Monday, May 13, 2013

A Day With Joe McNally

Joe McNally provides tips on lighting
Even though a few weeks have passed, I'm still marveling at what a great experience I had spending a day with the one, the only, +Joe McNally during Tuesday's pre-conference Workshop at the recent Photoshop World. Joe's pre-con workshop was  "Characters on Location! Telling Stories With Light", a 7-hour McNally-fest into his world of lighting.

I began following Joe's work a few years ago after hearing +Scott Kelby rave about Joe. I knew that Joe wasn't just another pretty face in the world of photography, he was the real deal. Joe's accomplishments include numerous cover assignments for TIME, Newsweek, and Fortune, to name a few. He has shot for Sports Illustrated, LIFE magazine, and has been an ongoing contributor to National Geographic for over 20 years. That's a pretty sporty resume, my friends. But over the past few years, I wasn't fully aware of just how much Joe pioneered the use of hot shoe flashes in outdoor settings like no one else.

So, when I was trying to pick one of the pre-con workshops to attend, I had to flip a coin between Joe's workshop and +Moose Peterson's workshop. Moose was leading a group at a local airport to shoot vintage airplanes and models dressed in period outfits, something I dearly wanted to do. But, I couldn't do both so I had to choose, and the only way to do it was to flip a coin - heads was Joe, tails was Moose. It was a win-win for me any way the coin flip turned out. Joe won, so next PSW, I'll be going with Moose.

The studio. Joe (L, with Nadia) explains his image possibilities to the group
Joe's workshop began at noon at the convention center and included a one-hour, give and take discussion on lighting while we ate a yummy boxed lunch. Within a matter of seconds, it became readily apparent that not only was Joe much more than I thought as a photographer, he was the most down to earth, nicest guy you'd ever want to meet. We were treated to a sampling of Joe's work, the stories behind some of the images, and how he approached the lighting setups as the appetizer to what would be an incredible main course.

While Joe took us into his lighting world, a downtown Orlando photo studio was being prepared with sets, makeup artists, hair dressers and assistants getting ready for us to come over by bus for a photo shoot. Five different sets were being created, each with different lighting set ups and backdrops for us to use. Five different models were booked, dressed, coiffed and made up as befitting their "character": a firefighter with full gear; a shirtless, skater-looking guy;  a "country" girl; a vampy looking fitness girl; and Nadia, a rhythm gymnast. Nadia had three hula hoop-type silver rings and, holy moly, the things she could do with those rings.

Three of the five sets with their respective models
Four sets were inside the photo studio with the fifth one located just outside the back door of the studio along its orange wall. Each set's lights were set up and metered before we arrived and the suggested exposures were prominently displayed on a sheet of paper taped to a light stand. This information gave us an exposure starting point for each set which was very helpful, avoiding each person having to guess at what settings with which to start. This greatly sped up the shooting process so all the workshop participants could have enough time to get their shots in and move on to the next set. Even with some 10-20 people waiting their turn at every set, things flowed smoothly.  Everyone had plenty of time to compose, direct the models, have the lights adjusted or moved, and shoot.

The outdoor set
When we first arrived at the studio, Joe took us through each of the sets and gave us a brief run through on what he might do on each. He then turned us loose to shoot. As we did, Joe walked from set to set making suggestions, offering insight, and challenging us to create different atmosphere with the lighting at our disposal.

The vamp
No question went unanswered. If I wanted to know how Joe might create a certain mood, shadow, or look with any of the models or on any of the sets, I simply had to ask and Joe would walk me through how he would do it . Many times, he suggested something that he thought might be better or more interesting. He encouraged us to direct the models to ensure individuality in our images, a great way to gain experience in posing models under the tutelage of a master.

Nadia, with one of her hoops
After everyone had their turn with the models/setups, Joe stepped up and did his own photo shoot, indoors and outdoors. He gave us a one-hour demonstration on how he works with both studio lights and hot shoe strobes, and after that, the models changed sets and we were back to shooting. The workshop wrapped up at 6:00 pm when we boarded the bus and headed back to the conference center while Joe answered questions in his affable, humble manner.

My attempt to go artsy fartsy with firefighter guy 
Firefighter guy
Country girl

It would be impossible for me to go through all the things I learned during the workshop so I won't even try. If you have any interest at all in lighting and you have a chance to attend one of Joe's workshops, don't give it a second thought. I enjoyed Joe so much that I followed the workshop up by attending his conference session on Wednesday, "Hot Shoe Flash - The Next Step". This session took what I learned during the workshop to the next level. After I walked out of Joe's hot shoe class, combined with the things Joe showed us at the pre-con workshop, I realized just how much I had been missing in terms of image creation by being so ignorant as to the oh-so-many potential uses for hot shoe strobes, indoors and outdoors. Until PSW, I used a hot shoe flash only to light up shots I knew I couldn't get without natural light. Duh.

Skater guy
As soon as I returned from Orlando, I have engaged in a mission to beef up my hot shoe strobe gear.  I jumped on two used Nikon SB-800's and a used SB-600 to go with the SB-900, SB-800 and SB-28 I already owned. Nikon's SB900, SB-800 and SB-600 (and the newer SB-910) are part of Nikon's Continuous Lighting System (CLS) and all can be triggered wirelessly in a variety of ways (like by my SU-800 Commander transmitter) without need for pocket wizards or other such triggers. I also found a used Nikon SU-4 wireless remote that will allow me to use the SB-28 in TTL (and manual) mode and fire it in conjunction with the other Nikon CLS strobes. I'm still on the lookout for two more used SB-600's so I can use three of them on a new 3-strobe bracket and my new 7' parabolic shoot-through umbrella (Joe turned us on to this bad boy during the workshop).

Nadia, part deux
With the insights provided by Joe, I'm excited about the prospect of a whole new world of image creation possibilities outdoors. I know I will never have access to the countless hot shoe strobes Joe uses, but with three SB-800's, three SB-600's, an SB-900 and an SB-28, I'll be equipped for a lot of different types of lighting that I can't wait to use. I will no longer be chained to the studio for studio quality lighting and other images will be so much cooler as I supplement natural light with strobes or shoot on location indoors without having to lug a bunch of studio lights with me.

Thanks for bringing me out of the dark ages, Joe. I owe you big time.

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