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Photo Shopping in Beijing

May 31

In In The Field at 4:05am


I traveled dangerously light to Beijing, gear wise. I knew I was heading into a bigger project than I had anticipated, but by the time I knew that, I was locked into a tourist visa, and the carnet was set. So whatever was listed there was what was coming. Nothing more.

Took in one D800E. Lenses were standard issue 14-24, 24-70, 70-200. On the exotic side, I took in my ancient 28 f1.4, a 35 f1.4, and an 85 f1.4. Done. My other camera was a (gulp) film camera, a Fuji pano, with a 40mm lens. I also had a little rangefinder, for wandering neighborhoods, which has not happened.

Not a recommended pack, truth be told, but I knew if the D800 went down, I could borrow some sort of Nikon here. So far, so good. One day of assigning to go, and everything has worked, though I did crack the viewfinder in the pano camera. Sigh.

Other stuff. Three SB-910 units, two Justin clamps, two PW PlusX units with cords, Lastolite micro speed light soft box, and an 8 in 1 umbrella, which just did squeeze into my suitcase. No light stands, or big shapers. No tripod. Three Iosafe external drives, cords, chargers, Lexar cards, readers, international power strip. The ever present Think Tank roller, and a Guru Gear backpack. Advil. Sunblock.

Given the new parameters of the production job I was facing, I recommended lighting to my client, citing a Profoto distributor here I hoped they would reach out to. They instead, unannounced to me, went out a bought a bunch of stuff, and sent it to my hotel room to make sense out of. There were some good things, like an Elinchrom Ranger, and a 59″ Rotilux soft box. And a super boom, two stands of undetermined origin, no umbrellas, a small soft box with a Hensel adapter ring (that stayed in the box), a couple Manfrotto super clamps, which have gone unused, a pretty funky, spring loaded c-stand, and that’s about it. How to make all this work together as a coherent field kit?

Shopping! I went to this huge building, bulging with photo shops, called Wukesong. For three straight days, I was everybody’s darling in there. The amount of gear dripping from the walls in these bustling little shops is impressive, if strange of name.

First thing I did was purchase a couple of big rolling cases to go into the field with. My client did a smart thing, buying gear, but did not connect with the fact that you can’t take it in the manufacturer’s boxes onto location. Got two of the biggest rollers I could find. No names on the cases. Got two incredibly cheap umbrellas, a big reflective, and a smaller shoot thru. Grabbed a sizable beauty dish, and blessedly, found an Elinchrom coupler for it.

Dukes, a Beijing based writer/shooter, loaned me his Induro tripod, and I managed to find two camera plates for it. Gels? I found a sheet of “3200” in a shop that is the strangest shade of tungsten I’ve ever seen. Grabbed a generic reflector pan, as, strangely, the Ranger kit came without one. I had one sync cord that did come with the kit, and it has hung in there. Dukes also loaned me a circular reflector/diffuser that’s about two feet across.

But, my biggest problem was syncing with the Ranger pack. I had two PW units, but no way to plug them in, and there wasn’t a hope at Wukesong of finding PW to Elinchrom cords. I could have brought mine, but had no idea this was the lighting kit I would be presented with. So, I’ve simply been old school about it, hard wiring camera to pack when I can, and then radio triggering to an SB, clamped to the stand by the pack, and firing into the slave eye at low power. Rube Goldberg-esque, but it works.

Our Temple of Heaven day was typical, in that almost all the pieces came into play. We started in early morning  with a not great but not  bad quality of available light, and worked our way through beauty dish with a reflector, beauty dish with SB fill, beauty dish without diffuser sock, big reflected umbrella with two speed lights on TTL, and then, finally, good sunset light. We had two hours in the am with the monument pretty much to ourselves, and then two hours in the late afternoon, so we had to move fast. Stood down in the middle of the day, as the models would have been cooked in these gowns in the Beijing heat, and the Temple of Heaven is just chock-a-block with folks during the day. Many thanks to the supervisor who arranged all this! I met him, and thought, what a cool business card this dude must have: Supervisor, Temple of Heaven.

