

on May 20, 2008 at 4:14 pm

Hey this video pulled me out of trouble today on assignment, had to shoot in blazing sun with the subject stood under shade. I saw the video last night and shot on HP sync, subject lit beautifully the foreground lit perfectfully. I did have little panic and then I remembered the video.

The client was so happy she bought me a bottle of 12 year scotch.

I think there is more scope for a show featuring you and David to regulary appear on the net. You have a ready and waiting audience.

Many regards


John says:

on May 21, 2008 at 10:13 am

Too cool Joe!

I’ve never seen such a setup and loved the story of why and how behind it. It was great that you had Strobist (David Hobby) along with you, I loved his video.

I can’t believe you fired all of those using Nikon’s CLS system and on TTL!!! I would have expected Pocket Wizards and a hoard of manual tweaking. Makes me want to go back and re-think my position on using both of those.

Thanks for the awesome post and info!!

min says:

on May 22, 2008 at 7:26 am

Hey Joe,
nice photos!
that SB800-flash-tree is real cool stuff!

Brendan says:

on May 26, 2008 at 5:59 am

Wauw thanks for the information i added your blog at my favoriets.

Greetz from Holland

Arne de Laat says:

on May 26, 2008 at 6:10 pm


Thats for the article and video great stuff!
i agree with just about all the comments posted before me, great teaching, wonderful stuff!

One thing that really cracked me up was when, in the video, you said:
“You could throw a car head light at her face and it would look great”

Arne – 153957 Photography

Moving Sky says:

on June 18, 2008 at 1:19 pm

As much as I appreciate what Joe does with what seems like an endless supply of (Nikon sponsored?) SB800’s pulled out a bottom-less Pelican case, a shooter with even a decent budget must carefully evaluate the price/performance of gear. He says that using 7 SB800 is a bit wacky. But he needed for hi-speed synch. That’s an understatement. Here is why. It’s about the math.

7 SB800’s @ $325 = $2275
A gross of AA batteries at Costco 44.95 Don’t forget these have to be replenished.
Total: $2319.95 (note I didnt factor the cost of clamps – could be $25-$35 if usung Bogen superclamps or similar.

Pros: redundant light sources, one fails, you have 6 more
High speed synch
Can use some for fill some for key
iTTL does all the thinking in auto exposure. (do you know how to read a light meter?)

Lots of little boxes to keep track of
Lots of time to learn and set up the iTTL synch and configure no matter how easy he tells you the commander mode is
Don’t forget batteries. 7 units X 5 batteries each plus one set of back ups = 70 batteries!
Mounting 7 SB units on a C stand? Hurry, the sun is setting! Get all those clamps out! Hey, one is pointing away from the subject! Gee I didn’t factor those in the price comparison.
Al Gore will not be happy with your carbon footprint when you toss all those batteries in the landfill.

Profoto AcuteB 600R Kit $2195
2-3 Photoflex or Lastolite reflectors (pending size and brand used) $100
1 spare flash lamp (ya gotta have a spare) $217.95
Total: $2512.95 (or spring for the Pocket Wizard version for $2475)

A lot more power: 600 Watt/Seconds
Faster: Recycle Time of 2.6 sec @ maximum power, 0.09 sec @ minimum power
Higher speed synch: 1/1000 sec @ maximum power, 1/6800 sec @ minimum power
I can run/recharge the battery from a 12V outlet (The Range Rover mentioned should have at least 3.)
Better quality light (maybe a subjective thing)
Only 11 lbs (remind me to do a weight comparison of 7 SB800 with all those batteries.
Only 2 things to keep track of, power pack and lamp head.
Only one light to mount to the stand.

prices based upon Samy’s Camera Website.

So if I am going to fork over $2K+, methinks this is a no-brainer. Profoto wins and they are one of the most expensive portable solutions available, There are several other options

Dan says:

on July 1, 2008 at 8:24 pm

To go through so much effort to produce such mediocre photos is hard to comprehend. Sorry for the negative critique.

