Saturday, July 24, 2010

Readers perspective of Joe McNally’s One-Day Lighting Workshops

The photography club which I co-lead is made up of 2300+ members around the world, and just by coincidence two of our members recently attended Joe McNally’s One-Day Lighting Workshops and shared their experiences with the group. Now if you know anything about the photography industry, you know that Joe McNally (who’s on my Top Photographers list) is like a god of lighting that even the most respected Top Photographers in the industry bow down to his amazing body of work and quick thinking. It’s probably on the bucket list of many of them (and definitely mine) to attend one of Joe’s workshops to learn from the grand pooh bah of Speedlights, so I thought you’d enjoy hearing these club members perspective on his class.

Perspective #1 by Ken Moore

Last week I attended one of Joe McNally’s One Day Basic Lighting workshops and Ron invited me to share my experience with, you, his readers. If you’re interested in attending one of his workshops and wondering whether you should attend the Basic or Advanced workshop, you probably want to start with the Basic one. He’s been a pro for over thirty years and the class moves along at a pretty fast pace, so what’s “basic” to Joe seemed fairly advanced to me.

Roughly half the fifteen attendees were working professional photographers. The other half was serious amateurs, with day jobs outside the photography industry. Every attendee brought some kind of full-frame camera. Although Joe uses Nikon cameras (and his wife works for Nikon), he kept the class camera-neutral. 4 of the 15 attendees were Canon shooters and everyone else had a D700, D3, or D3s.

Joe started the class with a slide show of some of his work, commenting on how he lit each one (“big lights - outside,” “small lights with bounce fill”). He polled the group for whether we had a preference for working the small lights or big lights and the group’s preference was for small lights. So, we used SB-900s for most of the day. He then described most of the items in the studio (umbrellas, soft boxes, tri-grip diffusers), explaining why and when he uses each one.

The next three hours had Joe going through various shooting situations, explaining how he deals with various combinations of lighting situations and natural light problems. He started by discussing situations in which TTL metering is fooled and how to compensate. If you look at this blog entry, in which the last two photos were taken in my class, the last photo was taken during that part of the class. The reason I’m not in the picture is Joe asked me to be the “model,” because I was the only person wearing a white shirt and he wanted to show how TTL would underexpose in that situation. (I’m in the picture above that one, the fourth person from the left. That was taken during a break when Drew, one of Joe’s assistants, explained how he preps Joe’s cameras and does sensor cleaning.)

One of my big takeaways from this part of the class was that there is still a lot of trial and error, even for really experienced professionals. It’s just that Joe makes fewer mistakes and converges really fast on a good image. The picture below was taken during one of those situations, as Joe was checking the monitor while working through a backlighting scenario.

After a few situations, it’s clear he works pretty much the same way with every scene and model:

  1. Evaluate a picture taken with available light. Adjust the composition and expose to get all those elements as intended. (He always starts in Aperture priority, AWB, and maximum flash sync shutter speed (1/250 for D3s). The lens he used most of the time was the 70-200 f2.8 zoom).
  2. Add the main light(s) and adjust as necessary, always starting with TTL metering. In Nikon’s CLS system, main lights are always in Group A, fill lights in Group B, and background lights in Group C. Don’t add fill (lights or bounce) until the main light is set correctly.
  3. Add the fill light(s) and make adjustments.
  4. Add the background lights and make adjustments.
  5. Work with the model and take enough pictures until getting the one that “hits.”

After lunch, Joe worked through a few more complicated situations, including one that used big lights (Elinchrom Rotalux “Deep Throat” Octa 39″ Softbox) combined with SB-900s in SU-4 remote mode. In the picture below, which was taken during that scenario, Joe is using the Nikkor 200mm F2 on his D3s.

