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Zack Light!

Apr 13

In Friends, Thoughts at 10:14am

Check it out……Zack Arias posted a group shot done in a dark theater with like 30 subjects with one Speed light.

So the pressure was on, as he relates. Nothing like shooting a group shot of a bunch of other shooters, fer chrissakes. Especially, you know, you’ve got Chase Jarvis, Cliff Mautner, David Nightingale, and assorted photo luminaries in the shoot. I mean, people who know what they’re doing. And of course, you’ve got David Hobby and Chris Hurtt floating around, telling Zack, you know, hey man, “It’s reaaallllly dark in here. Like f-nothin’, man! Whaddaya you gonna do? You’re screwed!”

And DH had a pocket wizard in his pocket, dialed into Zack’s channel, you know, just to really mess with him. (He didn’t, ultimately. He showed mercy to Zack, who was on stage with his camera and tripod doing a pretty good imitation of Albert Brooks in Broadcast News.)

The shot’s amazing. It definitely falls into the “Holy Shit” category for me, cause I saw it done and I was like, dude, you know, this is kinda out there….But man, he nailed to the wall. Plus, everybody looks good! There’s the deal. Tough shot, tough spot, knocks it back. Nice job, Zack….

Actually took the weekend off. Saw family, hung with Annie. Behind with the blog a bit. On another plane now, heading for Tampa to see my buds in the Kelby Clan. Scott, RC and the gang are really rubbing off on me. In the last two weeks I actually bought an Iphone, and opened up a Facebook account! I might even start tweetering, or whatever that is called. As I pointed out in my first post there, that’s something I could do in between tooting. So, that might end up being a fairly frequent activity for me. Who knows. Mongo meets technology. Dropped an f-bomb on my first post too, just to get it out of the way. I’m from NY, you know, so saying fuck is kind of like clearing your throat. My language will probably get worse this year too, cause I’m taking Jay Maisel’s NY workshop down at the bank. Looking forward to being eviscerated in the unique and wonderful way Jay can do that. He’s so smart, and funny, and keen eyed, and steeped in the world of pictures…I can’t wait.

Anyway, got a couple posts coming that should be fun. Gonna concentrate on camera work for a bit, cause there’s still so much to learn. When I was at GPP, I went back to the desert. I had gone out there last year, and it basically kicked my ass. I was experimenting, fooling around really, which is really the core of what I do, and, while I learned some stuff, when I came back, I really felt most of my pics were about as dry as the sand I was standing on. Also, in one instance, I felt I had failed a dancer, which I hate to do, cause they work so hard.

The dancer in question was the lovely Alessia. Did okay pix of her last year, mostly due to her expressiveness, but I’m nothing if not tenacious, so I went back this year and shot this with her.

It’s overwhelming out there in the sea of sand. You cruise through it, and look, that’s wild, but how about over there? That’s cool, too. Maybe keep going and see what’s over this ridge? More desert. This year, I stood for a minute and did a 360 and was like, that’s nice, okay, that looks awesome over there, and yowza that’s great, but hey, didn’t I just see that dune? Like an endless bolt of rumpled fabric, the dunes fold into each other with no starting or stopping point. I started to realize just how dismaying it would be if instead of having a couple of Land Cruisers waiting for me, I was out there by myself and I looked down at my hands and instead of seeing them holding a D3, they were holding an empty canteen. It’s wild, endless, and relentless.  Put something down, and a few minutes later, it’s gone. The desert rolls on and on, and if you stayed still for a bit, it would roll right over you.

That’s what it did last year. When that happens, man, it makes for a long plane flight home. When it comes to missed pix, I’m not exactly a water under the bridge, yesterday’s news, turn the page kinda guy. I dwell, ya know? Brood, even. Ruminate. And then try it again. I have a history of doing this type of thing. On a LIFE assignment, I lost a whole camera rig–motor driven Mamiya Pro II, 50mm lens, the whole deal, in the Great Salt Lake. If you were gonna choose a lake to drop a camera in, that’s not the one. It was February to boot. Freezing. Ice everywhere. Tripod leg slides off a rock, and the whole thing pitches into the drink. I remember turning to my assistant, the reporter, and my subject with a tight, unamused grin and said, “This could hardly be construed as positive.”

We folded our tents, and got out of the cold, and kind of just in time. But went back the next day, to the same spot, and got a cool portrait of the naturalist writer, Terry Tempest Williams.

