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Flash: Large and Small

Lesson 30 from: Lighting, Logistics, and Strategies for a Life in Photography

Joe McNally

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Lesson Info

30. Flash: Large and Small

Next Lesson: The Biz: Production


Class Trailer

Class Introduction


Location Assessment


Gear Overview


Direction and Wardrobe


Exploring Location and Available Light


Bar Owner: Setting the Scene


Shoot: Bar Owner


Shoot: Bar Owner, Evolving the Look


Lesson Info

Flash: Large and Small

Well, flash large and small, start here today, 'cause we have done both so far. So, I'll just show you a few examples, talk to you about possibilities, et cetera. Okay, this is a picture of confidence, basically. You have to be very confident to pull off a picture like this, this is a big flash picture. So I just thought I'd rock and roll and start off with like, National Geographic assigns you to shoot telescopes. It's sheer misery, you know. But this is where, again, it relates to a lot of questions you already had this morning. How did I get to this point? I'm on 175 foot boom crane on top of an 11,500 foot mountain shooting the largest binocular telescope in the world. We had to get 175 foot boom crane truck up a 220 switch backs, through a nation park, into an endangered species area. That's when I'm like, Lynn? (laughter) Hello? And we negotiated this with the town, the Mayor, the National Parks Services, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. And many, many permissions later, I finall...