After that, he split the group into 4 teams, each with a model, and sent us off to take pictures anywhere inside or outside the building using just one SB-900, but any combination of modifiers and reflectors we wanted. (One team was all the Canon shooters.) This was difficult, but a really great learning experience. It was the first time for me working with a team of assistants and a professional model, but the hard part was communicating what I was trying to shoot and coordinating all of them. It was also educational being an assistant for someone else, while trying to help them get the shot they were looking for. Periodically, Joe would check each team and ask how it was going. It’s one thing to look over his shoulder while he’s working, but having him looking over mine added to the pressure. It’s probably what working pros have to deal with when their art director or client wants to see how it’s going, so I guess it added to the experience. I can’t say I got results anywhere close to what Joe did, but I tried some new things are below are a couple of pictures that I shot:

At the end of the day, while we were uploading files for the models, Joe answered our remaining questions. I got more out of the day than I expected and really learned a lot. Mostly, I’ve got some new ideas and experiments to run, so I’m looking forward to shooting them. Joe’s a great instructor and he always kept the group engaged, often with his celebrity anecdotes and wacky sense of humor.I really enjoyed the workshop and highly recommend it.

Perspective #2 – John DuBois

There are a good number of great, enthusiastic shooters where Ken and Ron work, I count myself lucky enough (thankful really) to be part of that group. Ron also asked me to write some comments about my experiences. It was the luck of a timely business trip for me that created the opportunity to attend one of Joe McNally’s Lighting Workshops. A rare treat! I attended an advanced workshop later in the week.

As Joe would say I’m a repeat offender having had a prior experience through his work with the Digital Landscape Workshop Series folks. In DLWS there are several lighting sessions where Joe discusses and demonstrates lighting and using small flash during “class” time or out in the field. The fast pace that Ken mentioned is definitely an ingredient of the lighting segments in that program and I think just a natural result of Joe’s teaching by doing style using real world examples. I talked with attendees that also attended on earlier days and they shared that those workshops were similar in content to ours that day with the pace juiced a little bit more.

He asked the group as we went through the day what we wanted to do next (“would you like to work that big light example we just did only with small flash or would you…”) and the day just played from there – a question asked, some class feedback, a problem to light emerges and then we dive in and get it sorted out. If you’ve read “The Moment It Clicks” or “Hot Shoe Diaries” or viewed Joe’s online training via Kelby Training, this approach will be immediately familiar. A lot of the technique is covered in “Hot Shoe Diaries”. What a live class with a small group adds is a much more direct and intimate experience with the process - the dynamic of going from start to finish while also directly observing 30 years of pro experience working through a problem in real time (you don’t realize until the end when it’s your turn to shoot with a team how much that experience counts). That dynamic also includes some overlooked aspects of studio work such as working with, talking to, caring for the people involved especially the model. Much of the success of the final image also comes from someone who is secure in front of the camera surrounded by all of the commotion of setting up the shot - that is also the photographer’s responsibility.

We ran into lighting snags (flashes wouldn’t fire, drifted up into high speed sync, too much ambient, not enough flash) to work out along the way and that was part of the fun. Ken described a good bit of the process in his post. One consistent area of Joe’s comments stuck with me and it all had to do about light – “quality of light”, “wrapping around”, “light draping the subject’s face”, “lovely, soft” etc etc. He’s thinking of those elements as it builds the shot. Consistency also helps keep things simple in what can get very complicated (and confusing) very fast and when things didn’t stay simple often the best recourse was to reset from a good starting point and work forward again, we did that enough for me to see the value in that approach, something I had to apply myself later in the workshop. We also were able to step into the shots ourselves after they were mostly setup and try a handful of captures individually. If I had Joe McNally to setup and light a scene and then just step in and shoot... was I dreaming?

I came away with wanting to add one inexpensive piece of gear to my kit and that was the Ray Flash ring flash that Ron has mentioned on his blog (which includes a discount!!!!). The Ray Flash produces a direct, shadow-less light source that surprised me in its simplicity and amazed me with the final images. We used it for several lighting problems and several images appear on Joe’s blog from the workshops.

