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Archive for August, 2010

On LIFE, and Loengard

Aug 30

In Books at 6:07am

LIFE is strange, right? And wonderful.  It is, “Life Its Own Self,” as Dan Jenkins once famously wrote. I shot my first job for the venerable picture magazine that was once everybody’s TV in 1984. Became a staff photographer in 1994. Last one in a series of 90 staffers. Now, 26 years after my first frame, I just finished another project that, I’m proud to say, goes to print sporting that famous red and white logo.picture-3

Never written a guide before. Yikes. Lots of stuff to think about. There’s tons of info in it gained from 30 years out there with a camera in my hand. I’d sit down to write, and have this mental image of my brain as a dump truck, complete with backup warning, starting to pour stuff into my computer. Having done that of course, it would need to be shaped and formed, and I would somehow have to take my photo lingo shorthand and turn it into English. The book starts with the moment you open the box you just got, the one with the digital camera inside, and goes from those super basics right through lenses, light, color, composition to photo terms and concepts, and shooting strategies that make pictures better. Along the way, I drop in little blog like essays that relate field strategies and expertise in a fairly amusing and irreverent (hey, it’s me) way. The result is a guide that covers the basics, with anecdotes about how those basics save your butt when confronted with a photo situation that is decidedly not so basic.

Started on LIFE’s path years ago via being assigned by John Loengard, perhaps the most visually intelligent editor I have ever worked for.


A legendary shooter in his own right, he went from location work to the editor’s desk with impact and influence. (Not all shooters can do this. Many have tried, only to find they should have stayed on the street, and continued to do that which they were good at–shoot pictures.)

Not so John. He’s equally formidable with a camera, or a loupe. In his role as picture editor, to say he was provocative is to understate the case. He got you wired up for the assignment, made you nervous (at least he did me), and dropped incongruent and startling picture notions into your noodle. In short, he got you to think.

Thoughtful pictures are his forte. His book, Pictures Under Discussion, is a must for anyone who might want to do this seriously.




There are gifts that accrue from hanging in there and doing this nutty thing for as long as I have. One truly astonishing one–John wrote the forward for this book. His writing, just as intelligent as his photography, becomes a link between the historic LIFE of film times, and nowadays, with pictures as ones and zeroes. I followed suit in my writing. The book is all about digital shooting. But there are some film pictures in it. Why? Because none of the underpinnings of shooting good pictures have really changed. It remains, then and now, a situational, improvisational, nail biting, uncertain thing to do. It is first and foremost an art and craft powered by your head and your heart, and your sense of the world. The machine in your hands is immaterial. But–this powerful new digital machine can be mysterious and needs explaining. Hence the book.

I can say it has been a truly wonderful LIFE. I was a bit of a fireman for the magazine. Ever the generalist, I got  sent to cover all manner of things. In Russia, I bounced around, weightless, in pseudo-space.


Spent time with Leonard Bernstein as he composed.


Went to Rwanda after the genocide.


Took the clothes off the Olympic team in ’96.


Did a portrait of Kim, “the napalm girl,” and saw how someone’s entire life can spin on the snap of a shutter.


And, in a decidedly dad moment, put my kid on the cover. (Hey, I saved the mag some dough. No model fee. How’s that for a nice, juicy rationalization?)


In short, had the privilege of seeing and recording lots of different bits and pieces of life as people live it. Learned a lot of lessons. Tried to hold up, as best I could, the tradition of vibrant storytelling that was the indelible imprint of the magazine. In this book, I talk a lot about the how to. That’s a given. “How does this thing work?” is explained and re-explained. I also offer up notions about the “why for?” the “what if,” and the “you might just want to.”

In short, I talk about being a shooter. How you do it, and why you do it.

Many of the LIFE photogs were heroes and mentors to me. I was offered a small space in the book for a dedication. See below.

This book is dedicated to those who went before. To what they saw, and how
they saw it. And to the fact that, sometimes at great peril, in impossible
conditions, with all odds against them, they shot it well and beautifully,
and shared it with us. Their work is the stuff of all our memories.

