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How to Light a Fence!

Jan 30

In Equipment, Tips & Tricks at 6:46pm

Snow Covered Yellowstone Fence with Strobe and Exposure Compensation at -1 EV

A fence is just a fence….unless you have an SB-800.

Flash has always been painful, right? Especially painful in the cold. Really, really painful in the kind of cold that exists in Yellowstone National Park in January. Batteries dying, trying to meter the sky, meter the flash, meter your diminishing heart rate…

Now we have wireless strobe! Pretty fancy stuff. Cameras and strobes keep talking to each other, even when you can’t say a bloody thing cause your teeth are chattering like Carmen Miranda’s castanets.

Snow Covered Yellowstone Fence No LightI shot this first pic available light, straight up, on a D3 with a 14-24mm lens. No big deal. D3 meter handled Yellowstone severity with aplomb, taking in extreme highlights, bleached white snowscapes, steam, and hot flaring sun with no exposure compensation dialed in. I mean that. I think I touched my EV button once during the 4 day shoot. The dynamic range and the metering system of the camera is astounding. Okay, the camera’s working, but my eyes are not. Blah, blah, blah. Cool fence but flat light. My first frame has all the punch and verve of C-Span. But it’s late in the day, and the sun has set off to camera right. With the last of my unfrozen synapses firing, I think, what if I could make the sun come back?


Snow Covered Yellowstone Fence with Strobe

I slapped a full cut of CTO (amber gel) on the flash, turning it the color
of a bedroom lamp. Warm light. The color of the sunset. Problem was, I left my dome diffuser on, which scatters the light (with that puppy on there, the SB 800 stays at it’s widest zoom (14mm) and light goes everywhere. Look at this second pic. Light’s spilling and sloshing and because the strobe is camera right, close to a white snow fence, creating strong lines of white highlight which pulls the eye to the edge of the pic and then, bye-bye! I might as well have put up a highway sign–EXIT PHOTO HERE.


Snow Covered Yellowstone Fence with Strobe and Exposure Compensation at -1 EVTook off Mr. Dome Diffuser and zoomed the flash to 105mm giving the light a hot core, not something you ordinarily seek, but appropriate here. The edges fall off dramatically, and maybe, just maybe, dear reader stays with my fence for a nanosecond longer than they might have before they click back to streaming video of WWE.

A little light up front, and now I’ve got a lever over the sky tonality. Pulled that down by a stop (-1 EV), and dialed a little more power to the flash and made three frames. Ran this through Nikon Capture NX (more on that puppy in the future) and it’s done. Really happy for the wireless control features here, cause that heated van back at the parking lot was looking real good and the wireless deal got me back in there a lot quicker than working with, say, a Norman 200B or some older strobe system that I started off in the business with and would now be the rough equivalent of striking two rocks together to make sparks. (“Joe make fire!”)


Why was I in Yellowstone? DLWS! My dear friend and iconic shooter Moose Peterson invited me along on his road tour of nature a couple years ago despite my having zero (and I do mean zero) credentials as landscape photographer. (I mean, at first I was suspicious, ya know? Thought they were enticing the city kid out into the wilderness where I could be bear bait… “Here Joe, just hold this rack of lamb and we’ll be over in the bushes with a six hundred!”) I come along and teach lighting and portraiture, and try to learn the myriad ways of Photoshop, and photographing the natural world.

It’s cool, and the Digital Landscape Workshop Series is hands down one of the best educational photo experiences on the planet. Plus, Moose and his wife Sharon, Laurie Excell, Kevin Dobler, Joe Sliger, Josh Bradley and Brad Moore, excellent shooters all, share the same mildly bent (in Sliger’s case, seriously bent) sense of humor and love of photography. It’s cool, doubly so when you go to Yellowstone in frikkin’ January. I mean the scenery is so spectacular even I feel like Ansel.

Mentioned in this post:
Nikon SB-800
Nikon D3
Nikon 14-24 mm f/2.8G
Nikon Capture NX
Rosco Cinegel CTO (Amber Gel)

Cody says:

on February 1, 2008 at 3:37 pm

Hi Joe,

It’s amazing at how technology can bring people and ideas together. Within the last year, I finally let the pressures of friends push me over the edge of making the plunge into photography as a money-generating passion, and I’ve been falling deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole.

Coming across your site helps (from Moose’s blog) me realize how well linked the top players are in any industry, and further, how frequently their passion lies with helping the new guy get his feet wet in the new worlds beyond.

