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Let There Be Light!

Jul 31

In Friends, Lighting at 8:25am

If anyone ever deserved a set of wings, it is my friend Donald. Let me be clear, not in heaven, right here on earth. I want Donald to stick around for a long, long while, and keep spinning his honey on the dance floor every Friday night, as he always does.

But he does make for a perfect fit for this retired set of wings I’ve got hanging around. My garage is prop city. Stuff. Things from shoots gone by. These wings were made for a Sports Illustrated shoot by a prop outfit in LA that does wings. Talk about a niche market. My studio manager, a dear friend and divine in her own right, Lynn Delmastro, found ’em. They call themselves Mother Pluckers.

These got made at the last minute and drop shipped to North Carolina so I could pop ’em on the back of Brandan Wright when he was a member of the overlarge NCAA freshmen class of a year or so ago.

This X-men rig showed up at about 11:30, and I got Brandan at 1pm. The North Carolina SID was real clear. I could have him for all of 30 minutes. (Funny, I don’t recall my time being quite that valuable when I was 18.)

So I hung ’em, lit ’em, and then lit up Brandan inside of two hours and put Chapel Hill in the rear view. It ran as the opening double truck for the story, but I never felt like I got a pic of the wings I could kinda hang my hat on. So they’ve pretty much been in a box. Just like this 6′ prop volleyball I got in the garage.

My subject here is Gabby Reece, legendary female volleyball player and athletic icon. Shot this for a story in LIFE that I conjured about strong women.

I proposed a photographic gathering of strong women to the editors at LIFE based on the fact that every night I came home, my two daughters would be engrossed in Xena, Warrior Princess. They dug Xena cause Xena kicked butt. I became intrigued and watched a few myself. I mean, I had no real interest in a six foot Amazonian woman charging about the forest wearing little else but a breastplate, but hey, the kids needed supervision.

I got to thinking. The LIFE year end issue was coming, and as usual, it loomed as a compendium of death. Many, many famous folks died that year, and the obit pages rolled on forever. (Didn’t really bother me much as I find all that kind of news sort of morbidly fascinating. But then, they don’t call the obit section of the newspaper the Irish sports pages for nothing.) But, thinking of the newsstand reader of the mag, I suggested we spice up our yearly sign off by doing a picture series on powerful females. The WNBA debuted that year, Xena was hot, and actresses like Michelle Yeoh, famed for her martial arts prowess, were center stage. Let’s do some cool photos! They bought it, and Gabby was a lock for the story right away. The editor on the piece, a very bright wordsmith with an overblown sense of his grasp of photography materialized imperiously in my office doorway. “What’s the concept for Gabby?” he demanded.

Hmmm…..think fast, Joe. How about we pose her as Atlas? We could have her holding up the world, along the lines of the big fella, but the earth would be a volleyball! He nodded and left. Cool! I went to LA and spent three grand at a prop house on this volleyball. (Hey, the editor nodded, right?) Distressed it with desert mud, guy wired it with monofilament and Gabby hoisted it in beautiful desert light. It’s in a box in the garage, as I speak. Available at reasonable rental rates:-)

Teaching at Santa Fe last week, I figured I’d give the wings another go as a class lighting demo. Rigged them with two c-stands a couple Bogen super clamps, and a few sand bags.

Lit ’em from the back with two SB800 speed lights, dome diffusers on and zoomed at 14mm. As you can see they are banged right into the back of the feathers, and the happy accident here was that they backwashed light onto the old wall in pretty nice fashion. (Anytime you can get your lights to do two jobs at once, it is a good day in the field.)

Lighting the portrait part was trickier. As soon as any frontal light flies at those wings, the white feathers bleach out, and the backlit glow and romance is gone. They get flat as yesterday’s newspaper and less compelling. So, the trick is to light the face and nothing else. Hoo Boy!

Improvisation ruled the day. Took a Nikon SB900 and zoomed that puppy to 200mm, and snookered it even further with a Honl snoot. Tried that alone, and the results were predictably harsh. Not too much spill, but bad dog light. Dropped a Lastolite Tri-Grip diffuser panel over it, and got soft light, and way too much of it. Not in terms of power, just in spread.

Out came the gaffer tape. (Is there anything in this world that can’t be made better with gaffer tape?) When we were done, there was maybe a 6″ square of diffuser left exposed. The rest of the panel is gaffered.

