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Archive for the ‘Rambling’ Category

Location Language, or, Bleeped Bloopers

Apr 26

In Rambling at 5:14am

I was literally up to my ass in alligators not too long ago, on behalf of Kelby Training, attempting a video tutorial on location lighting in first, a swamp, and then later on a beach, in decidedly non-beach-like weather. Doing the Kelby videos is a lot of fun, and they have gradually (actually, more like, suddenly) amassed the greatest compendium of video learning and teaching on the planet about anything visual–Photoshop, lighting, digital photography, you name it. But this was a frustrating day, one of those location days where you barely find the corner, much less turn it. I’ve had many of these during the course of spinning the roulette wheel of photography for thirty years. On these days, which I still find eminently preferable to a predictable, safe, or even good day inside an office (do they exist?) a certain brand of patter bubbles out of me which, in some quarters, might be deemed profane. Offensive, even. Downright saucy!

Yeah, guilty as charged. I could blame my childhood, but that’s so Hollywood starlet. I could blame excessive use of pain killers, but I’m a photog, and that has its’ own special brand of pain, yet to be tamed by pharmaceuticals, so I actually don’t use those haze inducing pills, pleasant as they sound. (I would, actually, if I were regularly in an office and had to go to non-stop meetings. For those in that type of an unfortunate setting, I think any and all mood altering substances should be legalized. Think of it as an occupational version of medical marijuana.)

Basing my career in NY has definitely had something to do with it. (There I go, lamely blaming my environment.) But in a big city press room, having your own personal quiver of verbal arrows was essential to survival. I mean, without a customized, creatively ornate, almost baroque sense of the profane insult, you were defenseless out there on that ink stained field of battle. You had to get with the program, or get gone. I mean, when you work the copy rim with a bunch of dirty old men whose sole mission in life was to slip a seemingly benign headline with obscene overtones past the managing editor on a daily basis, you get the message real quick. I remember a news short coming in that was the story of an evidently extremely lonely soul who was arrested for assaulting, ahem, his neighbor’s cows. Seems the dairy farmer, seeing his charges act a bit out of sorts, tipped police to his suspicions about what was going on with Daisy and Buttercup out there in the barn, and they staked the joint out and arrested the dude in, as they said in the piece, “mid-assault.” The rather ordinary headline of “Sodomy Charged” on this story was subsequently changed to “Cowpoke Arrested.” I don’t think that head made the paper.

I was pretty timid when I started, but I was shocked into the swim of things quite early on. I remember working the international desk as a freshly minted copy kid, and watched when one of the editors, obviously hammered, cigarette drooping from his lip, saunter up to his station in the middle of the newsroom, unzip his fly, serenely urinate in the waist basket next to his desk, then sit down and edit the 2 Star. Then of course there was Zucci, in the art department, who would take all the bridal announcement pictures and airbrush in cleavage before they got printed in the paper. He would walk these black and whites around the newsroom, proudly displaying his artwork. “Poor girl,” he would say, “Only time in her life she gonna be in the paper and she got nuttin’ to show for it!” He fixed that, and I’m sure many a shocked, prospective groom would do a double take on the day of the nuptial announcement, wondering how his bride to be had all of sudden acquired an enormous set of hooters.

In photo, it got savage, at least on occasion. When your negs would go up on the screen for edit, guys would walk by, look, and inquire, “Whose shit is this?” This was nuanced commentary, mind you. I was touring a bunch of blue haired ladies through the darkroom once, and Bobby Hayes, one of the printers, and a former Marine who had seen action on Iwo Jima, turned to them to politely explain why he didn’t use the air gun with the ionized tip in his print station to clean the negs. “I don’t wanna get fuckin’ sterile,” was his explanation. Needless to say, I walked the ladies briskly over to take a look at the print washing area. Then of course there was the photog on the staff who was roundly disliked by many in the department. When this shooter would call in a job on the two way,  other shooters could hear it, and they simply opened their own mikes and started barking like dogs over the air. Brutal.

