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Archive for the ‘Rambling’ Category

29 Cities, 13,000 Miles….

Jan 25

In Lighting, News, Rambling at 8:27am

Never had this much fun with pushpins, I tell ya. 29 cities, spread all over the U.S. Numnuts with his TTL high wire act jumping on a bus with Captain Manual, aka Strobist, aka St. David of Baltimore. We’re gonna converge on Seattle on March 11, pack a bunch of speed lights into the hold of a bus, and just roll from there. Go to this website for the straight skinny on the whole shebang.

David does manual. I do TTL. It was always gonna come to this, right? Packed on board the bus with us are Drew Gurian, Grippi, Cali, and of course, Jeff Snyder of Adorama, which is the major sponsor of the tour. Geez, I wonder if the bus runs on methane? Our saving grace will be road manager Karen Lenz. She will, I think, keep the bus from being a zoo on wheels.

Kidding aside, there’s gonna be a great day of teaching at each stop. David does the morning shift, showing manual flash, and creating buzz by adding and subtracting lights. He’s going to concentrate a bit on the “why” of light, which is something a lot of shooters don’t actually think about all that much in the midst of just doing light. I take over in the afternoon, go TTL, walk the plank, see if it works, push the system and fire lights from way far away. Both David and I have been on the beta team for the new Pocket Wizard Flex-Mini’s, and this tour is a big time rollout for them. The units rock, and the envelope of all small flash, TTL and otherwise, just got a whole bunch bigger with these puppies coming into their own.

So go to the site, www.theflashbus.com. I’ve been a bit of a cartoon my whole life. Now it’s official. More tk….

Pushpin photography by Mike Cali.

Fall in New York

Oct 28

In Rambling at 6:54am

Looked like one those familiar adventures yesterday in NY.  Had a shoot setup, with my bud, RC Concepcion. It was raining, all day. Go or not go? For a magazine assignment, no question. Just go. But a self assignment? Hey, I could have another latte and do some more computer work. Or watch the new Robin Hood movie for the eighth or ninth time. I could stay here and look out the window, or some other equally necessary and demanding task.

Or, I could hoist the backpack, and once again, trudge through the weather with an anvil on my back, and a tripod in my hand. Met RC, who is this wonderful font of shooting enthusiasm, and off we went. Had made arrangements via a dear friend, who has friendly neighbors who have that rarest of NY things–a view.

We saw some blue sky walking over, and our spirits rose. Then we went inside an elevator, and like some beam machine from Star Trek, it transported us to another world. We were all of a sudden up and out on a misty deck–and in the heaviest rain of the day. We stood there, getting soaked. Went inside and started dripping on towels, shoulders slumped, about to have the “What bar do you want to go to dude?” conversation when RC’s eyes went saucer like, and he shouted, “Get the cameras!”


Outside, the skies had cleared, and it was like one of those fellas from Greek mythology just threw a multi-hued javelin right into the park. I think that’s about 83rd St., right in the middle of the Great Lawn. That’s NY, right? Just when you think you got a one way ticket to Pismo Beach, you turn around and you’re in Fat City. (The opposite happens much more frequently.) Never seen a rainbow like this in the park, but that’s mostly ’cause I ain’t ever had a view like this before. In my second apartment in NY, I could see the park from my fire escape if I taped a mirror to a broom handle and ran it out a few feet.

Fall in NY also means it’s time for PPE at the Javits Center. If you see me walking around, talking to myself like a crazy street person who somehow got a speaker’s credential, interrupt me and say hi. Or come to my class this am, starts at 8:45.


Did I say walking around? Make that limping. Went to the chiropractor yesterday. He scanned my feet. See the ones on the right? Those are optimal feet, like, ones that have an arch. The ones on the left are mine. He was shocked. He said, “You have really flat feet!” I guess in chiropractic school there’s a course called “Stating the Obvious 302.”

