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Hi Tech Machine, Low Tech Flash

Jul 11

In Lighting, On Location at 6:58am

So how do you shoot a medical marvel that is an absolute tech wonder, producing and providing highly detailed maps of the interior of the human body, but, on the outside, sort of looks like a big refrigerator with a hole in it?

The only sexy thing about this machine, visually speaking, were the blessedly intense, focused red beams that created the cross hairs used by the technicians to “aim” the scanner. The patient slides into the machine, and the device is aligned with assist of these beams. Turn the lights off in the room, which is one of the first things I often do when I walk into an environment, and you basically have the picture below.

Once again, up pops the irony of being a “flash photographer.” At any given moment,  the most important light you deal with is the ambient light. What exists, is the first question you grapple with. Then, and only then, after you wrangle what exists and what role (dominant, background, fill) that light will play in the photo, can you mess with flash.

So in the darkness, with a D800E set at f5.6 at ISO 400, I sorted out a shutter speed of 4 seconds. Which was fine, as my “patient” wasn’t going anywhere. Of course, in this iteration, I’ve got a red light and no context, or information. Luckily, I had a wall behind me, flat and white. I turned the head of my SB 910 backwards into the wall, and shifted my color balance to incandescent. That flat wash of light off the wall, un-gelled, and plain white, defined the machine, and the tungsten WB gave it a bluish cast, which I felt would work better than dead bang white. One flash, on camera, re-directed, gave me color, tone, context and editorial content.

Still couldn’t turn on the overhead fluorescents to provide the background illumination, as their overall, blah quality of light, filling the room (which is what they are supposed to do) bleached out the intensity of the red aiming beams, and those red beams were the anchor for the picture. So, I kept the room dark, and flashed the background of the photograph with two SB units, each slightly warmed with a CTO (color temperature orange) gels. I believe the gels were fairly mild, maybe a quarter cut, or 25% of the truly warm tone a full conversion gel would have presented. They are placed, TTL, in Group C, which is always the group I use for the background lights in any photo. I switched my on camera flash to double duty, acting as a TTL main light, and the commander for the background fills. Done.

But, was I really done in the darkness? As is said in The Game of Thrones, the night is dark and full of terrors. I was moving fast, needing to clear the room of my gear so they could get back to scanning. I had a nice picture, one I knew the client would be happy with. So I plunged ahead.

Now, I love Manfrotto stacker stands. I just don’t love them when they’re actually in my picture. Doh! They had to be retouched out in the final TIFF sent in for the book. As I always say, whenever you are feeling lock solid and dialed in, think again, and check again.

In the darkened hallways of my mind, the ghost of Numnuts is cavorting about and laughing, and that laughter echoes, as it has for my entire career.

More tk….









Scott Belzner says:

on July 11, 2013 at 7:54 am

Nice read. I guess they didn’t have the magnets on? Otherwise your gear would be stuck to it!

tips fotografi says:

on July 11, 2013 at 7:55 am

Perfect lighting and fabulous pictures.
You are truly inspiring.
Thanks for sharing

Dave Benson says:

on July 11, 2013 at 8:02 am

Thanks… I am always amazed by your vision and in awe of your work. Thanks for sharing Joe, it helps me understand the potential the gear has

John Fowler says:

on July 11, 2013 at 8:06 am

Oh dear Joe! “Technicians”? You’d better hope none of the technologists who helped you read this blog. (I made the same mistake once and learned the difference promptly.)

Marc Austin-Zande says:

on July 11, 2013 at 8:25 am

As always, thanks for sharing all that information Joe!

I always love it when I see a nice human error like a pair of light stands left in a shot… makes me feel a little less inadequate 😉

afsel says:

on July 11, 2013 at 6:48 pm

You are the one and only magical unicorn of flash photography…. truly inspiring…. thanks for sharing the tips…

Tom McKean says:

on July 12, 2013 at 5:22 am

Ah such beautiful imagination in solving lighting situations. Only to discover that light stand. God bless the digital age where it can be retouched out. But ouch! when I shot film, I had to be darn sure that no gear was showing. Retouching was very expensive then!


Peter says:

on July 12, 2013 at 12:24 pm

Hi Joe,

Such a cool image and frame. Thanks for showing that there is no shame in screwing up…

Q: Why go with a gel?


Richard Cave says:

on July 13, 2013 at 4:35 am

Nice post Joe, stuck the other day doing a dentist shot. Wish you was there,


Jeff English says:

on July 13, 2013 at 1:19 pm

Very cool shot. Was that a PET/CT scanner? I am a PET/CT tech so it really caught my eye. You would be amazed(or maybe not) at how many of the same fundementals photography and radiology share.

Joe McNally says:

on July 14, 2013 at 9:46 am

Hey Jeff….yep, it was a PET scanner. And yes, I’m sure there are lots of the same principles at play with photography and radiology. Best, Joe

Andor says:

on July 14, 2013 at 2:44 pm

Nice read and amazing job again – hell, the stands just making an even more ‘lab-like’ look of the shot :-)

Tim says:

on July 14, 2013 at 6:17 pm

Hey Joe . . love the blog, esp this post . . I think a little bit of that ol ghost is spread amongst us all . . . esp when we get a bit to cocky for our own good. Thank you for all the posts and books sir.

Rick Lewis says:

on July 15, 2013 at 7:24 pm

Great insight into these images! Thanks Joe.

marci says:

on August 5, 2013 at 3:17 pm

You are so awesome. And, I know it might be mean, but I LOVE that you didn’t notice the light stands in the shot! Makes you more human like the rest of us!. :) I recently had to photograph this same piece of equipment and saw something like this shot in my mind, but had no idea how to accomplish it, so settled for ambient light. I wish I could hang out with you for a couple months!

Richard Kimbrough says:

on August 30, 2013 at 12:49 pm

Always great to see the behind the scenes. Someone above mentioned the dentist. Your photo sort of reminded me of a shot I did during an actual dentist appointment, all lighting set up from where I was in the chair with the shot taken as they got ready to start working. Not sure if links are allowed here, but here it is. My dentist liked it, although I think he thought he looked a little scary, which is what we all think he looks like LOL.

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