You developed a thick skin, and sharp elbows. I had an editor at UPI who could say the f-bomb more times before pausing to breathe again than any human being I have every met. The fact that most of those expletives were directed at me, and my obvious lack of abilities and intelligence, bothered me not. The use of language was so creative, I simply stood in awe and appreciation.

So there ya go. Product of my environment. I’m depraved ’cause I’m deprived. Or something like that. I mean, stuff happens out there on location, and sometimes to verbally get your arms and head around the events, it just seems that a creative metaphor, or a pithy rejoinder is the way to go. Sure makes the day go faster. I am given pause when this brand of language makes it into my public teaching stints. I’ll stop, look over at Drew, and say something like, “I shouldn’t have said that, huh?” He generally sighs, and agrees. Oh well. What the fuck….more tk….

George, Seattle, and the Clouds

Mar 10

In Friends, Rambling at 10:23am

Had breakfast and coffee with George Divoky yesterday. Breakfast was the smaller part of it, actually. What we really did was have coffee together, which is what you do in Seattle. It is basically a sacrament here, the having of the coffee. George and I grew to be friends, really, over coffee. George is an ornithologist, and he has done the remarkable thing of studying a colony of Black Guillemonts on Cooper Island since 1975. Every year, for three months, George goes up there to this barren stretch of ice north of Barrow, Alaska, and lives in the most basic of conditions with these birds, observing their trends, their mating patterns, and their migratory habits. He might have gone up there to study the birds all those years ago, but the amazing consistency of his visits has resulted in a trove of first hand, irrefutable evidence of weather trends, the melting of the ice pack, and the resultant impact on the cycle of life up there, and hence, everywhere.

I spent a mere nine days on Cooper and I can tell you, there isn’t a Marriott in sight. It is basic tent living, out there with the birds and the polar bears. To do it, as George has, for 36 years, is a tale of dedication, a labor of love, and an inquisitive mind. His notebooks are a road map of changes in the weather and the earth, all observed firsthand. And, while he’s a dedicated scientist, he’s also got a great sense of humor, which was the basis of our friendship struck out there on the ice ten years ago. He’s an amazing guy, the subject of many magazine interviews, a coming book, an appearance on David Letterman, and even a play in London. You can check out his activities and observations here, at Friends of Cooper Island.

Outside of having friends like George,  I do love being here in Seattle. Nice city, nice folks. I have a theory. I feel it’s very important that it remains resolutely cloudy here, every day. Hear me out. The unrelenting cloud cover produces a wonderful sort of torpor, a blanket, if you will, that one can continuously crawl under and, well, yawn the day away. No pressure, no people shouting at you to get out their damn way, no subways jammed with folks eyeballing each other suspiciously.

It’s come to that in the NY subway, by the way. In this age of the dominance of the internet, there is the phenomenon of newspaper-less commuting. Used to be, even in the most crowded of trains, you could avert your eyes, and bury yourself in a Cindy Adams column, or the antics of celebrities caught with their pants down on Page Six, or be engaged by a clever headline. Now that most riders are no longer armed with a tabloid or the even more effective camouflage of a broadsheet, they’re left to balefully, soullessly glare at each other with doubt and regret, if not outright aggression, as after all, the best defense is a good offense, or something like that. Thus when the apparently blind, legless person on a trolley (think Eddie Murphy in Trading Places) with the incredibly bad singing voice pushes themselves and their tin cup through the crowded car, most straphangers no longer have the pup tent of a daily newspaper to dive into until they move on or shut up. It probably works out well for the down on his luck supplicant, as there are always lots of newcomers to the NYC subway system who haven’t seen the trolley bound tenor before, and thus donate some change and hope they vanish into the next car. Little do they know that some of the folks who work the subways might actually own three taxi medallions and have multiple rental properties in Brooklyn, and for them, the subway thing is a part time gig.

Back to Seattle. Even the cab drivers here don’t honk their horn. Amazing. Again, methinks, those soporific, mellow mood inducing clouds at work. Geez, I even walked through a building yesterday and from the speakers came drifting Seals and Crofts, fer chrissakes.

