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Sep 24

In In The Field, Lighting at 7:10am

Photogs, well, at least certain photogs, are legendary screamers, right? They get upset when things go wrong, and things always go wrong, so stories about on set grouchiness abound. We’ve all, I’m sure, heard about the prima donna shooter, male or female, who explodes on the set when the latte’s not the right temperature, or missing the nutmeg flakes on the hot foam. There are also the divas, the ones who look disdainfully about and tell the crew, “Give me God’s light!” and then retire to the location vehicle for, uh, extra-curricular activities. Then of course there are the unprepared, those who blow a gasket about stuff that should have been fixed and set before the airplane tickets were bought.

You have to pray for patience on most photo shoots and try not to reach, screaming, for the eject handle. One mildly amusing story came years ago from an assistant to a somewhat vociferous, overlarge photog, who got his comeuppance after badgering the location help for days on end. Seems his size made him a bit tippy, and he was in the waves, trying to get an over/under shot, with a housing. You’ve seen these pix, with the camera half out, half in the water. (They’re on the cover of, you know, Field and Stream all the time, with the hapless mackerel straining for the deep, and the triumphant fisherman, rod bowed like hairpin turn on the Pacific Coast Highway, fighting to board him. I always feel bad for the fish, and have consoled myself by figuring it’s gotta be mechanical, ’cause I can’t figure out for the life of me how they do that stuff.)

Oh, well, back to the waves. This photog insisted to his assistants that they literally lash him to a dock piling to stabilize him and the camera. Which they did. When he finished the shot, he handed the camera up, and waited to be untied. Whereupon his beleaguered assistants waltzed away, down the pier, got themselves drinks with big umbrellas in them, and watched the tide come in. Turtle like, literally pinned to the piling like a butterfly specimen, he had no recourse but to wait to be released at their discretion. He didn’t scream so loudly after that.

I tend not to be a screamer. I suffer the slings and arrows of location photography with relative equanimity. That’s not me giving myself absolution, by the way. I’ve said and done stupid stuff, been a jerk-brained idiot, yelled at people, mostly myself, punched walls, sometimes with my head, literally bloodying myself out of rage and frustration. But, most of the time, I’m pretty calm. The bigger the problem, the calmer I get. Little stuff still can make me nuts. Big stuff, well, figuring that out gets too interesting to get mad about.

I was determined to do a re-shoot of a portrait for a friend I had messed up on. I blew a picture. Big news there, huh? But, you know, it’s not the ones you get that populate your dreams. It’s the ones you miss. Needless to say, my dreams are very full, and colorful. I’m actually glad I don’t remember most of them.

We were on location early on one of those amazing Montana mornings, where the sunrise is a piece of heaven you can actually shoot. Light drenched, with panoramic skies just rolling out an endless carpet of color, it could have made a country boy out of this city kid right then and there, at least momentarily.

Of course, I got shit. If I don’t anchor my frame with a human being, I am frequently lost. So I turned to my friend and fellow photog, Kevin Dobler, who’s a quintessential good guy, and a very fine shooter. This magnificent dawn occurred on the road outside his family’s ranch, which I know is a very special, emotional place for him. I offered to do his picture with the road and sky meeting in vast Montana distance. It was not a good effort. No fault of Kevin. Totally my fault back at the camera. I couldn’t get a feel for the frame, as sometimes happens. I finished bothering him with my clicking, and he was happy enough, but I wasn’t. In my head, as I often do, I made a check mark, looked at the land and the light, and thought, okay, next time I’ll get you.

The next time was about two years later, and I had been chewing on doing this again for a while. (I’m a real water under the bridge kind of guy.) I planned it out in my head. I was going to make a special effort, with an Elinchrom Ranger, a 74′ Octa, c-stand, the whole business. A full blown, big flash, one light character driven portrait of the man and the land.

Drew and I went through a checklist of gear the night before. But the next morning, when Drew, a really good shooter, and a formidably capable first assistant, came to me with that, you know, look, I knew something was awry. Out on that frozen road, he looked at me sheepishly, and said, well, we got the Ranger pack, we just don’t have the Ranger head.

Okay, then, at least we don’t need a sandbag for that big light, ’cause that’s what that Ranger pack just became! Stay cool, and think. I wanted the big Octa feel of the light, and I wanted to shoot B&W. This particular morning was Montana on mute, not the riot of color of last time. How ’bout merging big flash and small flash?