More tk….






Laura says:

on May 31, 2013 at 4:48 am

The array of gear you cited is mind boggling. This post is a great example of quick thinking, working with what you have and making the best of what could have been a difficult situation. These are the intangible qualities that great photographers carry in their “mental” gear bag. What was most impressive is getting the shot of the woman in front of the Temple of Heaven without any other people around! BTW, that is a fantastic image!

Jakob Gronkjaer says:

on May 31, 2013 at 7:25 am

Stunning stunning work Joe. Even with the randomness thrown at you, you come out with stuff I still only dare to dream of. Love the first shot in the series – was that pure wind power or was there some other power at work here?

Thanks for sharing! :)

John A. says:

on May 31, 2013 at 7:42 am

Beautiful shots Joe! I love the one at the top of the post, at first glance her gown appears to be water… just gorgeous!

I hope you share more from this trip, I love reading about how you piece together things under less than ideal situations. Your experiences often humbles me and makes my little problems with various shoots seem vastly inferior and whiny.

Did you ever feel like you were being harassed by the law or any other umm.. folks? Shooting in China seems exciting but a tad bit scary too.

Joe McNally says:

on May 31, 2013 at 8:17 am

Hi John…many thanks. No, no worries on the harassment front. Everything’s been cool…..

Joe McNally says:

on May 31, 2013 at 8:18 am

Really just the wind, Jakob, and the model throwing her arm sort of up and into the air…..all best, Joe

Allie L. says:

on May 31, 2013 at 8:20 am

You’re shooting fashion but in your own McNally Style… And in FULL DAYLIGHT — you must have had some power to overtake the sun in a couple of those… but… the billowing fabric… it looks bright out… how did you even DO that?

More mysterious — how did you land this client? I can imagine (quite jealously, ok, i’ll admit) that the fee must have been verrrrry good.

Although let’s admit it — you absolutely deserve it — you deliver.

Dubai, Nigeria, China, California?, Connecticut, New York. Mind boggling.

Jeff Chen says:

on May 31, 2013 at 8:49 am

Joe, you have a huge follower base in China. They call you the Gid of flashlights. If they know your next shoot local, you would be surrounded by a big crowd waiting for you to sign your translated books.

Good luck with your Beijing trip.


David Campbell says:

on May 31, 2013 at 9:17 am

That first shot is just stunning. I spent several minutes just taking it in and studying it. And to think it was done MacGyver style. There, but for the lack of talent and beautiful Asian models, go I…

Darren Elias says:

on May 31, 2013 at 9:23 am

Gorgeous, Joe. Absolutely gorgeous. Do you have any behind the scenes shots on how you lit any of these particular images (ahem, maybe in a new book)? Thanks again for sharing!


Donfer says:

on May 31, 2013 at 10:03 am

Amazing !

Thierry Dehove says:

on May 31, 2013 at 10:04 am

Wow… love as well the first image… inspiring as always Joe

Frank Burch says:

on May 31, 2013 at 10:09 am

Beautiful shots Joe, can’t wait to see more. It doesn’t sound like you’ll be taking the models to the Great Wall. Pity, those gorgeous girls and flowing gowns would look spectacular against the backdrop of the Wall and the mountains.

Wukesong is such a great find! I’ve spent way too many idle hours wandering it’s halls and marveling at the shear volume of equipment. Now I want to see a picture of you eating a scorpion on a stick!

Justin says:

on May 31, 2013 at 10:10 am

Hey Joe! Please never stop shooting and sharing. Your work is timeless and always interesting. Thanks for the inspiration!

@_JimmyMack says:

on May 31, 2013 at 10:14 am

Awesome shots Joe! How do you make it all happen? ..As far as finding models & locations at which you can set up equipment and shoot? I always wanna do shoots like that when I travel, and not be limited to only doing street photography..

owen says:

on May 31, 2013 at 10:23 am

welcome to Beijing.
Have fun.

