responsiveslider_lol_02 The Language of Light DVD - More
MeetJoe_02 Meet Joe McNally - More
inthebag What’s in the Bag? - More

Vegas, Baby, Vegas

Sep 5

In Lighting, Seminars & Workshops at 1:42am

PhotoShop World. Vegas. Its pretty crazy here. Lots going on. I guess I might have been unconsciously preparing myself for it by putting D in the lake in Santa Fe.

I’ve been friends with D for about 6 or 7 years. She is one of the most expressive people I’ve ever had in front of my lens. She creates her own art form from her movement, her face and the angular, radical shapes she can make with her physique. As I think about it, she is her own one person Cirque du Soleil.

Shot with one SB 900, zoomed to 200, through a largely blacked out umbrella.

It was a natural leap from the lake to Vegas, in a way. Long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I shot a story for Nat Geo called “The Power of Light.” I spent some time in the city of neon and glitz.

Nothing like chopper work at dusk to test your hand holding capabilities. Never use a gyro up there, just useless weight on the drag strip. But I do try to stay steady, and not drink too much coffee beforehand. Geographic never ran this, but the I did get the lead to the story here.

There’s almost 40 xenon arcs up at the top of the Luxor Pyramid, all aimed somewhat uselessly (hey, its Vegas) right up at the sky. I’ve worked with xenon arcs in studios (big studios) and they are powerful beasts. Which is why the tech working with the lights is wearing a bomb suit and a face guard. One of those bulbs explodes, you are in for big trouble. Of course, I was up there in shorts and a t-shirt, which did give me a bit of pause. But it was hot. Damn hot. Of course I chose to make it more uncomfortable by dragging a smoke machine up there, to create some vapor trails for these lights. Ran as the opening double truck, though, so I was happy enough. I wish you could know that kind of stuff when you were shooting. Maybe by the time the D8 or something comes along, there’ll be a little indicator that goes off and an audible computer voice tells you, “You have just made the lead photo for your story. You can relax now.”

Wouldn’t help me, though. I’m a worrier. Whenever I get a Geographic story, especially the old style Geo stories that ran for months, it would stick to my head like glue. Nothing was ever good enough. Nothing was ever gonna work. Think about it in the shower. Think about it when I would play with the kids. Wake up in a cold sweat, thinking, okay, they’re gonna find out now, on this one, that is all a sham, and I can’t shoot, and I’ll never get another job from anyone, and my children will starve. Fun, huh? I mean its uncomfortable. Its like walking around for a few months with an A clamp on your nuts.

I digress.

Wouldn’t ya know it I come to Vegas, teach the pre-con Photo Safari with my dear friend and great shooter Moose Peterson, and I end up with a frame I like of a cowboy by the side of the road. We went to this little ghost town place called Nelson, with a bunch of folks, and tried some lighting solutions.

It prompted me to think about a quick lesson for the Hot Shoe Diaries. Sample below…..

Why would you do that? Why would you go from the the safe haven of light you can see, touch and feel into the mysterious, uncertain and quite possibly dangerous land of flash? That’s like sailing across eel infested waters and then climbing the Cliffs of Insanity! Inconceivable!

Think of it this way. That available light is available to you, for sure, but then again it is available to everybody. You can make a picture that will look kind of the same as the guy next to you as the guy next to him. Then, for instance, all of you submit those pictures to the same magazine, or agent, or stock house or whatever, and the reaction is, hey, wait a minute, these all look…the same. It’s like Angelina Jolie and Reese Witherspoon showing up on Oscar night wearing the same dress. Quel embarrassment!

In a world of sameness, where there’s a Starbucks, a Gap, a Barnes & Noble, and a Pizza Hut on every other block of every other town you’ve ever been to, there is vibrance and joy in difference. In an era of pictures by the pound, royalty free, rights free, fast food photography, it just might pay to step back and try to make your pictures the equivalent of a mom and pop shop, the old curio store, or the place where the locals really eat.

