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Amazing Manila…..

Mar 14

In Equipment, Lighting, On Location at 4:46am

When I went to the Philippines earlier this year, my friend and fellow shooter JoJo Mamangun contacted me. Would I like to work with his wife, Kris, a ballerina and Cirque du Soleil dancer? I think I simply wrote back something like, “En route.” As luck would have it, she was rehearsing for the role of Titania in Midsummer Night’s Dream for Ballet Philippines.

Screen shot of Kris-Belle Paclibar-Mamangun, dancing as Titania. Picture shot by her husband, JoJo Mamangun.

While there I also wanted to come up with some pix that were distinctly Filipino. From my first visit some years ago, I fell in love with Jeepneys. They are a cross between a classic Jeep and a bus, and thousands of them ply the streets of Manila everyday. They are privately owned, so there’s no one Jeepney quite like another. Some are crusty, working vehicles. Others are the technicolor dreams of their drivers set to wheels, festooned with decals, ads, sponsor logos, skulls, mascots of American sports teams, slogans, images of the Virgin Mary, you name it. A rough equivalent would be a NASCAR that moves slow and carries passengers.

I was wrestling with the notion of working a Jeepney into a picture when JoJo mentioned that Kris was 4’11’. I thought for a moment. And the phrase, “hood ornament” came to mind. The elements came together rapidly: The Jeepney, the dancer costumed as a fairy, and an urban Manila street scene. Not to mention a sublime makeup artist/stylist in Barbara Bennett, who can spin a costume out of her brain in short order.

Forget shooting a pic like this at midday in Manila. The tropical sun just bakes your pixels and your brain. We used the bad light to scout a good location, got hooked up with a local security patrol, and waited out the sun. When we were edging towards good light, we rolled the Jeepney into position. Right in the middle of the street. Unobtrusive we were not.  This is what it looked like to start. Then we got to the lighting.

When you’re thinking about spreading some lighting around the streets, anywhere, it’s best to think of it in pieces, and take it a step at a time. Don’t think about the whole thing, and lighting all at once. Put up a light, check it out. See where you’ve goofed. Hopefully, fix it and check again.

Light the dancer first. Her light is an Elinchrom Quadra flash, firing into an indirect 59′ softbox, from camera left. I went with a big source as it’s a wide picture, and the light has to be far away. But, even from that distance, the indirectness and size of the box still conferred good, soft, directional light on my subject. It rests on a C-stand fitted with a mini-boom. A pile of discarded bags of cinder blocks dumped in front of a construction site sufficed for sand bags. First piece of the puzzle done.

Below, the talented Milk Mendoza, a Manila based photog and assistant, stands in for Kris.

The Jeepney as light source. In situations like this, when you are shooting wide, and lighting a scene, something actually in the photo often has to be a light source. The Filipino version of Kesey’s Magic Bus was perfectly suited to this purpose. I installed four SB 910 Speedlights in the back passenger area, and one up front in the cab, all gelled full CTO and semi-bounced into the ceiling of the vehicle. Had one wired with a PW3, and the rest fired on SU-4 mode. The glow those lights produced made a great deal of headway lighting the street.


(There are those who will question 5 Speed Lights over one big flash head. Fair question. I would submit that in this instance, spreading the light base with various small sources gave me more control over the reach of the light and the consequent spill of it onto the street. Personal preference. Also, I only had two big heads. So, as always we used the the best lights–the ones we had.)

Backlight the whole deal and then ask the barbecue shop to move their grill up the block near that flash so some smoke would occasionally drift over it to uh, flavor the light. Full CTO on a Quadra in the way back. Raw flash head. Spews all over the street. Livens the scene. Also on a PW3.

Backlight the dancer. SB-910 Justin clamped to the back of the Jeepney roof, zoomed to 200mm, and flared, hard, right at the dancer’s wings. SU-4 triggering mode, firing off the Quadra backlight. This was a concentrated light. Not a full CTO, as I remember. About half CTO.

Taillights! Two SB units, on SU-4 mode, red gelled, and played out onto the street, simulating brake lights.

Make sure you have security.

Because you know you are going to draw a crowd.

Stay focused even though there’s a lot going on around you.

Stash whatever flashes you have left in the shops. Full CTO, full power, SU-4 mode. Bounce into ceilings of the shops, to make them come alive. Work with the shopkeepers to pull any light bulb they have to the front of their shops instead of the back.

Make sure you get a couple’s portrait.

And make sure you take care of the talent.

And, make sure you drive the Jeepney in downtown Manila traffic. Always a bracing experience. Driver let me run the thing back towards the hotel for about twenty minutes. Double clutch, standard H on the floor, rolls in second gear. Non-stop fun.