Brian says:

on May 31, 2013 at 10:33 am

@John A., shooting on the east coast of China isn’t a big deal unless you start pointing the camera at government buildings and plice (Even then if you act like a tourist, it’s no biggie). The average hobbyist in Beijing probably has more camera gear than all of us combined!

Great shots, Joe.

owen says:

on May 31, 2013 at 10:42 am

How long will you stay in Beijing?There are so many fans of you.
You can borrow reflector/diffuser from the funs.
We shall be very pleased to help you.

Johan Rosen says:

on May 31, 2013 at 10:46 am

Yeah Wukesong is the place to get all your stuff, easier than bringing it with you and a lot cheaper…
Great work, there´s a lot of cool places to shoot in Beijing. Looking forward to see some more.
Have fun.

Lesli DeVeau says:

on May 31, 2013 at 10:46 am

Joe, I love these pics. I also love that you aren’t afraid of a deep blue sky! I know that seems random, given the beautiful models and the pics you took. As a beginner photographer, I have had advice from exp photogs that say I should shoot early morning or late evening. I have a Yosemite shot w that deep blue sky, I thought was beautiful and was told it’s too cold or harsh… because I shot it mid day. Do you think it’s just fun to take pictures w/o worrying about the time of day? Do you tell Mr. Pelican sitting on the pier rail w the city scape right side, ocean left side, come back at sunset so I can get a better shot of you! lol…

Thanks for sharing info, it makes me dream!

Janet racy says:

on May 31, 2013 at 10:51 am

Spectacular and beyond….Want to buy the first image With much love to you Annie and Lynn

Lei Wang says:

on May 31, 2013 at 10:56 am

I’m the translator of the Chinese edition of Sketching Light,welcome to Beijing China,and enjoy the days in this lovely city of friendship and history. My cellphone 13601174599

Joe McNally says:

on May 31, 2013 at 11:01 am

I learned from the best, Janet—you!

Fadi Kelada says:

on May 31, 2013 at 11:22 am

Hi Joe,
Can’t find the proper words to describe the beauty of the images above.
Very inspiring as usual and hope we can see more of those photos.
Thank you, Joe for sharing. Have safe trips!
All the Best!

David Helms says:

on May 31, 2013 at 11:44 am

I travel China the latter 3 years for a Giant Chemical Company based here in the U.S. they people there were always amazingly nice. Was never hassled by anyone. Glad to see some “Blue” skies as they did appear very often in Beijing…. Get some of the deep fried Jelly Fish….. Try it……You’ll Like It!

PeteTsai says:

on May 31, 2013 at 11:49 am

Fabulous images Joe, that first shot is killer! I’m so jealous as I just got back from an assignment out there and was dying to make some portraits out there at Temple of Heaven and Summer Palace. I’m going back in three weeks for more, but sadly we’ve been doing studio shooting. Its interesting that you seem to have had the same experiences we’ve had with regard to acquisition of pro gear out there. I’m hoping this trip we’ll get to see some of the real Beijing as time didn’t allow for that last trip.

Tonia says:

on May 31, 2013 at 11:57 am

Aaaaaaaaaaaah, your work always fascinates me. I’m so glad that you travel the globe and get to expose us to all of the great workings of your mind, work flow and awe inspiring photography! Thank you.

Kees Bennema says:

on May 31, 2013 at 12:11 pm

I was in Wukesong in 2011, looking for replacement battery chargers for Leica and Ricoh. Try explaning that…

Dilip says:

on May 31, 2013 at 1:07 pm

Woke me up in the middle of the night. Heavenly great series!

Rodney says:

on May 31, 2013 at 3:37 pm

Especially love the first photo, such a great balance of motion and still…ness! Was that a rear curtain sync thing?

Thami says:

on May 31, 2013 at 5:12 pm

Joe amazing does not even begin to describe your work I am a fanatic , cannot wait to attend your workshop in South Africa.


