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Blogging, From Both Sides, Part One

Aug 4

In Friends, Lighting, Thoughts at 6:55am

Tom. July 11th, in his backyard in New Jersey. Father, fighter, lover of photography.

In his words:

In March of 2005, after a long battle with nine herniations in my spine, surgery to remove two of them had to be done. The surgery was a complete success and as soon as I awoke from the 10 hour operation, I began to look forward to my life with my son, Jared. Finally, I would not be stuck to a bed, couch or wheelchair. E ven when I could not walk or play with my son or make him breakfast, I never let a negative thought in my mind. I had nothing but a positive attitude and knew what I was up against. Thankfully, the odds seemed pretty darn good in my favor.

It was perhaps just two weeks later, after the intense yet very successful surgery, that some very strange things started to happen. Severe cramps, shocks throughout my body, stuttering and, well, a buffet of conditions that are simply too long to write about. We were concerned not only with blood clots forming, but it seemed that something had gone wrong during the surgery. These conditions went one for months. I endured dozens of painful tests and numerous cocktails of different medications to see what would curtail these symptoms, all to no avail. Finally an MRI of both brain and spinal cord revealed to all of us that the trauma of the surgery had awoken a dormant condition in my body that carried the label “MS”.

Now, after three years of being a warrior fighting MS, I was losing. This was impossible for me to accept, as I have a 12 year old son to raise and teach all the things that he needs to know about being a good man. I want to show him how to treat people fairly , how to have passion for what he chooses (no matter what it is) and most of all, how to have kindness in his heart. But the MS was getting the better of me and I was giving up hope. Quite frankly, I was becoming tired of fighting it. It was both embarrassing and painful to have to tell my son ” no” all the time. I began to think of ways to fight harder and could not come up with anything. Being somewhat of a serious hobby photographer, I tried to turn my vision of fighting into a picture and failed continually. My pictures kept reminding me that I had MS, not that I was fighting for a cause to be able to raise Jared. Then I had a thought of making a picture, my son and I in the foreground with all my dozens of MRI’s behind us . To me, somehow this would say “no matter what, I will win and raise this boy”. The problem was, I had no idea how to take this picture.

Every morning I would wake up with this photo in my mind. I never felt more strongly about anything that would help me continue to fight and give me renewed strength and cause to go on.

Like so many photographers, I had recently purchased Joe McNally’s book, “The Moment It Clicks”. The idea came to mind to just write to him, share my vision and see if he could guide me into making this picture. I explained all of this in an email to Joe. At that point, I figured I had nothing to lose by asking. Several days later, I received an email back from Joe that very simply stated , “let’s do this”. One week later, Joe and his first assistant, Brad Moore , arrived at my humble town-home and began to set up an actual studio in my backyard. I couldn’t stay outside in the heat too much to watch. However, when I walked out of my home, it was as if I walked into an indoor professional studio that was part of the house. It seemed that, after some discussion with Joe and his studio manager, Lynn, he realized my vision exactly and they worked together to come up with ideas to make this picture. In order to execute this picture, Joe and his entire staff asked me the right questions and listened to my thoughts . They helped me turn my vision into a picture.

What Joe and his staff did not know is, that while I have the willingness to fight, I was losing hope. Living in pain every moment takes it’s toll. I was beginning to live in a very dark place.

I knew that this picture might give me a chance to turn my hope around.  It’s already begun.

I’m still pretty new to blogging, and truth be told, I enjoy it. I went to school thinking I’d be a sports writer, covering some basketball beat for a metro daily, trying to infuse the big biz of modern sports with a bit of old timey Frazier-to-DeBusschere-to-Bradley-to-Reed-SLAMDUNK-YES! feeling. You know, that kind of high school, chest thumping love of team that had your ear glued to a AM/FM transistor radio at night instead of your eyes glued to your physics workbook. (Thank goodness Clyde didn’t go away altogether. He’s in the broadcast booth, still boundin’ and astoundin’….)

I switched it up in school and ended up a photog. (Mom was not pleased.) I’ve had my eye in a lens quite happily for, oh, 25 plus years now. But life is funny. I wrote a book, and now I’ve got a blog. And I find myself writing about what I shoot, as well as tossing in a few sidebar rants and raves.