y got here. Now, work, work load, okay? This is a day in the field, National Geographic. We drove up two panel trucks, about 35,000 watt seconds of flash inside of here, about 15-2400 watt second power packs spread all over the place. You might even be able to see it. Down in here someplace, there's a stand, one of my stands, that has a radio transmitter on it, and it's coming to my crane. So I'm flashing all the lights via radio. And, I'm on radio to the crew here, I have a crew of three right here, and we set up this thing all day long. We drove up to the mountain at 4am and two panel trucks, set up all the rough for the lighting, then I got into the crane and I fine tuned it, and then we shot it. I had a narrow window to make this a successful picture. These, that's the West, these are looking East, which is getting blacker by the minute. And when these two mirrors go to completely black, the photograph is over. So I had to make it happen right away. And, 175 foot boom crane, you're on like a toothpick, and it's got a 25 mile an hour tolerance, and that crane is snaking like crazy, and the guys are on the ground in the crane truck going "We gotta pull you down, "We gotta pull you down." And I'm like, "You pull me down, I swear to God "I'll kill you," you know, "you don't touch this "God damn crane." And we made it happen. And it was a team effort, absolute complete team effort. Light is light, is it window light, or is it big flash? Does any body know the name Julian Bond? Classic gentleman and one of my heroes. I photographed him for life. Sadly, he has passed on. Available light: I don't know, ISO 1600 with a 28mm 1. inside his office. Outside there is a lot of snow, and my assistant at that time, John Cospido, is struggling with a Profoto Octa. Fighting his way through the bushes and two foot drifts, trying to get that be one on that window, because that's the only light source. But, my strategy for magazines, I'm making every minute with my client count, okay? Or my subject, 'cause that's their charge to me. So, I don't care about John, I'm very unsympathetic at that point, you know? Get through the snow, get that light in the window. And so, I'm photographing Julian Bond, and then there's the light. John calls to me, I put a radio on the camera, boom, I've got light throughout the room. Soft light, same kind of window light effect, but it warms and makes the room feel more appealing and all of that. Boom, move fast, and then after all of that trouble, you go to the Vietnam wall, and there's beautiful natural light and the flash will stay in the trunk of the car. And that was the picture that ran. So that's a day in the field. You struggle, you shoot, you don't know what's gonna go on, but you all of a sudden get to the Vietnam Wall, and there's absolute beautiful sunset light. Alright, small flash can look like window light too. Alright, that's Little Joe Lassiter, the legendary drummer, at Preservation Hall. I woke up one night, literally in the middle of the night, I was in the middle of a job, I was thinking about locations and what I could do, and I just said to Lynn, get me into Preservation Hall. And so, started making phone calls. I could have made the phone calls, but I haven't got the time to do that because I'm on the road. I'm shooting, so my job is to shoot. I always say their job is kind of the back of the house, I'm the puppy in the window. Oh, hire me, take me home, you know? My job is to get us work. And so, that stuff I just haven't got the time to do. Lynn got us in to Preservation Hall which was wonderful, and he's a wonderful subject, right? But there's two windows in Preservation Hall, right here. There's his drum set, one window here. Has anyone here been to Preservation Hall? Another window here. My lights are out on the street, there's bedsheets out on the windows, alright, making it look like soft daylight. In here, my camera's here, I'm linked, and this is line of sight, I'm linked to my flash right here. This is my trigger flash firing this way. Goes through those silks, picks up those lights out there, and I'm speaking to them TTL. Also, along the way it sprays this way and picks up two other lights that have full cuts of CTO on them. And the full cuts of CTO are just in forming this, back in here, just lifting it a little bit so the rest of Preservation Hall doesn't go dark, and that was the set up there. And we were very efficient about it because there was a time factor with Preservation Hall. But, true enough, when you get into the realm of big flash, there's nothing like a wonderful, simple thing to do, a big pop of light. Five foot octa, camera left, done deal. The hardest part is finding the picture, right? You're out in the desert, the Parakus, down south of Lema, looking around for locations, early morning, sky's flat. But I like the color palat relative to the dress, I thought that was cool, I did not have Lynn on this job, but I did have a local stylist and she was good. Hair and makeup styling was excellent on this job, and Claudia, she's the lady who's in the mirrors. She's actually a lovely, beautiful model. And, easy to work with. Easy as pie to work with, which is great. And so, we found this old boat by the water. Put her there, one light, you can see how she's kind of split lit, there's editorial lighting and then there's other kinds of lighting. Principle, or one of them being corporate lighting. Do you think if she was the president of some huge company, do you think they'd be happy with that kind of lighting in their president? Uh-huh, no. Corporate lighting, move that light around. Put a little fill in, make sure that Mr. And Mrs. Big shot is like, nicely lit, fully lit, hair light, styling, power light, this and that. This is mood lighting. It's one flash off to the side. I don't need to see her whole face, the whole thing is more about advocation of a feeling than it is about identifying her. You can make it look like the setting sun. This is another one of our wonderful models down there. This