I’ve been carrying lots of gear on the equivalent of pancakes for 35 years. My body’s basically a train wreck with legs. I’m Irish Catholic, so I readily accept that fact that if something doesn’t hurt, I should check my pulse.


Hey, at PPE, got this thing going. I’m going to BE winging my way by the Adorama booth, where there will be a stash of autographed copies of my new LIFE book. I’ll be tweeting things like, “I”ll be at THE Adorama Booth from 3:15 till 3:30. First one to come up to me in the booth and say some nutty phrase that will be in the tweet gets a book. No hi’s, or how are ya’s. Just walk up and say the phrase, which will be something incredibly stupid I’ll dream up like, “Group A, Channel One,” or, “Ansel Adams used a point and shoot.” Just the phrase. Get a book. I’ll be doing it all 3 days, and will have short times I’ll be at the booth. Got like, 40 books. Hope to give ‘em all away. Stay tuned to the twitter alerts!

Welcome to NY everybody….more tk….

V-Flat Questions….

Aug 24

In Rambling at 2:02am


There were a bunch of really good questions from yesterday’s post, so I’ll do my best here….

Dick Wood says:
on August 23, 2010 at 5:57 am

Great how to. but I have one small question. Where do you aim the speedlights in the V-flats? the ceiling , into the flats, of bounce them off of the back wall?

Dick WoodPS Love the shorts.

Generally I aim them straight into the “V” portion of the boards, and make sure the flash(es) are tucked in there and don’t have a chance to spill hard light to the sides. The v shape collects the light and pushes towards the wall at the shooter’s back. Then, it rushes towards the subject with the power of a thousand suns!

On the shorts front, I borrowed them from Hobby. As you can see, my legs are plus 2 EV.

Pete says:
on August 23, 2010 at 7:40 am
Thanks for another great insight into your work Joe.

I have a question though, doesn’t the photog (or ‘Numnuts’ in this case) cast a shadow over the subject? I guess the whole back wall becomes the light source and so maybe wraps around the camera operator?

It doesn’t, oddly enough. You would think it would, but in my experience, no. Now, it could happen. Here’s the thing. I trot this technique out every once in a while, and I’m sure there are iterations of it that are better, or levels of experimentation with it that I haven’t taken the time to investigate. So, I guess, I should qualify and say, you know, I haven’t had that specific issue. Now, if you’re a photo enthusiast, and you want to shoot your 5 year old twins this way, and your day job is being the right tackle on the offensive line of the New England Patriots, all bets are off.

Mike says:
on August 23, 2010 at 8:06 am
Very cool, but with SB flashes, what kind of ISO and f/stop are you getting? Bouncing the light twice has to really suck up the light. Looks like you’re doing shallow DOF, but still curious how high you need to ramp the ISO to make this work well.

Again, in my experience, ISO 200 with this rig gives you a pretty decent f-stop. That is part of the reason (here’s Joe “Overkill” McNally at work again) I use the four SB units. Dividing the labor taxes them at a lower stress level than using two. Having said that, have done it with two, and jacked my ISO to 400 or 800 and it works fine. The nice thing about doing a TTL thing here, is that you can flick some buttons on the master, and go from you know, f5.6, to f2. Work this setup at min DOF, and it rocks.

Ranger 9 says:
on August 23, 2010 at 8:11 am
Great idea, and impressive that you can get enough light out of it to shoot at ISO200/f4!

But did you really use just the flats and wall bounce for the top photo (mcnallyshow-143, the flying-haired young lady with the whatsit on her head)? Can’t understand how you’d get the hair backlight and the highlight on her temple with this setup. Did you do this with a reflector, or did it need another light, or what?