I met Tom because of this blog. When he floated the notion of doing the picture, I said yes, for lots of reasons. It might be a photo that would do somebody some good, for one. Of course, another is, plain and simple, I like time behind the camera. I love shooting pictures. Even in the middle of a hot one in Jersey in July.

The other deal always in the back of my head is the challenge of it. Could we build this thing at high noon, shoot CLS with small strobes ( a mix of SB800 and 900), make it work, make the lights trigger and get it done in a way that might come close to Tom’s imagination? I thought we had a chance.

I took it in steps:

Fix the sun so Tom could stand in shade, and my lights would have a prayer. Tabletop a 12×12 solid on 4 stands. SOP. Check.

Backlight the MRIs. Best way to backlight stuff like this is to first wash your background lights off a reflective surface (white no-seam is good). Use a cross light technique. Right side lights aim to the left side of the drop, and left side lights aim for the right. They cross over the middle that way, and hopefully produce a surface that is even within a third of a stop. (If you pump the background lights into their respective near sides, the sides get heated up and the center goes dead. Not good.) Likewise it is tough to just aim your lights at the plexi without first bouncing it off something big and flat. If you use 4 lights, you’ll most likely get 4 hot spots. It’ll drive you nuts. Re-direction is key here. Bounce ‘em and you’ll save money on all that Advil for location driven headaches.

Okay, seamless is up, and lit. Just like in the doc’s office, MRIs read best off of white plexi. Lynn hunted for a 6′ square, but tough to get and pricey, so we made do with two odd sized pieces butted together horizontally and seamed with clear packing tape. Bogen super clamps did the rest of the job, along with A clamps. Those two pieces stand behind the subject, about 2′ in front of the (hopefully) glowing seamless paper drop.

Arranged the MRIs, lit them with 4 bounced SB800 units, went to the camera, made an exposure, and hoped for the best. We got backlight. And, in intense sun, from about 30 feet, we got sensor pickup. Okay, hurdle cleared.

Next deal, light Tom. Boomed a reflected umbrella, with the skin still on it to control spill. Okay light, but got a splashy high light on the reflective MRIs.

Moved in a Lastolite panel, up high and between the umbrella and the plexi, and draped it in black material. That cut out a lot of light flying towards the background.

Now Tom. Quality of light works, but just works. Gotta snap him with a bit more edge. I’m constrained cause the whole bloody back of the picture is reflective. Okay, small source. Do this a lot actually. Snoot an SB unit (used to use blackwrap, now I use Honl snoots). Move it into the subject’s face as close as the frame will allow. Power way down to just a flick of light. (There’s a setting called “flick” isn’t there?) Little pop of light, and your subject’s face snaps to. You can just about see this unit, an SB900 zoomed out to 200mm, on the right side of my frame, just below the umbrella.

That technique is killer, by the way. You don’t really alter the quality of overall light in your subject’s face, but you do ramp up the contrast, and sharpen the edge where highlight rotates into shadow. Think of it as moving the contrast slider in Photoshop, only much more fun!

Closing with this one. Suburban scene. Tom, Jared, a wagon, a gate, grass, bushes, trees, and then, jarringly, the MRIs. Medical dispatches from the interior, telling Tom things he never wanted to hear. They stand there, silent, yet at the same time screaming like a siren in the midst of the backyard bird chatter. Through sheer effort of will and a determination to see Jared through to stuff like his first car, his first college class, his first good job, and maybe, a couple of grandkids, Tom’s gonna fight this thing. Hopefully, we made a picture that day that will hang on his wall and remind him that he’s still in the game.

139 Responses to “Blogging, From Both Sides, Part One”

Denise and Erik Johnson says:

on August 11, 2008 at 6:59 am

Tom is a new found friend of ours and we are very happy to have him as a friend. We may not have known him long but we can tell he is a wonderful person and an awesome Dad. We feel sad that he is going through this but he is a Warrior and these pictures could not illustrate that better. The pictures and story works so well together to tell his story and ‘help’ others who are going through the same thing with MS. We really admire Tom and wish him the very best. But we also admire someone such as Joe for taking the time to tell Tom’s story to help others with theirs.