is an ancient temple where they used to have human sacrifice, so she was styled in kind of this warrior sort of way, with the metallic wrap around her. The sun was going down over here, but it was going down weak. If I shoot her with the available sun, what happens to that monument back there, it's all in the same, it's what we talked about yesterday. If she's 250 f/8, that's 250 f/8 and it just gets too bright and there's no color to it and it becomes gray or just mildly brown as opposed to rich and defined. The shadows are weak, all that sort of stuff. So, I took a Profoto B1, she's looking right at it, so if that, the TV is her, this light is I don't know, another 10 feet that way, with a CTO on it, and a reflector pan. And it's banging her, and what it does at full power, is lift her by about a stop and a half or so. That gives me control over her, and allows me to saturate the background, then I fill the background with the monument. And then I have control over foreground and background. And I haven't disturbed the flow of light, because my warm gelled flash over there looks basically like setting sun. It's on the same angle, just, you know, at the same kind of height roughly because the light is coming this way, I have it on a stand. And we're done. One light picture, simple. You can make it look like the noon time sun. This is not good light, out there. This is hard noon, kind of equator light, awful. I knew I couldn't' do anything with it, really, but I wanted to get this picture because we were kind of, moving fast. She was styled, and she was a lovely exuberant model, our driver down there, the driver of the grip truck, has got a bucket of fish, and he's right over here and he's throwing fish at her feet, you know, the pelicans were digging that, that's for sure. They were keeping them happy. I mean, they kinda look prehistoric, these birds, don't they, it's just kind of wild. And John Cospido, see these pillars here? Right along here, and John's hiding behind one of the pillars here just hand holding a B1, raw, white light, nothing, just bare tubing it, bang, at her. Why did I do that without a shaper? Because the sun is doing that to her. And I didn't want to disturb the flow of that light. So the sunset light, I'm matching my light to the sunset. I'm matching my light to the raw daylight. All I've got to do without, you can see there's already, see the shadow here, okay? Without that fill from John's angle of light, that whole section of her face goes completely black. That you can't live with, you know? So you match your light to what you see exists. In the terms of the Profoto stuff that I used, this is a section here, all of this stuff, we are going to have a PDF, right, of all of the gear that I have used during this whole thing. And it is the gear that I use. There is no differentiation between like, okay, I'm gonna go here and teach this stuff but I really don't use it. This is stuff that I use all the time. My favorite light source is probably the 1x3' in many ways. So, it's small, it's versatile, it's character driven, but you can also make it look nice and soft. And then for athletes a 1x6', okay? That's a beautiful set of lights. I have two 1x6' Softboxes, and so if you have an athletic persona in front of your lens, and you edge those back, I call it 3/4 back, putting the lights back in here, not at the plane of the shoulders, what happens if the lights like side lit, like direct side light? You're gonna clip the face, right, you're gonna put highlights on the nose, right? So you have to have 'em back in here, so a bunch of the light actually goes past and it just lines the body with light. What does that corollary problem that could create for you at camera, flare, right? So hence, egg crates are very, very valuable. They control the flow of that light control the spill of it, modulate it, so it really collects on the body. And maybe, hopefully, it doesn't necessarily mess with your lens. That is why I religiously, I'm sure you've seen this, photographers are out there and they've got their lens hood on, backwards. So it's like this way, and they're focusing around it, and I'm like hello? Could we have a talk? Use your lens shades, it helps out your lens. It shades it, all that big hunk of glass in the front there, is subject to all sorts of scattered light. The lens shades help you maintain the contrast of the lens and the tightness of it. We've got videos, by the way, a lot of this stuff, is supported with videos. We have a YouTube channel, so pop over there if you feel like it. This is Enthez, just an amazing model. This guy, he's beautiful! I mean, he's amazing! He steps in front of a camera, he becomes a picture. So this is a little grid, this is a B2 over here, with a tiny little grid on it, boom. Shot with a 400mm, or a 2-400mm lens on it. Reason I did that is I wanted the graphics back in here to kind of go away a little bit, blue sky. I saw that building being lit with the fire escapes and stuff like that, so I threw it out of focus and just used it as kind of a simple, clean, I look for repetitive patterns. I'm always looking for repetitive patterns. This is a Profoto B1 into a 5' Octa. And then there's a skip off the floor. This is in a studio. So see, what I do when I fill light, say (sighs)... Cliff, stand up for a second, do you mind? Oh, I said Cliff, no Nick, Nick, right here. Alright, so if I'm gonna light Nick from here, and I bring that light from this direction, 5' Octa, maybe there's a shadow rotating here, right? Would your tendency be to bring a fill light from here? Avoid that tendency. Avoid it. Because what it does, it puts two catch lights in the eye, over here and over here. It fills too much from this way, and it also introduces the possibility of conflicting shadows. So what I do here, is I wrap my fill out of my main. So often times I use the floor, sorry so you can sit down. Sorry (chuckles). Not sit till you told me. Sorry, we'll go into the next room and Nick is still standing there. Well he didn't say I could sit down, ah. So I bring the light this way, and maybe there's shadows following, so I'll take a skip, that's where the tri grips and tri flips are really, really handy. Throw them down on the floor. Bounce the light off of them, so now you've got a scoop basically, you've got main here, say the main is F8. Come down to a fill, the fill is maybe 4-2/3rds and it just informs the face. Have to be careful with a low skip though, right? 