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Have a Great Fourth of July Week!

Jul 2

In Advice, In The Field at 9:08am

Hey gang….this was a pretty popular blog from last year, so running it again, in time for the Fourth. On my way to Canada (on Canada Day!) for a One Light Two Light Tour stop in Vancouver, one of my favorite cities. Have a great Fourth, and stay safe everyone!

Summer’s here! Time to shoot some fireworks. Below is a small instructional essay from the Life Guide to Digital Photography. I’ve shot some of the biggest fireworks displays in history, so I just kind of dove back into those to remember things I did right and things I did wrong. And things I didn’t think of at the time, or should’ve remembered to do.

Everybody loves to shoot fireworks. It has lots of connotations—holiday, patriotism, hot dogs, weekend, kids, family. Time to relax. Time to shoot some pictures.

Okay, make a checklist. Camera. Wide angle zoom. Telephoto zoom. Flash cards. Cable release. Spare camera battery. Tripod. Headlamp, and hand held flashlight. Watch with timer function. Black card. (More on that later.)

That’s pretty much the photo kit. What else to think of? Rain gear, both for cameras and you. You can get fancy rain gear designed for cameras and lenses, or just use plastic bags and baggies. Couple of bungee cords to keep the bags on the camera if the wind starts whipping about. Water and power bars—you’ll be out there a while. Bug repellent. Comfortable clothing and shoes. The car might be quite a ways away, and you’ll be walking a fair piece.  Advil. (Advil is always on my equipment list.)

Anything to do beforehand? You bet. Scout the location. Best to know what you are getting into, where they shoot the fireworks from, what the background will be like. How big will the display be? How long will it go for? Most fireworks displays are well over in a half hour or less, and if you are stumbling around in the crowd looking for a spot and trying to setup in the dark, you’ll just be starting to make decent exposures as they light up the sky with the crescendo and say goodnight till next year.

That’s right, next year. Most big shoot ’em ups are yearly events. Argh, the pressure!

So scout. Get your spot. Get there early. I mean early. Like, be the first car in the parking lot. Pack a soft cooler sling bag, throw an icepack in there, and know that in that bag is your sustenance till maybe late at night. For jobs like this, my Ipod and earphones are a must. Maybe a collapsible chair, and a small waterproof tarp. Think your way into this. What could go wrong? It’s a photo shoot, so the answer to that is, just about everything. Try to ensure success by envisioning the shot and the potential problems in making the shot before you walk out the door.

Like, do you need a permit to put your tripod down? Did you have to call the town about this adventure? Most likely not, but in this post 911 world, photographers are often treated as being just this side of a recidivist offender, so it might be worth a phone call.

Okay, prepped and ready. Time to frame up the shot, which is a bit trickier than you might think. First off, when I shoot fireworks, I always get my frame, plus about 20%. I can always tighten up, but I want to give those fireworks room to play up there in the heavens. Frame too tight, you’ll have tracer lines of color going right out of the upper part of your picture, creating lines of interest that will pull your viewer’s eye right out with them.

So give them room to breathe and determine whether the shot is horizontal or vertical. Remember that most fireworks pix, if they are just of the explosions in the sky, are, at the end of the day, an exercise in color, nothing more. Even something as splashy as a pyrotechnic display needs context. So perhaps you can frame up with the object that is being celebrated, such as the Statue of Liberty. Or use the semi-silhouetted crowd as a foreground element. Or boats and bridges out in the water, with the water acting as a giant reflector board filled with color.

The variations that may occur with your framing are the reason to have at least a couple lenses with you. As mentioned above, two reasonable zooms, one wide and one telephoto, should do you fine.

Metering? Yikes, how do you meter a fast moving rocket moving through the black sky? The answer is, you don’t, really. This is a situation to shut off a bunch of the auto this and that on the camera, and go manual. Also, make sure to turn the flash off. Some cameras will read the darkness in in certain modes and activate that puppy. Ever see the opening of an Olympics, where thousands of people are using point and shoots, and their flashes are going off like crazy? Know what they’re lighting? The shoulder of the person in front of them. Fireworks, unless you are trying a radically different approach, are generally a no flash zone.

Okay, now set up manual. Fireworks are brighter than you might think, so you don’t need to open the lens really wide, which is a bit counter-intuitive, I know, ’cause it’s dark. But my experience with fireworks wide open is that you drain the color out of them. They’ll just register as a white streak. Be careful. You can over-expose fireworks quite easily.

F8 is a reasonable starting point. Some photogs I know go even lower on the aperture scale, down to f11 or even f16. Over time, you will find which settings work for you. (I used to take notes at the end of a fireworks job, just to keep myself tuned up for next year. No real need for that anymore, as the metadata tells you what works and what doesn’t.)

