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

Different Flash, Different Look

Jun 5

In Lighting at 6:11am

Out there in the rainy morning mist, my first instinct was to pop some light. I definitely needed a bit of contrast, but had to be careful because of the white nature of the gown. Between the attire and the background, I was dealing with a pretty monochromatic situation.

So I put up a beauty dish in what I’ve heard Greg Heisler refer to as “standard, regulation beauty dish position.” It was up and over the model, fairly steeply, to camera right. And it did its standard, regulation job. Nice light, mostly collecting around her head and shoulders and then fading down the length of her gown.

But, China being China, where rules are rules, we were pretty much stuck right where we were. Couldn’t really move around. We had permissions, but had already attracted a crowd, along with security personnel, and some of them were, well, wondering about all this.

Especially after I asked Steven, an excellent shooter/assistant who had volunteered for the day, to bring two speed lights running on SU-4 mode on a stand into the lake outside the NCPA. That was cause for consternation for all at hand, but it did give a tiny extra bit of frosting to the gown, if only in these few frames. Funny, Steven, after spending the day in the rain, and getting into the lake, never volunteered again. Last we saw him. Go figure.

We stayed right where we were, in the rain, for at least three hours. I got intrigued by the model’s makeup, and the exquisite nature of her face relative to the outfit, so I killed the Elinchrom and put up a tri-flash bracket into a large (150cm) shoot through umbrella, an incredibly cheap one I had found in Wukesong. I positioned this right close to me and the model, just by my right shoulder, and pulled out fast glass.

Shot this at 1/4000th @ f1.4, with a 35mm Nikkor. Which is a big reason I occasionally defer to small flash over big—the facility of high speed sync, relative to limiting DOF. It’s handy, in a word, and the light is nice, and well, when you’re stuck in the rain in the same spot for a bit, might as well give your client two different looks at the same outfit.

Same rules applied when we went inside, this time working a wide approach, achieving a bit of drama, and then coming in with small lights and an 85mm to mask the fact that both shots were made from spots about 15 feet away from each other.

We ended the day with a quick set with the lovely Bella, who, in the grand tradition of fashion models, texted like crazy in between shots:-)

I have an acquaintance who’s a big time guy in the oil industry, and he has likened what I do as a location shooter to being a wildcatter in the oil bidness. And, he’s pretty much right. Locations are like looking for oil. You just keep drilling through them till you find something, and hopefully, don’t leave till the well’s dry. Trust me, some are dry right from the get go, and that’s a tough day. But there are some locations I’ve been back to repeatedly, literally for ten years or more, and I still can’t find the end of them.

Thanks go out to all the models, hair and makeup, my stalwart client, who obtained all these permissions, and especially to Bo Tao, the designer of these gowns. He has taken inflections from traditional Chinese paintings, and created gowns that are living, breathing works of art. I was astounded at his talent.

More tk….


More tk….

Simon says:

on June 5, 2013 at 7:56 am

Just got in tonight from a long shitty day, turned the computer on and saw you had a new post up… made my day.

If you ever need another ‘Steven’, even in a pinch, give me a call and I’ll bust my ass to get wherever required Joe (can bring my own wetsuit).

Keep up the great work in China.

Randy says:

on June 5, 2013 at 8:12 am

Incredible job, very nice work!

Darren Elias says:

on June 5, 2013 at 8:15 am

Good stuff, Joe!

Any concerns with the lights in the rain (damage)? Did you cover the small lights or the elinchrom at all?

Looking forward to seeing more from this trip!


Eric H. Adeleye says:

on June 5, 2013 at 8:51 am

Excellent article! What was the camera body that you used for these photographs? What was the type of beauty dish you used with your speedlights?

William Chinn says:

on June 5, 2013 at 9:05 am

Thanks for the insights and details as to the “flexibility” of this shoot.