'Cause if somebody's got a collar, and you drive that light too hard, what have you got? Upward cast shadows, this way. And you know, like the wings of a collar or something like that, so you have to be careful. Another way you can draw your fill out of your main is here, and I think I mentioned this yesterday. Imagine an on-camera speed light. Bang, okay? We generally accept that as being not appropriate and too harsh, so what you do is you take that orientation of an on camera fill to a nice iteration. So you take a light, another B1 or it could be a Speedlight driving off of B1, and put it right above camera through a shoot through umbrella. Then, that on camera fills becomes a nice on camera fill. And you're drawing, again you're wrapping light. So this is F8, fading, fading, five, six, four. So that you're not over filling making things flat risking the possibility of conflicting shadows putting a couple of different catch lights in the eye, all that different stuff. I refer to it as draw your fill out of your main, wrap it this way. Don't conflict, wrap, okay? Beauty dish, hard and soft all at once. It's kind of nice, edgy like, favorite among fashion folks. That's one light, that's it, done deal, you can see the shape of it, circular shape, like a big salad bowl. I tend to use them with a sock over them and a grid so that I control the flow of it so it doesn't go absolutely everywhere. I tend to have a preference for beauty dishes that have a white interior, not a silver. Just a personal thing, I mean, the silver ones tend to be pretty snappy, that's not to say they're not excellent and people do great work with them, for me, for my tastes, a little bit on the contasty side. See what I mean? We didn't really retouch his skin if you can believe it. I mean, this guy gets in front of camera, and he is just a picture, you know? And this is an umbrella box, couldn't be simpler. And that umbrella box, that light is going into the umbrella and then coming through a sheet of diffusion. It's kind of a half-way measure to a softbox, a full blown softbox, it's very cheap, many of them are available, okay? And it is right over my head. It is literally, like, I don't know, scale here, but it's less than two feet from his face, or two feet and change maybe, and I'm wedged in there with a lens and that light source is right here, so maybe it's four feet, maybe I'm exaggerating a little bit. It's right in this neighborhood, I'm in here. And this is maybe a 35 or something like that at 1.4. We were on a set, and that's the camera man back here, the video camera man. These guys have been great, these guys have been great. How about a round of applause for the video crew. (clapping) Nice job, guys. So, but he's on the edge of my frame, and I left him there. It happened, it's okay with me. It's actually sort of mildly interesting instead of just a plain wall, I sort of ended up liking it, you know? So stuff happens, and that's what you do. Applying a variety of skills on a big commercial job. So you've got this toolbox, right, you've got some small flash stuff, you've got bigger flash, you've got expertise in terms of the ray of camera devices you're bringing into the field, your f-stops, your shutter speeds, your lenses, all that sort of stuff. So you apply a variety of skills on a big commercial job. Now, this was fun to do. This is 16mm fisheye, and the pooch of course makes your day you know, completely makes your day. And this was done with small flash speedlights through a six foot square silk. Last night makes this, you call 'em sky lights And you drop it right over, okay, and it's a big beautiful light source that looks like a big massive soft box. And then the accent lights on the theater curtains. And then of course, I'm in there like this, (chuckles) and assistants around the set with dog treats and they're hovering them over my head to try to get the dog to look at the camera, and I'm like, it's come to this. It's come to this, you know? But this is big flash. This is a big flash. Lot of smoke if you notice. Threw some smoke into the background of a circus here. And, we'll talk about this a little bit later as well, with Lynn how she had to go and find a circus for me. But, you know, the trainer, the elephant just goes like this and the elephant lifts her trunk 'cause they've been together for a long time. And this fashion model, we used a very very defined spotlight for her to stand in, but then there's also a flash over in here. This is in the studio. This is a big flash overhead. And I had sent the ideas to the agency, and one was body painting, one was about reptiles and animals and they said put 'em both together. So we made this solution happen on the set. And so, she's body painted and also wearing a snake as one does. So, there's an overhead softbox here, but there's a board underneath her, and there's two speedlights bouncing into it. Little Freddy King. King of the Blues down in New Orleans. Wonderful man. Window, window. And again, look at where the light is coming from. I put a 3x6' skrim, elastaligtht skylight in this window, because oddly enough, they make 'em to oddly the size of a window. All I had to do was take a c-stand and project it into the window, and seal the window with a silk and then I bang a battery operated 3000 watt second, and that's the only light in the picture. It gives me control, it makes him beautifully lit, 'cause it's nice big soft window light, give me control of what's happening out in here. I can dial that in with my shutter speed. I wrestle the location to the ground via the application of light. Small flash picture, Little Freddy. Little Freddy is down by the Mississippi here, across the river from New Orleans, and we got here, and it was basically dark. We were behind and I felt so bad. 