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Archive for the ‘Lighting’ Category


Sep 24

In In The Field, Lighting at 7:10am

Photogs, well, at least certain photogs, are legendary screamers, right? They get upset when things go wrong, and things always go wrong, so stories about on set grouchiness abound. We’ve all, I’m sure, heard about the prima donna shooter, male or female, who explodes on the set when the latte’s not the right temperature, or missing the nutmeg flakes on the hot foam. There are also the divas, the ones who look disdainfully about and tell the crew, “Give me God’s light!” and then retire to the location vehicle for, uh, extra-curricular activities. Then of course there are the unprepared, those who blow a gasket about stuff that should have been fixed and set before the airplane tickets were bought.

You have to pray for patience on most photo shoots and try not to reach, screaming, for the eject handle. One mildly amusing story came years ago from an assistant to a somewhat vociferous, overlarge photog, who got his comeuppance after badgering the location help for days on end. Seems his size made him a bit tippy, and he was in the waves, trying to get an over/under shot, with a housing. You’ve seen these pix, with the camera half out, half in the water. (They’re on the cover of, you know, Field and Stream all the time, with the hapless mackerel straining for the deep, and the triumphant fisherman, rod bowed like hairpin turn on the Pacific Coast Highway, fighting to board him. I always feel bad for the fish, and have consoled myself by figuring it’s gotta be mechanical, ‘cause I can’t figure out for the life of me how they do that stuff.)

Oh, well, back to the waves. This photog insisted to his assistants that they literally lash him to a dock piling to stabilize him and the camera. Which they did. When he finished the shot, he handed the camera up, and waited to be untied. Whereupon his beleaguered assistants waltzed away, down the pier, got themselves drinks with big umbrellas in them, and watched the tide come in. Turtle like, literally pinned to the piling like a butterfly specimen, he had no recourse but to wait to be released at their discretion. He didn’t scream so loudly after that.

I tend not to be a screamer. I suffer the slings and arrows of location photography with relative equanimity. That’s not me giving myself absolution, by the way. I’ve said and done stupid stuff, been a jerk-brained idiot, yelled at people, mostly myself, punched walls, sometimes with my head, literally bloodying myself out of rage and frustration. But, most of the time, I’m pretty calm. The bigger the problem, the calmer I get. Little stuff still can make me nuts. Big stuff, well, figuring that out gets too interesting to get mad about.

I was determined to do a re-shoot of a portrait for a friend I had messed up on. I blew a picture. Big news there, huh? But, you know, it’s not the ones you get that populate your dreams. It’s the ones you miss. Needless to say, my dreams are very full, and colorful. I’m actually glad I don’t remember most of them.

We were on location early on one of those amazing Montana mornings, where the sunrise is a piece of heaven you can actually shoot. Light drenched, with panoramic skies just rolling out an endless carpet of color, it could have made a country boy out of this city kid right then and there, at least momentarily.

Of course, I got shit. If I don’t anchor my frame with a human being, I am frequently lost. So I turned to my friend and fellow photog, Kevin Dobler, who’s a quintessential good guy, and a very fine shooter. This magnificent dawn occurred on the road outside his family’s ranch, which I know is a very special, emotional place for him. I offered to do his picture with the road and sky meeting in vast Montana distance. It was not a good effort. No fault of Kevin. Totally my fault back at the camera. I couldn’t get a feel for the frame, as sometimes happens. I finished bothering him with my clicking, and he was happy enough, but I wasn’t. In my head, as I often do, I made a check mark, looked at the land and the light, and thought, okay, next time I’ll get you.

The next time was about two years later, and I had been chewing on doing this again for a while. (I’m a real water under the bridge kind of guy.) I planned it out in my head. I was going to make a special effort, with an Elinchrom Ranger, a 74’ Octa, c-stand, the whole business. A full blown, big flash, one light character driven portrait of the man and the land.

Drew and I went through a checklist of gear the night before. But the next morning, when Drew, a really good shooter, and a formidably capable first assistant, came to me with that, you know, look, I knew something was awry. Out on that frozen road, he looked at me sheepishly, and said, well, we got the Ranger pack, we just don’t have the Ranger head.

Okay, then, at least we don’t need a sandbag for that big light, ‘cause that’s what that Ranger pack just became! Stay cool, and think. I wanted the big Octa feel of the light, and I wanted to shoot B&W. This particular morning was Montana on mute, not the riot of color of last time. How ‘bout merging big flash and small flash?

