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

Hold the Phone…

Apr 15

In Lighting, On Location, Thoughts at 7:42pm

Or, maybe just hold the light. Or a bunch of lights. Posted last week and alleged using 53 speedlights of various types on the above. It’s a number that stuck in my head. I kept thinking on it and in the interests of veracity and accuracy and all that stashed up guilt from being raised Irish Catholic, I did some research on it and the official number came back as 47. My bad. The source here is Bill Pekala, the General Manager of NPS over at Nikon. He worked with me on it, as he has many projects in the 20 plus years we have known each other. Great guy, and a mind like a bear trap for all things photographic. A photog’s friend, in a word, who leavens his photo discourse with various down home Tennessee-isms that are part country wisdom and part Nikon manual.

Dunno why 53 stuck with me. It might have come from chewing the fat with Bill, over a couple of beers, and doing the old, “Remember when we lit up that KC-135 with like 50 or so flashes….” type of thing. I’m sure some day in the home, on the porch, in my wheelychair, it’ll be up to 103, and somehow the entire mission would have mysteriously acquired an element of danger. “Remember all those flashes? They ran on steam, remember?! Damn dangerous! Had to wear a bomb suit just to handle ’em!” This conversation would of course be attended to by the rolled eyes of those who can hear me say anything, the odd cackle or two, and the more than occasional fart.

Light doesn’t have to be hard, or a lot. True, every once in a while you get confronted with something, you know, like Everest, and you just climb it cause it’s there. It ain’t fun, I tell ya. One of the first stories I ever did for the National Geographic was about the then soon to be re-opened Ellis Island. The first part of the coverage was a blast. Just me, Kodachrome 25 and rising morning light. I would get onto the island in total darkness, roughly 4 am (it was Nov-Dec) and start walking the halls of the deserted section of the island.

It was kind of creepy. Lots of folks died out there. They have the remnants of the medical area and the old crematorium. I’d have my tripod and just to keep myself company, I would push open a door with it and stir up a flurry of pidgeons. Then I would call out, “Freddy? Jason? You in there?”

Too many movies.

It was a revelation. No PR people hovering (they flutter just like pidgeons, by the way, so I felt right at home). No plug ugly subjects, no light hearted bullshit banter at the camera, no real timetable except the sun striking an object.

Came up with some of my favorite photos. No people, just rust and ghosts.

Of course I wasn’t stupid enough to think that Geographic gave me this wondrous job to wander around abandoned hallways in rising light. Lots of folks better than I am at that. No, no. The job had a wrinkle, as they often do. At one point in the coverage, I was gonna have to light Ellis Island.

Not the whole damn thing, just the museum portion, which is a biggggggg building. At the time it was a construction site with very limited electric power. Had to drag my own genny truck out there. Quick $1000 under the table to the union rep (I love NY!) and voila, I got my own power on the island.

Next, the lights. Woe to a shooter trying to rent strobes that week in NY. The shot below is done with about 50-60 power packs (2400ws, some 48’s) plugged into roughly 100-120 flash heads. We spent 4 days or so wiring and testing and shooting this rig. Killer sked. Shoot sunrise, run the film to the lab. See all the mistakes, run back to the island. Make adjustments. Shoot sunset. Run the film to the lab. See the mistakes. Back to the island. Make adjustments. Sleep in the car for a couple hours. Shoot sunrise. Go on another mistake finding lab run. This went on for 4 days.

Crew of 4, I believe, and they were all ready to tie some Speedotrons around my neck and dump me in the harbor. “Where’s Joe?” Splash. “Dunno. Haven’t seen him.” (One member of the crew came by the studio personally to pick up his check and assure me that lighting Ellis Island had been the worst experience of his life.)

Triggered the system from 3 vantage points on the ground, and tried some stuff from the air, with line of sight flash triggering. (Clamped Hensel Porty heads to the open door of the chopper and flew that baby in close to rooftops where we had slave eyes on light stands. (Sounds antediluvian but it was, you know, like 1989 or so.)

We got a pic, and the flash pop was easily viewable from Brooklyn or New Jersey. Got on the WINS traffic report on the last day cause the reporter and his chopper pilot were drawn to the explosion of light in the harbor. Never forget his opening line for the traffic report: “And there’s lightning over Ellis Island this morning as National Geographic lights up the island for a story!”

My day rate at the time was $250 per day, which made me far cheaper to rent than the strobe system. But it was there, you know? I had to climb it. More tk.

Kelvin says:

on April 15, 2008 at 8:28 pm

What an incredible photo-shoot and story.
I envy you the experience, but not the sore neck nor twitching muscles.

Truly magnificent images Joe, great depth and feeling for so many who journey here, my ancestors included. What prompted you to include this story?