Would like to know what goes through a numnut’s mind when he visits a camera outlet in Beijing (Wukesong)? What other items were discovered?

simone says:

on June 5, 2013 at 10:16 am

…in ecstatic contemplation :-)

Matt Wagg says:

on June 5, 2013 at 10:18 am

Great article Joe, I love using speedlights into modifiers on dull days with super low DOF, it creates an amazing look. I’d love to come and shoot in China, it looks a fantastic place.

Elijah says:

on June 5, 2013 at 10:21 am

Beautiful work! makes me want to bring out my beauty dish again

Mark Olwick says:

on June 5, 2013 at 10:21 am

You just might have a future in this business.

Damn, you’re good. Wow.


Kerry says:

on June 5, 2013 at 10:22 am

I had to chuckle at the thought of “drilling” around models. As always, very inspirational Joe. Love the mixing of light sources and contrast in composition.


Di Guan says:

on June 5, 2013 at 10:27 am

Thank you very much! We all miss you, and look forward to seeing you again!

Joe says:

on June 5, 2013 at 10:29 am

Beautiful work.

abdulmuttalib says:

on June 5, 2013 at 10:43 am

Fantasticcccc work , love the pictures . keep it Up.

many thanks


Michael S says:

on June 5, 2013 at 10:45 am

Amazing creation of an amazing creation! Been loving your posts from China and devouring a few of your classes on Kelby again. Funny how it all starts to sink in and make sense after you watch it twice (or 3 times!)

Also loved your critique session with Kelby on the Grid!

LOve your teaching style :)


MikefromCanadaeh says:

on June 5, 2013 at 11:02 am

Great work Joe,
Quick question: What was your consideration in having the dome in the background cut through the top of her veil/hat thingy? Yes, ‘thingy’ is a technical term here in Canada. Often you hear the rule not to have a horizontal or vertical line transect or emerge from ones head. Am I being to picky? What if you had raised the camera to include the hat thingy under the curved horizontal line behind her. Not being critical by any means, just curious.


A Lwin says:

on June 5, 2013 at 11:06 am

Dear Joe,

I have been a fan of your work for some time now and I would like to ask a few questions, I won’t mind if you are not able to find the time to answer, but if you do find the time it is appreciated.

1) After viewing your videos (Light Shadow Motion and The Language of Light), my first question is about the title of this article which would lead to my 2nd question afterwards. “Different flash, different look” do you really mean that using different types of flash/lights will produce different looks, or rather you mean how the different ways one controls the output from the light source (softboxes, umbrellas, snoots, etc.) can change the look of the captured image?

2) Which leads up to my 2nd question: could speedlights such as the Nikon SB 700, 800, 900, etc. be workable substitutes to studio lights or are there noticeable differences between using 2-4 speedlights to substitute for a single studio light?

My reason for asking is I am considering expanding my lighting kit, currently working with only 2 speed lights. My requirements are mainly portability and after looking at various options available for studio lights I learned of the Priolites which come with a power pack designed to be integrated into the flash body, hence no extra cables or brick size accessories to carry around. But for the price of each Priolite, I could just as well buy 4 Nikon SB-910s which would be more flexible and variable in their use. I have looked at other options in studio lights, but unless I am in a location with accessible power outlets, I need to purchase expensive portable power packs which add to the bulk and weight.

Jack Flemmings says:

on June 5, 2013 at 11:15 am

Good lighting. Why didn’t the rainy mist mess with the model’s makes up. Did you have to do anything special to protect the makeup?

Nice pictures…….

Mark says:

on June 5, 2013 at 11:38 am

Amazing images! I am continually inspired by your talent, thanks for sharing. Next time your in the Chicago area the Guinness is on me.


Alex Sahagun says:

on June 5, 2013 at 11:39 am

Just amazing!!!

Jakob Gronkjaer says:

on June 5, 2013 at 11:59 am

Had you not mentioned it, the speedlights in the lake would have gone unnoticed to me – I must train myself to look harder. Love the extra crisp-factor it adds. The penultimate shot is my favourite – something tells me I’m going to be adding to my Nikon speedlights at this rate (an SB910 and 600 with 2 Yongnou’s just ain’t gonna cut the mustard I don’t think!)