I had never put SB units inside the big Octa, but there’s always a first time. We quickly performed impromptu surgery on the guts of the Octa, gaffering, clamping, and otherwise festooning it’s speed ring and ribs with a total of four hot shoe flashes. I did quick math. At full power, they can put out roughly 60 watt seconds. Four would give me a pretty good push of light at max. I couldn’t shoot fast, or much, but, I could shoot. I had a couple SC-29 cords with me, so I could run another light off the camera and actually inside the Octa. That SB unit became both a flash and a commander.

Okay, all lights at manual 1/1 power. No TTL nuance, or letting the little darlings decide things all on their own. I dragged my shutter all the way to 1/20th, and wrangled (hey, I’m shooting in cow country) f13 out of the lights. A mix of ambient and flash to be sure, but with enough declarative flash pop to edge Kevin’s rugged face. I went to monochrome, and a 5:4 aspect ratio on my D3X, and shot with a 24-70, racked to 32 millimeters. I tried long lens but that didn’t work so well. The middle-ish wide angle aspects of this make the road feel like it goes forever, which in Montana, they do. Kevin is the anchor for the frame up front.

What did I lose doing it this way? Well, I lost about 700 or so watt seconds, which limited my flexibility, for sure. At 1/200th of a second (max flash sync speed for Nikon with a third party power pack) with the Ranger at full bore, I could have made that Montana country road look as dark as a Manhattan night club. But that wasn’t my intent. I had to do a more delicate dance with the ratios of ambient to flash, given the limited power supply, but that balance was where I was headed aesthetically, anyway. How do you know when you have the right mix in a situation like this?

You just know. Hate to be inconclusive, but this becomes a matter of taste. A good guideline is often to work your flash up to a value that is one stop over the ambient conditions. Thus when you expose for that flash value, you automatically have subdued the background somewhat. But that is a general, and generally breakable, rule out there in the world. Once you have the frame and the values dialed in, ballpark-wise, it becomes a matter of personal taste, and what is possible technically. Here, I had just enough flash to give the photo a look. And if I told you this was a Ranger head and pack inside that Octa instead of a bunch of ragtag small flashes, you’d believe me, ‘cause the look of that light is definitely smooth, like you would expect out of a 74” source.

Misses don’t have to be forever. Keep a rolodex of failures in your head. (I’ve got an unfortunately large rolodex!) They inform your conduct in the field, always. And sometimes, you can go back and fix ‘em, even just a little. And try to think, not scream.

More tk….

Dancing With Light

Aug 3

In Lighting, Videos at 6:48am

Very happy that Kelby Training has launched the dance photography classes we created in January in collaboration with some truly wonderful dancers in Vancouver, Canada. The above series is of a marvelously powerful dancer with Ballet BC named Gilbert Small. The class that is up and running now is called Light, Shadow and Motion. Coming next week is Dancers in Flight, and I’ll keep you  posted on that. Many thanks to the folks at Kelby Training, and all the dancers who worked so hard in the studio. Their devotion to craft and artistry is routinely amazing. Below, Jeff Mortensen conjures simple magic in the air.

More tk…

Dropped Dead Ducks

Aug 1

In Fun, Lighting at 6:46am

Just back from Asia for a stint, and I have to say it was a complete honor teaching and working alongside Zack Arias. He explains his minimalist style and approach so clearly and well, and it’s pretty terrific watching him in action. I have to say his theories and practices with “one only” style of lighting influenced me greatly, not only in my photography, but in other areas of my life as well.

For instance the paintball arena. Below is kind of a “one light” approach I used for paintball. Okay, call it “one shot.”

I really kind of felt bad about it afterwards. I mean, I didn’t mean to hit him in the face. I was actually shooting his direction just to distract him, seeing as he was launching paintballs at my daughter Claire. Turns out she really didn’t need my help, as she was smarter, smaller, faster and more agile than the rest of the hulking, testosterone fueled males she was out there in the jungle with, all of us near keening in our desire to just splatter somebody.

Creative Asia was a wonderful gathering, and I was very proud once again to be included alongside friends and colleagues like Louis Pang, Zack and Michael Greenberg. Zack and I traveled on from Hong Kong to Kuala Lumpur, where we taught big seminar days together, as well as individual classes. We were located at Taylor University in KL, which had this weird, checkerboard type of Astro-turf quad out there in the middle of the campus. It was so odd, I took the class out there into the microwave oven of midday Malaysia in July to experiment with line of sight TTL transmission in bright conditions, and also high speed sync for small flash. We were accompanied by the resolutely beautiful Evon Tan, who it has been my pleasure to work with on several occasions.

It being as harshly lit and hot as the inside of an incandescent bulb, I naturally asked Evon to start jumping.

