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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”

an says:

on August 5, 2008 at 1:14 am

Thanks, thanks, thanks!

Thanks Tom and thanks Joe for sharing the pictures AND the story.

Sure I am not the only one affected positively, big way with this. I am a father and somedays that is the only thing that gives a purpose to this life.

Jay Mann says:

on August 5, 2008 at 1:27 am


Everyone has said it all before me, nothing I can say will add to the humanistic and photographic inspiration of this post.

When I view your images for the first time, I try to reverse engineer the lighting setup. Its an interesting exercise and I have learned a lot by doing it. There is a slash of light on Tom’s right jaw line, but I cannot see where it is coming from. Can you give us a hint?

Thanks again,


Rob Brown says:

on August 5, 2008 at 1:29 am

I hate to sound like a broken record, but this is great post. i always get excited when my email tells me you posted a new blog but this one stands out a bit. Amazing photography and a great story. Hang in there Tom, you have alot to keep fighting for. And Joe, thanks for the details. Be good!

Mike Nelson Pedde says:

on August 5, 2008 at 1:34 am

Tom: This may or may not work for you, but you might want to see if there’s a Taoist Tai Chi Society club in your area. Tai chi is, at its essence, a martial art, but the Taoist tai chi style was developed by Master Moy Lin Shin specifically to target health benefit and health improvement. My wife Marcia and I used to be instructors in the society and during that time we saw many people with a host of diseases including MS, MD, Parkinson’s, ankylosing spondylitis, cancer, arthritis, osteoporosis and others either reduce or eliminate their need for medication by doing tai chi. It’s not a ‘magic pill’ – it only works if you practice it regularly. The Taoist Tai Chi Society also has a ‘special needs’ club for people with different medical conditions. Doing tai chi will strengthen the tendons and ligaments, work the joints, strengthen the muscles, work the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, improve balance, and a host of other things. Of course you should check with your doctor first, but it’s quite probable s/he will recommend it. If you can walk you can do tai chi, and if you can’t walk you can do tai chi in a wheelchair. For two people I’ve known, practicing tai chi helped them walk again. Check them out at http://www.taoist.org

And from the sounds of it, you’re raising your son very well.


Jamie says:

on August 5, 2008 at 2:40 am

Simply a beautiful story. Goof on ya Joe. Hang in there Tom!

Daniel K says:

on August 5, 2008 at 2:58 am

Hi Joe,
Love your work.However, this one is not about you.Having a 9year old son myself as well as the fact that my wife is going in-to hospital today,i know what Tom is going through.Hang in there Tom and fight it with all you have! You are in our prayers.Remember God have a plan with everything-how ,crual it might sound to us.Your boy will be a great man-no doubt,you tought him that allready!
Thanks for all your help and info through this blog,Joe.

Mark C says:

on August 5, 2008 at 4:09 am

Tom – Our thoughts are with you. Keep fighting.

Joe – You’re a mensch.

Steve Johnston says:

on August 5, 2008 at 4:27 am

Truly moving and inspirational story Joe. You are one of a kind! Best of luck to Tom and his family.

Sybren Stüvel says:

on August 5, 2008 at 5:47 am

A very moving story, Joe. You really are a visual poet and a great storyteller.

Tom says:

on August 5, 2008 at 7:09 am

Good Morning.
I did not want to write here because this place is about Joe’s art, professionalism and teachings. Also, because I can tell you that Joe is a VERY humble man in fact as he is reading this he is already wondering if he should post this. (Joe, if you don’t, when the weather cools I can travel North) :) When I first met Joe he, with the shyness of a boy, bowed his head and said in a low voice “I’m just a guy with a camera.”

But, after reading your comments I am very overwhelmed and want to thank each one of you for such heartfelt comments. MS, like so many other invasions to our bodies is triggered by stress, the opposite happens when joy is introduced as it is with me when this blog went up and I read your comments.

That is the power of the picture.

I have my own way of thanking Lynn, Brad and Joseph but we want to Thank you so very much.
Tom and Jared.

Ted says:

on August 5, 2008 at 8:21 am

An outstanding shot. It shows well the determination of Tom.

Kevin Henry says:

on August 5, 2008 at 8:37 am

WOW ! Talk about a ‘profile’ in courage .

Charlie Trotman says:

on August 5, 2008 at 9:30 am

Tom (a flickr buddy) is a total inspiration and also a wonderfully kind and caring guy. Great story..and thanks for sharing your amazing skills too!

Paul Plummer says:

on August 5, 2008 at 11:46 am

Joe, there you are again “making it click” and connect in so many different ways.

Tom, your story and devotion to your son have touched a lot of people in ways you might not think.

Thank you both.


Karen says:

on August 5, 2008 at 3:10 pm

An incredible story. I love the portraits. The story makes them even richer. Thanks for blogging about it.