So, true to form, I went back again this year, to a vastly different climate. Did some pictures I’m happy with, and I’ll blog some tk. But it felt good, you know, cause I just wanted to see if I could figure out what misfired out there in my head. It’s an ongoing question, right? You’re a photographer, so the first thing you do every morning is walk into the bathroom and stare at the mirror and put a big L on your forehead. Why didn’t it work yesterday? Will it happen again tomorrow? Probably. Maybe. It’s like quicksilver this thing we do. Can’t ever quite grab it and put it in your pocket, patting that pocket comfortably, knowing on this day we got, it’s right there, next to my car keys. My old high school basketball coach used to refer to a really quick, hard to defend player as being “tougher to catch than a fart in a bag.”

Good pictures are like that. Tough to catch. Hard to hold. Probably just as well. If we ever got our mitts on the real reason this whole thing occasionally works, we’d probably play with it, shake it, turn it upside down, and ultimately break it. Best to let it go, and keep chasing it. More fun that way….more tk…..

Dennis Zamora says:

on April 13, 2009 at 10:58 am

Let me guess on the group shot, shutter speed at bulb and flash popped on each subject one-by-one including the accent lights on the wall and floor. Right?

Luke Townsend says:

on April 13, 2009 at 11:01 am

I have come to enjoy these kind of posts, sometimes even more than a straight on techie approach. Its great to see the human in a man who has done pretty much everything. The failures, mistakes, rewards, thoughts, lessons, techie things…all good stuff here. Anyway, nice thoughts, and as always killer images!

Ryan Brenizer says:

on April 13, 2009 at 11:59 am

This is actually “John Michael Cooper light.” He pioneered this technique and detailed how to do it earlier this year. See more here:

Gregg says:

on April 13, 2009 at 12:46 pm

I’ve been following you for a bit. Read the Hot Shoe Diaries on a plane ride to Seattle last week. Good stuff. The question I have, and this blog post points it out, is “How do you know when you’ve made a good frame?” You previsualize, you plan, you execute, the image matches your previs, but it still sucks. Where is that line? You can have all the gear, take all the workshops, have all the technical bits down pat yet still produce crap. Where does that ‘knowing’ come from? Can you teach it? Can it be learned? Or does it come from being kicked in the ass by a decade or so of photo editors? Are all the people writing all the books and all the instructors doing all the workshops standing up there knowing it’s safe to ‘tell’em everything’ cause most of the sumbitches out there will never have clue in the ‘knowing the difference between what they’re making and a Good frame’ arena? I’m makin crap. Lotsa crap. And I’m strugglin to know when it’s NOT crap. And above all, Why?

Cody says:

on April 13, 2009 at 12:47 pm

So… Facebook, eh? Time to get a photo up or drop a link so your friends (er, loyal followers) can keep tabs…

I’ve seen lots of folks love FB for it’s ability to connect with old friends, and, if you can stand hitting “ignore” to the bazillion’th app invite, it’s a pretty cool tool.


Matt S. says:

on April 13, 2009 at 1:36 pm

I’m new to your blog. I was guided here by the (well deserved) hero worship from the likes of Zack Arias & David Hobby. I’ve read through much of the archives and look forward to reading future posts.

This is a great post and it’s nice to see that the experienced gurus go through exactly the same things that we, the unwashed masses, do.

Plus, there are some truly inspiring photos too!

Ken Ely says:

on April 13, 2009 at 1:49 pm

Welcome to the iPhone and Facebook world! It’s strange, fun and exciting, I ‘m still leatning the iPhone, (owned mine about a month). Keep up the writing, books and website. I own both books, and search the internet for new posts to this site. It’s almost like Christmas when something new pops up.

Dave Kallaway says:

on April 13, 2009 at 2:12 pm

Joe…”Inspiration”..that’s what I get out of your blog and your photo experiences. I think the beauty of anyone’s talent is that you share it. Thanks! Hope to see you and Moose at the San Fran workshop you’re having early next year! Great to see the “group shot” from Dubai!

Richard Cave says:

on April 13, 2009 at 2:47 pm

I wanted so badly to go to the GPP, looks like I missed a lot. Hopefully I can address it and go next year. I have a big project in the states next year and hopefully get a chance to meet ya, f bombs and all…


Rosanne Christie says:

on April 13, 2009 at 3:27 pm

Your generousity and humility IS inspiration! I love reading your posts…I learn everytime. Mostly to keep chaing that “quicksilver”.

I can’t wait for you to Tweet! (Toots aside)

John Leonard says:

on April 13, 2009 at 5:59 pm

Yeah…..I’m a photographer what could I possibly do right! I shot a wedding over the past weekend. I applied some “Joe-isms” to my you go.