More tk…

Shooting the Moon

Aug 27

In On Location at 2:29am


Hey gang…couple of questions from yesterday. The combo of the 600 plus TC1.7 was, frankly, all about, uh, size. Bigger lens, bigger moon. The above is shot with a straight up six. Below, I’m at about 170 zoom on a 70-200.


Figured we’re all up here in north country, howlin’ at the moon, so might as well shoot it. Above is lit with an Elinchrom Quadra, running through a Deep Octa soft box. Way up top, same deal as yesterday–line of sight TTL, raw flash, SB 900, hand held, camera right.

You get the moon and the lens big, what suffers? DOF for sure. The shot from yesterday was racked out to f11. Otherwise the moon looks like an out of focus blob in the sky, which it sorta does even at f11.


Have had notions of doing stuff like mixing flash portraits and the moon for years, and I suspect I’ll just keep after it. One of these days, might just nail it….you never know….more tk….

Pictures from a strange place..

Aug 26

In Uncategorized at 12:17pm


Here in Iceland with some of the most international photographers I’ve ever had attend a single workshop.  The ten participants came from the US, Canada, Libya, Israel, Spain, Australia and Singapore.

Working with some amazing talent each day, including Ingo (above), a local character, to say the least.

The above is one SB900, shot with a 600 f/4, 1.7TC, TTL line of sight, moon and background, available moon light.

more tk.

V-Flat Questions….

Aug 24

In Rambling at 2:02am


There were a bunch of really good questions from yesterday’s post, so I’ll do my best here….

Dick Wood says:
on August 23, 2010 at 5:57 am

Great how to. but I have one small question. Where do you aim the speedlights in the V-flats? the ceiling , into the flats, of bounce them off of the back wall?

Dick WoodPS Love the shorts.

Generally I aim them straight into the “V” portion of the boards, and make sure the flash(es) are tucked in there and don’t have a chance to spill hard light to the sides. The v shape collects the light and pushes towards the wall at the shooter’s back. Then, it rushes towards the subject with the power of a thousand suns!

On the shorts front, I borrowed them from Hobby. As you can see, my legs are plus 2 EV.

Pete says:
on August 23, 2010 at 7:40 am
Thanks for another great insight into your work Joe.

I have a question though, doesn’t the photog (or ‘Numnuts’ in this case) cast a shadow over the subject? I guess the whole back wall becomes the light source and so maybe wraps around the camera operator?

It doesn’t, oddly enough. You would think it would, but in my experience, no. Now, it could happen. Here’s the thing. I trot this technique out every once in a while, and I’m sure there are iterations of it that are better, or levels of experimentation with it that I haven’t taken the time to investigate. So, I guess, I should qualify and say, you know, I haven’t had that specific issue. Now, if you’re a photo enthusiast, and you want to shoot your 5 year old twins this way, and your day job is being the right tackle on the offensive line of the New England Patriots, all bets are off.

Mike says:
on August 23, 2010 at 8:06 am
Very cool, but with SB flashes, what kind of ISO and f/stop are you getting? Bouncing the light twice has to really suck up the light. Looks like you’re doing shallow DOF, but still curious how high you need to ramp the ISO to make this work well.

Again, in my experience, ISO 200 with this rig gives you a pretty decent f-stop. That is part of the reason (here’s Joe “Overkill” McNally at work again) I use the four SB units. Dividing the labor taxes them at a lower stress level than using two. Having said that, have done it with two, and jacked my ISO to 400 or 800 and it works fine. The nice thing about doing a TTL thing here, is that you can flick some buttons on the master, and go from you know, f5.6, to f2. Work this setup at min DOF, and it rocks.

Ranger 9 says:
on August 23, 2010 at 8:11 am
Great idea, and impressive that you can get enough light out of it to shoot at ISO200/f4!

But did you really use just the flats and wall bounce for the top photo (mcnallyshow-143, the flying-haired young lady with the whatsit on her head)? Can’t understand how you’d get the hair backlight and the highlight on her temple with this setup. Did you do this with a reflector, or did it need another light, or what?