Shoot the whole scene on a D800E, with 24-70mm lens zoomed to 32mm. 1/25th at F5. Hi res camera to emphasize the details of the costuming. And, we’re done!

Most production pix shot by the excellent Manila photog, Milk Mendoza. Huge thanks to Kris and JoJo, and Barbara Bennett, whose imagination as a makeup artist and stylist is endless. And thanks to the amazingly gracious people in the Filipino photographic community, particularly Edi Huang, who is the grandmother of Filipino photography. Her passion every year puts together Photo World Asia, held in Manila, and she has  created the opportunities I’ve had to visit this amazing city. I was doing a ring flash demo with a model, so I asked her to step in.


What wonderful people. What a gift photography is. More tk….












Dennis Pike says:

on March 14, 2013 at 6:18 am

you, sir, are a wizard.

Leo Viloria says:

on March 14, 2013 at 8:19 am


I am from the Davao City, southern part Philippines, but living here in the US (VA). You should visit our city, especially during Kadayawan Festival (late August), which is a celebration of life, a thanksgiving for the gifts of nature, the wealth of culture, the bounties of harvest and serenity of living (wikileak definition).

Not only good for your type of work but good place to combine business with pleasure. I do not think setting a workshop (I’m an avid fan and have attended one of your workshop here in DC) there will be difficult since a lot of photo enthusiast will surely be interested. I’m sure they will welcome you.

Note: There’s a direct trip from Singapore to Davao so you do not have to fly via Manila.

Thank you,


p.s. If interested I can hook you with up with people that can make it happen.

Joe says:

on March 14, 2013 at 8:34 am

I spent 6 weeks in this beautiful country many years ago. Of course, I was carrying an M-16 and not my Nikon. Thanks for the walk down memory lane…

Bob says:

on March 14, 2013 at 8:46 am

loved it!…many thanks for sharing

Edward Yezekian says:

on March 14, 2013 at 9:12 am

Fantastic! I probably wouldn’t be able to pull this off myself, BUT, if I were AD on this shoot, I would have loved to see this vibrant and warm scene juxtaposed with the ballerina in a white fairy costume, in a completely contrasting pose to the scene (swan princes?)

Gorgeous tho!

Dominik says:

on March 14, 2013 at 10:59 am

Is it just me or is the photo of the assistant on the Jeepney better than the result of the dancer?

James B says:

on March 14, 2013 at 12:41 pm

Joe, my wife hates you! Every time you put up something like this I start talking about needing more speed lights. LOL

Excellent as usual Joe.


Ken says:

on March 14, 2013 at 12:47 pm

A good friend of mine put me on a Jeepney on my first trip to Manila ever about 10 years ago. It was the middle of summer. And it was packed. As a joke he gave me a miniature model of a Jeepney at the airport when I left, which I still have.

Great post and story–love the photos, as always.

Alex Atienza says:

on March 14, 2013 at 1:17 pm

I attended your Telling Stories with Light Seminar at GPP 2013 in Dubai and I remember the resulting photo here as your opening pic of your slideshow. Prior to that I’ve seen some BTS (perhaps a camera phone shot) around social network and I only saw the large octa box.

I didn’t realized that you used 8 speedlites along with 2 big lights and some tungsten bulbs to light this picture . . . AMAZING!! I’m originally from Manila, by the way, but currently lives in Doha, Qatar (just an hour flight from Dubai) which afforded me to attend this year’s GPP. The other lights you used were not so obvious to me because the streets of Manila at night, like the one in your picture, actually looks like that unlit. Really amazing Joe, really amazing :)

cenen says:

on March 14, 2013 at 2:23 pm

Your work and techniques in lighting your subject never ceases to amaze me…… thank you for sharing your fondness with our country and your talent and creativity…. How I wish I can attend one of your workshop to get a hands on experience… am currently in KSA and has no way of attending any of your workshop….

Ken Byrne says:

on March 14, 2013 at 4:17 pm

Ah, Joe…you never fail to amaze all of us photogs who have the pleasure of reading your blog…..someone described you as a wizard, a description with which I agree. I would add to that “A regula guy from da Bronx who’s just been goin’ to wizada school for a really long time and works really hard at learnin’ dis wizard stuff.” Thanks Joe….simply brilliant!

Chris says:

on March 14, 2013 at 4:29 pm

I think the crowd on the street got lots of free entertainment during your shoot, fun to see the BTS photos. Good work!