One path to difference is to use light in creative and unexpected ways. Out here on the road, in the middle of no place Nevada, the sun had gone down. There was still plently of light, but it was cool, subdued, and expressionless. It was, you know, available, but unexciting. I put Chris, our actor cowboy up against a old barnside that had lots of cool stuff stuck on it, and made a picture. A very average picture. (That’s being kind.) It was a record of the scene, and not an interpretation. It was shot at 1/80th at f2.8.

But what lingered in my head was the sun going down over the distant hills on camera left. It had disappeared behind those hills just when it was about to get colorful and interesting. (Available light will do that to you.) So I put up a flash, with a full cut of CTO on it and placed it on a stand about at the angle the sun had been. The CTO turned the clean, neutral white light of the SB900 into the color of sunset. The 900 was especially advantageous here because of its capacity to zoom to 200 millimeters. When you zoom the flash head to 200, you concentrate the light. It gets punchy and direct, kind of like, oh, late afternoon sunset light.
I aimed it at a pretty steep angle to the wall, and triggered it with a CLS i-TTL signal from the SB900 I hot shoed to the camera. Made another frame at 1/80th at 2.8. You can see the scene warm just a touch. The camera is doing its job. It is mixing the flash and the available light in a reasonable way. Remember, it’s a machine. It does what it does. Like a food processor, it chops, slices, dices and blends, all with the aim of uniformity and in worship of what it perceives to be the happy place, the land of the histogram right in middle of things. Safe, in a word.

Safe, as in…blah. A smooth exposure. Publishable. But nothing with edge or difference or color. So, I got rid of it. All of it. I took over the controls (Luke’s switched off his targeting computer!), and put the camera into manual mode, and dialed in 125th of a second at 5.6, underexposing the scene by about 3 stops or so. Predictably, I got this. Ordinarily, you’d say Whoops! and check your settings. But here, in this dark place, is where I wanted to be. Now I have control.

What happens when you open a camera shutter in a black room? Nothing, until you light it. I had turned this roadside scene into a black room via use of shutter speed and f-stop. The camera sees almost nothing now. It is waiting for input. It is waiting for light.

Made another exposure, this one with the speed light firing and hitting the actor and the wall in a hard, intense way, creating lots of highlight and shadow areas. The SB900, zoomed at 200 millimeters, gelled warm, gave the scene life, dimension and color. Shot about 5 frames, turned it over to the class.

You can do a lot with one flash and a stand by the side of the road. You can make the sun come back. More tk.

53 Responses to “Vegas, Baby, Vegas”

James says:

on September 5, 2008 at 2:22 am

oh yeah… right…

this is why you get the big bucks.

wouldn’t have guessed the small strobe would pack enough punch to do this, dialed in to 200, yet have the spread and power.

Rishi says:

on September 5, 2008 at 2:28 am

You make it seem so easy…! Awesome!

Jeryc Garcia says:

on September 5, 2008 at 4:31 am

Great lighting example, as always. I will make “Make Available Light Unavailable” my mantra for the next few days. Thanks, Joe!

Matthew Botos says:

on September 5, 2008 at 5:42 am

Wow! It’s great to see the photos along the way as you tear down and rebuild the light.

Jonathan S says:

on September 5, 2008 at 5:52 am

Great work, thank you for sharing!

As soon as your blog pops up in my RSS feed, I’m there, every time!

Gregg says:

on September 5, 2008 at 7:10 am

The SB900 does seem to have quite the complete coverage for being at 200mm. And seems to have very little fall off left-to-right for such a severe angle. How far back from the barn was it? (I know you’re used to putting strobes a block away from the subject…)

Kevin says:

on September 5, 2008 at 7:56 am

Great work. Thanks for the info.

Light is so difficult to master, but you make it look so easy.

Malinda Hartong says:

on September 5, 2008 at 8:14 am

“fast food photography”
Inspired – thanks! I have wood carvers, adoptable pets, and a bbq to shoot today. I’ll get outtat the box yet!