Set the shutter to bulb. This mode keeps the shutter open as long as the release button is pushed. But you are not physically pushing that button are you?! No! This is absolutely a job for a cable release. Nowadays, most cable releases are simply electric cables which jack into the camera and activate the shutter. When you punch the button on the cable release the shutter is at your command, and will stay open as long as you want. And, very significantly, the button you are pushing is not on the camera or the tripod. With lengthy exposures, even the slightest jiggle or vibration is the enemy.

This is important, because at f8, the shutter will be open for a while, meaning anywhere from four to 10-15 seconds. (Remember if you have a foreground element in the picture, such as a monument, you have to make sure that lit up monument is exposed properly. In many ways, that foreground object will determine the length of your exposure.)

Again, due to the brightness of fireworks, you can work at a reasonable or even low ISO. Something in the neighborhood of 100 or 200 will do fine. The faster your ISO, the shorter your shutter speeds, which will deprive you of recording those wonderful tracers of light into the sky.

Some shooters time the launch of the rockets and open their shutter accordingly, keeping it open for, say, 8-10 seconds, then closing down. This ensures that they will record the path of the pyrotechnic into the night sky, and it’s explosion. This is a fine approach. Give it a try.

Others use a black card. A black card is just that, a black card. Nothing mysterious or fancy. It can be a piece of black cardboard, or foam core board. Or it can just be an index card covered with black tape. (Be sure it is not shiny tape. That might pick up slivers of light and reflect it back into the lens.  Use a matte black type of photo tape, often called gaffer tape.)

This way, you can keep your shutter open for very lengthy periods of time, and record multiple starbursts. You open the shutter, and shoot one explosion, then cover the lens with the card, and wait for the next. You can experiment with this trick, and produce really terrific results by layering multiple fireworks into one picture.

(Also, say, you have the Brooklyn Bridge as an architectural element in the foreground, and the proper exposure for it is f8 at 10 seconds. This limits your fireworks shooting range, right? Gotta get the bridge right, so the exposure is a done deal. But, with the black card, if you are quick enough, you can uncover just the upper portion of the sky, while blocking the area of the lens which is recording the bridge. This is dicey. You have to move the card quickly, hovering it around where the bridge ends and the sky begins. If you have ever made a black and white print in the darkroom, think of this as burning and dodging right at the camera lens. Can’t keep the card static or it will create a hard line of obvious exposure change. It has to hover, quickly jiggling around that sky bridge borderline. If you pull this off right, you can keep your lens open for several batches of fireworks, extending over 20-30 seconds, filling the sky with color. But—this is an  experiment! Back yourself up by shooting some “straight” frames.)

At the beginnings of the digital rage, this technique was a bit problematic, because seriously lengthy exposures produced a lot of digital noise. The longer the shutter is open, the longer the chip is “on” building up heat with every passing second. That sensor heat would really fray away at the quality of the digital file you would be trying to produce. Bad news. Long time exposures were the Achilles heel of early digital cameras. Predictably, advances in digital camera technology have smoothed out a lot of those problems, but it is wise to experiment with your particular model and see what its’ tolerances are. As you might suspect, the higher end models handle long exposure well, while the more basic cameras will have limitations. Get to know what your camera is capable of. In many current cameras, you can turn on a function called “long exposure noise reduction.” Hugely helpful.

Other bits and pieces: Don’t shoot all night long at one exposure. (If you are on bulb, you definitely won’t anyway.) But this is an occasion for bracketing, and shooting as many frames as possible. Also, shoot right away when they start! Fireworks displays can build up a lot of smoke over a series of explosions, and if you are smack in the wind pattern that blows that smoke towards your lens, you can end up thinking you’re shooting a war zone. So shoot immediately, and fast.

Have a good 4th of July. Try some of this out, and have a hot dog on me. More tk….

Staying Organized..

Oct 11

In Advice, Equipment, Tips & Tricks at 8:28am

Always a challenge, right? Photogs–we’ve all got our bits and pieces, our favorite gadget, our go to, get out of jail free light or lens that saves our butt in the field. We accumulate all this stuff, and travel with it, and just keeping up with it sometimes seems to be half the battle.

If you know anything about the way we travel, it’s that we generally have a good chunk of gear.  And with that gear comes an utter mess of cords, batteries, flashes, lenses, stands, etc.- if we don’t have a good organizational system intact.  So it seems as though every few months, we’re coming up with new ideas, altering our packouts, and just trying to make traveling with a bunch of stuff as painless as possible.