Laurel Housden says:

on August 11, 2008 at 1:30 pm

Thank you, Joe……thank you!

debbi smirnoff says:

on August 11, 2008 at 11:16 pm

Question about the light- picture 6 shows the man entirely lit perfectly..you said you wanted his face to pop. You added a snooted sb800 to his face with a Honi. Why is his torso black in picture 7? Did you gobo something and not say? Did you power down the umbie? just adding lite to his face would over expose it…..I’m missing a step.

rick sammon says:

on August 12, 2008 at 9:48 am

This is perhaps the most amazing photo industry story I have ever heard. Amazing, inspirational and simply heart warming.

Take good care, Rick

Trey Ratcliff says:

on August 13, 2008 at 2:41 am

Hey Joe – that is greatness. Inspirational indeed — I am posting about you and Tom as well:


Allandavisjr says:

on August 13, 2008 at 3:31 am

Joe–great picture, great concept, heartwarming story. Thank you.

Tom–don’t give up hope.

My wife was diagnosed with MS a couple of years ago. We’ve found a variety of things that trigger flare-ups…and one medication, Low Dose Naltrexone, that gives your body a fighting chance. My wife and I will be glad to share what we’ve found and answer any questions we can.

Joe, is there any way I can leave an email address so Tom can reach me, without advertising it across the whole of the internet?

I’ll do this. My name–attached to this post–is my Gmail address.


Yonghwee says:

on August 13, 2008 at 4:39 am

Truly amazing! Joe’s probably the only photographer who will do such a shoot!

Embassy Pro Books says:

on August 13, 2008 at 2:44 pm

These are truly great shots that bring to life your touching story.

Paulo Jordao Photography says:

on August 14, 2008 at 9:47 am

Hi Joe, what a great post. Increadible story and I love the way that you described your photoshot strategy.
Thanks for the tips.
Paulo Jordao

Teemu says:

on August 14, 2008 at 1:46 pm

I have to say after I read this story, I had to take a moment before going to details and adjust myself to learning mode. It was a touching story and this shows how powerful can one picture be, when you know the whole context. Thank you for sharing this all to us.

Ryan Dionisio Photography says:

on August 14, 2008 at 6:04 pm

The shots and setups from this story are amazing and inspiring to me. Thanks for sharing them!

luca says:

on August 15, 2008 at 5:44 pm

Great story … Tom I’ve you in my heart …
Joe you’re a good man … very good man

John says:

on August 16, 2008 at 12:13 pm

I saw this story on Trey,s site and it’s a very inspirational story. Your a gifted and warm human being. Thanks for sharing.

Chris Wheeler says:

on August 17, 2008 at 12:45 am

Absolutely astounding personal vision Tom. You are very inspiring and sharing your positive mental attitude with the rest of the world show’s us all how fragile life can be and what we can achieve.

Thanks for sharing!

Ronnie says:

on August 22, 2008 at 4:15 am

Nice one, Joe. Tom, we wish you strenght. Just hang in there.

Thank you for sharing.

MikLav says:

on August 24, 2008 at 5:45 pm

Thank you Joe and Tom! This is touching and inspiring.

Justin says:

on September 15, 2008 at 9:34 am

Touching story and a superb tutorial. Thanks for letting us in on how you accomplished the shot.

Tom Aellis says:

on October 15, 2008 at 9:08 am

I think about you and Brad often Joe. My son and I speak of you and Brad often. Not only because of what you have done for Jared and I, but because of the person you are, the Father you are and Dare I say, the friend you are. I come back here when I need to, today I need to. I need to see what others do for each other, I need to see how some know how to pay it forward and I need to read how I want to fight, how I can fight and most of all how I need to fight. I know this is a old thread now and won’t be read, but I needed, today, to read the comments. Joe, I needed your work today on my wall more then ever, it brought me back to this thread and for another hour, I’ll be ok. Perhaps one hour is all I need to get me to 1 day or 1 week. It’s the power of the picture Joe, it’s the power of paying it forward. OK, enuf’ girly talk, how ’bout dem Giants?