Good pickup, Ranger 9. This was done ad hoc, spur of the moment. They young lady in question has hair that calls for a studio fan to put on wheels and just walked around with her all day long. So, I tried an experiment. The v-flat lighting was done, and that indeed is the light that governs her face. But there was abundant ambient light in the studio and it got me to thinking, always a dangerous thing. I didn’t want my shutter/f-stop combo to get too close to the level of ambient, ’cause you lose the impact of the lighting rig, so I moved a daylight balance steady source (more on these sources in a future blog) in off her shoulder and behind her, to camera right. It is a soft source, running through a medium soft box. It gave her hair a easygoing jolt of fairly concentrated non-flashed light. We moved in the studio fan, and I dragged my shutter a bit, I think to around 1/15th. The result is her hair takes off in the breeze, and a highlight comes in around her temple. I was courting disaster here, hovering around Ice Planet 255, but we squeaked it through and managed to just hold on to, as Father Bob would call them, the holy highlights.

This just in….Father Bob has gone astray, evidently, from a recent perusal of his blog. He’s evidently left the Franciscan Order, and is now involved in some sort of new age swami shit. (See below.)


Where am I gonna go to confession next year?

AYRTON360 says:
on August 23, 2010 at 9:09 am
I always love to come here to read more about your shots.
I’ve been following your work, since the 80’s when I was hired by you as a second assistant, in Los Angeles, to do a shoot in the desert of some big Parabolic Antennas for a Fortune edition
Thanks a lot

Good to hear from you Ayrton. Surprised you still speak to me after one of the worst jobs ever. Lighting huge parabolics out in the desert in August, with the shape of the dishes collecting the sun. Felt like an ant under a magnifying glass. Then of course, there were the tarantulas.



Brock Lawson says:
on August 23, 2010 at 9:15 am
Where can one purchase that large of a piece of foam core board?

They’re not too tough to get. We order sometimes from Pearl Paint down in NY. Any decent size graphic arts supplier, or set shop, or even grip house should carry them. (These are also a rentable item.)We do 4×8′s black on one side, white on the other. They last a long time, and literally, a smart, cheap investment if you have a home studio.

Alex H says:
on August 23, 2010 at 10:18 am
Joe, long time reader, first time commenter.I just have a couple questions you might help me answer. What power were you shooting the SB-900’s at,or was it all TTL? Do you get a different effect based on the height of the ceiling? Also, are you going to post more on the Flexes you’ve been playing with? Thanks for all of the insight you’ve provided over the years. It’s been invaluable to me!

The ceiling comes into play, for sure, just ’cause there’s such a wash of light you are creating. It’s gonna fly off that puppy, depending on the height. I tend to think of it as a good thing, just a piece of a “poor man’s cove” that continues the bounce effect that Mr. Bensimon used so well. And yeah, absolutely, will be letting fly with some info on the Minis and Flexes, as soon as I can get something I’m happy with.

Matt Hunt says:
on August 23, 2010 at 11:42 am
Thanks for that, dumb question but I am guessing the heads are fairly well zoomed out for this e.g. you’re not at 35mm zoom on the flash heads? From the pictures above it has to go..25-30 feet to actually reach the subject? Or, are they firing at nigh on full power?

Tx, Matt

It’s actually a really good question, and the answer might be a bit surprising. I leave the dome diffusers on, and consequently, the heads zoomed wide, so the effect in there is a bit bare tube-ish. In fact, when I use bigger flash heads in this fashion, I generally don’t put reflector pans on them. I want radiance, not direction. Now–again, I emphasize, this is just me talking. I’m sure there are folks out there using this technique who have gotten it fine tuned to a degree that they zoom their lights into the v-flats for extra punch, and it works real well. This is just me talking, and at this point in my career, after all the flash exposures I’ve made,  I’ve got about six working synapses left.

Al says:
on August 23, 2010 at 12:34 pm
What are the pro’s/cons of using V-flats versus just bouncing off the rear wall? Seems you would lose less light by bouncing once rather than twice.

Done the straight up wall bounce thing occasionally, to be sure, and it works well. It has a bit more punch and clarity, perhaps. The “ping pong” you play with the light in this technique is softer, but you def. lose light, and hence f-stop.

Hope this is helpful, gang….more tk….

The Sounds of Silence….