John Lewis says:

on August 5, 2008 at 3:44 pm

Joe, thank you for such a great post. Your whole team are to be commended for showing such compassion and kindness. Sometimes you just read something and it goes much further inside you than you are used to, and restores your faith in humanity. i have just watched the news and every thing was so bleek. this story really helps to put things in perspective.

Tom, may the Lord bless you and your family and work a miracle in you life. Be strong and have faith.

Jason Bell says:

on August 5, 2008 at 3:46 pm

One of the best and heartfelt things I’ve read all year.

Steven says:

on August 5, 2008 at 5:22 pm

Joe, you humble me. Thanks.

Doug Evans says:

on August 5, 2008 at 5:34 pm

Dear Mr. McNally,

I have been a fan and follower of yours for some time. I love, “The Moment It Clicks” and while I’m an absolute amateur, do enjoy the process – even if my shots are yet another great exposure of the floor. Your humor and good nature are a gift and your work is truly inspirational!

But this time, your act moved me beyond any of your photographs!

I think you’re awesome – hope to meet you in Vegas this September (if I can manage to make it)!

Tom, you are amazing! The photo idea was fantastic! Now, I know this is going to sound like nonsense, but if your reading this – Please contact me. I have a friend who’s dealt with MS and has a simple yet effective way to combat the pain and symptoms. I’d like to share some info with you.

Thanks & Kind Regards!


Fernando Hiro says:

on August 5, 2008 at 5:52 pm


Chris Homan says:

on August 5, 2008 at 7:49 pm

Tom, you are quite the man. I sincerely admire how you are fighting to be able to raise your son the best way possible under those testing circumstances. Your son will do just fine with an example like you!

To Joe and his staff, thank you for showing this wonderful example of humanity. The world needs this now more than ever. This was a truly inspirational, unselfish act. Thank you all!

Bill Moore says:

on August 5, 2008 at 9:46 pm

Joe, thanks for sharing so much info with us in this blog and your books…looking at your frames in “At the moment it Clicks” opens up a world of possibilities to this rank amateur…I love to look at photos, but yours are just downright exciting, and they make be want to learn how to take better photos. Thanks for showing us how your art can help folks, as in this truly remarkable blog entry about Tom…

Please don’t stop…you’ve got us hooked!


Rob Davies says:

on August 5, 2008 at 10:59 pm

Good on ya, Joe. Stand up thing you did.

Best to Tom.


Cathy Scrivnor says:

on August 6, 2008 at 2:40 am

Tom and Jared and Joe, thank you for sharing your story and the set up of your portrait. My son was 14 when I was diagnosed with MS. Photography became my therapy when I found I could no longer control a paintbrush without pain. It took many years to arrive at my diagnosis, but everyday, I still get a thrill when I hear my son comment on a photo from behind me as I post-process or asks for a print of one. I have a long way to go to reach any level of perfection, but it is wonderful to find a creative outlet.

Thank you again for sharing.,.. Tom, you are an inspiration!

Richie Owens says:

on August 6, 2008 at 7:15 am

All the best to Tom and his family.

It’s great to see that someone (You Joe) is willing to get out there and meet someone just from an email. I know there is probably alot of photogs at the top of their game which wouldn’t. So good on you Joe (The People’s Photog!)


Richie Owens UK

Sebastian Schroeder says:

on August 6, 2008 at 8:48 am


people like you made me choose my profession as a photographer. There is so much more in a picture than a smile or a tear. It´s the story behind it that makes me move.

This story is exceptional! Thank you so much for sharing!


all the best for you and your son! Hope this picture gives you power to not loose hope and fight again!


Levi Webb says:

on August 6, 2008 at 9:05 am

That’s one hell of a moving blog that just shouts Toms fighting spirit which you have managed to capture so darn well.

Am amazed by Toms determination, love and drive. Truly an inspiration.

April Andrews says:

on August 6, 2008 at 1:51 pm

Thank you, Joe. You are the best.

JQ says:

on August 6, 2008 at 2:41 pm

Joe- You’re much more than just a photographer. Most photographers only take pictures, you make a difference.


Firggy says:

on August 6, 2008 at 3:05 pm

Joe – you are the man!!! Thanks for doing this for Tom.

David Stark says:

on August 6, 2008 at 5:27 pm

Thank you Joe for taking the “Light” to the people.

Pat W says:

on August 6, 2008 at 7:55 pm

Joe – I’ve always admired your photography, but never more than now. Thank you for doing this for Tom. You are a good man.

Tyler Rogers says:

on August 6, 2008 at 9:09 pm

There are some days when I ask myself why I take photos?
There are days when I fight with myself – what do I want to say with my photos?

Recently, it’s started to become clearer to myself – something that matters. something that makes a difference. something that means something to people.

and then I read that post. About how fragile life really is, how so many of us take it for granted. and how a photograph can move so many people. Tom, his family, the readers here, and anyone who sees the photograph and reads the story.

