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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”

Joe says:

on August 4, 2008 at 7:26 am


That was another great shot, but also a moving story. Hang in there Tom!!


Martin Plant says:

on August 4, 2008 at 7:30 am

Very moving and thought provoking piece. Thanks.

Joe says:

on August 4, 2008 at 7:31 am

Good for you – both of you. Inspirational.

Martin Joergensen says:

on August 4, 2008 at 7:49 am

Joe (and Tom),

Being an MS patient myself, I must admit that this post (especially Tom’s intro), touched me more than any blog post has done before. I’m not nearly as badly hit as Tom obviously is, but it still struck a deeply resonating chord.

The thought, the concept, the story, the picture. As always, Joe, well done. Great imagery and a great post.

And Tom, to quote Nietzsche: He who has a why to live can bear almost any how…

Thanks to both


John Leonard says:

on August 4, 2008 at 8:03 am

Way cool Joe. My mom has MS…..

I did a picture similar to this for a friend recovering from breast cancer. A partial nude after surgery. Obviously it is not posted anywhere for people to see, but if you would like to see it let me know and I can set up a private gallery on my website for you. I would love to do a book of breast cancer survivors, just pics, and donate the proceeds to Breast Cancer research.

anyway, this just proves that not only are you a great photographer, but a great person as well.

Celso says:

on August 4, 2008 at 8:28 am

I’m speechless, it’s a touching subject for me. I hope Tom will find all the strength that he needs to overcome his condition.

Joe, A guy really has to feel good about himself when helping others like that! You did a good thing!

Best Regards.

ShaolinTiger says:

on August 4, 2008 at 8:41 am

Incredibly meaningful, thanks for shooting those pics and thanks even more for sharing the story.

Martin says:

on August 4, 2008 at 8:45 am

Great shot, and great story.
These posts make me keep coming back to your blog. Keep it up!

Craig Lee says:

on August 4, 2008 at 8:52 am

All I can say is “Wow”. What a touching story. Not only do you have a way with the camera and light, you have found such a strong writing voice.

Well done. I will keep Tom in my thoughts.

Mike Lao says:

on August 4, 2008 at 9:13 am

Tom – keep on fighting! It’s great to see that Joe was able to make your vision a reality!

Joe – I’m speechless and amazed with the shot!

Martin says:

on August 4, 2008 at 9:33 am

This is an incredible story. Joe, you are a fantastic person and may life reward you a million times over for your kindness. Tom, I wish you all the best and hope you find the strength you need to continue fighting your disease.


Alessandro Rosa says:

on August 4, 2008 at 10:08 am


You may be an amazing photographer, but that talent doesn’t even come close to the amount of compassion that you have. You are truly an amazing human being.

john fowler says:

on August 4, 2008 at 10:16 am

Thank you Joe and Tom. Good on ya!

David Latour says:

on August 4, 2008 at 10:55 am

What a great shot. Tom hang in there. You are an inspiration to me as a father.

Eric Merrill says:

on August 4, 2008 at 11:06 am


I don’t usually comment on blog posts. Then again, I don’t usually see such stellar examples of people at their best.

I can’t think of better examples of selflessness than either you or Tom. Good on both of you.

The photography–as always–is world class.


Ariston Collander says:

on August 4, 2008 at 11:13 am

Absolutely fantastic that you did this for Tom and his son. As a father myself I know what it means to do everything in your power to be there for your kids. Joe, I truly hope that the power of your image will help Tom overcome his ailment. Well done.

Bret says:

on August 4, 2008 at 11:17 am

Technically, this process was fascinating but the significance is the ability of a picture to be more than asthetically pleasing. Images are about life…how cool is it to create an image that can help even just one person draw closer with the will to live and experience.

Inspiration created in the ordinary locations through technique and human interest. You truly have another “Moment That Clicked…”

Terrence Randell says:

on August 4, 2008 at 11:22 am

Outstanding story and photo. Thank you for sharing. I am raising money for this year’s Bike MS NYC (http://www.bikenyc.org) event to help fund research for MS. My cousin who suffers from MS, Tom, and Jared and thousands of others living through this disease are why I am ride. Your photo and Tom’ story have re-doubled my resolve.

Frank Tuttle says:

on August 4, 2008 at 11:51 am

Amazing. Gripping. Life fulfilling & enriching. Joe – thanks for taking the time to helping out a total stranger – and taking the time to share both sides. Tom’s fight with pain and MS are felt both in his writing and within the pictures.