And what on earth kind of phone is Bella using – it looks like there’s a pink cat crawling over the back of it 😀

Nawfal Johnson says:

on June 5, 2013 at 12:42 pm

I really love these shots Joe. I especially appreciate the first indoors shot (above) – the Model and Gown glow with beautiful light, and that contrasts wonderfully with the geometric metal beams that appear to go on for infinity in the background.

Is this model also lit with the beauty dish?

Considering all of the reflective surfaces in this environment (the glass windows and the nice mirror-like tiles on the floor), how did you NOT get flash reflections showing in this shot?

Any insight is appreciated.


Joe Howe says:

on June 5, 2013 at 12:49 pm

Great story Joe. Do you initially set your exposure for ambient light and then fill with flash?
Or do you fiddle with your settings till you get the balance you’re looking for?


robert says:

on June 5, 2013 at 1:20 pm

Beautiful images and very insightful. Thanks for posting. Like seeing them come in my inbox.

João Figueiredo says:

on June 5, 2013 at 2:26 pm

I’m never get tired of seeing your work. it’s a truly daily inspiration. The wide angle shot’s are what makes me scream and shout and let all out.
don’t have more words….

Lyle says:

on June 5, 2013 at 2:38 pm

I wonder if your former assistant, Steven, has ended up in a “reeducation camp” for disobeying orders! :)

Mead says:

on June 5, 2013 at 3:10 pm

What camera were you using that allowed you to sync flashes at 1/4000?

Fabrice says:

on June 5, 2013 at 3:49 pm

Hi Joe,
love it; as always. I’m amazed about your creativity and and the mood you give to these pictures.
Looking forward to see your next class at kelbytraining.

Wolfgang Lonien says:

on June 5, 2013 at 4:06 pm

Awesome work as always Joe – congrats!

Amryl Malek says:

on June 5, 2013 at 5:16 pm

Great articles! Love the locations and the dresses. And not to mention, wonderful photos. btw, how did you get the camera to sync all the way to 1/4000th?

Heather N says:

on June 5, 2013 at 7:03 pm

Whew! Those shots are simply breathtaking. Thank you, as always, for sharing the ways that you do what you do.

Joe McNally says:

on June 5, 2013 at 8:37 pm

Hi Joe….I generally try to get the scene “right” if I can, and only then do I deal with flash….best, Joe

Joe McNally says:

on June 5, 2013 at 8:37 pm

I know, right? The cell phone decor in China is awesome!

Joe McNally says:

on June 5, 2013 at 8:41 pm

No, not really. It was intermittent, and fairly misty and light. So no worries on the gear. But we did cover up the power pack and the flash head with cut up plastic bags…Joe

Joe McNally says:

on June 5, 2013 at 8:55 pm

Okay, here we go…

1) Kind of all of the above. Big flash, to me, often has a definitive look, given the scope of light shaping tools that are available. Again, given the traditional power outputs of bigger flash units, it is often hard to work them down to the point of exposing at super wide open apertures. Now, some of that is changing. Newer big power packs do have tremendous range in power. And a lot of people are experimenting with hyper-sync, which means that it will soon be fairly routine to use higher than traditional shutter speeds with large light sources. But, traveling light and fast, and by the seat of my pants in China, I did reach out for the high speed sync capabilities of my speed lights to quickly and seamlessly transition from combinations like 1/250th at f8 or 9 to 1/4000th @ f1.4. The super lack of DOF does impart a certain look to the frame.

2) There are lots of reasons on both sides of the fence for big lights and small lights, and combinations thereof. I find that if I can gaggle 2-3 speedlights through a single source, like a big umbrella, there are advantages such as high speed sync. But, then, there is no way speed lights will approach the power and dependability of certain brands of bigger lights. Your choice just really is representative of your work flow. Are you on location constantly, with no assistant? Or are you more studio based? Do you often need lots of fstop? Those are questions you have to kind of figure about your work flow.

