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

Shaping Light, Simply

May 2

In Equipment at 6:53am

Back in January, I did some dance photography for Kelby Online Training, and was really happy with a couple of frames. (Those classes are working their way through the editing system as we speak.)

I’ve shown this on the blog before, a modern dancer, painted with tempura paint, and perched in a bird’s nest of tulle. It was lit with just one TTL flash, camera right, just out of frame. I used a Lastolite Ezybox hot shoe soft box (say that fast a few times) with a white interior, which is a wrinkle on their long existing design of soft boxes with silver clad interiors. It produces, predictably, a softer, more rounded light than the one with the snappy, contrast producing silver box.

Over the years, I’ve offered numerous photo manufacturers some suggestions, some complaints designed as suggestions, notes from the field, and a few WTFs. Most of the time (most of the time) in response to those suggestions, I’ve gotten a polite pat on the head, or potentially a bemused, bewildered smile, followed by a nod and a note that effectively says, “Thanks for playing, we’ll get back to you.” I’m sure all shooters have experienced this when they’ve offered an idea to a magazine, or publisher, or any of the array of powers that be that we routinely appeal to. It’s a bit like dropping a rock down a well. There’s a long period of silence, followed by a distant splash, as the idea makes its way to sleeping with da fishes. (In reality, that’s an appropriate resting ground for some of my nuttier notions.)

But the Lastolite folks, who make an array of light shapers I’ve become fond of, actually took action. I suggested the white interior box some years ago, and their peerless designer, Gary Astill actually made one for me, and then came out on location with me to see the light it produced relative to existing model. His verdict was to start producing the white version. Cool. It was a fun moment, actually. Kind of like being a long time golfer on the pro tour and then getting asked to design a course. (On a much smaller scale:-)

While in Vancouver, I took a day to just mess with light shapers, all of which I had either outright suggested, or had a hand in tweaking, and hopefully, making better. (I’ll write about the others presently.)

I took the white box, (Got my name on the side of it!) and dropped a fabric egg crate into it. The egg crate allows the light to remain softly directional, but it also corrals it, seriously cutting the spill and spread of it onto the set. I needed the light to stick with the model at the front edge of the set, and not drift to the background, which I wanted to remain dark-ish.

Reason being, I was going to try lighting the background with another lighting tool called the Tri-flash. This, too, had been on the market as an effective, small bracket onto which you can affix three hot shoe flashes in a coherent, singular direction. It eliminated the need for multiple sticks, clamps, zip ties, and other jury rig stuff myself and lots of shooters had been messing with to gaggle together multiple speed lights.

But, the cold shoe receptacles were fixed. In other words, for a unit like the SB900, which has light sensor panels only on one side, it automatically made it a tough throw for the commander flash signal to reach them all, especially if you had the three flash rig radically off to the side of the camera POV.

So, I suggested a ratchet. Make the cold shoes spin around 360, and thus enable a better, more unified directionality for the receptacles. They liked the idea, and made it.

For this shot, I did have the Tri-flash way to the side of camera, using it in a somewhat unusual way. Generally I put up a Tri-flash arrangement when I think I’m going to stress just one flash too much, and I want to get faster recycle, spread out the work load among multiple units, and just increase the volume, or surface area of the light. Here, I just pointed them through a couple of cucoloris boards that were hanging around David Cooper’s studio in Vancouver. Here’s the high tech setup.

Uh, bad model, but you get the idea. One light makes one shadow. Three sources of light, all slightly off axis to one another, gives a fuzzy, multiple edge to the shadows it creates. Flying it through the cookie and spraying it on the background gave out a sun dapple kind of effect, albeit not a crisp one, more like one where the leaves are swaying a bit in the breeze. (Actually, given the way the model is dressed and made up, maybe make that moon dapple.)

I ordinarily go for one light, one shadow, so this was in the realm of an experiment, and I’d thought I’d share it. At the end of the day, the light shaper for the background is a couple pieces of cardboard with some irregular holes cut into it, and the Tri-flash based speed lights, all zoomed to the max (200mm) just sprays across them, throwing unpredictable patterns and shapes on the wall. The model does her thing, and she is illuminated solely with the egg crated soft box. Commander flash on the hot shoe, at camera.