Kathy Espina says:

on March 14, 2013 at 5:07 pm

This is amazing! I think the `hood ornament’ idea is absolutely brilliant. Sometimes these jeepney drivers would adorn the hood with tin animals that kept on bobbing their heads. So, I wonder how the shot would look if she stood on one leg, arms extended, in a sort of arabesque position and you could see the breadth of the wings like they’re fluttering away… Anyway, I’m babbling. Thanks so much Mr. Mcnally for sharing this jeepney joyride :)

Kristina says:

on March 14, 2013 at 8:40 pm

I love your break downs of your shoots! Every time I read one I am inspired to create my own.

Thank you!

Analia says:

on March 14, 2013 at 11:46 pm

A wonderful work of considered art. As always it was fabulous getting an insight into how you piece these beautiful images. There’s an organic beauty in images created in camera that cannot be equaled by the sea of photoshop lit mages. Thank you for sharing!


Analia :)

Edwin Arceo says:

on March 15, 2013 at 3:08 am

Hey Joe! I watched your interview over at ANC. Its really a thrill to see you here. Too bad I did not had time to join you at PhotoWorld Asia. 8-(

Katarzyna says:

on March 15, 2013 at 5:05 am

I was lucky to meet you in Manila. Thank you for the amazing lectures and demos, it was so inspiring!

KJP Images says:

on March 15, 2013 at 6:17 am

Fantastic image, thanks for sharing. Always great to see how an image is created.

Christopher Campbell says:

on March 15, 2013 at 10:13 am

Joe, I have lived a total of nearly four years in the Philippines. And in a few hours you managed to do stuff that I never would even have thought of. I am convinced there are at least two kinds of photographers: documentary photographers who try to record what is actually there, and fantasy photographers such as yourself. You continually make me ask myself: what sort of mind, asked to photograph a lightbulb for a story on electrical power, would wonder who changes the bulb on top of the Empire State Building. Who would put wings on a basketball player. Or suspend a starlet on a trapeze over the Hollywood sign? You are special, Joe, no question about it.

Gary Jackson says:

on March 15, 2013 at 2:03 pm

Thanks for this post Joe. I haven’t seen a Jeepney since 1970 in Subic Bay. Those and the small motorbikes with sidecars were the only way to get around. I wish I had a picture of my 19 year old 6′ 5″ self hangin in one of those sidecars early in the morning.
Thanks again Joe, great post and very informative as always.

Kid's Photos says:

on March 15, 2013 at 9:13 pm

And here I was thinking that shoot looked pretty simple. I guess I should have seen your setup coming, but I never know what to expect from you.

Jay Paul says:

on March 16, 2013 at 9:23 pm

hello joe did you pay a shooting fee in intramuros?

Cesar Palima says:

on March 18, 2013 at 9:03 pm

Awesome! Thanks for sharing!

Barbara Bennett says:

on March 18, 2013 at 11:09 pm

It was such an honor working with you sir Joe McNAlly,amazing amazing experience,,I hope we can work again someday,,,God Bless you,,:)

Jair Garciaferro says:

on March 19, 2013 at 1:10 am

Many time i have seven your work and every single photo You make i feel it in my bones!
Amazing the first photo above! Love it!

Jair Garciaferro Lajud

Jasper Jomoc says:

on March 19, 2013 at 2:07 am

See you next time Joe! Cheers!

Darragh Casey says:

on March 20, 2013 at 6:26 am

WOW what a wonderful image Joe, great post, thanks for sharing.

Jojo Mamangun says:

on March 22, 2013 at 1:18 am

Joe, it was a great honor to be working with you on this shoot and hanging out with you and Drew for a few days. Till next time. Kris sends her regards.

Simon says:

on March 22, 2013 at 11:14 pm

Only just got around to reading this entry Joe. Awesome stuff as usual – looked like a great time was had in that street.

I’ll bet driving the Jeepney was a bit of fun too. Reminded me of memories of my first car, a 1965 Land Rover with a crash gearbox – just the sort of the thing you’d want to learn to drive in : )

Fotografia Esencial says:

on April 2, 2013 at 9:07 pm

This production is awesome, at first glance I thought 2 or 3 flashes were used for lighting, I,m impressed with the number of speedlights used, each one of them serving its own purpose. Congratulations.

luis says:

on April 9, 2013 at 4:51 pm

overkill for me

Ken Tan says:

on April 17, 2013 at 6:43 pm

Beautiful photograph! LOVING the color, culture and drama in the photograph! All the hardwork and production does pay off!

Voltage220 says:

on April 18, 2013 at 1:19 am

Lighting magic ! Awesome!

Joyce says:

on April 26, 2013 at 10:33 am

“Manila, Manila
Miss you like hell, Manila
No place in the world like Manila…”

Thanks for bringing me back there through this. :)

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