Mark K_NJ says:

on September 5, 2008 at 8:40 am

This is an awesome post. While I was hoping for something from PSW, I didn’t expect that you’d teach us a ton in the time it took me to take two sips from my (non-Starbucks) coffee.

In an era of pictures by the pound, royalty free, rights free, fast food photography, it just might pay to step back and try to make your pictures the equivalent of a mom and pop shop, the old curio store, or the place where the locals really eat.

And that graph right there is worth the price of bloggosphere admission. Thanks Joe!

Bret says:

on September 5, 2008 at 8:44 am

I’m surprised at the worry & insecurity Joe…probably just the perfectionist of the artist at work.

I had to do a double-take to compare the before & after image. Truly a visionary…an artist of reality. Your work inspires me to dream of the possibilities in mundane settings. Maybe someday I too will “see” dramatic images before they occur.

Dave Moss says:

on September 5, 2008 at 8:57 am

Fantastic tip Joe, it’s posts like this that get me excited every time I see your blog pop up in my feed. Always hungry for more!

Kurt Roesand says:

on September 5, 2008 at 9:06 am

Absolutely brilliant!

Clean and simple, man you know how to send a message across.

Love it!

kathyt says:

on September 5, 2008 at 9:39 am

Mr. McNally – never thought you to be a worrier – guess I am in good company. Great post, great pictures. I am very much of an amateur with a camera and never thought I would be learning much about lighting. But between you and David Hobby it has become very interesting. It is amazing to see what you can do with one or two strobes. You are an awesome teacher. Thanks again for all the information you pass along. Your work is such an inspiration! kathyt

Tom says:

on September 5, 2008 at 9:56 am

thx for sharing your valuable lessons in light ;) you are an inspiration.

Yanik Chauvin says:

on September 5, 2008 at 10:24 am

You did it again Joe! Thanks to you and David Hobby, I’m a flashgun maniac now! My 5 studio strobe are taking the backburner more and more for my location shoots. When simple light is needed I just take along my 2 trusty SB-800s. :)

Your shot and description looks a lot like what I did to light up this windmill. :) http://yanikphotoschool.com/tips/sb-800-outdoor-lighting-tutorial/

Keep em coming and I can’t wait for your new book!

Nick says:

on September 5, 2008 at 10:32 am


when are you going to come to Australia and have a seminar where you just ramble on with funny anecdotes while you show us awesome images you have shot over the years!

We beckon you to come to the land down under,

Nick (aka Nikon)

Tim says:

on September 5, 2008 at 11:20 am


Make the Available Light Unavailable is Pure Gold! Or is that heavy gelled CTO?

You took us along the complete thought process from ordinary snapshot to beautiful art all while using very obtainable photo gear and some gray matter. Well Done! Bravo! Encore! You explained so much in such a little space. My internal SB800 is going off above my head.

(I’m beginning to see the light? at The Moment it Clicks?, I’m a poet and don’t know it?)


Marshall says:

on September 5, 2008 at 11:22 am

Magic little bonus: color in the sky. Fun scene. Nice shot.

Alan B. says:

on September 5, 2008 at 11:25 am

Love the way you describe things, Joe. Were you controlling the flash via iTTL and adjusting the flash compensation up/down to get things right? Or setting flash exposure manually? aka, the Hobby method:)

John Leonard says:

on September 5, 2008 at 11:27 am

So true about available being boring, or rather the same as everyone else. I recently have started shooting some live performance stuff for local musicians. The stuff they were getting before really was uninteresting, noisy (like ISO3200+ at 1/60), and just blah. All on available light in a club/bar setting.