Aug 4

In Rambling, Rants at 7:30am

Just flew Frontier Airlines for the first time. They did a good job. Counter agent was very nice and didn’t even give me the evil eye when I approached laden with 8 pieces to check and just me traveling. Everything was pretty smooth, though, as is typical of every airline, a little tight in coach. I was working on my laptop, and the guy in front of me decided to recline suddenly. I think I might have broken a rib. It’s really, really hard to type when you have to lift your stomach off your keyboard to get to the keys.


So Frontier’s cool, though it is, as their jaunty slogan suggests, a different kind of animal. Rustic is perhaps a good way to put it. I half expected the flight attendants to be wearing red plaid shirts and suspenders. Their free snacks were decidedly on the natural foods, chex-mex side of things. When I passed the flight deck I thought I heard the pilot and co-pilot humming bars from “I’m a Lumberjack and I’m Okay.”

The real trouble with flying a crunchy airline out of a crunchy city is that you might end up sitting near someone who just visited the Pacific Northwest and had a life altering, body scrubbing, soul searching, colon cleansing experience. Such was my fate to sit close-by to someone who had done just that.

Fresh from the salubrious, pine tinged air of the great outdoors, this particularly exuberant, thoroughly pleasant wacko had just been ensconsed at some ashram type of retreat where no conversation was allowed. Yep. Couldn’t speak a word for over, like 48 hours. Silent. Non-verbal. Not a peep.

And my wasn’t she the little pent up bundle of conversation! Holy shit. I was listening (it wasn’t a choice) from a couple rows of seats away in the waiting area, straining my eyes to see if I could see the aisle and seat number on her ticket. I kept thinking about   Airplane! and those folks who offed themselves rather than listen to another word about George Zip.

Oh my. Evidently, the place was really beautiful, and the experience of utter silence so profoundly soothing that, like a magpie on speed, she just chattered on about it to anyone in earshot, leaving any sense of the irony of it all bobbing in the wake of the twin Evinrudes of her lips.

Evidently the  deep, nearly spiritual connection with silence didn’t take. She was a one person cocktail party, basically supplying both ends of the conversation as people desperately tried to appear otherwise engaged. It’s tough, though, attempting to appear compelled by reading the type on the air sickness bag.

It’s okay. Another day in the skies.  A baby started screaming, and the steam went out of any talking in our section. Lord what a wonderful noise.

More tk….


Jul 12

In In The Field, Rambling at 4:53am


On a plane….where else to write? Got to my seat, did the usual. Cameras in the overhead quickly, to lay claim to that real estate. Overhead space has become so valuable to get to first that, come boarding time, the gate agent might as well have a starter’s gun instead of a PA system.

Other bag….pull out laptop, and Bose headphones to weather summertime’s screaming children passengers. (I like kids, but on deadline, after a job, on planes, well, the bad Joe takes a bit of an inside word ramble. “You have a lovely child. Looks a little under the weather. Oh my! I’ve got some Benadryl right here!)

Ipod and Iphone go in the seat pockets. Power cord for the whole electronic shebang, should I be blessedly upgraded. Cards and reader come out, to download pix. Eyeglasses geared for the computer screen.

My “normal” walk around glasses have a progressive lens pattern that is so outright weird after 35 years of straining my left eye through cameras, while my right eye often stays open, that my prescription reads like an unsolvable math problem. My right eye will roam when I shoot, on patrol for approaching permit police, pedestrians about to cross the lens, misfiring flashes, editors with unhappy expressions on their face, and hair and makeup people poised on the fringe of the frame, desperately searching for the stray hair.

(The fashion folks are great, but their on set antics always conjures up a wartime buddy movie in my admittedly oddball noggin. Tensed and ready, they operate in teams, desperately searching for the offending garment wrinkle or slightly uneven bend of the guava passion pink lip liner. When they see it, they might as well be dressed as commandos. “I’m goin’ in!” shouts hair. “On your six!” makeup calls back. And boom, like style medics they are on your subject. I can just about feel the downwash of the approaching rescue helicopter on my neck.)