I look forward to following your blog with each new post. Might I request that you add a subscription function when you (or a lackey) have a moment to make it so? For an example, I happen to like the email messages generated by Ron Niebrugge’s blog:

Thanks for sharing!

Brad Moore says:

on February 1, 2008 at 4:08 pm

Thanks for the suggestion, Cody. The subscription link has been added to the top of the Links section on the right. Hope this helps!


Billy Mitchell says:

on February 1, 2008 at 5:05 pm

Hey Joe,

It was good to meet you in Cape Cod and again in NY. Hope to have you autograph your new book soon. I ordered it today.

Keep up the good work. Your information on the Nikon CLS has been a life saver.

Billy Mitchell

Howard says:

on February 1, 2008 at 5:12 pm


If you haven’t visited David Hobby’s blog “Strobist” then you’re in for a real treat. David and his “Strobist” Flickr groupies offer up some of the best SB-800 tricks around. It’s amazing what people do with the ‘800 and other portable flashes.

I’ve added your blog link to my list of regulars and look forward to reading it.


Martin says:

on February 1, 2008 at 8:08 pm

Thanks for taking the time to post this great information. I eagerly await each new post. I look forward to meeting you at DLWS in Moab in March. I hope Amazon has shipped me your book by then!!
Martin Howard

Dewayne & Ginnie Lowther says:

on February 1, 2008 at 8:46 pm

Learned so much from your presentations at Vermont and Great Lakes DLWS and excited to now have continued benefit of your wisdom and humor through your new blog. Looking forward to reading “When it Clicks”.

Dewayne & Ginnie

Kevin says:

on February 1, 2008 at 10:38 pm

I was happy to find out about your blog from Moose Peterson’s (one of my favorite blogs). It’s funny that the first post I read is the how to light a fence because I think about the same time you were in yellowknife I was a couple of hours north in Calgary, Alberta laying in the snow trying to light a fence with my flash. As someone still new to photography it was very interesting that your description of your shoot easily could have been describing mine.

I can’t wait to read “When it clicks”.


Lauri says:

on February 2, 2008 at 10:02 am


With your first blog entry, I’m hooked. Great information, an image I wish I had produced, humor, and lots of name dropping (my favorite photogs). Subscribed to your blog, now off to Amazon to order When It Clicks. Thanks for sharing your knowledge with “I wanna be Joe Freaking McNally” (Sorry, couldn’t help it, got that from Laurie’s blog) amateurs like me.

robert norman says:

on February 2, 2008 at 1:13 pm

Hey Joe – glad to see you’ve entered BlogLand! I wanted to thank you for all your help and insight on the Yellowstone trip (and for signing my book as well) I had a great time. Your spontaneous flash class in the warming hut was really cool.

Cody says:

on February 2, 2008 at 5:57 pm

Hi Brad/Joe,

Thanks for the subscription component! Is it possible to extend that a bit to have the subscribe via email option? As per my example above, I was thinking that it might include the subscribe via email box like this:

Thanks so much!

Cody says:

on February 2, 2008 at 5:59 pm

Ack. Silly tag! it just vanished!

Here’s a direct link to the area I’m talking about:


Brad Moore says:

on February 2, 2008 at 7:14 pm


Thanks for the continued feedback and suggestions. The “Subscribe via email” link is now active on the sidebar.

A note to all…

While we here at the McNally camp have been keeping up with the blogosphere for a while, we ourselves are new to actually doing this. We encourage feedback and suggestions from you, the readers, so that we can grow and improve this blog to better serve the entire photographic community.

We’re as excited as all of you to be a part of this thing they call the Web 2.0 and look forward to what’s in store!


Cody says:

on February 2, 2008 at 11:50 pm

Brad, that’s awesome! Exactly what I was looking for!

Also, it might be worthwhile to set the link up to open in a new window… (I found myself clicking back lots once I finally submitted my address.)

Thanks soooo much!

Nick says:

on February 4, 2008 at 2:11 pm

@Cody: You really need to look into RSS, would make your life a whole lot easier

Cynthia Sobkowich says:

on February 4, 2008 at 9:34 pm

Hi Joe,

I’ve taken your lighting classes on KelbyTraining and also I bought the Speed of Light video – I am intrigued with the wireless strobe system and have a couple of questions. I am new at this and I see that you “dialed in a 105mm zoom” Ok – can you do a lighting class that tells the beginner why I would zoom the flash vs. letting the camera do the work as indicated in your Speed of Light DVD. You said the camera did the work for your shots on the DVD and it figured out everything for you.

so . . . I was just wondering what circumstances would require me to zoom the light (aside from a below zero frozen fence) We do have those here in Saratoga and Adirondack, NY too –

Any “light” you can shed on the subject for beginners would be appreciated.