Amazing what a little diffusion will do. We went from harsh, awful light to just enough softer glow to cover the face and shoulders, but not dull the wings.

I wanted that soft light for Mawgie, as this was the last time she will accompany the location light class. She and her husband Shaylor packed up the kids and moved this week, leaving the Santa Fe Workshops all the poorer for it. I cannot tell you how many of my lighting workshop participants she helped along the way by her patience, grace, humor, decency and elegance in front of the lens. She posed for the workshops for 13 years, and will be missed a lot. All of us wish her and her family the best as they turn a new page on their adventure.

And Rick, of course, stepped in front of the wings, insisting that he play the role of the fallen angel.

For Rick, I didn’t retouch any of the support structures and set stuff. I left the frame alone. He is an American original.

And of course, the intrepid Kevin Vu, a terrific shooter and the redoubtable studio manager at Santa Fe, stepped in to add his, uh, two, uh, cents……

If you notice in one of the production pix, Kevin is off to the left of the frame, his rugged, manly face festooned with red lipstick marks. We’re talking chick magnet, here. Major league. Big time.

And, speaking of the production pix, they are courtesy of photog Karen Lenz, also working the SF studio, who is one the true stalwarts of the workshops. If I needed anything done, I’d look around, and somehow, it already was. She is headed for NY to be a producer, and anybody’s job will be the better for her attention to detail and dogged determination to dot all i’s and cross all t’s. Kevin’s headed for the Big Apple, too, and trust me, when he arrives, the world of photography and the women of NY will shiver in equal measure.

My class rocked. Take a look. Location Photography and Lighting

They really went after it, throwing caution to the winds and trying new stuff, from Ranger lighting kits to Elinchrom Octas, to beauty dishes and complex setups with small flashes. The reason they had all this stuff to play with is the Bogen Corp. and their continuing support of photographic education. Not only did they send the stuff, they sent the irrepressible Mark Astman, one of their mainstays, and an incredibly congenial, knowledgeable resource for the whole class. A great week, rambling around, lighting stuff up, and talking pictures…..more tk


Michael Morris says:

on July 31, 2008 at 8:52 am

You should credit the band/musician’s on your video. That way I’d know who sang the first song which I quite liked. :)

Greg Lynch says:

on July 31, 2008 at 8:59 am

Great Pics. But you shot at the prison!! Ugh. I spent eight weeks there making Longest Yard.

Joe McNally says:

on July 31, 2008 at 9:01 am

You’re right. dunno the first song though…it was picked by Karen and I heard it for the first time at the Friday night slide show..apologies…Joe

Eric says:

on July 31, 2008 at 9:25 am

I remember you mentioning those wings as still in your possession on your google talk and I had been wondering when they would make an encore appearance. Good stuff.

Taeke says:

on July 31, 2008 at 9:26 am

Hi mr McNally,

how about that big shadows under the faces of your models?
The first frame of your friend Donald looks great, but the frame of Mawgie, and Rick, has that deep shadow under the face’s that just dont fit right i think.
mabey its the web size of the pictures that doesnt shows the beauty of the pics.

Greetings, Taeke

Robert says:

on July 31, 2008 at 10:45 am

Hey Joe,

Let me know when you’re having a garage sale. Looks like you’ve got some cool stuff there.

BTW, where did you have the wings made?


Jon T says:

on July 31, 2008 at 10:53 am

Me too, I loved that ridiculous first song. It must be on iTunes. Karen?!?!

That week sounded like such fun. Mmmm…

Jon T says:

on July 31, 2008 at 10:59 am

Don’t you love Google…

It’s called “Fields of Athenry”

The Glasgow Herald, 10 April 1996:
“The song was written in 1979 [by Peter St. John] and recorded by Paddy Reilly, whose best-selling single launched an album of the same name. However, over the past 17 years more than 400 cover versions have been made with conservative estimates on single sales put at five million. The song was based on a true story of the fate of one young couple during the Irish famine.

Good choice for a McNally production I presume!

So heaven knows who did this version if there have been 400 -600 by now?- versions…!