1) At like 10AM (I’m booked to be there until 11PM that night) my camera makes a white frame, I get a ERR on my LCD. I detach my 70-200 and it makes a really horrid grinding, snapping kind of sound all in front of the bride….”Don’t let’em see ya sweat” says Joe..OK just rolled on with the back-up until I could square it away later.

2)Shooting the reception and my SB900 overheats during the first dance (WTF)…I kill the thermal safety and drive the SOB harder. If it’s going to die it’s going out in a ball of flames by GOD!

3) The couple wants one last portrait. I have like 5 minutes, the venue is packing up around us, nothing but fluorescents and a couple of recessed can lights, it’s dark outside….I think, hey what would Joe do? I send my VAL out the second story window onto the top of a marque (Yeah I should pay him more) with a SB900, 1/2cut of CTO, zoom it to 200mm, crank up the shutter speed, and frame it with the only thing that was remotely interesting the recessed lighting in a little cove behind them. Not great, needed some work but it’s not bad.


Brooke Whatnall says:

on April 13, 2009 at 6:21 pm

Great post, love the shots, and facebook eh? Might have to check that out some time. Ordered your hot shoe diaries book, in Aus, it doesnt come out till May :(.

That first shot, was it two exposures, one underexposed with out flash to get the curtain detail, second exposure he bounced the flash to evenly light the whole room, then did some nifty stuff with layer masks?

Christina Montemurro says:

on April 13, 2009 at 6:26 pm

Excellent captures, Joe.

Zack’s shot is pretty amazing. Can I ask, if you had the same assignment to shoot the same group in the same location, how you would have lit it?

Hugo Sharp says:

on April 13, 2009 at 6:49 pm

Joe, I’ll be at Jay Maisel workshop later in the year. I’m flying over from Australia just to go.

Which one/s will you be at? It’d be a blast to see you there too.

Marcin Retecki says:

on April 13, 2009 at 6:54 pm

That was really nice post, Joe. Zack Arias did amazing job with that shot, and with all the pressure, wow, he is really “cold blooded”. Thanks for sharing the story about desert and your emotions. Not many photographers share what they think about besides business and art. Hope to cya on twitter soon! (there are already 7 Joes McNally on there so dun forget to let us know which one is you!)

Debs says:

on April 13, 2009 at 7:43 pm

I Just bought your book Hot Shoe Diaries, great information. Your blog brings great inspiration to many of us and I hope to see you on Twitter as well.

Craig Ferguson says:

on April 13, 2009 at 8:28 pm

Joe, if you still have a lot to learn, what hope is there for the rest of us? :)

Zac Grimaldo says:

on April 13, 2009 at 10:26 pm

Hey Joe, it’s funny reading your blog. It reminds me of days gone by, (in the olden days), when photographers would hang out and shoot the breeze at the lab, while waiting for snips…

A cool app for your new iPhone is Focalware, I use it on location shoots. It uses your GPS to tell you where and when the sun/moon will be at any time of the day/night, and at what point in the sky it will be. It’s great for preplanning shots throughout the day!

Also, there are seven Joe McNally’s on Twitter, go figure.

Lindsey says:

on April 13, 2009 at 11:28 pm

There isn’t a person in the world that has a wry sense of humor, quick wit, incredible talent, humility, humanity, and a childlike sense of wonder and eagerness to learn. Oh, wait a minute, it’s you! You Rock! Thanks for another great post!

Mark says:

on April 13, 2009 at 11:53 pm

Great post again, my man. Hope the family is well – glad you got the chance to see them. I was wiped out with some nasty somethinorother on Bunny Day. Stil working my way through THSD…taking notes along the way.

Jani Sourander says:

on April 14, 2009 at 6:47 am

Very nice this portrait of Terry Tempest Williams. Calm blue feeling, eyes closet – and this approaching rock will soon hit her face and break the silence.

Derrick Young says:

on April 14, 2009 at 9:48 am

Your Blog is a constant source of entertainment for me and like a previous comment stated it feels like hanging out at the water cooler with like minded friends. My family thinks I am nuts as I sit reading your blog laughing to myself and your comments and humour.

Any planned trips to Ontario, Canada? Would love to attend a workshop here in Canada.

Patrick Cavan Brown says:

on April 14, 2009 at 11:35 am

You are the most honest photographer I know… thanks for speaking of failing… very refreshing… nothing keeps me up at night more than the inevitable regret of a failure.

Ryan Brenizer,
I don’t think John Michael Cooper or anyone else under the age of 90 “pioneered” this technique. Common sense will tell you that it has been around a long long time…. sorry.

Even I used it on a shoot a couple of weeks ago… check it:

Scott Slattery says:

on April 14, 2009 at 1:06 pm

Joe, again a wonderful post and a way to humble host! Did the Tree of Woe come in to play with the dancer’s leap shot?!? Thanks and keep it up!