I had never put SB units inside the big Octa, but there’s always a first time. We quickly performed impromptu surgery on the guts of the Octa, gaffering, clamping, and otherwise festooning it’s speed ring and ribs with a total of four hot shoe flashes. I did quick math. At full power, they can put out roughly 60 watt seconds. Four would give me a pretty good push of light at max. I couldn’t shoot fast, or much, but, I could shoot. I had a couple SC-29 cords with me, so I could run another light off the camera and actually inside the Octa. That SB unit became both a flash and a commander.

Okay, all lights at manual 1/1 power. No TTL nuance, or letting the little darlings decide things all on their own. I dragged my shutter all the way to 1/20th, and wrangled (hey, I’m shooting in cow country) f13 out of the lights. A mix of ambient and flash to be sure, but with enough declarative flash pop to edge Kevin’s rugged face. I went to monochrome, and a 5:4 aspect ratio on my D3X, and shot with a 24-70, racked to 32 millimeters. I tried long lens but that didn’t work so well. The middle-ish wide angle aspects of this make the road feel like it goes forever, which in Montana, they do. Kevin is the anchor for the frame up front.

What did I lose doing it this way? Well, I lost about 700 or so watt seconds, which limited my flexibility, for sure. At 1/200th of a second (max flash sync speed for Nikon with a third party power pack) with the Ranger at full bore, I could have made that Montana country road look as dark as a Manhattan night club. But that wasn’t my intent. I had to do a more delicate dance with the ratios of ambient to flash, given the limited power supply, but that balance was where I was headed aesthetically, anyway. How do you know when you have the right mix in a situation like this?

You just know. Hate to be inconclusive, but this becomes a matter of taste. A good guideline is often to work your flash up to a value that is one stop over the ambient conditions. Thus when you expose for that flash value, you automatically have subdued the background somewhat. But that is a general, and generally breakable, rule out there in the world. Once you have the frame and the values dialed in, ballpark-wise, it becomes a matter of personal taste, and what is possible technically. Here, I had just enough flash to give the photo a look. And if I told you this was a Ranger head and pack inside that Octa instead of a bunch of ragtag small flashes, you’d believe me, ’cause the look of that light is definitely smooth, like you would expect out of a 74″ source.

Misses don’t have to be forever. Keep a rolodex of failures in your head. (I’ve got an unfortunately large rolodex!) They inform your conduct in the field, always. And sometimes, you can go back and fix ’em, even just a little. And try to think, not scream.

More tk….

DQ says:

on September 24, 2012 at 7:42 am

Thanks, Joe, AS ALWAYS.

those of us who don’t have octa’s can get very similar results from one speed light, i’d argue.
My lower budget method, dictated only by economics, I’m afraid, is to shoot a speed light through a small umbrella, and then have it punch through a large translucent disc held just out of frame on a stand or by an assistant.

pocket-wizard controlled, on manual, helps to have an outboard battery for recycle.

Yes, it would be nice to accomplish that with an octa and heavy firepower (though not in your case this time around,) but the umbrella through the disk provides an AWFULLY LOVELY (if i may) light.

Please don’t scream at me for chiming in. I’ve heard you can be horrid (no, actually, I haven’t.)

Roger Botting says:

on September 24, 2012 at 8:05 am

Stupid mistakes R us. Like the time I forgot to bring the rail for the Sinar to a shoot. Fortunatley the weather turned while looking in the car for the rail. Came back another day and did get a proper shoot.

Michael Lebowitz says:

on September 24, 2012 at 8:17 am

This is one the very special posts…Thanks Joe. Maybe one day you can post the one about how you shoot wrong handed/wrongeyed for stability when you need a tri pod and don’t have one.

Always learn something when I read your stuff.

Patrik Lindgren says:

on September 24, 2012 at 8:40 am

That was a good, as always, and very entertaining read about all sorts of shooters out there. A humble tip to the screamers, from a non-screaming photographer: start shooting in space.
I’m gonna use a famous quote: In space nobody can hear you scream.


JerseyStyle Photography says:

on September 24, 2012 at 9:00 am

“…when the latte’s not the right temperature or missing the nutmeg flakes on the hot foam…”…or there’s not JW Blue in the glass :-)

Joe, why go B&W here? Because Montana was on mute or that’s just want you had in your head?