Dave Moss says:

on August 4, 2008 at 12:02 pm

Another reason why whenever anyone asks who my favourite photographer is, I say Joe McNally without a moment’s hesitation.

Well done Joe, and keep on fighting Tom!

Josh says:

on August 4, 2008 at 12:21 pm


This sort of work – the story as well as the shot – is what makes you stand out from the rest. As always, thank you for sharing.

Stu says:

on August 4, 2008 at 12:24 pm

We met in Capetown last fall and I felt then you were one of the most exceptional people I have ever known. As time passes, my regard only increases.

Thanks for the hope, humor, paradox, pathos, and variety that is life and that you so brilliantly reflect in your work and the way you live your life.

Mark Basse says:

on August 4, 2008 at 12:42 pm

Learned two things from Joe today: A little location lighting and a big lesson in humanity. And now? Who can I help with MY camera? If you can find the time then so can I.

Steve Kalman says:

on August 4, 2008 at 12:49 pm


After reading this entry and the Adorama one, I’m really sorry that you won’t be at the San Juan DLSW; not only so that I can learn from you but, more importantly, so that I can shake your hand.

There are plenty of talented people in the world, even in the world of photography, but you are one of only a very few that I see who is giving back in ways other than teaching your skills.

Thank you.


PS I’ve swithched to and ordered from Adorama based on that blog entry (tell them, I did).. Others will get my businsess only if it is not an Adorama product.

Stanley Snyder says:

on August 4, 2008 at 1:08 pm

Thank you for making this story available. It is a wonderful lesson. Since none of us know when our time will come, we should take heed of Tom’s strong desire to teach his son what he wants to impart as soon as we can. My son Jeff, who also has MS, but a mild version so far, speaks so highly of you and has shared your website with me. Magnificent work.

ed linn says:

on August 4, 2008 at 1:26 pm

Thanks for the lessons in photography and life.
It is great of you to share your talent both with Tom and your readers.
very powerful work and your blog is a must read every day!

thank you for teaching us strength and a father’s love for his son.
best to you.

Glyn Dewis says:

on August 4, 2008 at 2:21 pm


An incredibly moving story … thankyou for sharing.

I guess at times we are all guilty of feeling sorry for ourselves for whatever reason .. believing that the challenges we are facing are worse than anything, but there are always those worse off.

I remember once being told that if you had a group of people together and each wrote down on a piece of paper their worries / concerns / problems, then put all those pieces of paper into a bowl and each took it in turn to pull one out … you’d end up wanting your own back.

Joe, as a reader above wrote, not only are you a wonderful photographer, you’re a wonderful person … you clearly have a big heart!!!

All the very best to you and yours,
Buckinghamshire, UK

Ben Olivares says:

on August 4, 2008 at 2:40 pm

That´s what I love reading this blog, learn and share !!!

Thanks Joe

Ben Olivares

jeff Tamagini says:

on August 4, 2008 at 2:50 pm


Amazing post, and an amazing thing that you did for Tom. As someone with a Mom that has MS this one really hit me where it counts. Keep those blogs coming they are my real inspiration for my photography

Martin McNeil says:

on August 4, 2008 at 2:53 pm


An inspirational story and outstanding images as always. There’s not much else to say that hasn’t already been said by others.

Kind regards,

Martin McNeil
East Kilbride, Scotland

Billy Mitchell says:

on August 4, 2008 at 3:11 pm

Way to go, Joe and crew.


Richard Cave says:

on August 4, 2008 at 3:33 pm

Very moving,

The one outstanding thing that made me want to go pro was in Iraq a young medic who was serving with me was having a hard time because of her mother. Her mom was missing her daughter and was worried to death, this affected the young soldier. After talking to her I found out that she was from a poor family from a rough housing estate in Liverpool, they could not afford family photos. I then photographed the medic working, on patrol treating Iraqi kids who had been injured. I then arranged for the prints to be sent to her mom. Overnight the young medic became a different person, the photos were pride of place for mom and were shown to the whole neighborhood. Seeing her smile made me become a pro not for the money but to make a difference.

Its not about the money, fame or notoriety, its the difference you make when you take an image.

So Joe you did a good thing, a beacon of hope for that family. I wish them well and hope that Jared sees his father as a proud grandparent.