She did this listless, sort of puppet with cut strings hop into the air, and I, gracious as ever, excoriated her from a distance. (I was shooting a 70-200mm from a balcony.) I shouted something like, “Hey Evon, could you put a little effort into it? Like, you know, that looked somebody dropped a dead duck from a third story window, you know?” Or words to that effect. Evon and I have worked together before, as I’ve noted. She responded righteously and vigorously, answering my call. Effectively, the big dipshit from the States was trying to get an Asian super model to act like a high school cheerleader from Kansas.

Showing the very few frames I shot later, the consensus was that the dropped dead duck frame worked and the rest of my offerings were garbage. Drew actually led the charge on that. Back at the studio, Cali confirmed that the above was the most interesting frame. I looked at them, perhaps being a bit sensitive to the recent passing of a birthday, and asked if this was a generational thing. No, no, I was assured. This was nothing like their collective disapproval of the tan socks I relentlessly wear with half boots, the Jesus sandals I have a penchant for stumbling about in, the fact that I like Joni Mitchell, or my tendency to use gels on my lights in a style that disappeared with pet rocks.

Anyway, the class had some questions about line of sight transmission working in bright light, which we resolved pretty well. (It worked, from about 100′ away.)

Finals on the select were 1/500 @f16, ISO 100, lens zoomed at 140. The three flashes were arrayed on a Lastolite rotating tri-flash, which enabled me to orient the light sensor panels in one collective direction. Given the bright conditions, I sent the flashes a signal to go manual, full power, wanting a lot of DOF to keep the weirdness of the grid sharp. Now, could you do this with a flash pop from a single bigger light? Of course. I’ve done that more times than I can remember. Could you use a medium format system with a leaf shutter to gain access to higher shutter speeds? Of course. But, we were teaching speed lights, and this is the gear I had, and the blazing sun was the hand we were dealt.

At another location, late in the day, down in Chinatown, I borrowed Zack’s Paul Buff light and put it across the street with a gel, and lit a restaurant Evon and I had frequented before. One light, far away.

As I always say, ya gotta love a lady with a cleaver! More tk…

Heading to the Islands…

Jul 27

In In The Field, Lighting, Seminars & Workshops at 3:36pm

Another week or so, going to St. Lucia. First project, very happily, is shooting a book for my friends at the Jade Mountain/Anse Chastenet Hotels. I’ve been going down there for fifteen or more years, and it remains an oasis of calm and beauty for me. For now, a book project in a beautiful place, and an amazing workshop with a couple of slots left. Hit this link, and it brings you to this page for all the info…

Given the coming 911 Tenth Anniversary observances, and the maelstrom that has been my studio of late, a little calm is welcome. More on that next week. Let me just say, trying to mount an exhibit in a major space in NYC as a lone, freelance shooter is not for the faint of heart. Thankfully, I’ve got Nikon helping in a major way with $ and logistics, and wonderfully, we’ve had the original K-Man himself, advocate on our behalf out at his place of employ, J&J. Thankfully, they are pitching in as well. The Faces of Ground Zero show goes up on Aug. 24th at the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle. It will be comprised of the original Giant Polaroids, and updated photos and video interviews, ten years later.

We got started by being asked to update the LIFE’s One Nation book of ten years ago. That book contained a section of portraits from FGZ. So, we went back to a number of the folks who made the trek to the Giant Polaroid on 2nd St. in the Bowery during that intense, emotional month immediately after the attacks. An example is Jason Cascone, who at the time of 911 was a probationary firefighter and is now one of the youngest lieutenants in the history of FDNY. This original is not small flash, by the way.

However, this is. Just one small flash, through a 30″ Ezybox soft box, camera right. 70-200mm lens, D3X, Bronx, NY.

Bring you more up to speed on that next week.

More tk….

Lastolite Light Shapers!

Jul 25

In Lighting at 8:03am

It’s always amazing to me, after doing this as long as I have, when a photographic manufacturer actually listens to a shooter. I mean, there’s good reasons to not listen to us for sure. We’re often crazier than a rogue pixel.

On the other hand, when you’ve gone out and hammered it for a good long while, and hung in there over time, continuing to produce work, there are a few things you do end up knowing.

I’ve used Lastolite stuff for a long time, well before ever having a conversation with them. I use the stuff because it works. Tri-grips, Ezyboxes, umbrellas–they make all manner of light shaping tools for all sorts of lights, and they are well and thoughtfully made. I’ve been drawn for a long time to their light, hand holdable stuff. Stuff that helps turn small flash into big flash.

I experiment all the time, and given some of the lengths I’ve taken small flash, I’ve found out a few things, and offered them feedback. The result has become a small array of light shapers known as (drum roll) the Joe McNally Range.

White Interior Ezybox!