You are a hero among men, Joe. in a world of darkness and greed, you are one who shines, and gives us all hope. A job well done.

Timo Wolthof says:

on August 7, 2008 at 4:35 am

Joe – Really amazing, makes me realise there’s much more then just earning and making good pictures. This is a killerpicture because it’ll help someone. It’s got immense value.

Tom – Goodluck fighting your disease, never give up! I’m pretty sure the picture Joe made will make dreams come true :)

Kaimana Pine says:

on August 7, 2008 at 8:11 am

Fantastic & heart warming. I’m inspired to do the same should my talents be called upon. Be well and strong Tom. Aloha.

Clayton says:

on August 7, 2008 at 9:29 am

This may have been the most important shot of your life ( it was certainly his)…
Sometimes we find that the defining moment of our lives is to have meaning in someone elses.

Daniel Kulbacki says:

on August 7, 2008 at 1:04 pm

Real photographers can capture a feeling. Another fantastic picture Joe and great Idea Tom. My Mom suffers from that same terrable illness.

Diane says:

on August 7, 2008 at 1:05 pm

Joe, YOU ROCK! I’ve know ever since I got your book that you were a very special guy. You talent is amazing, but your compassion is the GREATEST!

Tom, keep on fighting. As you can see, you can surmount great obstacles. Jared is a lucky young man to have a dad with such determination. I fully understand you determination to teach your son the right things…and you are doing just that.

Bless you all!

Jessica says:

on August 7, 2008 at 3:59 pm

Thank you for bringing hope back. Through your willingness you’ve touched more than just one person.

Elizabeth Douglas says:

on August 7, 2008 at 4:00 pm

Just wanted to let you know that I that I think what you have done here is AWESOME!! I am a wife and a mother of 3 boys, as well as a fellow MSer. My dad is also a photographer (retired) so I truely can understand all the work it took to make this WORK. I love all of the pictures but mostly the one with you and your son (Tom). Thanks for sharing this on the WebMD site. I have shared it with other friends of mine on another MS site.

Keep your chin up and hang in there. Blessings to you and your families!

-EJ mom to Nathan 12 , Ryan 11 (aka Frog) Wife to Gary and step-mom to Brady 10 Take Life as it comes, at your own pace… one day, one hour, even one minute at a time!

Jeri Mearns says:

on August 8, 2008 at 12:46 am

Tom – thank you for sharing this personal moment. It makes us all remember what’s really important in life.

Joe – thank you for helping Tom make it happen. And sharing it with us.

Danielle says:

on August 8, 2008 at 11:37 am

In a world where so many people seem intent on grabbing headlines, it is nice to read about people who support each other in quiet yet meaningful ways. As always, I couldn’t be more impressed Joe.

Tom, my prayers are with you and your family. You are providing a great example for your son. God bless.

Mikey says:

on August 8, 2008 at 7:10 pm

This is what photography is about …

Daniel Gomes says:

on August 8, 2008 at 7:26 pm

Such an amazing and inspiring story… It really puts thing into perspective I think.
And the way you helped this man to accomplish is vision speaks volumes about the kind of person you are, once again, I feel inspired by your actions and the way photography can make a difference in peoples lives!

Tom, I wish you all the best.

Jeff Lynch says:

on August 8, 2008 at 8:49 pm


You make me proud to be an Irishman laddy!


Bob says:

on August 9, 2008 at 12:00 pm

Great shot as always and a reflective story.

Two things though.

(a) On the sketch, I think you’ve missed a flash off the drawing which was fired camera left to the rear of the guy to separate him from the background? Or was it just spill from the rear flood lights?

and (b) every time I read your story behind the image I am impressed at the approach to time you have. There is never a feeling of panic or urgency which can over run us and spoil the picture out of fear of ‘wasting too much time’.

Love your work and as a result spent a small fortune here in the UK importing Honi gear. Great kit though, and now I’ve added more of home made kit.

Safe travels … Bob

Andy Glogower says:

on August 9, 2008 at 12:45 pm

Thanks for sharing this with us. Echoing the prayers here. Love the numnuts reference.

Paulo Rodrigues says:

on August 10, 2008 at 6:55 am

Joe, you never cease to amaze me.

Tom keep up the fight, I’m full of admiration for the both of you.

Eric Schwab says:

on August 10, 2008 at 2:41 pm

I have watched my best friend go through back surgery’s for 5 years. Then get incorrectly diagnosed with MS, only to find out a month ago that he has ALS. This story absolutely brought tears to my eyes as I saw my best friend standing with that same pride as Tom

robert norman says:

on August 10, 2008 at 11:32 pm

Joe : as always – your writing and humanity come together into what is truly the heart of your work and vision. Thanks so much for sharing!!

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