Nikolay says:

on May 31, 2013 at 6:26 pm

The first image is just gorgeous, it is so nice when there is an extra spice added to the image like this lovely motion blur on the moving part of the models dress.
Joe I was thinking that China also is associated with very nice and traditional floral gardens, it may be an idea if you can get permission to shoot one photo session in some nice local garden. I think that the models with their styling will fit well in such location.

Joe Ethridge says:

on May 31, 2013 at 7:03 pm

Photographer, blogger, master of light, nice guy, genius, and dork. What a combination. Thanks for sharing Joe.

Jazmin Miranda says:

on May 31, 2013 at 7:34 pm

I couldn’t read through all that gear but as usual you did an amazing job. Love the last image, such an elegant and beautiful photo.

Frank Doorhof says:

on June 1, 2013 at 1:52 am

Great story and indeed IMPRESSIVE business card 😉
Love the shots, but that first shot is just amazing, wow.

Gil says:

on June 1, 2013 at 1:55 am

Joe you are the best, nothing more to say. The first photo is just awesome!

Hennie says:

on June 1, 2013 at 2:21 am

Almost everything I know about Nikon’s CLS is what I have learned from reading your books and applying it to my style of photography. Joe, you are the Guru of off camera lighting!

Brian Fett says:

on June 1, 2013 at 8:39 am

Wonderful photos Joe. I have had the pleasure of visiting Beijing in 2001 before I was into photography. The city has some beautiful places and I always felt 100% safe. In my several trips to China since I have never been harassed or bothered even while slinging a large camera.

keep up the good work!

bohemira says:

on June 1, 2013 at 9:47 am

Beautiful images, Jo. Wish I can be your assistance, so that I can learn more from you. I’m a big fan of you… 😀

David says:

on June 2, 2013 at 9:52 pm

Sounds like it all went well! I’m glad to hear that the D800E and the nikon trinity treated you well!

Jim Metzger says:

on June 3, 2013 at 7:56 pm

Hobby could have done this with 2 Vivitar 285’s and some lamp cord!

Still shattering the boundaries, always an inspiration.

We miss you at the Hasting Center diner.

don says:

on June 4, 2013 at 12:49 pm

Joe, the gods were smiling down on you (and why not? you’re at the Temple of Heaven, after all…), delivering a clear, blue Beijing sky that is as rare these days as the days are long.

Awesome images.

Jerome Yeats says:

on June 4, 2013 at 7:36 pm

Dear Mr McNally,
The first image is good but the third image with the model with outstretched arms is IMO the best. Thanks for sharing. Jerome Yeats

Tom Li says:

on June 6, 2013 at 8:36 am

Dear JOE
I’ve read your books, both of them, amazing!Really!And I’ve learnt a lot from you. Now I’m going to take picture for magazine cover, this is my first step of being a photographer just like you, I know I’m not good enough, but I’m keep improving myself. I don’t know if you have chance to come to Hangzhou China, then i can make friend with you ^_^

Patrik Lindgren says:

on June 7, 2013 at 1:27 am

Well described, this could very well be the sort of things that a photographer could be facing on set. But experience and routine works in all sorts of ways, and you got loads of experience in your bag. :)
Great images nonetheless!

Rob Kromatica says:

on June 7, 2013 at 6:02 pm

Great shoots Joe, you’re mi photo hero!!! the first photo is incredible!!!

Iden Ford says:

on June 12, 2013 at 9:51 pm

I agree with Frank. Shot number one is spectacular. But from a composition POV theyre all out of this world.
Can you get any better? Sheesh, just amazing stuff. Congrats

Filip Kowalkowski says:

on June 21, 2013 at 10:04 am

First image blew my mind! That’s why I love photography so much and it has the distinctive ‘McNally stamp’ on it you can just tell it was shot by you. Always inspiring photographer.

Nicholas says:

on June 25, 2013 at 1:45 am

Hi Joe,
I’m a China based photographer and a fan of yours. Production, equipment, visa and location shooting in china can really be tricky. Here it’s Murphy’s Law to the 9th power. If you know where to go or who to reach out to here its a big help. Feel free to drop an email if your rolling through another time and need some help. BTW, great photos!

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