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A Morning With Ladder Six, Engine Nine

Jun 13

In Friends, history, Lighting at 11:27pm


I’ve been friend of the house since 911. Known as the “Miracle House,” they were among the first responders on that day, but lost no men. Miracle, indeed.

Capt. Jay Jonas (now a chief), and firefighters Matty Komorowski, Mike Meldrum, Billy Butler, Sal D’agostino, and Tommy Falco  were with Josephine Harris, coaxing her down a stairwell, quickly, but not quickly enough, as all 6, who were aware the first tower had already come down, knew quite well.

They didn’t leave her, or each other. Which meant all of them were in the same space when the North Tower came down on them. Somehow, even though the entire landing rotated 360 degrees during the collapse, it stayed intact, and they all lived. Turned out Josephine’s pace of descent was a lifesaver. Those above and below that blessed piece of stairwell didn’t fare well.

If you want to read an interview account of that day, and those stairs, hit this link. Stone Phillips did a good job, letting the guys just talk about what happened in there, minute by minute.



Capt. Jonas (now chief)


Firefighter Bill Butler (now lieutenant)


Firefighter Sal D’Agostino


Josephine Harris


Firefighter Matt Komorowski (now lieutenant)


Firefighter Tommy Falco (retired)


Firefighter Mike Meldrum (retired)

They took a leap of faith and came to the Giant Polaroid camera, and are included in the book Faces of Ground Zero. Since then, the  house and I have stayed in touch. They’re good people. And they handle a lot of stuff. Fighting fires in Chinatown has unique difficulties. It’s a warren of aging buildings jammed together in one of NY’s oldest and most charismatic neighborhoods, and, as one might imagine, not too much corresponds to building codes and blueprints. Surprise walls, mysterious, makeshift staircases, overloaded circuits, boilers that might have been built in the days of steamships–all this can present in the middle of the night, in the middle of a fire.

There’s been some big fires of late, lots of activity, and a bunch of the guys got medals, which was an occasion to have the whole house come together. Medal day. So, picture day. Call Joe.

I’ve done it before, a few years ago, in a rainstorm. I tell ya, if you gotta do a group shot in pelting rain, make sure it’s a bunch of firefighters. All smiles, not a word of complaint, everybody looking at the camera.

Last week, it was sunny, which was a different photographic problem, for sure. Did it all small flash, eight total, six on high stands. Three camera right, three camera left, master hot shoe unit doubling as a flash, and one up top on high boom, for good measure.


Now, you don’t see this type of light in the ads in Vanity Fair. Lush, it ain’t. But effective, yes. This shot isn’t about the light, or the shooter, or the numbers of pixels. This is about recognition, about every guy here going home and saying to his wife, girlfriend or kids, “There, see, there I am.” Not a time for subtlety, just a time to bring the light, and make sure everybody sees it.


Speaking of pixels, I shot it D3X, going to ISO 400. If I had to go higher, would have switched out to D3S, which handles higher ISO’s well. Had three groups going, all wireless, all manual. Yep, no time to mess with the TTL squirrels on this one. Sent them all a signal to go manual, ½ power and then tapered it to ¼. Which is the reason for multiple lights. Coulda done it with fewer, but would have taxed them pretty hard, and, it being an active house that could have gotten a call at any moment, I didn’t want to wait on recycle. Shot about 25 frames, and we were done. Told all the guys they had to see the camera with both eyes. You forget sometimes, you know, ’cause when you can see the camera you think it’s all cool. But you might be seeing it with just one eye, and that means the other half of your face ain’t in the picture. So I had the guys do the blink thing, back and forth, so I knew I had everybody’s eyeballs.


Also got the lights way high. Reason being, you want to fly the flash literally over the front rows to the back rows. Light from eye level the gang up front gets nuked before you can get anything to guys in the way back. So get the lights high up, and the downward spill will take care of the front rows.

Group shots are tough, right? Don’t know a single shooter who really likes to do them. About 1000 ways to screw it up, and only one or two to do it “right.” But it’s cool stuff, ’cause these are some of the most important pictures of life. This is the stuff of memory. These get passed on. These hang on walls.