Good pickup, Ranger 9. This was done ad hoc, spur of the moment. They young lady in question has hair that calls for a studio fan to put on wheels and just walked around with her all day long. So, I tried an experiment. The v-flat lighting was done, and that indeed is the light that governs her face. But there was abundant ambient light in the studio and it got me to thinking, always a dangerous thing. I didn’t want my shutter/f-stop combo to get too close to the level of ambient, ’cause you lose the impact of the lighting rig, so I moved a daylight balance steady source (more on these sources in a future blog) in off her shoulder and behind her, to camera right. It is a soft source, running through a medium soft box. It gave her hair a easygoing jolt of fairly concentrated non-flashed light. We moved in the studio fan, and I dragged my shutter a bit, I think to around 1/15th. The result is her hair takes off in the breeze, and a highlight comes in around her temple. I was courting disaster here, hovering around Ice Planet 255, but we squeaked it through and managed to just hold on to, as Father Bob would call them, the holy highlights.

This just in….Father Bob has gone astray, evidently, from a recent perusal of his blog. He’s evidently left the Franciscan Order, and is now involved in some sort of new age swami shit. (See below.)


Where am I gonna go to confession next year?

AYRTON360 says:
on August 23, 2010 at 9:09 am
I always love to come here to read more about your shots.
I’ve been following your work, since the 80’s when I was hired by you as a second assistant, in Los Angeles, to do a shoot in the desert of some big Parabolic Antennas for a Fortune edition
Thanks a lot

Good to hear from you Ayrton. Surprised you still speak to me after one of the worst jobs ever. Lighting huge parabolics out in the desert in August, with the shape of the dishes collecting the sun. Felt like an ant under a magnifying glass. Then of course, there were the tarantulas.



Brock Lawson says:
on August 23, 2010 at 9:15 am
Where can one purchase that large of a piece of foam core board?

They’re not too tough to get. We order sometimes from Pearl Paint down in NY. Any decent size graphic arts supplier, or set shop, or even grip house should carry them. (These are also a rentable item.)We do 4×8’s black on one side, white on the other. They last a long time, and literally, a smart, cheap investment if you have a home studio.

Alex H says:
on August 23, 2010 at 10:18 am
Joe, long time reader, first time commenter.I just have a couple questions you might help me answer. What power were you shooting the SB-900’s at,or was it all TTL? Do you get a different effect based on the height of the ceiling? Also, are you going to post more on the Flexes you’ve been playing with? Thanks for all of the insight you’ve provided over the years. It’s been invaluable to me!

The ceiling comes into play, for sure, just ’cause there’s such a wash of light you are creating. It’s gonna fly off that puppy, depending on the height. I tend to think of it as a good thing, just a piece of a “poor man’s cove” that continues the bounce effect that Mr. Bensimon used so well. And yeah, absolutely, will be letting fly with some info on the Minis and Flexes, as soon as I can get something I’m happy with.

Matt Hunt says:
on August 23, 2010 at 11:42 am
Thanks for that, dumb question but I am guessing the heads are fairly well zoomed out for this e.g. you’re not at 35mm zoom on the flash heads? From the pictures above it has to go..25-30 feet to actually reach the subject? Or, are they firing at nigh on full power?

Tx, Matt

It’s actually a really good question, and the answer might be a bit surprising. I leave the dome diffusers on, and consequently, the heads zoomed wide, so the effect in there is a bit bare tube-ish. In fact, when I use bigger flash heads in this fashion, I generally don’t put reflector pans on them. I want radiance, not direction. Now–again, I emphasize, this is just me talking. I’m sure there are folks out there using this technique who have gotten it fine tuned to a degree that they zoom their lights into the v-flats for extra punch, and it works real well. This is just me talking, and at this point in my career, after all the flash exposures I’ve made,  I’ve got about six working synapses left.

Al says:
on August 23, 2010 at 12:34 pm
What are the pro’s/cons of using V-flats versus just bouncing off the rear wall? Seems you would lose less light by bouncing once rather than twice.

Done the straight up wall bounce thing occasionally, to be sure, and it works well. It has a bit more punch and clarity, perhaps. The “ping pong” you play with the light in this technique is softer, but you def. lose light, and hence f-stop.

Hope this is helpful, gang….more tk….

