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Photo Lighting on Location with Photographer Joe McNally

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Joe McNally talks about how the art of compromise that location shooting enforces on the fever-racked imaginations of photographers everywhere has actually saved some from themselves.
This chapter is from the book

SOMETIMES YOU GET TO USE the light you want. Let’s say you’re in the studio and have a complete handle on the situation. (Though, trust me, I’ve had days in the studio—where calm and control are supposed to live—that are just as nutty, in their own perverse way, as a day in the field in the wind and the rain.) But let’s live in a fantasy here, and speak about those days where the entire world seems to be your studio, and the light is nice, and there’s no pressure, and it seems like the vulture of failure that is perennially perched on your shoulder has been temporarily replaced by the bluebird of happy pixels and good light.

The cameras are working, the subjects are forth-coming and attractive, and you are pushing some of the best frames of your life. Just fantastic. Those are rare and balmy days, indeed. I had one in the early spring of ‘92 and I still cling to the memory.

Lots of times, it’s a compromise out there, right? The environment, the timing, the rush of somebody’s schedule, even the ceiling height can conspire against you using the light you want, and putting it where you want. Sometimes, it’s really for the best. The art of compromise that location shooting enforces on the fever-racked imaginations of photographers everywhere has actually saved some from themselves. I have looked on scenes and imagined what I could do with a few 12k movie lights and some substantial scissor lifts and cranes—not to mention the smoke machines and the pyrotechnic crew—and seen the colors dance in my head. Then I shake that same head vigorously, give myself a couple good whacks to the face, and realize I ain’t gonna do any of what I just imagined. I’m gonna put one light up in the foreground, ‘cause that’s what I’ve got, and drag my shutter for the background. And that background is going to be what it’s going to be, despite my fanciful yearnings.


Cold weather and wind can really limit your lighting options, that’s for sure. You can’t put up massive lights in the wind, and the cold makes you and everyone, including your subjects, potentially uncomfortable. In adverse weather, it’s best to keep it simple. I learned this in truly epic fashion when I shot legendary dancer Gregory Hines on a pier in the New York harbor.

I foolishly set up a 12′ silk on a frame, with stands and sandbags, in what was an almost nonexistent wind. Had my 12′ Gitzo tripod, and a ladder next to it. Thankfully, there was no camera on the tripod.

Because, the next thing I heard after I turned my back on the rig (yet another bad idea) was Michael, a big Irish bloke who used to help me around New York, shout, “Oy!” I turned to see him let go of the seriously out of control silk and frame as it literally walked, propelled by a sudden gust, corner over corner, off the dock and into the Hudson River, taking the ladder and the tripod with it. I remember standing at the edge of the dock, watching my gear bubble it’s way downward into the Hudson murk, looking at Michael and saying, “I guess I’m going handheld.” I was back to basics. Get it done, quick and dirty, in the wind. I got a celeb on a dock for about 45 minutes. Breathe, Joe, breathe.

Which is what I did. I put up one light on a stand. No umbrella. Not even the hint of a softbox. Raw light, just like the sun. I wired it to a radio, and blasted it at Hines, who was just cool enough to pull off a smooth elegance despite the crude nature of my flash treatment. My rosy dreams of big, beautiful light went to the bottom of the river. So did any notion of gradation, or subtlety. Notice the pylons Hines is standing on. Could I have lit them any frikkin’ brighter? Drives me mad when I lose the ability to shape light. On the other hand, my watery misadventure caused me to rethink the location.


I then put him out of the wind, at the other end of the pier, lit him nicely with one mid-size softbox off to camera right. Nothing fancy. Again, ever the pro, he posed for me, unfazed by my readily apparent idiocy. He was so smooth and graceful, he actually relaxed me, back at the lens. Then he gave me a frame, arching his head back in mirth, which became the picture People magazine ran with. (Was this wonderful expression a gift to me of a seasoned artist, used to being in front of camera, and knowing what a magazine wants? Or was he just plain and simple laughing at me?)

Whatever the motivation, it worked, and remains one of my favorite pictures of a performer whose talents we miss.

I got my tripod back, by the way. Nice thing about Gitzos is they’ve got a lifetime guarantee, and they’ll fix it for you, almost no matter what you’ve done to it. A couple of NY/NJ Port Authority divers were on the dock and witnessed the whole thing. After stemming their laughter, they approached me and told me they knew the river pretty well, and could fish out my gear for $300. Seeing as the Gitzo was over a grand, and had that warranty, I said yes immediately, and they snatched that puppy out of the Hudson by late afternoon. I sent it into the manufacturer with the simple explanation: “Water damage.” (It sounded better than: “Outright stupidity.”) They cleaned it and fixed it for me, and I still use it.