Jon T says:

on July 31, 2008 at 11:07 am

I have just wasted half an hour of my life! Thanks Joe ๐Ÿ˜‰

Dropkick Murphy’s and here they are:

Brian says:

on July 31, 2008 at 11:15 am

I love all of these shots, and I think that you have definitely got some pics of the wings that you can hang your hat on. Thanks for the behind the scenes info. I wish I had props like this to play around with!

JBelle says:

on July 31, 2008 at 11:42 am


Terry Reinert says:

on July 31, 2008 at 11:50 am

Wow, great shots with the wings! I think the latest ones from the class out shine the ones for SI. I like the back light on the wings. It is just the right touch. Beautiful.

ilya says:

on July 31, 2008 at 11:58 am

Really great article and example photos! Thanks for sharing it!

Mandy says:

on July 31, 2008 at 12:06 pm

Hey there
Awesome photos as usual. The music on your slideshow is performed by the Dropkick Murphys, but I can’t remember the name of the song, unfortunately.

Jeff says:

on July 31, 2008 at 12:48 pm

Holy crap, sir.

How big is your garage??

Tom says:

on July 31, 2008 at 1:13 pm

Not only was this perhaps your greatest blog, that video was the best slide show I’ve ever seen. The music was great as well, but fill me in please, what was the second song?

Kevin says:

on July 31, 2008 at 1:47 pm

“Fields of Athenry” by Dropkick Murphys.

John Mielke says:

on July 31, 2008 at 5:48 pm

Joe, if I don’t make it to one of your workshops soon I’m going to implode! Vegas during NAPP would’ve been awesome, but I can’t get away from work.

Jon T: Thanks for finding out who was singing the song! I’m off to Halifax Nova Scotia tomorrow end and will spend a little time looking for that CD… and anything similar! Music like that fits right in with my maritime vacation! Great shooting here by the way gang!!!

Me says:

on July 31, 2008 at 7:00 pm

How come you didn’t put a thin/long diffuser *over* the wings, so it’d light Mawgie’s arms, but not the front of the wings?

KAREN says:

on July 31, 2008 at 10:40 pm

Nothing is ever good enough, is it?!? HAHAHA!

YES the first song is Fields of Athenry by the Dropkick Murphys… 2nd song is Shipping Up to Boston by the same band. Gotta love it.

Also it should be known that Joe’s garage obviously isn’t that big at all, since those big honkin’ wings have been living in Santa Fe until last week. ;o)

Love ya, Joe. Thanks for the kind words. I’ll drop you a line as soon as I have my dates for NYC.

Ryan McBride says:

on August 1, 2008 at 12:05 am

great work here… really impressed with the outcome of it all.. great inspiration.. can’t wait to grab the book

delphine says:

on August 1, 2008 at 12:20 am

Wooooh, love these pics!

Leif says:

on August 1, 2008 at 4:35 am

Really nice shoots and good to see you are surfing on.
Would like to be able to attend one of your ws in US some time.

Peter says:

on August 1, 2008 at 8:51 am

man you must have some garage there ๐Ÿ˜‰

I like the behind the scenes photos to learn a bit more about light setup and how sometimes you just have to figure it out as you go and throw the text book in the corner ๐Ÿ˜‰ gaffer tape rules.

My biggest regret is being kind of a long way from Santa Fe. Sounds like some really great times in the workshops.

Mark K_NJ says:

on August 1, 2008 at 10:55 am

Beautiful photo and I love the video. Those wings look better than the ones in Dogma

Demetrius says:

on August 1, 2008 at 2:54 pm


Why do you your photos seem underexposed? Of course this is only my perception but
the overall image just has no central focus that stands out. Your shadows seem to be empty and do not leave the eye to any direction in the shot.

I am not trying here to be disrespectful to you as you are so highly respected. I just find the lack of directional light in your images really leave the overall image somewhat dull.

Maybe shooting all these years for magazines have made you so conservative a photographer that you stay away from the dramatic modeling of light.

And there is nothing wrong with that! There is room for all points of view.

Joe McNally says:

on August 1, 2008 at 8:29 pm

Yo Demetrius–Entitled to your opinion of course, but if you think these photos lack drama and directional light, and therefore have no focus or don’t direct the eye….I would love if you directed me to your work and pointed out examples of what you consider to be interesting light, and perhaps an indication of what you might deem non-conservative in terms of approach…Joe

Bill Millios says:

on August 2, 2008 at 1:00 am

Joe … consider the almighty eBay for those garage treasures. Include a print of the original picture …

David Cooper says:

on August 2, 2008 at 10:17 am

“McNally’s Angel Book”

Joe, I think there is a book for those wings.I like this latest wing lighting.
The shots keep getting more interesting each time you use them and the lighting changes them so much.