Which leads to this…


We typically travel with two wallets of gels: color correcting and theatrical, and until recently, we had been using old leather business card wallets- which were great, but not exactly organized.

The issue was that the gels were all kinda mixed together, and to find say- a 1/4 cut CTO on the fly, wasn’t always as quick as we’d like.  We had a couple of really nice Think Tank card wallets sitting around, and while Will Foster was working on a packout, he came up with the idea of ripping the middle seams out to fit gels. Will’s a local shooter who’s not only a good guy, he’s one of those folks who stare at a problem for a couple minutes and come up with a simple solution.


So out came the Exacto blades, and a little while later, we had a much more well-organized gel system.



May seem like a small thing- and it is- but with as much gear, and as little time as we often have to pull off a shoot, this is definitely a time saver in the field.


Dunno what Thinktank is going to think about us, uh, customizing one of their smaller pieces of gear, but they do make great stuff. We have traveled internationally a lot this past year, and have shifted to their wheelie bags for carry on gear. Much easier at the big international airports, where the gates always seem to be about four or five miles from the baggage belt. More on those tk……

Letter to a Young Photographer….

Nov 9

In Advice at 9:43am


Lectured last week at the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism. In the photojournalism department, the students all had that traditional mix of energy, enthusiasm, angst, and doubt so typical of that time in your life when you have just picked up a camera and are looking at it, wondering where it will lead you. The usual mix of questions are ever present: Who do I work for? Can I make a living? Will I ever be any good at this? Will my pictures have impact?

Nowadays, that traditional line of questioning is accompanied by another significant set of queries. What is the future of all this? Will I shoot video or stills? Can I get a job where somebody pays me more than a nickel for my photos? Will there be any newspapers left in a few years? Should I also go to business school? How many pixels do I need? What the hell is going on and how am I going to fit in? When I left school a traditional path for many J school grads was small paper to slightly bigger paper to mid-size daily to a big metro. It was a process. It had potential structure and pace.

Now, graduating into this field is like blasting into hyper space. The destination’s uncertain, and the road is a blur.

The raft of questions I fielded last week brought me back to a letter I received some years ago.

Dear Joe,

We met a few years back, I was,  I guess, a runt high school kid with a camera.  now, I guess I’m a lost science major, have no idea what I want to do with myself, and everyone just tells me to do what I like. I can’t justify transferring to what I regard as the large year round summer camp of arts school, but have no idea what to do with myself, now or in ten years. I know this is a little weird getting an email from someone who you might not even remember meeting years ago who, at 19 is going through a midlife crisis, but I appreciate any thoughts anyone might have other than the “follow your dreams” which doesn’t fit with my New York cynicism.  I guess I was wondering, as I was told to wonder, and ask everyone I know (or “kinda sorta” know) who does something interesting for a living, how they wound up doing what they were doing?  Anyway, it’s a heavy question with a ton of run on sentences.

Would really appreciate any input you may have on the matter……thanks….


Of course I remember you. I am sorry for not getting back sooner, but this last two months have vanished with road work, and I did not want to just dash you off something superficial. Follow your dreams is not a bad thing to do, but I am well aware of the practical limitations of such a plan. The world gets more and more restrictive in terms of a free wheeling approach to life, and despite all the press given to those who strike it rich and play their own tune doing it, there are the much more prevalent stories of most of the rest of us who grapple day to day with exactly the same issues you are facing. A science major in the Ivy League is a pretty strenuous thing to do, I imagine. Art school would be a different atmosphere altogether. I don’t know what might be possible in terms of combining them, or finishing a degree (very important!) and then trying your hand at some art education.

The fact that you put your camera to your eye instead of running on 9/11 indicates something restless and perhaps unusual in your makeup, and as someone familiar with being regarded as unusual, I can tell you it is definitely a two edged sword. The things you struggle with now you will struggle with your entire life. It is the essence of a creative soul, really, without being pompous and overblown about it.

Being lost isn’t the worst thing in the world, either, especially at 19. I hadn’t even discovered photography at 19, but nothing in particular concerned me about my aimlessness. Probably a lack of depth on my part, no doubt, but then it did leave me with room to move and the ability to imagine myself in different contexts. I do know that when I finally engaged in photography, it was like a black hole, an irresistible force that pulled me, my time, my energy and, without exaggeration, my every waking (and sleeping) moment. I had never known such a resonant thing.