Blessings to all


John J says:

on August 4, 2008 at 3:52 pm

Thanks for such a moving story and fantastic “how to” all in one. Tom, best wishes to you. Hang in there…

Joe – I’m sure you get hundereds of emails. Thanks for being so involved, and down to earth. My sense is that with you, it’s not just about your work, but a real interest in helping the people you come in contact with. I imagine that’s what makes you so successful, and much more than a well known professional photog that takes amazing images.

marco says:

on August 4, 2008 at 4:02 pm

Thank you very much, you both. Really.

Jay says:

on August 4, 2008 at 4:10 pm

Jared – your Dad’s the best, and Joe’s not bad either!

Matic Barbič says:

on August 4, 2008 at 4:28 pm

Been MD myself, I always admire courage and strong will of the MS patients. Tom, very best wishes to you also from my side!
And for Joe – used to study hard in my medical profession, in my amateur photography studying your lighting techniques was neither but a joy. Thanks for sharing.

kathyt says:

on August 4, 2008 at 4:49 pm

Mr. McNally — you are just way to cool!!! Thanks for the great post, lighting information and pictures!! And a few prayers for Tom.
thanks kathyt

nando says:

on August 4, 2008 at 5:56 pm

Tom, best of luck and wishes.
Joe, this is a great one. A really great one.

Thanks a lot for sharing this.

Tom Marriage says:

on August 4, 2008 at 6:15 pm

Tom you are giving your son one of the best role models I have ever seen. Jared you have a wonderful Dad & I’m sure he is very proud of you. Stay strong Tom.

Joe thank you for showing such compassion. Just giving Tom some suggestions on making his photo would have been a very nice act. You went way above and beyond. All the best to you and your crew.

Fantastic photo by the way.

Take care & the best to all of you,

JBelle says:

on August 4, 2008 at 6:18 pm

You are an Irish King.

Michael S. says:

on August 4, 2008 at 6:49 pm

Wow, another fascinating story! It must feel doing a great thing like this. You are a true inspiration Joe. Sorry your not going to be in the San Juan Islands!

Dr. Mickey says:

on August 4, 2008 at 7:39 pm


Whew! You have touched me deeply with Tom’s story. His heroism belongs in a sequel to Profiles in Courage!

I have seldom been struck so profoundly by a simple blog item.

I have rarely been affected so deeply by acts of charity and love (ok, His Holiness John Paul II, Mother Theresa, and a few others kinda trump the list here).

Thank you for your gifts of love to humanity as well as a family in need.

Michael Shaw, Ph.D.

Mick says:

on August 4, 2008 at 7:49 pm

Most thought provoking blog I have read in a long time all the best to you Tom

And another great set of images from Joe and a wonderful gesture in making them happen

all the best


Renee Marquis says:

on August 4, 2008 at 7:58 pm

I am so touched by this story and I am so glad that I have gotten to meet you and Jared…. We really didn’t have a lot of time to chat while we where shooting, but I hope we can at our next event. ~Renee

Tim Hurley says:

on August 4, 2008 at 9:44 pm

At the 2007 Yosemite DLWS, after your very moving presentation, I asked you how you stay detached when looking at such human drama through your lens. You said, “that’s just it, you don’t”. This piece brought that all back to me. Thanks for helping me remember.
You’re a good man.

Mark K_NJ says:

on August 4, 2008 at 10:34 pm

I’m dropping in at #45 here and there’s not much to be said. Several days later, I received an email back from Joe that very simply stated , “let’s do this”.

That right there says it all to me. “Let’s do this..” means let’s set it up great and get behind the lens. I’m new to all this, and don’t know a strobe from a c-clamp, but it’s this type of thing that gives me motivation to learn and experiment. This isn’t one high-faluten’ pro shooter with a dozen assistants and a SI cover model to shoot – this is one man, a good assistant and a strong studio manager making it all happen for one guy in Jersey.

Nice work, Joe, Brad and Lynn. Nice work. And you hang Jersey tough, Tom!

Sam Tran says:

on August 4, 2008 at 11:24 pm

Hi Joe,

It’s no wonder why you are so blessed with the talents. It’s not just Tom that you bring some sunshine into his life, you have shared with us all long with this blog, seminars, workshops, and your books… Keep it up & God bless.


Richard says:

on August 4, 2008 at 11:30 pm

A truly inspiring story (and the photos aren’t bad either). Hang in there Tom and well done Joe.

Janine Smith says:

on August 4, 2008 at 11:32 pm

Part 1? What could part 2 possibly be?

Quentin Fennessy says:

on August 5, 2008 at 12:15 am

Joe, you have a big heart. You are a good man.

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