Sebastian Wilson says:

on June 1, 2009 at 11:45 am

Last night I was reading the hot shoe diaries, excellent book by the way, and I got to this picture and the whole story behind it. Very moving story here detailed.
Joe, as usual a great pic, and very well captured Tom’s heroic efforts and love to his son.
Tom, as an MS patient this story was very personal. I know that every patient is different, and the relapses may hit us in various ways. Some have crisis’ every now and then, maybe months, weeks or even years.
One thing that has been life changing for me is following a strict diet. It has helped me to keep my life as normal as possible, obviously with certain limitations but none of which to stop me.
Keep up with the fight!
Is there any way of contacting you to give you more details of this diet I’m following? you can contact me via e-mail to swilson@vtr.net

Ove says:

on August 25, 2009 at 4:06 am

Oh, not knowing you at all (I’m a newcomer to your blog), this was equally sad as encouraging to read. You are truly gifted, both in mind and spirit. What a portrait that became, like a great chief. Thanks!

Lonnit says:

on February 18, 2010 at 7:06 pm

I was at your NYC seminar a few mo ago (you were wonderful and have inspired me!!! Thank you!) While there, of course I ordered your book. I just read the chapter about Tom and his MS and I wanted to pass on some info that might help him. I would strongly recommend that he go to a website called http://www.KnowTheCause.com. It’s all about how fungal infection can cause all sorts of disorders, including MS. The fact that Tom had surgery, he was probably put on some very strong antibiotics. Antibiotics are mycotoxins – fungal poison. Remember from elementary school that penicillin is mold? It doesn’t seem shocking that the antibiotics could have put him over the top, letting fungus already existing in his body to grow wildly out of control, resulting in the MS rearing its ugly head.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Tom took a look at his history and found strong exposure to mold, (maybe he was even exposed to it in the sand – Desert Storm(?) playing around at the beach and burying himself in the sand(?) high antibiotic use(?) etc. in his past, or maybe he’s just near the Jersey shore where it’s damp and mold is prevelent.

Anyway, I just had to write and ask you to pass this info on to him because it could very well save his quality of life. You were incredible to go shoot that session with him. What a guy! A hero! I’m loving the book – the info is great and your fun-loving personality shines through in the colorful language! LOL! Keep up the great work!

Magic Tricks Revealed says:

on March 14, 2010 at 9:30 am

Good post mate. Can I add your webpage into Technorati? I couldnt find it marked there.

Lorraine C. Grula says:

on March 15, 2010 at 11:49 am

What a positively wonderful story. You keep fighting Tom. The picture is utterly fantastic!

Tonee says:

on April 7, 2010 at 3:26 pm

fantastic. Tom is such an inspiration to me. Slowly getting to know him thru my org and facebook. Truly an amazing human.

Pete says:

on March 26, 2012 at 6:50 pm

Hey Joe, just wondering if you have had any contact with Tom. He used to be a fairly prolific poster on apug and he has not posted in nearly two years. I also can’t seem to reach him by email. I never met Tom but we have exchanged some very pleasant online conversations in the past. I never knew you shot this for him, I just happened to find it in a google search for his name. Super stand up work Joe, this is why you’re the best.



Bob M. Montgomery says:

on September 25, 2012 at 6:00 am

Chiming in with Pete on here. Tom seems to have disappeared from Facebook, and emails haven’t gotten any response. I haven’t spoken with him since earlier this spring, and I’m a little worried.

I met Tom at one of Joe’s Dobb’s Ferry workshops, and it was great to strike up a friendship with him without even knowing any of this story. I hope he’s well and simply too busy for the Internet, but his last updates were facing challenges.

Thinking of you, Tom and hope you’re back, better than ever soon!


Joe McNally says:

on September 25, 2012 at 12:53 pm

Hey Bob….Tom’s okay. got word from him. doing alright, just no longer active on FB. I was a bit worried too…thanks for checking in….Joe

Pete says:

on September 30, 2012 at 1:50 pm

Joe, great to hear. Thanks for checking in on this.


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