And my rolodex of misses is about the size and thickness of a Physician’s Desk Reference book. ~ Mark

Paul Papanek says:

on September 24, 2012 at 9:23 am

As aways, Joe, great insight. I just took my SC-29 cord out of my bag yesterday, having convinced myself that wouldn’t need it for an upcoming job in Cabo. It’s going back in this morning.

Having grown up in TV commercial production, I’ve also had to endure my fair share of screamers. One thing I’ve learned in the 28 years I’ve been in the biz is that habitual screaming from the person in charge is not often a prelude to creative problem solving on the part of the screamer.

Again, great post!


Paul Papanek says:

on September 24, 2012 at 9:28 am

Oh – one question: why a max sync of 1/200th with 3rd-party packs? I’m pretty sure that I’ve used my Quadras at 1/250th…


Gary Dumbauld says:

on September 24, 2012 at 9:29 am

Joe, thank you so much. I often have a disconnect in my head between the “by-the-book” how and why, and the “aesthetic” how-and-why. You always explain things so I get it. You tell a heck of a good story, sir.

DQ says:

on September 24, 2012 at 9:30 am

P.S. : I guess you’d call my seat of the pants solution a workaround as well.

Amryl Malek says:

on September 24, 2012 at 9:39 am

Great story and teaching points!

Tim Skipper says:

on September 24, 2012 at 11:20 am

I have always learned something from you. One of which is staying calm on set or location even if all hell is breaking loose. Such as the time I went to shoot a swimsuit spread for a magazine on the Gulf Coast and forgot to bring a power pack for the strobes. I had HSF with old batteries in them and no store with batteries for miles. Or the time a model for a fashion spread had an outbound flight she had to be on for a major casting call, but the make-up and wardrobe people took up almost forty minutes of the fifty minutes I had. Or…well you get the idea.

Thanks for teaching that at the end of the day we’re just taking pictures, not curing cancer or creating world peace, so its ok to relax and enjoy the ride.

Jerome Yeats says:

on September 24, 2012 at 2:14 pm

Dear Mr McNally,
Why the black and white? You lose all the frost on the road. I would have liked to have seen a shot without the Octa altogether. I Enjoy your work but you must ask if there is any interest there.Its a very bland muddy image on a good Apple monitor.

The photographer should ALWAYS check that the assistant hasn’t screwed up. The photographer is responsible for all his gear being ready and working the night before. I speak as one who has had pack failures more times than I want to remember but the packs worked when they came to the shoot. It’s what being a pro is all about.
Regards Jerome Yeats

Mark Astmann says:

on September 24, 2012 at 5:40 pm

Anyone wondering if Joe beats the snot out of his gear only have to read this post. I wouldn’t be surprised to get the Octa back in the next few weeks with “I don’t know why Mark, but the struts seemed to have given way.” :)

Dennis Pike says:

on September 25, 2012 at 6:31 am

I could read stories like this all day. I’m so glad you post them. ya know, you should write a book…. oh wait.

It gives some of us younger guys trying to make our way in this big scary world of photography some hope and solace. Solace that guys like you still make mistakes, still have trouble, still can’t seem to make a good frame even when everything should be on your side.

I’ve learned so much from you, learned to keep working through problems, learned to feel out situations and find pictures even when I’ve crashed and burned many times over.

Thanks, Joe

Pierre says:

on September 25, 2012 at 7:22 am

Good preperation is half the job. Been learning the hard way myself.
Thanks Joe, for the fun read.
Now get me my cappuccino 😉

Andy says:

on September 25, 2012 at 7:50 am

Love these walkthroughs.

Only Q: why was the Octa so far from Kevin in the setup shot? Did you move it closer for the final? Don’t understand (given your composition on the final) why you needed to back up so far.

But then there are many things I don’t understand…

David Glazebrook says:

on September 25, 2012 at 8:16 am

mmmm … big rolodex …. a euphemism Joe? 😉 Hope your keeping well … all the best from Sydney.

Mike Neale says:

on September 25, 2012 at 11:14 am

“We don’t correct the man we hang,…we teach others.”!

When I see a slug, slowing location production,…we have a routine we call, (ACT 1),…I scream once at my Grip,…(rehearsed in advance),…end of problem!,…;-))

( ( ( Thanks for sharing, JOE! ) ) )


Brian Mittelstaedt says:

on September 25, 2012 at 2:28 pm

It sounds like a great new small strobe accessory in the making – multi-flash bracket that attaches to the speedring of an Octa or other softbox.