I don’t know much about the Priolite system, but I have heard good stuff. Speed lights lack power, but are very light and versatile. It’s really a tough place for me to advise. Best, Joe

Analia says:

on June 6, 2013 at 7:26 am

Damn…these are simply exquisite Joe. Just when I think your work couldn’t possibly get any better. I remain forever in awe and inspired by the incomparable beauty and mastery of your work.



Juanxo says:

on June 6, 2013 at 7:37 am

is it me or the girl at the phone looks like Sean Young’s replicant from blade runner?

ALwin says:

on June 6, 2013 at 4:12 pm

Dear Joe

Thank you for your reply.

95% of the time I am working solo, and have never worked in a studio, yet. For now, if I do use both my speedlights (Nikon SB-900s by the way), one gets mounted somewhere with a clamp or stand, the other is on-shoe or off-shoe using a TTL cable, and most of the time they are used only to provide fill-light. I usually end up working more with whatever ambient or natural light is available. Which is why I am looking to add to my kit as two SB-900s are not enough.

I didn’t consider the accessories available and you’re right about the differences in power output. I was thinking mainly about using just softboxes and umbrelllas but accessories such as snoots, beauty dishes, etc. there aren’t any available (I think) that allows multiple speedlights to be attached to mimic the power output of a large light. Then again I really haven’t found myself needing anything other than softboxes, umbrellas and reflectors.

My first considerations are luggage weight and portability. But you’ve given me new stuff to think about.

What I planned initially was to replace my two 900s with eight 910s, this way I can have two sets of 4x910s, or four sets of 2x910s, and other variations. Ideally I want to build up a kit that allows me to have around four light sources if needed.

Once again, thank you Joe.

Jim Donahue says:

on June 6, 2013 at 8:53 pm

Girl in Yellow Gown..WOWIE!!!

Patrik Lindgren says:

on June 7, 2013 at 1:40 am

And again, great stuff. Really cool backdrops for this shoot. Location, location, location! :)

Jonathan Kim says:

on June 7, 2013 at 5:33 am

Wow… Always an inspiration!! Thank you so much for you beautiful pictures and your selflessness to talk about your insights.

Charlie Flynn says:

on June 7, 2013 at 8:00 am

Bella reminds me of Sean Young in Blade Runner. Beautiful model.

Halley Ondona says:

on June 8, 2013 at 11:52 am

Sorry we miss each other out last week but i’ll keep my ears close to Charles Dukes for next years event. This way, i’ll know when you come and go. Keep up the good work and the globe trotting!

Tom Hohl says:

on June 8, 2013 at 5:00 pm

Your my hero, always have been and always will be. I learn so much from watching you. Hope to see you at one of your classes sson. Thanks again!!

Mark Miller says:

on June 8, 2013 at 10:03 pm

Thanks Joe for sharing your work! As a professional photographer myself, I take great joy in your work and sensibilities. It just fun and you bring an interesting perspective that I love to see and read. Keep on making pictures!

David says:

on June 9, 2013 at 9:24 pm

Thanks for the inspirational photography Joe!

Verns Chi says:

on June 9, 2013 at 10:20 pm

Hi, Joe, I was the designer Ji Feng the men’s shooting, nice to meet you, can be together with you. Thank you

Philippe says:

on June 13, 2013 at 2:22 pm

In the outdoor shoot, I love how the color of the dress combines with the color palette of the background. Did you plan it that way? Thanks for sharing your knowledge, online and in your inspirational books. It’s much appreciated.

Andrey says:

on June 25, 2013 at 2:49 am

Joe, thank you for the wonderful examples of proper operation. For me, they are the starting point and the support for my view of the proper operation of the flash. I’m not wondering how it will look this or that scene.

Thank you for your blog.

Sohrab Ghabezloo says:

on April 28, 2014 at 10:19 am

I just say its Great Joe… the contrast the color its just wonderfull… I learn a lot from you … actully i started photography with your videos …

Leave a Reply