Enter the coffee. You see, there’s a synergy here. A place like this would probably pull a Rip Van Winkle and just drift off  entirely to sleep were it not for the bountiful, splendid variety of good tasting caffeine. The coffee sort of meets the clouds halfway and produces just the right mix of energy and conversational connectivity that enables everyone to hold down a job even though they spend a good deal of the day chatting or tweeting or emailing in a beanery. It’s a beautiful thing. I would move here in a heartbeat, except that I’m just generally too antsy. Put me near this much coffee and I couldn’t help myself. It would be an irresistibly frequent and dangerous combination,  like a moth to flame, Stockton to Malone, Charlie Sheen and saying something irretrievably stupid.

This is all just a theory, but I think I’m onto something…..more tk….

29 Cities, 13,000 Miles….

Jan 25

In Lighting, News, Rambling at 8:27am

Never had this much fun with pushpins, I tell ya. 29 cities, spread all over the U.S. Numnuts with his TTL high wire act jumping on a bus with Captain Manual, aka Strobist, aka St. David of Baltimore. We’re gonna converge on Seattle on March 11, pack a bunch of speed lights into the hold of a bus, and just roll from there. Go to this website for the straight skinny on the whole shebang.

David does manual. I do TTL. It was always gonna come to this, right? Packed on board the bus with us are Drew Gurian, Grippi, Cali, and of course, Jeff Snyder of Adorama, which is the major sponsor of the tour. Geez, I wonder if the bus runs on methane? Our saving grace will be road manager Karen Lenz. She will, I think, keep the bus from being a zoo on wheels.

Kidding aside, there’s gonna be a great day of teaching at each stop. David does the morning shift, showing manual flash, and creating buzz by adding and subtracting lights. He’s going to concentrate a bit on the “why” of light, which is something a lot of shooters don’t actually think about all that much in the midst of just doing light. I take over in the afternoon, go TTL, walk the plank, see if it works, push the system and fire lights from way far away. Both David and I have been on the beta team for the new Pocket Wizard Flex-Mini’s, and this tour is a big time rollout for them. The units rock, and the envelope of all small flash, TTL and otherwise, just got a whole bunch bigger with these puppies coming into their own.

So go to the site, I’ve been a bit of a cartoon my whole life. Now it’s official. More tk….

Pushpin photography by Mike Cali.

Fall in New York

Oct 28

In Rambling at 6:54am

Looked like one those familiar adventures yesterday in NY.  Had a shoot setup, with my bud, RC Concepcion. It was raining, all day. Go or not go? For a magazine assignment, no question. Just go. But a self assignment? Hey, I could have another latte and do some more computer work. Or watch the new Robin Hood movie for the eighth or ninth time. I could stay here and look out the window, or some other equally necessary and demanding task.

Or, I could hoist the backpack, and once again, trudge through the weather with an anvil on my back, and a tripod in my hand. Met RC, who is this wonderful font of shooting enthusiasm, and off we went. Had made arrangements via a dear friend, who has friendly neighbors who have that rarest of NY things–a view.

We saw some blue sky walking over, and our spirits rose. Then we went inside an elevator, and like some beam machine from Star Trek, it transported us to another world. We were all of a sudden up and out on a misty deck–and in the heaviest rain of the day. We stood there, getting soaked. Went inside and started dripping on towels, shoulders slumped, about to have the “What bar do you want to go to dude?” conversation when RC’s eyes went saucer like, and he shouted, “Get the cameras!”


Outside, the skies had cleared, and it was like one of those fellas from Greek mythology just threw a multi-hued javelin right into the park. I think that’s about 83rd St., right in the middle of the Great Lawn. That’s NY, right? Just when you think you got a one way ticket to Pismo Beach, you turn around and you’re in Fat City. (The opposite happens much more frequently.) Never seen a rainbow like this in the park, but that’s mostly ’cause I ain’t ever had a view like this before. In my second apartment in NY, I could see the park from my fire escape if I taped a mirror to a broom handle and ran it out a few feet.

Fall in NY also means it’s time for PPE at the Javits Center. If you see me walking around, talking to myself like a crazy street person who somehow got a speaker’s credential, interrupt me and say hi. Or come to my class this am, starts at 8:45.