I do know I went abroad, and became the lab manager for the Syracuse London photo program and took 9 graduate credits. I left my lab duties in the hands of a fellow student (and my princely weekly pay check of 5 English pounds) and went to the east most tip of England, a place called Lowestoft. There I talked my way onto a fishing trawler (November in the North Sea, lovely indeed) and went off to to do a 2 week jaunt, with hope of making a photo essay along the lines of what I had seen my heroes like Gene Smith do. I remember the smell of tea late at night, and lurching through 40′ waves sitting in the wheelhouse, and the utter blackness of sea around, and thinking, yes, this and the like is what I am cut out to do.

I’ve been fortunate in that I have been able to act on and make a living out of some largely irresponsible urges. I have had a bit of a comic book of a life, I am still drawing the panels. I sense something like a change of scenery may be a good thing for you, if you can afford the time and effort to launch yourself in a different direction and in a different environment.

Don’t know if your science professors possess the capacity to excite and inspire, but I was blessed with a very good and inspirational photo professor who helped me at least realize something larger was always possible. Have you thought of chucking it for a while and going abroad, and trying your hand at some art education? Or trying your hand at anything that comes along? Or trying your hand at essentially nothing? I’m not suggesting something totally out of bounds or dangerous, but the search for something that propels you, draws you, and simply becomes that which you cannot help but do is in itself a worthwhile endeavor. And if and when the discovery of said treasure occur– eureka! I still love photography, and enjoy the simple act of being a photographer more now than when I first picked up my dad’s camera.

One thing my dad did tell me, and it has echoed in my ears for a long time. He was the quintessential corporate man, a salesman, and in his later years, he became disgusted with the ways of his world, and told me on numerous occasions, “hang out your own shingle.” Which is what I have done, and been happy to have done. The jalopy called McNally Photography has transmission trouble, a couple of flat tires, and not all the cylinders fire, but it still moves, and I drive it where I want to go. There is a great deal of value and satisfaction in that, as I look back. I’m still standing, and lots of others fell away or played it safe or never tried. The simultaneously wonderful and daunting thing is that there is so much still to do, so much ground to cover, and my best work is still out there, somewhere. I am still on safari here, the great picture hunt, as someone once called it.

I don’t know if any of this makes sense. You are just beginning to write your pages, and the thing to remember about this early rough draft is that it hardly matters what you do exactly, as long as you continue to become something close to what you might imagine you want or need to become. Being a bit slow and never prone to academic excellence and achievement, I really have had no choice over the years but to embrace Einstein’s thought. “Imagination is better than knowledge.”

Stay well. Call anytime. Joe

Monday Morning Motor Driven Meditations….

Sep 21

In Advice at 11:40am


Ahh, Cadillac Mountain in Maine. In the fall and winter, sunlight makes its’ first landfall on the continental United States every morning up on Cadillac. Given its’ special geography, it is the Grand Central Station of sunrise opportunities. It really is quite pleasant up there, and you can shoot some decent frames, provided you can make your way through the throngs of saffron clad, finger cymbaled, whale loving, granola munching, well meaning, thoroughly pleasant wack jobs that collect up there most mornings. You can almost hear those stirringly eloquent lyrics from Good Morning Starshine….

“Gliddy glub gloopy
Nibby nabby noopy
La la la lo lo
Sabba sibby sabba
Nooby abba nabba
Le le lo lo
Tooby ooby walla
Nooby abba naba
Early morning singing song!

Because I’m mildly subversive and, without coffee, thoroughly irritable at that hour, I offered up a shooting strategy to our DLWS group. I advised them to rack a super wide lens back to minimum focus distance, thus pulling you close to your chanting, entranced subject. Go to “consecutive high” on the motor drive. Then, right in the middle of a good healthy, “ahhhhhhhh-oooooooooommmmm,” just buffer out the camera. Heh, heh, heh……

I mean, you’re up that early, might as well have a little fun.

Next Monday….mystery photo, revealed….later this week, work flow. More tk….

Nigel and Me….

Apr 11

In Advice, Lighting, Thoughts at 7:19am

When Nigel gets hungry, he won’t let me work. He’ll just come up to my laptop and rumble and purr and generally get all sorts of adorable. If that doesn’t work he just starts walking back and forth in front of my computer screen, stepping on random keys. Last week he sent an email to 7 people at the National Geographic. Had to finish that one quick and follow up, lest the venerable editors there thought I had resorted to incomplete sentences with no sign off.