Take care,

Jason says:

on February 5, 2008 at 4:54 am

Great news to see Joe entering the blogosphere. I’ve added it to my daily list of reads – will definitely be throwing a reference out to it in my “Wednesday Web Gems” tomorrow over at Canon Blogger.

The email subscription is a great idea – I think I may add that to my blog too!

One teensy suggestion, add a favicon.png image to the site – believe it or not, the addition really helps you stand out in a sea of bloggers! :)

Martin says:

on February 5, 2008 at 5:19 pm

Mr. McNally,
I just read the last page of your book (one sitting). No photography book ever made me cry. This one did.
Thank you for this magnificent work.
Martin Howard

J.Lee says:

on February 6, 2008 at 10:17 am

Joe, Welcome to the blogosphere. Much looking forward to your continued instruction. I’m one of those lucky enough to have had a chance to participate in a workshop with you during my days at WKU. At the time, I was amazed not just at the techniques you showed us ,but by your THOUGHT PROCESS. I hope some of these blogs will outline how you come up with the great ideas that make your photos work so well. Thanks for the education. J.Lee

Steve G says:

on February 6, 2008 at 12:55 pm

Hi Joe,

This is a great blog which I look forward to reading on a regular basis. Thanks for sharing your insights with us.

Regarding the fence photo, I think its awesome – a dramatic visual impact. But I also like the flash version with less contrast .. perhaps even a little more. For me, that shot evokes a certain mood – the kind of peaceful feeling you get while skiing or winter hiking late in the day when its almost time to head in, but you just stop for a moment to appreciate the quiet.

In my book either shot is one I’d be proud to have taken.



Elliot says:

on February 7, 2008 at 2:02 pm

Great post, I’m really looking forward to following this blog!

Paul Guy says:

on February 8, 2008 at 6:39 pm

Hi Joe!

I heard about you and your site from Scott Kelby’s blog. I’m sure you must get this all of the time, but I think that your work is fantastic!

I especially like the way you’ve documented the people affected by the tragedy of 9/11. I think people need people like you who can convey stories in such a way that can touch the hearts of millions! Thats great photojournalsim! (I hope I’ve made sense by the way there)

You’ve got some really impressive Nikon gear! I’m a Nikon shooter myself who currently owns a D80 and a few lenses (not as many as yourself mind), and am Student who wants to pursue a career in Commercial Photography.

Could you tell my why though, many Nikon Pro shooters like yourself seem to use the Nikon SB-800 Flash unit over the SB-600 unit? Its because I’m thinking of investing in the SB-600 unit with my Nikon D300 purchase later on this year, as its a little cheaper! I’d very much appreciate your thoughts on this. I already know about Nikon’s Creative Wireless Lighting System by the way as well.

Congratulations on getting your latest book published by the way! I’ve heard a lot of great comments about it!

Diego Jose says:

on February 11, 2008 at 8:03 am

Hi Joe! I’m loving your blog! Anyway I saw you at the Photoworld Asia this month in Manila, Philippines!

Where can I get those gel packs that people talk about on ebay? I don’t exactly know what to type in the search, if I’ll be buying the right thing or not. I have an SB800 (got it last week) and it comes with those 2 correction gel cutouts. Would those 2 be enough or should I get those gel packs mentioned in the Strobist blog?

I’ll be buying it from ebay since I’m from the Philippines and I don’t have access to BHphoto and the other great photo stores in the US.

Thanks Joe!


b lorenz says:

on February 16, 2008 at 8:00 pm

awesome, awesome

Atlanta Fence Company says:

on August 10, 2008 at 11:00 pm

That’s great. I have been doing nothing but photoshoping the lighting on fence images for about 6 months. We own a fence company and have a new website that should be finished in about two weeks from 8-10-08 We have one now but the new one will be the largest collection of fence images out there. We have really gotten into the photography. Fence Georgia

Kemquinue says:

on December 18, 2008 at 11:52 pm


As newly registered user i just want to say hello to everyone else who uses this site 😎

Joe Spanton says:

on August 20, 2009 at 3:18 pm

Brad… you are truely amazing and I can not believe how wonderful technology makes pictures look… I give you 5 kudos for wonderful work!

Candy Lapuz says:

on November 28, 2012 at 3:41 am

To live long, eat like a cat, drink like a dog. – German Proverb

Alwine Security says:

on July 18, 2013 at 3:51 pm

This was an awesome blog post, thank you very much for the info!

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