These are some hard-won lessons in photography that thankfully stay with me, and certain mistakes I at least try not to repeat. In Iceland, famed for tough weather, working in the wind—raw even in August—I kept it simple. I shot up there for one week last year, had a great time, learned a ton, and used one light. Now, that light took several different forms, but it was one flash, and one flash only, all the time.


Remember when Iceland recently blew its top and shut down Europe? That little pressure cooker of an island just sits there and vents, all day long. The steamy volcanic guts of this piece of rock in the ocean create startling blue mineral waters, wonderful skies, and slippery, craggy shorelines. And when you have a model out there on those slick rocks, and you are both hovering over water that can potentially scald you, it’s time to put the kicker lights, hair lights, and side lights away. Get a main light in a good position, frame it well, and start shooting.

It was also a time when dragging the weight of a C-stand along became oh so worth it. That type of stand, with an extension arm, gave me two things: a solid base for a pretty sizable light source, and the ability, via the arm, to leverage the light into good place for my subject without constraining me compositionally. As you can see from the rather odd production pix, we are tiptoeing on rocks at the edge of a mineral-laden lagoon, using an Elinchrom Deep Octa as our one and only source. Actually, of course, there are two sources: my Octa and the natural light. The natural light is far and away the most important light. It illuminates everything but Sara. The fading sweep of sunset is a global input to the entire photographic equation, while the flash is local, only meant to selectively draw the viewer’s eye to my principal subject.

That’s the somewhat ironical notion about being a “flash” photographer. Always, always, the first snaps you make on location, before you drag out the cables and wires, should be of the ambient light condition. Even if there is no ambient light, or you don’t think there is any to speak of, make some pictures. Digital cameras, increasingly sensitive and detail rich, will surprise you. Where your naked eye sees blackness at its first pass, the digital exposure machine might pick up a glimmer, or more. So, reassure yourself of the darkness or the brightness of the scene. It’s only after this process of evaluating the existing light levels that you really know how you might “light” something.

And honestly, out there on wild Icelandic shores, it would be far too grand a claim for me to say, “I lit this picture.” It is lit for me. In this situation, your compositional skills as a shooter override the lighting considerations. You first and foremost have to find someplace to settle the camera and your subject. Some things raced through my head.

Comfort of the subject was one thing, and her ability to actually perch on the rocks without appearing to be painfully contorted.

Staying low to the water was another. That allowed my lens to sweep over a big swatch of wonderful color, and at the same time keep her in relative darkness. If she stood up, or if we went to higher ground, I would have lost the immediacy of being on the edge of the famed mineral waters of Iceland, and she would be much more exposed to the brightness of the sunset. Where we were located, down low, I could adequately supply her with my light while the sunset does everything else. With her in subdued shadow, my light doesn’t have to fight the sun. I have more control. The lighthouse in the distance also gave me a nice, graphic exclamation point in the deep background, which is still gloriously lit by sunset.

There’s a lovely scene, a terrific model, and all sorts of expensive photo gear that does all manner of things for me, automatically and well. So, what’s left to me? Well, for starters, try not to screw it up. It sounds like I’m making a joke, but I’m not. Occasionally, we have to force a picture, right? Sometimes—make that many times—we work so hard on location, grinding out a picture, making something out of nothing, we might as well be one of those Irish fellas in the forward compartments of the Titanic, shoveling coal like there’s no tomorrow, which sadly, for them, there wasn’t. (Hmmm... the gang furiously shoveling coal in the lowest, most forbidding sections of a doomed ship...and... photographers. What do these two groups have in common?)

  • “It is only after this process of evaluating the existing light levels that you really know how you might ‘light’ something.”

Thankfully, this wasn’t one of those grimy, sweaty times in the field. Here, all the grace elements of a potentially good photo came together out there in cold, and relatively quickly. So, my very real mission was to not screw this up with bad camera or light technique.

The Deep Octa is a simple, elegant solution. It’s a one-stop-shopping of a medium type of softbox. As its name implies, it has a depth of construction that helps columnate the light and an interior baffle that softens the blast of the flash, deep in its core, before the light even hits the exterior diffuser skin. The result is a richness of tonality few normal softboxes can approach. (When I say “normal,” I mean the more standard configuration of a light box, which is much more shallow than the Deep Octa.)

It was a good light for Sara. It embraced her face well, and dropped off into muted shadows in a wonderfully natural way. Soft and easy, with no telltale strobe hits or harshness. Thank goodness. It would have been difficult out there to adjust this light to, say, eliminate a hot spot, or to redirect it in any manner via a cutter or fill board. We were, literally, on the rocks. I positioned the light, triggered it with an Elinchrom Skyport radio—thus keeping connecting cords to a minimum—and started shooting.