They asked me to start shooting this venue. I knew the available light sucked so why try and use it? I set up a SB800 with a blue gel, and a SB600 with a full CTO, stage left and right respectively on TTL. The gels kind of add that stage light look, and I like the cool vs warm contrast. I used a SB800 on board as commander with no gel on TTL -2 to add in a little front fill. The TTL was important because the band members are moving around to fast to adjust the power manually depending on their distance to the flash. TTL gets it right most of the time, and I can tweak the rest in post. So I popped on the 70-200 and got in tight.

example at 1/200 (Which crushed the ambient), f/2.8, ISO200 (just to get a little faster recycle time vs ISO100, I’m shooting with a D80).


Richard Stokes says:

on September 5, 2008 at 12:44 pm

So, what was the setting on the SB-900 mounted on the top of the camera?

Jason says:

on September 5, 2008 at 12:58 pm

Great post, thanks Joe! I am going to use the images in a post over on my blog about thinking outside the box and finding what you are good at. That is unless i hear you tell me not to.

Daniel Cormier says:

on September 5, 2008 at 1:59 pm

I really like seeing how it comes together and the process that was gone through.

“Its like walking around for a few months with an A clamp on your nuts.”

Now there’s an image…

Dig the movie references.

AaronVan says:

on September 5, 2008 at 2:03 pm

I love that I can always count on reading a post from you.
I love that you make them interesting.
I love the way you write about something that is normally written with stereo instructions as the bar.
I love your pictures.
I love that i’ve found a photographic mentor to help me on my road to growth and self discovery out here in the land of cyberspace.
But at the end of the day I just love you man! :)

Ha, anyway, have a great time at PSW in Vegas. I am sooo jealous! I got to do Orlando this year, thanks again for the review by the way, and just don’t have the budget for 2 in a year unfortunately. But I hope to see you in Boston next year.

Until then, stay awesome and I’ll see you at the next post!

Alan says:

on September 5, 2008 at 2:32 pm

Do you have a problem with the SB900 fitting into the Justin clamps?
I have one SB900 and a box full of SB800s and all the 800s fit the justin clamps just fine, but the 900 seems to be a little big or the clamp is small or something.

levijwebb says:

on September 5, 2008 at 3:55 pm

Taking away the sun to add it back is just taking the piss indeed, nice one Joe it’s good to know even the top Photographers sweat about ability ;) .

D is one hell of a model, great shots, thanks for sharing all goldfish bowl style it’s a pleasure to read your human spirited photography high jinx.

Danielle says:

on September 5, 2008 at 8:06 pm

I can’t stop laughing over the A-clamp comment!!!! My husband is exactly that way…why do you torture yourselves?!

Fantastic post and thanks for the teaching as always :)

David Hobby says:

on September 5, 2008 at 11:37 pm


It doesn’t work like that. The onus is on you to get permission, not for Joe to tell you not to…

(“Hey! I’m gonna come pull the GPS and airbag out of your car tonight unless you tell me not to!”)


You talk about that A-clamp like it’s a *bad* thing…

Ryan McBride says:

on September 6, 2008 at 12:00 am

very neat post, as usual, inspiring.. looking forward, as a student and fellow photographer, to seeing you at the Waltham,MA workshop/seminar monday.. should be great.


Mark Griffith says:

on September 6, 2008 at 1:26 am

Wow what a lesson in lighting, that is just pure magic and that is why National Geo pays you cause you understand the light.

Mark K_NJ says:

on September 6, 2008 at 12:28 pm

Joe, some of us were wondering if you were in the water as well. Or did you stay on land while D was in the water.


Jerome says:

on September 6, 2008 at 8:29 pm

Another great lesson on how to think outside the… camera!
Thank you Joe!

Tyson H. says:

on September 7, 2008 at 12:07 pm

I was there! No really, this did happen! HA! Seriously Joe, thanks for the opportunity for me to take part in the NAPP Photo Safari by being one of the instructors. It truely was a very inspirational and “butt-shifter” experience for me.

Your slideshow during the Art of Digital Photography Friday night was absolutely awesome. I love how you not only described “the life of dancers” but how you depicted that with your images and music! F-ing awesome!