Two or three years back, I asked Lastolite for a 24″ Ezybox with a white interior, as opposed to the standard silver. I’m a fairly persistent bloke (i.e.,pest) and eventually they made me one. Which made me the only person on the planet for a period of time with a white 24″ Ezybox. Just dropping this fact here and there would get me great tables at restaurants, and all manner of perks and amenities everywhere. Joe make joke.

But it’s a cool light. A little softer, and a touch richer and creamier than the standard silver, which is already a terrific light. Their brilliant designer Gary Astill came to one of my workshops in Dobbs Ferry. I showed him the results, with the two different lights from the same place with the same model. He nodded, and the white Ezybox was born. Given the softer quality of the interior, it behaves and looks like a slightly bigger soft box.

I know it’s a good light cause I got this note from my bud Earnie Grafton, who’s a former military shooter, and terrific staffer at the San Diego Trib.

“So after buying “your” softbox (which I love by the way) I realized that your name was blazed on each side of it.  So after the umpteenth time of some dude asking me if I was Joe McNally, the following conversation ensued:

Q. Are you Joe McNally?
A. Of course.  Why the hell would I put somebody else’s name on my softbox?

or my favorite so far…

Q.  Are you Joe McNally?
A.  Do I have 57 cases of camera shit around me?
Q. Uh, no…
A. Then I ain’t Joe McNally….

(I DO love the damn thing though…..)”

Earnie’s a good friend and a helluva shooter. On this location, though, I left a bunch of the cases home. Here’s a production picture. As you can see, I’m out there with a huge crew, and highly sophisticated smoke making machinery, the type of thing you see really big Hollywood features use. This version is the Michael Karsh haze machine, which having gotten to know Michael a bit, is, well, appropriate.

TriFlash and Uplite!

My subjects here are Rick Iannucci, and Nancy De Santis, two extraordinary people who devote their own time to a project called Horses for Heroes. In this program, Rick, Nancy and Thomas Wingate work with vets who have come home with physical injuries or combat trauma. I’ve done some pictures over the years out west, working with cowboys, and had the good fortune to get to know Buster Welch, a legendary rancher and cutting horse trainer. His wife, Sheila, paraphrasing Winston Churchill, always told me, “The outside of a horse is good for the inside of a human being.” That’s exactly what Rick, Nancy and Thomas are proving with these vets. Endorsed by the Purple Heart Association, their work in helping these heroes is remarkable.

Used the Triflash and Uplite in combo to produce some western portraits. Very happy with the results. The Triflash has been made for a while, but in the original version, the points of attachment (cold shoes) were fixed. I suggested ratchets instead. That way, you can swivel your flashguns (Doncha love the way the English call them flashguns? Awesome.) so that the light receptor panels can orient in either exactly the same direction, or close to it. With the fixed cold shoes, all the receptors were at right angles to each other, and TTL line of sight pickup could get rough. Love this thing. I just crank the flashes around till I maximize reception, and it has increased my line of sight working distance for this multi-flash rig by yards and yards. As you can see here, the Triflash is on a stick, and my commander is looped outside the building from the camera via SC-29 cords. Those three lights, firing through a Lastolite 6×6 diffuser, make for the main light. But remember, I got cowboy and cowgirl subjects, and I need to get light under the brim of their hats, and into their eyes.

Enter the Uplite. It’s very diffuse. You can fire your lights through it straight up, or clamp them via a Justin Clamp to the metal riser in the unit and bounce them down to relfect back up. You can vary the intensity of the bounce by zooming your flash heads, or using dome diffusers such as I do here. This provides the soft lift I need to light the eyes. Two small flash light shapers, in combo, and it looks like window light.

Notice I got some sandbags on the Uplite. The winds on location were up, and, like any light shaper, out there in the world, you can very easily stage your own version of America’s Cup, if you’re not careful.

Back to the Triflash, all on its’ own. When I go light and fast, but think I need some power and recycle, lately I just take the Triflash firing through an all-in-one umbrella. Pop it on a paint pole, and you have a mobile, powerful, TTL light with directional sensors. Leave the dome diffusers on, the light gets very wrapped and soft. It’s especially handy if you, say, take a walk in the woods, and you want to travel light. Copper Perry, a terrific makeup artist (she’s one of the HMU folks for Breaking Bad) had this notion of going into the burnt out woods of New Mexico and doing something emotional and primal with D. As usual, D took it to another level, and I basically tagged along with a camera. The light and fast paint pole/Triflash thing is especially handy if your assistant happens to be the ever wonderful Nerissa Escanlar, who is 4′ 10″.

I shot other stuff in the last week as well, and I’ll share that in a Light Shapers Part II and III coming up. Lemme know if you like any of these and the setups…..more tk…..