Maybe, someday, when my pixels have long since turned to dust, one of the young guys in this picture, somebody with a girlfriend now, will return to the house with his grandchildren. He can point to this shot, hanging on the wall, and say, “That was me, a long time ago.” And they’ll look, and he’ll be there, face filled with light, looking at the camera with both eyes.

Keith Johnson (seated, 2nd from right) is a good guy, and the walking, talking definition of the word “gregarious.” He called out to me at camera and told me to make sure I made him look good. Told him no problem, I had a sub-menu of custom functions buried deep in my X that I’ve come to call the “Keith Johnson Function.” Just makes everybody look good. I’m thinking about talking to Nikon about it. More tk….

Josh says:

on June 14, 2010 at 12:19 am


Love these shots! I’m a medic in Denver and love it when I get the chance to see some professional pictures of EMS folk. Thanks for spending time and explaining how you set it all up.

I saw you in Denver and you really sparked my motivation for photography -and possibly starting my own business. I’ve got a long way to go.

Could you explain your setups for the portraits? I think these very straightforward shots are phenomenal, and I know it has to do with your lights. I would love a response.

Josh Herrington

Rob Byron says:

on June 14, 2010 at 12:27 am

Kickin’ post Joe. These guys are the definition of hero and not because of 911. These guys are doing the “job” every single day, putting their lives on the line to protect our lives and property. Property man. To think these guys risk it all for our property. Crazy huh?

Still need to send you my copy of “Faces” for your John Hancock. I’ll have to do that soon. Might stuff a couple other books of yours in the envelope in case your pen has extra ink.

That reminds me… Rescue Me cranks up again next week on FX. One of my absolute favorite shows. You should check it out if you haven’t yet. It would definitely be your cup of tea… or bourbon… or whatever…

Ban_D says:

on June 14, 2010 at 4:51 am

‘But it’s cool stuff, ’cause these are some of the most important pictures of life. This is the stuff of memory.’

…and thats why i like to read your blog! (beside of cool photo tips :-))

Patrick says:

on June 14, 2010 at 5:41 am

Good insight on large group photos Joe. It is a good thing you are doing to recognize these guys. Thanks to all the firefighters who put their life on the line every time there is a call!

nate parker says:

on June 14, 2010 at 5:54 am

another great story to start my day and get me thinking on things. you oughta write a book Joe, filling it with stories about the people you’ve met, great writing style, i know i’d love to read it. have a nice day.

Carl says:

on June 14, 2010 at 6:22 am

‘Morning Joe!

Thanks for this post!

I was the official photographer for my local Relay for Life this past weekend and used a similar configuration… ladder on the track, lights up high to make the team portraits as they made the opening lap.

While pleased with the results I kept asking myself “What Would Joe Do?”


Roger Botting says:

on June 14, 2010 at 6:43 am

Good monday morning story Joe. Keep being friends with the New York Friendly Department.

Penny says:

on June 14, 2010 at 6:46 am

“Maybe, someday, when my pixels have long since turned to dust, one of the young guys in this picture, somebody with a girlfriend now, will return to the house with his grandchildren. He can point to this shot, hanging on the wall, and say, “That was me, a long time ago.” And they’ll look, and he’ll be there, face filled with light, looking at the camera with both eyes.”

That is really what it all boils down to…group photography, portrait and wedding photography…it doesn’t matter. We just hope we did a good job and that our images mean something to someone and that they are shared for generations to come. A great perspective. Thanks for sharing!

Simon Jacobs says:

on June 14, 2010 at 7:24 am

Where did the Skylite Panel come in Joe?

MikeScott says:

on June 14, 2010 at 7:33 am

Wonderful shot. And great insight as to why these shots are important. Did you rent risers?

I always find the most difficult part about shooting groups this large to be arranging everyone, since I’m usually on low-budget, no way they’re going to rent risers, hey who wants to sit on the ground in front of the people in seats (not something you can ask the Ivy League University 50th Reunion group) shoot. So I dangle from the top of a ladder and tell them if they can’t see the camera they need to shove the person in front of them out of the way…

arun says:

on June 14, 2010 at 7:57 am

Great work Joe. This image will certainly be remembered in history and these heroes will NEVER be forgotten.