Fantastic and inspirational.


Andy P says:

on April 15, 2008 at 8:36 pm


I love when you go into such intimate detail of your experiences on a shoot. It really puts the minor inconveniences of us amateurs in perspective. I remember reading that article in NG so many years ago and being WOWED by the photos. I was a high school yearbook photographer, and shots like yours inspired me to try for better things. Years later, my interest in photography has been rekindled by you and folks like Scott Kelby.

Thanks for the blog, thanks for the insights, and thanks for the book (I just ordered TMIC from Amazon – can’t wait till it gets here).

p.s. LOVED the blog about your trip from LGA to Albuquerque – “Back on a Plane”. I fly those little RJs for Comair for a living, and my experiences in and out of LGA and deadheading are just like yours. Thanks for the free advertising on those Delta napkins!

Bill M says:

on April 15, 2008 at 9:50 pm

Awesome picture, love the story.

I think what I liked best about your book was that the story actually develops three faces – the picture we see, the story behind the place (the purpose of the picture itself) and the story behind getting the picture.

Sometimes the picture doesn’t do the back story justice, and that’s disappointing.

Sometimes the picture is amazing, but the back story is like, “that’s all?”

Sometimes the picture is great, the back story is great, but the story behind the shot is “I drove up, I set my DSLR on full auto, and I snapped the picture and went home.” Geez. That takes a bit away from my admiration of the picture, I have to admit.

But you, sir, are the master of The Triple Crown of Photography – you hit all three.

kathyt says:

on April 15, 2008 at 10:13 pm

Thanks for the stories behind the pictures. I really like reading about them. Photography that the average person like me will not have the opportunity to do, but I really like reading about it. Put a whole new light on all pictures that I look at. Thanks again for sharing your adventures. You have such an understanding of light and how it works. Awesome work! Awesome pictures! thanks kathyt

John Leonard says:

on April 15, 2008 at 10:48 pm

And you say your a people photographer. We see the truth. You secretly like photographing things. So just admit it you got a thing for things.

BY the way the first beer is on me if you ever come to NC.

Sean Phillips says:

on April 15, 2008 at 10:48 pm

Wow! Great story!

Karen says:

on April 15, 2008 at 10:49 pm

I remember when these shots were published. The emotion that welled up in me as I looked at them…
Great stuff. And a great back story.

Mark K_NJ says:

on April 15, 2008 at 10:58 pm

Amazing. Love the insight you’re giving Mr. McNally. This is a great piece and the images are outstanding.

Now, if only the Knicks could light up the Garden this way…

Marcello says:

on April 16, 2008 at 2:05 am

that’s an amazing story!
i think ellis island is one of the most… uhmmmm… “dense” place i’ve ever visited.
you walk around and you feel something, you feel some kind of echo of the millions of people that passed through. i can only imagine how would have been walking the halls alone, early in the morning.

and lighting the museum looks like one heck of a job! 😀 it would be great to see the place “un-lighted”, just to have an idea of the difference your job made.

plus the WTC in the background… never had the chance to see it live, sigh…


Ken Anderson says:

on April 16, 2008 at 2:10 am

Joe, great story, fantastic pics! Are the lights along the waterfront strobes as well?

Caledonia says:

on April 16, 2008 at 4:14 am

Great story and fantastic images.

Coincidentally I just finished watching your Nikon DVD on the Creative Lighting System (“The Speed of Light”) and I can see myself adding another couple of strobes to my existing SB-800.

Could I get away with a couple of SB-600’s instead of the SB-800’s as remotes?

Would I then get into problems balancing the light outputs of the 800 ve the 600’s or does the CLS system sort that out itself?

Esam Kabli says:

on April 16, 2008 at 4:59 am

what can i say this story like always inspiring to the fulliest, i saw in NG months back a photographer who light a site of Anka civilization runs in Peru, i was an amazing photos but i thought it is was a over light so no much of intersing shadows, so what you think??

and the photos of the hallway was very amazing almost like Video Game and the Zombi will jump over any second…

Joe McNally says:

on April 16, 2008 at 5:12 am

Kraj Diesel..I hear ya, and I’m feeling the pain. To continue the lighting analogy, we’re out here with SB800s and radio poppers and all sorts of fancy schmancy whatnot, and it’s like the Knicks go out there every night with a Vivitar 283 on yellow mode….Joe

Dan Bannister says:

on April 16, 2008 at 8:38 am

$250 a day! Now those were the days.

Just think Joe, The NYT would pay $150 a day to shoot it this week. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Great post, cheers.