Small Flash into Big Flash: Cheap and Easy

Aug 23

In Lighting at 4:19am

First off, to be square, I swiped this technique from Gilles Bensimon, the legendary fashion shooter. I was invited onto his set in Paris years ago, when I was shooting my first cover for National Geographic. It was an amazing adventure, a story on sight. Can you imagine? It was like being given a grant to simply go be a photographer. It took a year of my life, and I shot about 1500 rolls of Kodachrome.


I was all over the place, from the hi-tech halls of Johns Hopkins’ Wilmer Eye Clinic to the tribal villages of Africa, documenting eyesight, how it works, what can happen when things go wrong and how to fix it.




So what was I doing on a fashion set in Paris? Eye makeup. The beauty of the eye. Gilles was enormously gracious and totally easy about my presence on his set. He said, “You, you have ze best job, ze shooter for ze National Geographeec!” I looked over at him, easy in a director’s chair, sipping espresso and looking over portfolios, just generally awash in impossibly tall, angular fashion models, and I thought, “You, you have ze pretty nice job yourself!”

My pictures from that day never got published, but a much more important thing has stuck with me, as I observed him. He was working a cove type of studio. (Think of an egg, and then cut it in half. You’ve got a cove.) Most photogs place the subject in the cove. But he used the cove as his light source. First, he washed his lights off of V-flats. Their shape collected the flash and bounced it backwards into the continuous white curves of the cove, which then pushed it forward and deposited it on his model like a giant wave of light. Ping pong with light! Over the years, I’ve occasionally adapted a version of this for small flash lighting, with fairly happy results.




Here’s the thing–you, the shooter, are standing right in the path of all this light, but there is so much of it freight training towards your subject, it doesn’t notice you standing there at all. You don’t throw a shadow, or interrupt the light pattern. But you’re there, right in the middle of your subject’s eye.


It’s really nice light, done easily, either manually or TTL. The key is the foam core boards. Black on one side, white on the other.  You need 4 of ’em, to make 2 V-flats. Strip the vertical edges of the boards together, and voila, you’ve got V-flats. They are incredibly versatile around the studio as cutters, flags, bounce boards, background lights, and, as light sources.

To do this type of light, you don’t need a cove, thankfully, ’cause I sure ain’t got one. All you need is a white wall. Here’s what the set looks like.


And another view.


I’ve got two small flashes into each V. (You can easily do it with one apiece.) Keep the flashes above your subject’s eye line. The light will look and feel more natural. Cool thing? See my commander flash hot-shoed to the camera? This is one of those rare instances I use the hot shoe master as both a master and a flash. It is pointing directly back at the wall with the others, commanding them, but also adding a bit of pop. (It tends to be a little punchier than the feel of the units in the v-flats, because it is only bounced once.) The other fillip you can introduce is what you see Mike Cali doing in both of the above production pix. He is holding another light (in another group) and bouncing it off the white seamless paper on the floor. This gives another, sort of fashion-y dimension to the light scheme. A little low fill. Just a spark.

Other things to look for? Don’t get your subject too far away from you. If the light has to travel a real long ways, it will get harder by the time it hits them. You can also do this with big flash. Same deal. In fact, at the recent workshops we interchanged this approach back and forth a fair amount, so I really lost track of what face was photographed with big light or small light, the quality is so similar.

So, to recap. The V-flats are oriented vertically, taped together at the edges. The V opens back onto a white wall, or seamless. Put one or two small flashes into the V. (And I mean into it. Not outside of it, you’ll get hard spill jumping around the set.) Run these as a main light source, for instance, Group A. On camera speed light is Group M, active as a flash, and a commander. The low floor bounce becomes Group B, if you choose to use it. You can dial the groups up or down as you see fit, depending on the feel of the light.

It works. It looks and feels like daylight, and a lot of it. The ricochet aspect of this light pattern allow the small flash to get big off the v-flat, and then get even bigger off the white wall. The multiple units create possibilities for healthy f-stop, though, as I said, you don’t need lots of speed lights to try this. It works well with minimal gear, and minimal f-stop. Below is Numnuts at work.


More tk…..