Ryan McGovern says:

on June 14, 2010 at 8:00 am

Hey Joe, just a quick note that the link to the story is incorrect. People should be able just delete the extra “http//” and it will work.

Eli Silva says:

on June 14, 2010 at 8:31 am


Craig M says:

on June 14, 2010 at 8:44 am

Joe. I think you are my favorite photographer.

Johan Sopiee says:

on June 14, 2010 at 9:05 am

12 men on the front row, a total of 4 rows, ISO 400. approx 50 pax. thanks for the formula Joe. now i know what i can do with sunlight plus 8 speedlights. now all i gotta do is nip down to the Nikon store and just get me a truckload full of speedlights. lol. cheers!

Dan Milham says:

on June 14, 2010 at 9:28 am

Great story about great people. Very good group photo instruction, too. As the unofficial official photog for my Rotary club I’ll be using your tips frequently.

Andrew Auletta says:

on June 14, 2010 at 10:11 am

Very good job, Joe. The setup, the shots and your explanation of the background of Ladder Six Engine Nine is very much appreciated.

Leon Godwin says:

on June 14, 2010 at 10:12 am

Great post. I saw the Lastolite panel in one shot, did you pull that out for the side lights as well?

Howard Pitkow says:

on June 14, 2010 at 10:20 am

Joe you are my hero. A hero shooting heros. When and where did you use the large diffuser we see in front of the trio of flash units? I don’t see it represented on the layout shot you provided. I have been to several of your classes, seen this technique in action and would like to know how it was used here.


Tom Compton says:

on June 14, 2010 at 10:34 am

I think it awesome that you have this relationship with the fire company. Good for them, good for you, good for everybody. These guys go beyond the definition of hero.

My take away from this post. Get my lights up higher. I have had the problem shooting bike races where the first two riders are over-lit and the rest of the group is good. I will try this tomorrow.

Thanks for sharing your knowledge and talent with the rest of us.


randy baran says:

on June 14, 2010 at 10:39 am

god bless, all around.

Louis Pang says:

on June 14, 2010 at 10:48 am

Group shots are TOUGH. Doing it better is one of my goals for 2010.

Christopher Murphy says:

on June 14, 2010 at 11:22 am

Thanks for being there among the regular guys. The guys that do it for others, and do the job, go home, get up and do it again. Thanks for being Irish, which is a blessing to all of us.

From a fellow American of Irish descent. Stay in the light, Joe!

Jack McGinnis says:

on June 14, 2010 at 11:48 am

Joe you are truly am amazing guy. Thanks for all you do.

Taeke says:

on June 14, 2010 at 12:43 pm

Hi Joe, i have shoot some local firemen also, it all started when i readed your book and also was insipred with a beatyfull picture of a firemen on the storbist site.

This all together and a fact that my neabour is one of the volentair firemen here in town, brought me to the next step off making my owm set of pictures from firemen.

When i arrived at the firestation one day and explained my plan for making portraits of them to honour the work they do as volontairs, they accepted it imediatley.

This way i made portraits off all firemen the strobist way with one SB-800 in a reflective umbrella at 3 feet away and one SB-800 on the back with a red filter atached to it.

I was realy glad about the end results and finaly after post process each portrait and putting them together in a book, i reached it out as an gift for them to have it on the station.
They where so enthusiastic i had to reprint it 19 times!

later on, they booked me for several assigments and also wanted to have a big group shot of all volentairs together from 3 fire stations, which represents the complete local district!

i have to say i was a little concerned to mess things up the day of this Big assigment. The time was set to 1 hour max, becourse of there responsibilitys and not beeing nearby there stations.

I choose to set the appointment time (daylights and sun angle)and location very carfully, and to my best knowings because i only have 2x 400 w/s elichrome mono’s on a not so flat-risky-instable-220 volts diesel generator.

Becourse the time pressure and me willing to have several setups within that hour, i made a plan of the place with different setups witch i then sticked on my car.