Thanks for the story and perspective on keeping cool.

Richard Kimbrough says:

on September 25, 2012 at 6:47 pm

First of all, it was great seeing you in Phoenix the other day. Sorry about the glare on the glasses 😉 Had a great time listening your your stories, including the one about the guy in the ocean.

The second story sounds a lot like something that happened to me this weekend. I was going to shoot a friend’s art car at an event, but found when I hooked my inverter and battery pack up to my Alien Bee that I couldn’t pull enough juice to get it to recharge at more than 1/32 power. Got around that by actually running an extension cord to a full size generator inside the subject car. That gave me my light, but unfortunately the surroundings were a bit busy to really make me happy with the shot.

Luckily I had a chance for a redo the next morning when I saw the car drive up a dirt road to a great location overlooking a valley. I ran the 1/2 mile up the hill to catch the car but the light wasn’t quite what I wanted, so we ran down the hill and I came back with my BIG PLM umbrella and a whole pelican case full of lighting stuff so I wouldn’t forget anything. Went to set up and found that all 10 pocket wizards were back at camp in my camera bag. Oops. The sun was coming out and scaring off the clouds so figured it was time to improvise. I ended up using two music CDs to bounce the light from my built in flash to the optical slave sensor on the camera. Even though I was shooting from behind and to the side of a 6 foot black umbrella we managed to play pool with the light and bank it around the corner to set off the flash. Had we gone back for the right equipment the light would have been gone, but by staying calm and improvising I was able to get a shot much closer to what I had in my head the day before.

When it comes to on location shooting, it often seems the workarounds are almost standard. Being able to think outside the box can save an otherwise doomed shoot.

Here is the shot I got. Not perfect, but a lot better than the one the day before.

Frank Doorhof says:

on September 28, 2012 at 1:28 am

Good to hear that in not The only one forgetting things, at the beginning of a shoot I was in shock to find out I forgot the trigger for the ranger, but I luckily brought a quadra as spare and since they have the skyports build in I used the quadra on top of the ranger to trigger the ranger…… Now explain that to your client without loosing face 😉 piggybacking the quadra on top of the ranger does look really weird.

Love the shot and I think B&W suits it very well

Dominic says:

on September 28, 2012 at 3:49 pm

Great story both emotionally and technically. I always feel like I’m right there with you. WWJMD (What Would Joe McNally Do?) is fast becoming my mantra.

I’m coming back to your blog after a few years away and it’s just as awesome as when it started (I’m sorry I left you, I don’t know what I was doing, forgive me!). I came back because I’m nearly finished The Hot Shoe Diaries. Wow. Just wow man.

Your humility, the way you are able to compress your experience into yummy chewable bites and your willingness to experiment would be enough to make it a great book. But nothing prepared me for how damn funny it is. It really is a joy to read and made me laugh out loud every other page. I wish you weren’t so good at it because now I really want to meet you and you are famous. I’m coming to a workshop though, it’s gonna happen.

Thank you so much for taking the risks you did as both a photographer and an author. Like all wonderful books, it is a present I can open again and again.

PS. I make awesome pancakes from scratch.

Keith Winsor says:

on September 29, 2012 at 10:34 pm

Workarounds are a big part of what makes a pro a pro, there are always going to be battery failures, missing pieces that we need. Not to mention the disasters, try storing your gear overnight at a locked secure wharehouse on a sunday night and shooting a magazine feature tuesday morning, oh did I mention the fire Monday morning , total loss!
In the end the adversity that we encounter makes us who we are. The obstacles make us better , stronger.

Great article Joe

bronney says:

on October 1, 2012 at 11:49 am


When I need a break from touching up photos at home, I always come to your blog. It’s refreshing to read your stuff and forget all the technical details that bubble in our heads. Very refreshing.

And I know exactly what you mean by not remembering the dreams. They’re gorgeous and unpossible to do in real life.

AndyB says:

on October 9, 2012 at 11:25 am

Great memories Joe. I was actually on that very same road with you and Moose Peterson 2 years ago at his DLWS in Bozeman. Learned a lot and a great time with everyone. Thanks for the lessons and keep up the great work!

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