Anyway, my left eye bulges, ogre-like, into the eyepiece  and my right eye tends to pinwheel. This has left me with a combo that according to my eye doc should have me walking, punchdrunk, in a small circle all day long.

That hasn’t happened yet, but it could. I put almost nothing beyond the potential consequences of doing this thing that we do. The ramifications ripple through the rest of your life. I’ve been blessed by most of those ripples, generally. At least none has outright laid me low. But you know that it could. The camera is a machine that produces change. Every time you shoot with meaning, like a tree, you grow another ring. You throw a rock in the pond. Sometimes a big one.


Just grew another ring. My 15th coverage for the National Geographic got published this month. (Fifteen coverages spread over 24 years doesn’t sound like a lot, but I took a break from the freelance wars in the 90′s to become a staff shooter at LIFE magazine, and thus exclusive to them.) Interesting topic, as yellow mag subject matter tends to be. The evolution of the electric grid in the U.S. It’s a desperately important issue, which of course, drove the magazine to tackle it.

Nothing exotic. No Tahitian sunsets, no blasé French couples coupling on bridges overlooking the Seine. No strange tribal rituals where boys become men, should they survive. (“If you wish to photograph these secret rites of passage, you, too, must pass the test where you pull the sacred ring of the maiden from deep in the throat of the massive river crocodile who happens to be in mating season!” )

“Uh, thank you, no. I’m busy shooting the electric grid.”


The grid had it’s moments, though, I tell ya. For a week, I went to work with lineman building the Tehachapi Project, in the Angeles Forest, north of LA. Tough piece of terrain, very fire-prone, very protected. Hence, there were no roads to much of the area where the towers got built. Helicopters were the vehicle of choice. The linemen would stand on heli skids, yoked to the outside of the bird, and get flown into the very top of the towers, little metal peaks they call “goat tips.” The foreman looked at me and said, “Don’t worry, it’s cake.”

Yeah, but cake tastes different when you’re 57 than when you’re 25, and have rubber legs. Barreling into these towers, holding on left handed, and firing a D3S fixed up with a 16mm fish with my right, I was pushing more than a camera button. You can hear the wind in your own wires, whispering, “Can you still do it, numnuts, or are they gonna take your sorry ass outta here in a basket?”

For the above pic, I went up to the tower early, and the chopper dropped me right where you see this crew getting dropped. I shouted to the pilot to make sure he put the crews right there, i.e., in good light. He screamed back, “I’ll pop ‘em any goddam place you want ‘em!” After I got dropped, I scampered (make that painstakingly put one foot in front of the other) to the other goat tip, where I climbed up and shot this crew going to work, which, thankfully, the magazine ran as a double truck. Great, clear morning. Got lucky with the light.


Every morning, I would stretch out, have a quick conversation with St. Jude, and jump on the skid. “Da guys” were great. More than once they would sling my Moose Pack along with their tools and lunch bucket, leaving “the old guy” just toting a camera. The chopper pilots were amazing. Precise as surgeons in the air, they’d pull wire with a couple inches of clearance, and pick and drop guys off three inch angle iron 300 feet up as easy as taxi picks up a midtown rider.

I got used to moving around up there, though I was painfully slow, compared to the real line guys. I found the “dead end boards” daunting. Hung from the actual cables, these extend out from the towers at precipitous angles, bouncing in the wind. Lineman walk them like they’re on a Sunday stroll. I was stiff legged, and held the safety wire with a death grip.

But that’s what you do. As a photog, you’re always the new kid. You get a brief, and you go. Pictures to be made, stories to be told. It’s that old Irish thing, you know, in for a penny, in for a pound. Rather die than fail. Actually, considering the earful I would get if I handed a bad take to my editor back at HQ, it’s not a bad philosophy. (I think that’s my father talking there. He used to call the obit section of the paper the “Irish sports pages.”)  More tk from the land of the yellow border tomorrow.