Joe McNally says:

on July 2, 2008 at 11:02 am

No need for apologies Dan…If I were to grade this a real assignment, I would give myself about a C, nothing more. But I do disagree about the effort–it was a gas. Photography for me has always been a process, good, bad, indifferent, I still like the feel of the field, and a camera in my hands. We were shooting for gadabout reasons, learning as we went. it was fun, so that makes the day successful to me, even if the pix aren’t. Best, Joe

shahn says:

on July 7, 2008 at 3:21 am

Its obvious Joe McNally (and others like him) are getting paid for mentioning/advertising products but to use that many SB flashes is RIDICULOUS.

As the man 3 post up said, getting a quality strobe pack would be a much SMARTER choice. Its sad cos its mostly amateurs who visit these blogs and will end up buying a silly setup just cos they TRUST and believe what Joe will say.

Sad really…

btm in dc says:

on July 27, 2008 at 10:42 pm

what shutter speeds were you using??? since there was little background to worry about couldn’t you just stop down abit and use a leaf shutter. this would negate needing FP synch if you could get to a workable combo with a 1/400-1/500 shutter and a more powerful single head solution?

what is the advantage of FP if you need 7+ units???

Mannie says:

on January 14, 2009 at 3:46 am

Just curious, rather than using such high shutter speeds to kill the natural light, couldn’t you use an ND filter? Is there some disadvantage to that approach that I’m not aware of?

Jen Montanno says:

on February 3, 2009 at 7:57 am

A+ for your effort! Big fan of your blog and the strobist blog, but…
C-/D for the results.

The first shot of Lenka is a perfect example of what lens not to use. Glamor photography is all about beauty(and/or sex), but using such a wide angle like this doesn’t add any drama or interest in the shot – it just makes her look like a lop-sidded girl with a size 16 foot and the other a size 5. All girls(including myself) want to have small feel, small hands, small arms and big breasts, or at the very least see a proportional photo of themselves – a wide angle just don’t cut it mate. For any new photographers reading this – pull out any copy of Vogue, FHM or Ralph, or any other glamor or fashion mag to see the proportions used in photographs of women. Youtube any sports illustrated swimsuit edition video and you’ll understand why those photographers use telephoto lenses and not wide angle lenses that was unfortunately used on Lenka. Tip #1: Stop using wide-angle lenses for glamor shots….

Hans-Werner says:

on April 3, 2009 at 6:33 am

Yeah, that a pretty good bLOG, I like it. Give me more man :-)

Zack Zainon says:

on January 20, 2010 at 2:53 am

Joe, don’t be disheartened by some of the comments here. Love your site (strobist too!) and I know for a fact that even pros drop by once in a while to see any new techniques that you or David has cooked up.U don’t just teach but inspire. Without people like you, there wouldn’t be many excellent amateur photogs. Don’t believe me? Just mosey on to Flickr to see some amazing amateur made photos. Some would even give the pros a run for their money! Keep up the great (noble, even) work.

Jon Dough says:

on January 20, 2010 at 2:57 am

@Jen Montanno. Googled yer name but nothin’ came up. Now try googlin’ (is that a word?) Joe McNally. ‘Nuff said.

Heinz Schmidt says:

on January 21, 2010 at 3:24 pm

Another excellent video Joe, every time I feel like I need some inspiration, you magically post another video on the net.

Are you psychic?

Thanks in either case, you keep me pressing the shutter.


Leigh McMullen says:

on January 25, 2010 at 10:40 am

R.O.U.S… Love the princess bride allusions…

regardless of your (overly) critical self evaluation on the outproduct. as a learning tool, and frankly as an opportunity to do what one loves in a challenging environment, with challenging equipment, you got an A++.

Elois Gdovin says:

on September 5, 2010 at 6:49 am

A by any other name would smell as sweet or remind me to hang out with you.

DenMas says:

on October 9, 2010 at 3:53 am

Thanks Joe…. this is excellent stuff for me…

Aleisha Waugh says:

on September 18, 2011 at 7:31 am

Superb blogging.

Johanne Apodoca says:

on December 15, 2011 at 7:11 am

I’d must check with you here. Which is not one thing I usually do! I enjoy studying a publish that can make people think. Additionally, thanks for allowing me to comment!

resa till istanbul says:

on December 20, 2011 at 2:01 pm

this is actually the fifth time i read your site, excellent post as always! regards, resa till istanbul

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