The makeup here was done by the wondrous Tamar Ouziel, and we used long time friend David Cooper’s photo studio for the shoot. Thanks go out to them, and Syx Langemann, who helped out on the set. Also thanks to the Lastolite folks, who listened, about these and a couple others I’ll talk about, and went to bat and made them. Even more fair and square, much like a book, I actually get a royalty on these puppies, which is cool. They still haven’t sprung for my idea for the hydraulically powered 22 Speed Lite Lifter, complete with tank treads and a turret, but I’ll work on them.

More tk….

Kostadin Luchansky says:

on May 2, 2012 at 8:01 am

Hi Joe,

Thank you very much for another great post! Above all, thank you for sharing your knowledge and experience on techniques that are so “Joe McNally”, i.e. unique! This article is an instant favorite!

Kind regards from a huge fan and follower!

Don Risi says:

on May 2, 2012 at 8:03 am

Love the post on shaping light. Thought the part about cookies particularly interesting.

David Apeji says:

on May 2, 2012 at 9:04 am

Fabulous! I am going to use this on my next shoot! – With your permission of course.

Matt Welsh says:

on May 2, 2012 at 9:52 am

Awesome as always, Joe. I’ve loved the convenience of the Lastolite Ezybox hot shoe soft box since I saw you use one at a talk you gave – I got one the following week and haven’t looked back since.

Thanks for the instruction and humor…

Kevin Geary says:

on May 2, 2012 at 10:03 am

Love it. So simple with fantastic results.

Joe says:

on May 2, 2012 at 10:12 am

Great post. I’m glad that Lastolite has the good sense to listen to you. You should be their official spokesman. And I love the Tri-flash adapter so much I may have to buy a second one.

Roby says:

on May 2, 2012 at 10:41 am

Doesn’t it make a difference when manufacturers are willing to improve and diversify their equipment? Listening to people who uses their staff on a daily bases is not a weakness!! After all is only thinking out of the box and be open to suggestions that they can enhance and take their gear to the next level!
For the time being I just have to use my imagination and visualize what a 22 Speed Lite Lifter, complete with tank treads and a turret would look like!… But don’t lose hope Joe, the day will come!:-)

Donfer says:

on May 2, 2012 at 12:24 pm

thanks for sharing, Joe !

Bede says:

on May 2, 2012 at 12:58 pm

Thanks for sharing, Joe. I may have to get some cardboard and scissors out this weekend 😉

Shereena says:

on May 2, 2012 at 4:31 pm

I absolutely love your entries, and I’m always breath-taken by the techniques you use and even more so with the outcomes! You’re an inspiration McNally, and a great teacher as well.. Best Regards :)

Simon says:

on May 3, 2012 at 12:37 am

Another great and insightful read – thanks Joe.

I had a great run using the Tri-Flash adapter at a recent wedding – loved it, as did the groom and groomsmen who were all Star Wars fans and were convinced they has seen it in use somewhere in one of the films.

michael anthony murphy says:

on May 4, 2012 at 7:34 am

Awesome. I am in the process of getting my name on some modifiers as well. with a label maker! Lol. Awesome work as usual. love how the cookie was worked in with the background.

Mark Astmann says:

on May 4, 2012 at 3:17 pm

Gary at Lastolite told me that Hobby already asked them about a stealth hydraulically powered 44 Speed Lite Lifter, complete with tank treads and a turret that produces 0 greenhouse gasses. Guess David needs more speeds cause he flashes manually.

WO aka Mark Astmann

Delbensonphotography says:

on May 8, 2012 at 2:20 am

Awesome post! I enjoyed reading the article. I am really impressed of the lighting. This is really a beautiful composition. Truly, an inspiration.

Neil Kemp says:

on May 9, 2012 at 8:32 am

Very cool technique. I think Lastolite are very happy they started listening. We surely are!

Simon Dewey says:

on May 19, 2012 at 8:10 am

Thanks for sharing – there is some truly inspirational work here.

Nomadic Samuel says:

on May 20, 2012 at 10:57 pm

I found this post particularly informative. This shaping light technique is something I’ll have to try.


on May 22, 2012 at 9:54 pm


Taylor Thoenes says:

on May 23, 2012 at 12:15 am

As always, thank you for being so open with how you create your work. I’m 23 and working my way through these first years in the pro world has been all that much easier with you as a mentor. Thanks Joe

Leave a Reply