'Cause he's like, well, he's in better shape than I am, he's like 80, but I'm like Freddy we gotta hustle, we gotta hustle. And he's I'm coming, I gotta get my guitar and the two of us are kinda hobbling along the causeway there and then I get down on the ground with a 1424mm lens and then we use an extension pole and a shoot through umbrella, this again is pretty easy. You can see the umbrella right there. I can retouch that out, you think we retouch that out? I don't care. I don't care, it's okay. It's what happened, it's okay with me. So I just let that happen. And this, literally, you can see the shimmer in his coat down in here, that's easily a one-second exposure. Somewhere's in there, you know. Preservation Hall again there, I threw this in there, you can see the two windows. Up front is lit with a big flash, that's what the triggering the lights outside and the skims that are over them. That is a done deal at that point. That is a very simple picture to do. The grace though, the thing that light through windows and whatnot gives to you, which is a wonderful thing, light can be unpredictable. It has a flow to it through those window. But I put them in there, and all of a sudden I realize that those back window lights are producing this, and that makes the whole picture. If I had to try to produce that, it'd be really, really hard when I'm looking at the scene. It's hard when you go wide angle portraiture, right? Because you want a big, beautiful light. And if you notice, I get my lights as close to my subject. If I'm gonna light Cliff, man, I'm gonna bring that soft box and I want to shoot him right in here. I'm gonna have the softbox right here, it's not gonna be five feet back there, it's gonna be right in here. As close as I possibly can. Because then it means several things. It means I'm getting good quality out of the softbox, and my light source, I'm draining the softbox less and less if I'm using the speedlights, I'm getting faster recycle, which is very, very important sometimes, you gotta ride for three of four minutes, bing bing bing bing bing, you are rattling you know. So, I move my lights in as close as possible. But now I wanna show a wide shot, a full length shot of Cliff, and I get back with a 24x70' or something like that, then I gotta back my light off, what happens to my small softbox? It's diminished in quality, it's sucking wind on power, all that sort of stuff, so you want to enlarge that, that's why you might go to multiple speed lights, a bigger source. The further you get your lights away, the bigger the source has to be to retain quality. And then, you do the ridiculous. Again, this is the Lord of the Rings thing again, I'm sorry man, you know. I had this vision of this lady in the swamps and stuff like that, and so there we are in the swamp in Flordia, dragging her out. That's Scott Holstein, very fine photographer, used to be our first assistant and now down in Florida, there's lights in the woods, and fog, and smoke. There's our smoke machine back in there. That water is nasty, oh my God it's nasty. There's bugs everywhere. And Scott's here with a wind machine. I've got, at that point I was using older ellenchrome packs, and boom. I mean, none of this stuff should happen in a swamp. Absolutely none of it. I mean, electricity and water and alligators and snakes, but the thing is, I was shooting, this was for the D campaign, and this was prior to like, Photoshop being able to process a D4F, because those cameras weren't on the marketplace yet. This was prototype camera. You can't see it so well here, it was hard to do, but this is electrically fired. This is not photoshopped in afterwards. So, she's got an electrical cord running right up her back and down her arm and firing that lamp, you know. And then we just touched it out afterwards. But it's all done, (chuckles) this poor model. She was very patient with us. And, the picture short of half way got there. It's not exactly what I wanted, but it's okay. Sometimes you leave the location and think I fought a good fight today and I delivered a really good, professional, product, but it doesn't soar in the way that I'd hoped for.

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Ratings and Reviews


What is there to say, this is a master at work. I feel like I owe Joe a hundred lunches for the information I’ve learned from him and used in jobs through the years. Personally I relate to his slightly self-deprecating style quite well. Joe’s a confident, supremely knowledgeable and incredibly experienced photographer who doesn’t need to wear that on his sleeve to get the point across. He is also clearly a great leader who has built a terrific team. I snap up everything of Joe’s I can find and use it as a library, where every time you watch you take away something new. Thanks Joe, you’re a legend and good on Creative Live for offering this wonderful and beautifully curated course.

ileana gonzales photography

When I saw the chance to learn from the great Joe McNally I jumped through the screen at the chance to be in the audience. It's one thing to see how a fantastic photographer works, thinks, composes and styles, but to get a behind the curtain view at the way his entire shop operates was truly amazing. By allowing us to see Lynn's processes and Cali's workflow it encouraged me to diversify before taking the plunge into the business side of photography. Truly an amazing team and an unforgettable learning experience.


Joe is fantastic! The wealth of information, experience and extraordinary talent he shares is invaluable! He's also a very engaging, humorous instructor who keeps an audience a part of the "discussion." Don't miss a Joe McNally class, seminar or workshop opportunity!

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