I am using the pop up on the D300 in commander mode.
Leaving the USA on Sunday.
I have (3) SB 800’s, D300 and I am lost….
What I know.
1. Can set them up to all fire wireless using the pop up flash on the D300
What I don’t know or what is the step by step (SB 800 for dummies) how to set up one to use as fill, add power to one less power to one,etc…
I see in the D300 to do this, ok. But to navigate thru the SB800 back and the manual. I just don’t get it……..I write this after 10 t o 12 hours and $20 in batteries. I read the strobist,etc,,,,,,,.
Do anyone know of a blog, book, web site that can give a picture and tell or plain simple (remember SB 800 for dummies) to help me??
A quick response is most welcomed.
Simple in Kentucky

Okay….here we go, as best help as I can be. First off, on the SB 800, if you ever get totally lost, simultaneously depress the mode, and the on/off button and keep ’em depressed for like 3 seconds. The unit factory defaults back to a straight up TTL setting. Can’t tell you how many times that has saved my butt.

The key to the SB800 programming is the SEL dial in the middle of the back of the unit. Depress that for 3 seconds and you’ll get a 4 box grid. (Don’t do this with gloves on. You’ll just mash away and the unit will do nothing. Get your digit square onto that puppy and push.) Toggle right to the upper right box with squiggle lines and flash symbols. Very artful.

Tap SEL again for a split second and the up/down cursor arrow goes live. You can go through options here, and the ones you are concerned with are MASTER and REMOTE, presumably the latter cause you have the pop up in the D300. Toggle down and highlight REMOTE. Depress SEL again for 3 seconds and the REMOTE info panel comes up in the lcd. It says REMOTE in capital letters. You know when you are there. Upper left is channels–double check this against your setting in the pop up. You gotta be on the same channel. Hit SEL again and you highlight the groups box in lower right. A-B-C. You got three flashes, so choice of group is up to you and where you position them. (Note!!!! Just got this straight from Pete Wilkinson below–no C group with the D300!)

Now check your pop up menu. Go to custom option for built in flash…comes up usually as active in the TTL mode. Toggle down to Commander mode. Toggle right. Commander mode comes up, and the pop up is active as a flash, which I will presume you don’t want. (Why would you go to all this trouble and still have the damn pop up active, which is the size of a dime and gives out just as cheap a quality of light? Dunno, except as maybe you put it to minus 3 EV and use is as a wink light fill type deal.)

I digress. Highlight the little box that says TTL. Then toggle downwards ( I believe it is downwards, I don’t own a D300.) You will run through the options, including auto mode, and manual, and then you get to a flat cursor. Ta Da! The pop up is now off as a flash. Will still act as a commander, and still flash. But the flash is a monitor pre-flash, an informational burst of light that occurs milliseconds before the real exposure. Don’t sweat it. It is not gonna register in your real exposure.

Then just zip through with the toggles to A , B or C groups, making sure they are reading TTL. The box to the right is the plus/minus EV area, with you can dial in to your desire. That will drive the power rating of the SB800 remote strobe you just programmed. YOU DON’T HAVE TO PROGRAM A VALUE INTO THE 800 UNIT ITSELF. IT GETS IT’S COMMANDS FROM THE POP UP PROGRAMMING YOU HAVE JUST SET UP! You don’t have to do anything else to the SB800 except make sure the receptor dish is unobstructed. that is the little recessed circular area about the size of an M&M right near the battery chamber. If you use the 5th battery add on chamber, be aware you are cutting the angle of reception this sensor has access to, and therefore may occasionally have trouble tripping it. If I am ever feeling like the remote is in a tough spot to receive the master signal from the pop up, I take the 5th battery chamber off so the sensor’s field of view is clearer.

Make sure when you program the pop up commander menu, you hit OK on the back of the camera. If you don’t, when you close out the menu option, all the settings you just programmed will disappear. Sucks. So remember to hit OK.

OK? Helpful on any level?

As far as arraying the units, and then dialing them in for power settings, I can’t say cause I ain’t there with you. I can say it is a game of ratios, or levels, and it all works depending on your eye. There is no right or wrong answer. Just a couple things to remember. Light has a logic. If the unit looks like it is too far to the side, your subject will be side lit. Try not to open up everything with light. Leave room for shadows. Try to reflect the units off of or through something. Remember, these are small flashes, and the game is to get them to behave like big flashes.


The Nikkor 200 f2 is maybe the sharpest telephoto I have ever used. That’s basically it. And, at f2, the DOF drop off is occasionally really pleasing for portraiture.

Kino Flow Lights….Drug a pair of them out to location the other day. Wanted to see what all the fuss was about, as they are very popular lights indeed right about now. Had a good time, but nothing magical happened. You can see the light, and the quality, to be sure, and that is handy. Kind of missed the pop of a strobe, and the little bird chirp of the recycle though. Small things keep me happy, I guess. Used one 4 tube kino flow on Rick here. Didn’t use both of them cause one didn’t work. Welcome to location shooting. My subject was Rick, who has just an amazing face, and an amazing history.