The light in the Octa is an Elinchrom Quadra unit, and you will see various notes about the Quadra throughout this book. I use it, and, I have to say, it’s pretty good. There are things I look forward to them improving, like the optical sensor eye on the top panel and the overall construction of the unit. (The plastic clips used to couple the battery to the base of the unit need beefing up.) But overall, it’s a smart foray into that frontier land between small flash and outright big flash. The unit, no bigger than a small lunchbox, gives you 400 Ws of power through two asymmetrical flash head ports. Pretty cool. Given the asymmetry of the pack, you can ratio a flash head from 6 watt-seconds to 400, which is great range.

It’s also got a Skyport radio receiver embedded in the guts of the pack, which is a beautiful thing when it works. (All radio systems are beautiful things when they work, right?) The nifty feature for me—here, out on the rocks, in the wind—is that I can ratio the power pack right from the Skyport transmitter hot shoed to the camera, by tenths of stops. If I look at the LCD (to judge my relative exposure, God forgive me my sins!) and need more or less pop, I can signal it up and down by tenth-stop clicks. Luckily, even after 35 years in the field, I can still count to 10.

The light is beautiful, both background and foreground, and matched up well at a combination of 1/60th at f/4. Lens is at 48 mil, D3X on manual. (I’m not using TTL Speedlights, so manual all the way, both at the light and at the camera.) A nice picture of Sara at what I guess Icelanders would call a beach.

The Deep Octa also follows that old lighting principle of big and close equals soft and diffuse. Take a look at the soft but sharp quality of light on the model’s face in the pic on the previous page, as the northern sky catches fire and the lagoon fades into a muted blue. This light works, from two feet, five feet, or ten feet away. Very, very versatile. I would have to say, if my “bigger” lights go out with me, this softbox does too, all the time.

  • “My strategy was not to overwhelm the daylight, but just to literally ‘fill’ Sara’s face with a smallish pop of light.”

Further into the Wild, and the Cold! Iceland is a Crazy Place

When your bikini-clad model is perched at the bow of a boat moving amongst icebergs, and the water temp five feet below her is such that if she falls in, she will be dead within two minutes, you really pare down the light paraphernalia to the absolute minimum. (Not that she was going anywhere. We had an Icelandic safety guide as her spotter and rescue swimmer, clad in an emergency buoyancy suit, standing just off camera, next to her. You can barely see him from the angle of the production picture [following page], but he’s just behind me. Not surprising. Clad in a winter coat and wrapped with a life vest, I could easily block your view of an aircraft carrier, should one of those happened to have been in the lagoon.)

It was still a pretty bright, blue sky Iceland day, so power was an issue for small flash here. My strategy was not to overwhelm the daylight, but just to literally “fill” Sara’s face with a smallish pop of light. Modest goals, in a difficult logistical situation. Just to keep it simple, and do the one bag o’ gear thing on the boat, I didn’t bother bringing big flash. I first tried a 24″ Ezybox Hotshoe softbox as a light source. No go. Not enough power translation from the small flash to the subject through that modestly sized box. Jumped from there to just a raw flash.

Didn’t like it. Too raw, no eloquence. Okay, what’s in between? As I mentioned earlier, LumiQuest has been making pretty cool, small, collapsible, cheap light shapers for a long while now, so I grabbed a SoftBox III. Figured if I could maneuver it in close enough to her, it would give me decent light, and just enough of it.

Bingo. Small, cheap, and fast. The paint pole: literally a Shur-Line Easy Reach paint pole, available at Amazon or a hardware store, is simple, easy, light, inexpensive, and indispensable. It can extend the reach of your light and give you flexibility in a nutty situation, such as a boat floating amongst a bunch of killer icebergs. The LumiQuest SoftBox III: also cheap, small, light, and it stuffs in the smallest of camera bags. Goes with me on every shoot.


Back to the power issue. The final settings are 1/250th at f/14. D3X, ISO 200, 14–24mm zoom, racked out to 24 mil. Flat-out manual, 1/1 on the SB-900: full power, no frills. A place for high-speed sync and a more open f-stop, perhaps? Yes, of course. I could have gone to high-speed sync, but I would have most likely remained at or near highest power on the flash, given my working distance. (High-speed sync technique is discussed in just a little bit, later in this chapter. And there’s a thorough examination of it later in the book, in a story called “The Aesthetics of High-Speed Flash.”) Working in high-speed territory, though, with a mega-fast shutter speed, would have required me to use extremely wide-open f-stop settings, such as f/2 or f/1.4. And that would have rendered the icebergs as out-of-focus textures at best, or bluish blobs at worst, and, frankly, I wanted to see the icebergs.

I don’t get to Iceland very often, and the juxtaposition of the young lady dressed for a tropical beach with the arctic background was the point of the snap. Hence, I stayed with “normal” flash sync of 1/250th of a second, and worked my f-stop into something that would keep the background in balance, and pretty sharp.

On page is a JPEG out of the camera. And next to it is what Drew, my assistant, did to it in post. Simple and clean. Good pop to the light. After post, the railing is gone. Modest goals, simply accomplished.

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