People could when they arrived be instructed more quicly becourse a image say’s more and i could focus completely on directing the moving trucks etc, as i have no assistent to help.

Things worked out perfectly.
The mayor of our district the chief of the firemen and all the people in the picture now have a nice framed picture on there wall at home and on there 3 fire stations.

Nowaday’s i rely more and more on that little piece of Nikon engeneering and with your latest post i’m inspired once again. When things come together i will buy a few more SB’s and put them at work on bigger assigments with trust.

Thanks a lot!

Greetings from The Netherlands.


The pictures from this short story can be found here.

Bob says:

on June 14, 2010 at 3:14 pm

Hi Joe,

I’m also a fireman, and have been to this house a few times while visiting NYC…the “Chinatown Dragonfighters” as their shirts proudly proclaim. After reading a few of your books, I can see how you could easily fit right in at any firehouse in the country…you definitely share our dark humour! So tell me, what did the boys cook up for that day in the kitchen? Some great firehouse beans I hope! Take care Brother.

Ken Toney says:

on June 14, 2010 at 5:06 pm

Joe, Scott got me into the safari trip in Vegas, will see you there. I have all the respect in the world for the brave men of NY. I got to do a shot with our fire dept (I have been a volunteer since 1974) with Rudy! I went home and printed out a 13×19 and was back to the station in 15 min. so he could sign it. That photo hangs in our station now. I still have a 60×48 american flag photo I took and a photo of the Trade Towers that I took hanging in the entrance at my restaurant. See you in on Aug. 31st!!

Matt Connell says:

on June 14, 2010 at 8:34 pm

“Don’t know a single shooter who really likes to do them.” [Group shots]

I hear that. Thanks for the reminder that it isn’t about subtlety. Just get the job done, and keep your eye out for the 1000 things you could screw up. Good advice!

Mark says:

on June 14, 2010 at 9:52 pm

Faces of Ground Zero is some of your best, most heart-felt work ever.

Great post, good learnings!

Phat Photographer says:

on June 14, 2010 at 11:21 pm

We lived in Brooklyn Heights, right next to the firehouse on Middagh St while in school. I was out for a morning run within a mile of the second tower when the plane hit. Even without a camera, the image is burned in my head forever. The firefighters will always have my respect and gratitude for their courage. Kudos to you for making them look especially sharp.

Gregg says:

on June 15, 2010 at 12:09 am

Great job Joe as usual. I just finished a group shot of 150 priests. I used two RX-600’s but it would have been nice to be able to place a bunch of SB-900’s all around the group.

bob dechiara says:

on June 15, 2010 at 2:17 pm

Love it! Love it! Another fascinating Joe McNally photo. What else would you expect. Thanks for sharing.

Siew says:

on June 15, 2010 at 8:45 pm

I am overwhelmed by the courage of these men. And great photographs! I like your work very much.

Mark says:

on June 15, 2010 at 9:07 pm

My Hero Joe,

Love the setup shot. I have a group shot booked for the end of June and needed this inspiration. You are very close to the group and I am wondering if you are shooting with a 14-24mm??? Also, can you please verify the f/stop??

Keep it up sir, and I will keep watching, reading, and learning.


Keith says:

on June 15, 2010 at 11:22 pm


You are the man! As a member of public safety I would like to say thanks for honoring them. I love your work…….but I think now it is even better because you put meaning behind the shot. That may sound stupid but I think it is everything.


Jesse says:

on June 16, 2010 at 4:24 am

Thanks for showing us how it’s done. Unfortunately I doubt I could pull this off with my amateur budget. Great learning every time I visit your blog. Love your humor!

Malinda Hartong says:

on June 16, 2010 at 5:44 am

I luv the last one! Chasing firefighters is awesome! I have so many nicknames! What are yours?
O, wait, maybe you better not share. I carry a case of little water bottles – aka Angel.

Tim Skipper says:

on June 16, 2010 at 7:20 am


You and I have never met but you are a mentor to me. I follow you everywhere I can find you. I appreciate your honesty in your photography. The way you will admit mistakes and look for solutions vs. trying to appear that your always perfect.