This past week was a treat that’s not available at any fast food places! THANK YOU!


lynwood atkins says:

on September 8, 2008 at 9:34 am

when you are confused or don’t know what to do think back to basics.its always been about controlling the light, then you control the outcome

Lewis Woodyard says:

on September 8, 2008 at 5:07 pm

Aw, c’mon, Joe. You brought Lake Santa Fe with you. Where do you store it when it is not in use? Do you carry it in your bag with all those speedlights?
How do you get it to look so wet?

Brian Burke says:

on September 8, 2008 at 10:56 pm

There’s this gentleman who lives down the road from me. He has cows in the middle of town. Barn and everything. Most of the time, he’s scratching around in his bib overalls, and then he’ll show up for a church meeting. Salty. I’ve been dying to shoot his portrait in the doorway of his barn (which faces a major city street), but I’ve been struggling with ways to light it.

Joe, you just gave me about 5 ideas for doing it. Thanks, dude.

John Dutt says:

on September 9, 2008 at 12:02 pm

Joe – Thanks for the post, a great lesson! For someone like me who often feels like they are bumbling, fumbling, and stumbling to make my pictures better, this is great. Your progression of thought from the blah picture to the WOW picture gives me an idea, a new thought, that I can really incorporate and use.

Tim Solley says:

on September 10, 2008 at 2:08 pm

Ah, I love the technique of using a CTO to simulate sunset. I’ve pulled it out a time or two in the past. This post inspired me to crank out a quick family photo:


Thanks Joe.

Karen says:

on September 11, 2008 at 3:41 am

You really toss and turn and think about people finding out you’re not the real deal? I hope you weren’t kidding, cuz I often feel the same way. A bit less these days, but still…it was like I was reading about myself for a minute there ;)
Love the cowboy shot and how-to. Great post, as usual!

Chris Halford says:

on September 13, 2008 at 11:13 pm

I just faked out the natural daylight on my own, as a rough test, and got inspired. I started a discussion on the Strobist flickr group to find out how to simulate the golden hour. I was immediately pointed to your blog. Wow.

This is really cool stuff. Thanks for sharing the technique!

Justin says:

on September 15, 2008 at 9:14 am

Thanks, Joe, for a very informative and well explained post. Remarkable work and for those of us trying to learn the knowledge you’ve spread here and in other posts is a real godsend.

Corey McNabb says:

on September 28, 2008 at 6:43 pm

Wow! Super cool! Thanks for sharing. I just ordered two SB-900s and am looking forward to playing with them. Corey

tino tedaldi says:

on September 29, 2008 at 2:02 pm

Great picture ‘in your style’

Do you think the bland lighting(1st image) could have worked with a deapan pose(avedonesque perhaps) ?

Style is interesting,no?

Regards Tino

Carson says:

on October 2, 2008 at 11:09 am

Can not WAIT to get your book. Thanks for sharing this technique, you’re not just a master photographer, but a master teacher as well. Thanks Joe!

Lasse says:

on November 23, 2008 at 4:52 am

Hi, what is CTO?? Can anyone tell me?

And as allways – a great site, amazing shots!

Kind regards,

Melissa says:

on December 22, 2008 at 6:57 pm


Thanks so much for all you do to help the rest of the photographic world on their journey to learning the art of photography. Technical info is relatively easy to find and ingest but it is wonderful to find a teacher that helps you think about the shot from an artistic point of view even before the shutter gets clicked.

Again, thanks. I love your work and learning from you.

Tyler Branston says:

on February 19, 2009 at 2:57 am

Wow Joe, I know this post is from Sept 5th, but its my favorite!
Just wanna say Kudos to you sir!
I found your site after looking at pics on flickr. Found a blog with a brief review of your book and a link here. Read the first post and ended reading them all…. (Thats saying alot, I hate reading alot… :P ) Im looking forward to the next post. Come payday, I think I’ll head down to the bookstore and pick up your book!
If your ever in Vancouver I would love the opportunity to check out a Demo or anything.

Leave a Reply