Nestor Ruiz says:

on April 16, 2008 at 9:12 am

Hi Joe,
Awesome story and the images are a blast, this is the kind of work that inspired me. Your effort in pursuing the best possible image no matter the circumstances of place, equipment or nature elements. As you said the price per day of hiring you was cheaper (I believe) than most other pros, and for me the results that you deliver are the best of the best. Your work is like a painter, you paint each scene with awesome tonalities of light that draw us into the image in a subtle way. The member of the crew that complain, still work with you?


Rick says:

on April 16, 2008 at 3:42 pm

Well done…The story is just as fun to read as the images are to look at. Those hallways would have freaked me out!

ron hiner says:

on April 16, 2008 at 7:12 pm

The pictures look great here on my screen… but I knew there was a reason I save my NGM issues. The pics are even better as printed in high-rez glory in the Sep 1990 issue. stunning stuff.

The pic of the gold tiles… is it concave or convex? I see what you did there. Very cool.

thanks for sharing.

jrrome says:

on April 16, 2008 at 10:22 pm

How does one discover it takes $1k to bribe the union boss? Ask around or negotiate a number with him personally?

Beautiful photograph! The story makes it incredible as well.

Seriously, how do you come up with The Price for The Man?

Mike says:

on April 16, 2008 at 11:53 pm

Speachless. Those are the images that hold your attention and allow you to explore them time and time again. Thank you.

Kyle Barnett says:

on April 17, 2008 at 6:57 pm

My favorite photo of the bunch is the long dark hallway with the broken windows. Great shot Joe!!

Ken says:

on April 18, 2008 at 9:40 am

Nice story Joe, love your thoughts and of course your photos.

Ken in aruba, with “throw momma off the boat” by blog is

One can see photos, so far.

Hey Joe, the lighting stuff with the sb 800 is great, thank you.

Ken from KY

Gregg says:

on April 19, 2008 at 2:53 pm

Thank-you for the wonderful photos of Ellis Island and thank-you for keeping the memories alive. My grandfather came through Ellis Island. He did not speak the language, so they gave him a new name, the name of the city in Germany where he came from. In a way my family line starts there at Ellis.
Seeing your amazing photos reminds me of the unexpected emotions I experienced when I visited the island many years ago. How the very walls and doors and windows spoke stories of all who had passed that way on to their new life in America. And then there were the photographs that were on display and how well they told a story. A story that only photography can tell properly. Thanks to all of those unnamed photographers and a special thanks to you Joe. Your photography inspires us all.

Diego says:

on April 20, 2008 at 12:59 pm

friggin fantastic photos and experience. you’re really the man, joe.

Diego says:

on April 20, 2008 at 1:00 pm

i love the first photos too in this post, the play with shadows and all are amazing

ian says:

on April 25, 2008 at 3:10 pm

This why you will always kick the ass of any 20 something “strobist” out there. That kind of hardcore lighting isn’t done any more!

Now it would be mutiple layers, HDR and all that…

Danielle says:

on April 26, 2008 at 4:07 pm

Wow…I appreciate those Ellis Island photographs in a way I never could have before! My ancestors came through Ellis Island, so I remember the issue well. Your photographs were beautiful and evoked such emotion. As I learn photography, I am now simply in awe of your talent. Thank you for your willingness to share!

Dave says:

on May 1, 2008 at 6:33 am

Visited NYC for 10 days via Alaska from Australia in August/September06.
Ellis Island was a highlight.
Some sad history,it struck me how arbitary the induction process could be.
But some success stories too.
Would love to see more of the Island opened up.
It is a place that should not be missed.
That amazing tiled ceiling in the reception hall.
Photography has become more than an interest since my visit.
Thanks for sharing.

Cianna Beavers says:

on December 14, 2009 at 10:53 am

I usually go “cross arms” if I am using that variation.

Andre Jemison says:

on April 20, 2010 at 4:57 am

Hi. First I desire to say that I truly like your web site, just identified it last week but I’ve been following it sometimes since then.

I look to come to an agreement with most of the thinkings and opinions and this post is no different. absolutely agree with you.

Thank you for the excellent blog and I hope you hold up the beneficial do the job. If you do I will continue to look over it.

Have a fantastic day.

CK Stenberg says:

on February 25, 2013 at 1:45 am

Thanks for sharing this story! In some ways I miss those insurmountable challenges that film posed. I was on the tail end of the film era, but I feel like shooting Ellis Island in that manner would still have been a massive challenge even with the latest and greatest digital gear.

Thanks for sharing!!

Edward Gray says:

on March 2, 2015 at 4:02 am

Hi mate, I just read your post and there’s lots of great information which is great, but I’ve gotta let you know your site was way down in the rankings on Google. I’ve been using this plugin for WordPress which has really helped me drive more traffic to my own blog – WP Authority Links Plugin which you can get at

Leave a Reply