Add to that the great stories you tell with the pictures and I can’t help but to keep coming back for more.

BTW I posted on you fan page on Facebook and I am posting here as well. It’s time for a new book!! I’ve read the previous two so many times the pages turn themselves.

Kimberly says:

on June 16, 2010 at 1:08 pm

I just learned so much about photographing a group from this post. Thank you so much for writing about this experience in such detail. I also really appreciated the respect you clearly demonstrated for your subjects. What a great group of people, and it’s wonderful that you appreciated that as well.

Steve says:

on June 16, 2010 at 6:00 pm

I am always amazed at your lighting configurations. It is just so crazy to have that much going on. And I thought a three flash configuration was complicated enough.

Chris Ward says:

on June 17, 2010 at 1:38 pm

Well written Joe. The cover of Vouge may seem more glamorous, but it is the memories that we hang on the wall, pass down, and point out to our kids and grand kids.

Terry Wheeler says:

on June 18, 2010 at 6:52 pm

Beautiful Work!
I have been following your work, and have read your books. Gotta say that I am a much better photog now than I was a year ago.

Joe McNally says:

on June 19, 2010 at 3:43 pm

Way to go..many thanks….as a teacher, it’s great to hear that….Best, Joe

Wedding photographer Essex - Studio2 says:

on June 19, 2010 at 7:19 pm

this post really made me think of all the stuff these guy’s do
you sort of take it for granted. but you brought it back home!

Great post

huy says:

on June 22, 2010 at 9:23 pm

…your work always make me give more love to my flash ^^

Todd says:

on June 25, 2010 at 6:38 am

Joe, great instruction as always. I wish that I could have gotten over to Oahu when you over to Hawaii to do your presentation. Any chance you’ll come over to Maui in the near future?

One question about the Justin clamps you use all the time – just how the heck do you get them to slide onto the C-stand arms like you do? I just purchased 2 Justin clamps from B&H and though I’ve tried and tried, I cannot get them to slide onto the arms of the C-stands we have. The fit is just too tight.

Did you bore out the holes in your Justin clamps to make them fit or are you from the planet Krypton? 😉


Christian says:

on June 30, 2010 at 3:56 pm

This blog is always a fun read full of great photos.


I hope you didn’t send in the group photo you have posted on here. And had a second one taken with everyone’s faces showing 😉 (third row up from the bottom second guy in from the left.)


We are only human.

Dave Silva says:

on July 2, 2010 at 1:05 pm


You’re my hero. I do really big group photos (150 people) in a hurry all the time. That “see the camera with both eyes” trick is perfect –

can’t wait to try it, thank you

Oleksandr Hnatenko says:

on July 8, 2010 at 7:29 am

really nice workflow 😉

hehe ye and the thing with two eyes was pretty funny and important 😉

thank you.
best wishes from vienna city.

dcc says:

on August 24, 2010 at 11:23 pm

What a great shot of the FDNY Ladder 6

Sal D’agostino is just sooo hot. He is such a hottie <3

electrician manchester nh says:

on August 25, 2011 at 1:12 pm

It’s exhilarating to once and for all find a writer who actually knows what they are talking about. All joking aside, with as much advice as there is floating around on the internet, TV, radio, and magazines, it is hard to know what to believe nowadays. I’m glad to know I’m not the only gal who thinks this way.

melinda pearson says:

on September 11, 2011 at 9:22 pm

Does Joe Ortiz still work for this company?

Craig Ginsberg says:

on September 11, 2011 at 11:17 pm

There is a great short animated film about the Miracle of Ladder Co. 6. If anyone’s interested, it can be seen at

Garrett Smith says:

on November 13, 2011 at 11:08 am

Thanks! Would you mind reviewing Firefighters Training?

Wilfried Feder says:

on July 11, 2012 at 11:57 am

great read on a out-of-favor subject =). Joe, I was just wondering how you sent those signals to go manual and 1/4 power, i mean what trigger? the Nikon infrared system? So you had the flash sensors showing right towards the master? I’m a canon shooter, poor me =). Cant afford 8 of those new 600RT…

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