Try one with the feet hanging over the apple box pointing down and photoshop it out and add a drop shadow underneath to get a slightly floating feeling.
It could be your new workshop resume photo.

Joe McNally says:

on August 2, 2008 at 10:24 am

Cool idea rock. Hope all is well up in Vancouver, and I’ll be up there late this year. Let’s get a meal and catch up…Best, Joe

Mike says:

on August 2, 2008 at 8:06 pm

All I can say is wow…as always. As far as the fellow who critisized your work by calling it dull and lacking focus…would he please submit a link to his site. I would like to express my point of view.

Mark says:

on August 2, 2008 at 9:13 pm

Joe: Shots are, as always, a delight and inspiration to view. Tech question: Did you have any trouble getting the IR sensors on the strobes behind the wings to see the sending unit on the camera?

John Leonard says:

on August 3, 2008 at 12:27 am

Man, I just wonder if the accountants at LIFE look back at the end of the year at expenses. Then pick the phone up and call the editor, “Yes, this is Bob in accounting. We were just looking at your expenses….uh huh, yeah, well we would like to see this $3,000 volleyball. What’s that? You say you don’t have it…..So when can we expect you to reimburse the company…..?”

Somewhere an editor shakes his head and realizes he’s been McNallied (Congratulations you are now a verb)!

By the way I’m hoping to make it to the DLWS in NC next year.

Roland says:

on August 3, 2008 at 12:37 am

hi mr. mcnally, i just want to ask about the holder that you use in your sb800/sb900 in a stand or boomer. I mean the “holder” right below the flash.
thanks. more power. this blog really helped and inspired us.

Robin Burkett says:

on August 3, 2008 at 10:15 am

Joe, great lighting class in Santa Fe – I learned a ton. Also, I gave your book to my boyfriend who was reading it last night and every five minutes or so he burst out laughing. Thanks for everything – seeing you light the angel wings was really cool! Robin

santiago r says:

on August 3, 2008 at 12:08 pm

hey joe, this is santi from the workshop store.. it was awesome modeling for your class.. and when i walked in to see the lighting you came up with for the wings/mawgie/ donald/rick i knew that shot was gonna be amazing.. i didnt know such an interesting shot could come out of 3 sb’s..

ill see you in september.. peace..
Santi R..

claudia says:

on August 4, 2008 at 6:37 am

go kevin fly off. love c

ian says:

on August 5, 2008 at 10:46 am

Gabby Reece, great shot of her holding the ball!

Juha Haataja says:

on August 7, 2008 at 5:03 pm

Great collection of shots, and a look behind the curtains.

Pat Morrissey says:

on August 19, 2008 at 2:01 pm

Tiocfaidh รƒยกr lรƒยก

Wendi says:

on August 24, 2008 at 11:33 am

I would love to rent the ball! Great work!

Nawenliltew says:

on November 2, 2008 at 4:51 pm

Hello! good site, thank you!
dollhouse miniatures – tools

tipleincelm says:

on November 7, 2008 at 8:17 pm

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AbsopsKadbasp says:

on November 7, 2008 at 11:09 pm

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on November 9, 2008 at 1:26 am

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on November 10, 2008 at 3:11 am

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cevePruntee says:

on November 13, 2008 at 9:41 pm

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Abseplisp says:

on November 14, 2008 at 10:31 pm

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kookimebux says:

on February 1, 2009 at 2:41 pm

Hello. And Bye. :)

Annoliblend says:

on March 20, 2009 at 9:02 am

very intresting

Humor Zanka says:

on July 6, 2010 at 7:35 am

Great post, may I reference it by quoting you and posting a link?

Tony says:

on March 26, 2011 at 6:57 pm

Thanks for your blog. I read about this wings shot in your book and it inspired me to have a go. You have a way of making awesome shots seem possible.

I photograph for fun. This sort of blog makes me push for shots that are beyond my current ability/experience, thanks again for the help.

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