Ken outlined the way Joe breaks down a problem and builds up a solution in his post and Joe followed that path during the workshop that I attended to. I thought I would share how that was done for an image that was posted on Joe’s blog that was shot in the workshop that I attended and then show an example from my time with one of the models during the workshop.

We went into one of the “unique” spaces that the Dobbs Ferry Building offered with a model and the first thing he does is size up the overall feel of the ambient light and finds an exposure value that gives more control of that ambient when used with flash. Below is an available light shot of the raw material of the shoot.

Next setting the lights – this would be shot with a single overhead light through an umbrella.

Add some interest to the shot – Joe experiments with the white balance of the shot and goes to a tungsten in camera setting to change the mode of the ambient to a much cooler value and then gels the flash with a full cut and a half CTO (color temperature orange) counter the white balance change and bring the light first to a neutral level and then warmer (this is the light hitting the subject). A bunch of shots follow…

You can see on the monitor where the shot headed – the background is pushed back, the feel of the room is a cooler blue and yet the model radiates a warmer tone with a nice balance of light. One light, camera left, one reflector for a little fill. He also has the model orient himself to the light so that the line through the shoulders is on the focus plane of the camera. A final version of this is posted on Joe’s blog from that day. Fun to watch and learned a lot along the way.

My model shots from the end of the day were also part of the fun, all done as with Ken with a team sharing time together over roughly 90 minutes. It was a very intense experience; mostly with one with one off-camera flash and some diffusers/reflectors. If there’s a lesson I took away – it is practice, practice and… wait for it… practice (stuff just has to become automatic so it stays out of the way). Keep things simple and have a repeatable process that can be reset to a baseline when things don’t work out.

Like the previous example, I did a background test shot to see where the ambient was and get an exposure for the camera that gave me control of the background light – I wanted it to go dark with a hint of the light and shadow from the windows hitting the backdrop and then found a starting value for the flash which was camera right through a Tri-Grip diffuser panel held by an assistant.

Once those were set, it was a matter of posing the model, adjusting camera exposure, flash output, flash placement and the placement of a reflector below the model to balance out the lighting. There’s a lot going on even with just one flash and a reflector – you learn the practical reasons for keeping things simple – it helps you to remain sane.

I experimented with different light placements – keeping the flash (and panel) just out of view on the right to get a nice glow of light on the model with some hint of background and shadow from the windows to the left. Later with more experience and practice adding more variation and lighting can come along. But there’s a lot that can be accomplished with just one (ok, maybe two) small flashes. Hard to believe it was shot in the same brightly lit space that Ken illustrated in his shots of the studio space.

It was a great experience, a chance to learn a lot. The first thing I did when I got home (and rested) was dig out those books to re-read.

Click here to see more of John’s images from the workshop.


Okay now that didn’t help matters one bit as I’m ready to take a vacation from work and go to Joe’s next workshop! It definitely sounds like some fun stuff that I’ll have to check out one day after I win the lottery <g>. Joe’s rates are dirt cheap (about 10% of what some people of his caliber charge) and appear to be very hands on, so I’d encourage you to check out his workshop schedule and sign up for one today if your schedule permits!

I’d like to thank Ken and John for taking the time to clean up their emails for your viewing pleasure on this blog. I’d also like to thank Joe McNally for giving us the permission we needed to repost some of these images for this editorial piece on his workshops.


Ken and John volunteered for the content in this article and were not compensated in any way for this content. All images are used with their consent and permission as well as Joe McNally’s. None of us get any commission or benefit in any way if you take Joe’s workshops, so I’m doing this strictly as a community service write up and as a favor to Joe who has been very kind to me in the past. I will get a tiny commission if you purchase a product using the product links in the article that go to Adorama or B&H, so thanks for supporting this blog!

If you are featured in any of the images in this editorial article and have any concerns in any way, please don’t hesitate to contact me at so we can address your concerns immediately.

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