Did I say walking around? Make that limping. Went to the chiropractor yesterday. He scanned my feet. See the ones on the right? Those are optimal feet, like, ones that have an arch. The ones on the left are mine. He was shocked. He said, “You have really flat feet!” I guess in chiropractic school there’s a course called “Stating the Obvious 302.”

I’ve been carrying lots of gear on the equivalent of pancakes for 35 years. My body’s basically a train wreck with legs. I’m Irish Catholic, so I readily accept that fact that if something doesn’t hurt, I should check my pulse.


Hey, at PPE, got this thing going. I’m going to BE winging my way by the Adorama booth, where there will be a stash of autographed copies of my new LIFE book. I’ll be tweeting things like, “I”ll be at THE Adorama Booth from 3:15 till 3:30. First one to come up to me in the booth and say some nutty phrase that will be in the tweet gets a book. No hi’s, or how are ya’s. Just walk up and say the phrase, which will be something incredibly stupid I’ll dream up like, “Group A, Channel One,” or, “Ansel Adams used a point and shoot.” Just the phrase. Get a book. I’ll be doing it all 3 days, and will have short times I’ll be at the booth. Got like, 40 books. Hope to give ’em all away. Stay tuned to the twitter alerts!

Welcome to NY everybody….more tk….

V-Flat Questions….

Aug 24

In Rambling at 2:02am


There were a bunch of really good questions from yesterday’s post, so I’ll do my best here….

Dick Wood says:
on August 23, 2010 at 5:57 am

Great how to. but I have one small question. Where do you aim the speedlights in the V-flats? the ceiling , into the flats, of bounce them off of the back wall?

Dick WoodPS Love the shorts.

Generally I aim them straight into the “V” portion of the boards, and make sure the flash(es) are tucked in there and don’t have a chance to spill hard light to the sides. The v shape collects the light and pushes towards the wall at the shooter’s back. Then, it rushes towards the subject with the power of a thousand suns!

On the shorts front, I borrowed them from Hobby. As you can see, my legs are plus 2 EV.

Pete says:
on August 23, 2010 at 7:40 am
Thanks for another great insight into your work Joe.

I have a question though, doesn’t the photog (or ‘Numnuts’ in this case) cast a shadow over the subject? I guess the whole back wall becomes the light source and so maybe wraps around the camera operator?

It doesn’t, oddly enough. You would think it would, but in my experience, no. Now, it could happen. Here’s the thing. I trot this technique out every once in a while, and I’m sure there are iterations of it that are better, or levels of experimentation with it that I haven’t taken the time to investigate. So, I guess, I should qualify and say, you know, I haven’t had that specific issue. Now, if you’re a photo enthusiast, and you want to shoot your 5 year old twins this way, and your day job is being the right tackle on the offensive line of the New England Patriots, all bets are off.

Mike says:
on August 23, 2010 at 8:06 am
Very cool, but with SB flashes, what kind of ISO and f/stop are you getting? Bouncing the light twice has to really suck up the light. Looks like you’re doing shallow DOF, but still curious how high you need to ramp the ISO to make this work well.

Again, in my experience, ISO 200 with this rig gives you a pretty decent f-stop. That is part of the reason (here’s Joe “Overkill” McNally at work again) I use the four SB units. Dividing the labor taxes them at a lower stress level than using two. Having said that, have done it with two, and jacked my ISO to 400 or 800 and it works fine. The nice thing about doing a TTL thing here, is that you can flick some buttons on the master, and go from you know, f5.6, to f2. Work this setup at min DOF, and it rocks.

Ranger 9 says:
on August 23, 2010 at 8:11 am
Great idea, and impressive that you can get enough light out of it to shoot at ISO200/f4!

But did you really use just the flats and wall bounce for the top photo (mcnallyshow-143, the flying-haired young lady with the whatsit on her head)? Can’t understand how you’d get the hair backlight and the highlight on her temple with this setup. Did you do this with a reflector, or did it need another light, or what?