Harry Pocius says:

on April 14, 2009 at 1:44 pm

Love the new shot of Alessia! Really cool, dynamic, and the colors are fantastic.

Andy Poupart says:

on April 14, 2009 at 10:00 pm

You’re a constant source of inspiration, Joe. Or maybe it’s more like reassurance. Anyway, something about this post really resonated. I think the part of about brooding and maybe going back the next day, or the next week, or much later and trying to do something over and get it right this time. Thanks for writing it.

Michael S. says:

on April 14, 2009 at 10:44 pm

Good god your funny…….

Your newest book rocks by the way. Excellent details, images, and still makes me burst out with a good laugh now and then. You have a great recipe for this kinda stuff and I love your style :)

Rick Healy says:

on April 15, 2009 at 12:21 pm


It was great to have had the chance to meet you twice recently (Santa Fe & Pre-Con PSW with Moose. It’s kind of comforting as I struggle behind the lens wondering if I’m ever going to create a decent image to know that you go through the same things even after years of success and amazing images. I just finished “The Hot Shoe Diaries” and thanks for another great book. I’m looking forward to following your future adventures via this Blog.



Trenton Moore says:

on April 15, 2009 at 1:11 pm

If you need an extra asst. in tampa let me know! :~) Great post and images as always, Joe!

Ruth says:

on April 15, 2009 at 4:13 pm

That was some post! Thanks for sharing. Speaking of sharing, I just wanted to pass on a little helpful tip…

If you’re going to start using Twitter and Facebook on top of blogging, then you should check out Posterous. It is capable of automatically updating all of your “sites” with one simple e-mail (with or without attachments even). Took me two minutes to set-up and now I can post from the road via cell phone, to one or all my accounts (blog, Facebook, Twitter and Flickr)!

No I do not work for Posterous, I just love their FREE service and thought I’d spread the joy.

Ben Fullerton says:

on April 16, 2009 at 11:43 am

Hey, Joe! Thanks for so many great posts! I loved this one. Thanks for being human, and for being humble enough to let us all know it. Your blog and pictures amaze me constantly. Thanks.

Sebastian Wilson says:

on April 16, 2009 at 12:07 pm

I must say this is the first blog I’m following in my life. Funny, interesting, teaches a lot, in every way, great.
The last picture of Alessia is incredible, the colors and lighting are mind blowing.
I wasn’t much a friend of flash photography, but after reading the moment it clicks, I started experimenting with flashes, now I ordered Hot Shoe Diaries to gain some more knowledge.
Excellent blog, and thanks for sharing info!!!!!

Matt says:

on April 16, 2009 at 7:56 pm

Joe, you Zen-meister, great post on the essence of photography!

T. C. Knight says:

on April 17, 2009 at 10:46 am

I dunno Joe. I see all the posts about your humility and sense of failure. Then I look at the photo of the dancer in the desert. Am I missing something? Is this photo supposed to be bad? Doubt fills my mind about my ability to see a great photo.

So I am not so sure humble applies here. Crazy lunatic maybe…humble…no.

Lo, if I should have such failures. I could be a famous world-traveling photographer too.

Keep ’em coming.

Thanks for what you do here.


Bill Rogers says:

on April 20, 2009 at 6:11 pm

There is one thing that puzzles me. After reading over and over again, from you, from Hobby, from others – “Shoot it right in the first place, and you won’t have to Photoshop it.” – now everyone is falling over himself praising this photo.

You won’t get any argument from me – it’s a wonderful piece of Photoshoppery. Well planned and executed.

I’m just a little bit surprised to see accolades coming from people who have not been big advocates of post processing in the past.

Bill Rogers

Krista says:

on April 21, 2009 at 4:26 pm

Beautiful shots!!! LOVE them!

Kurt STENBERG says:

on April 25, 2009 at 4:23 pm

great post! I love the shot Zack did. It was pretty cool and very creative. Still working my way through HOT SHOE. Just got moment it clicks from the library. Too much to read all at once!

Joe or anyone… Can anyone recommend a book about posing people ie individual portraits or groups? something with the basics and in-depth discussion or examples. I already know the basics and just get creative like most other photogs but thought if there was a good book out there I would like to read it.

thanks everyone. Send me recommendations to my email stenbergphotography@


Rogier Bos says:

on April 27, 2009 at 12:35 pm

I love that group photo. Fantastic! I’d like to come to this event next year, but I am afraid they’ll ask me to take the picture – and what could one possibly do to raise the bar on that picture?

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