Good pickup, Ranger 9. This was done ad hoc, spur of the moment. They young lady in question has hair that calls for a studio fan to put on wheels and just walked around with her all day long. So, I tried an experiment. The v-flat lighting was done, and that indeed is the light that governs her face. But there was abundant ambient light in the studio and it got me to thinking, always a dangerous thing. I didn’t want my shutter/f-stop combo to get too close to the level of ambient, ’cause you lose the impact of the lighting rig, so I moved a daylight balance steady source (more on these sources in a future blog) in off her shoulder and behind her, to camera right. It is a soft source, running through a medium soft box. It gave her hair a easygoing jolt of fairly concentrated non-flashed light. We moved in the studio fan, and I dragged my shutter a bit, I think to around 1/15th. The result is her hair takes off in the breeze, and a highlight comes in around her temple. I was courting disaster here, hovering around Ice Planet 255, but we squeaked it through and managed to just hold on to, as Father Bob would call them, the holy highlights.

This just in….Father Bob has gone astray, evidently, from a recent perusal of his blog. He’s evidently left the Franciscan Order, and is now involved in some sort of new age swami shit. (See below.)


Where am I gonna go to confession next year?

AYRTON360 says:
on August 23, 2010 at 9:09 am
I always love to come here to read more about your shots.
I’ve been following your work, since the 80’s when I was hired by you as a second assistant, in Los Angeles, to do a shoot in the desert of some big Parabolic Antennas for a Fortune edition
Thanks a lot

Good to hear from you Ayrton. Surprised you still speak to me after one of the worst jobs ever. Lighting huge parabolics out in the desert in August, with the shape of the dishes collecting the sun. Felt like an ant under a magnifying glass. Then of course, there were the tarantulas.



Brock Lawson says:
on August 23, 2010 at 9:15 am
Where can one purchase that large of a piece of foam core board?

They’re not too tough to get. We order sometimes from Pearl Paint down in NY. Any decent size graphic arts supplier, or set shop, or even grip house should carry them. (These are also a rentable item.)We do 4×8’s black on one side, white on the other. They last a long time, and literally, a smart, cheap investment if you have a home studio.

Alex H says:
on August 23, 2010 at 10:18 am
Joe, long time reader, first time commenter.I just have a couple questions you might help me answer. What power were you shooting the SB-900’s at,or was it all TTL? Do you get a different effect based on the height of the ceiling? Also, are you going to post more on the Flexes you’ve been playing with? Thanks for all of the insight you’ve provided over the years. It’s been invaluable to me!

The ceiling comes into play, for sure, just ’cause there’s such a wash of light you are creating. It’s gonna fly off that puppy, depending on the height. I tend to think of it as a good thing, just a piece of a “poor man’s cove” that continues the bounce effect that Mr. Bensimon used so well. And yeah, absolutely, will be letting fly with some info on the Minis and Flexes, as soon as I can get something I’m happy with.

Matt Hunt says:
on August 23, 2010 at 11:42 am
Thanks for that, dumb question but I am guessing the heads are fairly well zoomed out for this e.g. you’re not at 35mm zoom on the flash heads? From the pictures above it has to go..25-30 feet to actually reach the subject? Or, are they firing at nigh on full power?

Tx, Matt

It’s actually a really good question, and the answer might be a bit surprising. I leave the dome diffusers on, and consequently, the heads zoomed wide, so the effect in there is a bit bare tube-ish. In fact, when I use bigger flash heads in this fashion, I generally don’t put reflector pans on them. I want radiance, not direction. Now–again, I emphasize, this is just me talking. I’m sure there are folks out there using this technique who have gotten it fine tuned to a degree that they zoom their lights into the v-flats for extra punch, and it works real well. This is just me talking, and at this point in my career, after all the flash exposures I’ve made,  I’ve got about six working synapses left.

Al says:
on August 23, 2010 at 12:34 pm
What are the pro’s/cons of using V-flats versus just bouncing off the rear wall? Seems you would lose less light by bouncing once rather than twice.

Done the straight up wall bounce thing occasionally, to be sure, and it works well. It has a bit more punch and clarity, perhaps. The “ping pong” you play with the light in this technique is softer, but you def. lose light, and hence f-stop.

Hope this is helpful, gang….more tk….