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Location Assessment

Lesson 2 from: Lighting, Logistics, and Strategies for a Life in Photography

Joe McNally

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Lesson Info

2. Location Assessment

Next Lesson: Gear Overview


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

Location Assessment

So, location assessment. Let's spin forward here, okay? Let's spin forward. We are in this kind of cool location, what are we gonna do? That's the, when I finish this section, take camera in hand, and then we'll start looking at this place, you know. So, form your own ideas as well. I mean, what do you look for in a location? Angles, lights. I'm gonna probably, instinctively, when I get a camera in hand here, I'm probably gonna shoot from over there, looking this way. Why would I do that? Because that's where the light is. I use what I can get. This is all lit over here, okay. Over here, it's like a black hole, you know. There's nothing going on, brown walls. This has life and all that sort of stuff. Is it completely wonderful? No, because right through the windows are tables, chairs, rain, pop-up tents, and all that stuff. I'm gonna have to kind of get rid of that as a photographer, that's gonna be part of my mission. Minimize it, get rid of it, change it up so it somehow becomes ...

interesting. So, already, as I'm looking at this location, instinctively, I'm gonna go over here and look this way because this area of the bar is lit, it gives me some natural glow, it gives me some backlight. I can walk in here, say you're a photographer for the Seattle Times, you walk in here. Now, newspaper photographers, you know, they're responding to a photo assignment desk and the photo assignment editor can be occasionally, at least, like a taxi dispatcher. You know, they're under pressures like, "Go here, go here." Those newspaper photographers especially, are under the gun time-wise. So, walk in here, maybe that's where we'll start. We'll see if we can do a one light portrait and get out of dodge in 15, 20 minutes. Maybe that'll be our first challenge. What would you do if you walked in here with one flash? How would you do that, real quick? And we don't have to answer those questions now. I'll hopefully, I'll stumble around here in a little while and answer them on some level for you, you know. You can like "Whoa, look at him, that's really dumb". You know? So we'll go forward on that level, just in terms of driving forward the location assessment. We have two talent, I think I already mentioned that, right? Very distinctly different human beings, okay? And, so, with the slash bar owner, bartender, probably driven by a character light. How am I already thinking about that? I'm thinking that if he's the owner, I'm gonna work with a fairly sizeable depth of field because I want to see the place, alright? Now with her, if I'm gonna construe this to be, say, a location that we're using, and she's a local singer, and I'm on an assignment to shoot her CD cover, or something like that, then I am freed up to loose the place and just kind of have the context, and the feel and the flavor of it. So that might influence my choices of light, depth of field, all that sort of stuff, coloration. So, two different missions there. The first mission is almost like a corporate portrait, 'cause here's the owner, it's my bar, okay. Am I gonna throw that out of focus at F one point four so you can't even know where you are? No, I'm gonna shoot it at five point six F eight, something like that. So the mission of the photograph is accomplished. You know where the place is, what it looks like, all that sort of stuff, okay? I've shot many pictures. I refer to them not as photographs, I refer to them as trained seals, okay? Because they're not really pictures. I've been assigned to do something and that picture has to jump through a whole bunch of hoops and do tricks for the client, okay? It's gotta be on the cover, so it has to be vertical, gotta leave room for type, gotta leave room for the barcode, gotta leave a negative area that's somewhat monochrome or evenly colored, so that the type can go here. Anybody ever have their pictures like just plastered with type? God almighty, you know? I just get used to it, okay? Because the picture becomes a vehicle and the art director wants these areas, to manipulate in the photograph. So I have to think about that too. So for me, it's not really, It's not just like, "Oh, let's make this lovely picture." The photograph has a mission. And that's what they're paying me for, so I direct myself to that mission. There are photographers I know, for many years, folks at The National Geographic, who are magnificent photographers, and I've heard this phrase many times. It's like, "Well, I shoot what I want, "and then, I'll shoot something for the client." Eh, eh, not in the world of commercial photography, and not anymore, okay? Back in the day, when money and assignments fell from trees, you could afford to sort of, you know, be a little bit of a (speaks in foreign language), on location, and it's kind of like "Ah, yes." And deliver it to the client, you know, "These pictures, they have a certain (speaks in foreign language). Yeah, you know? Not so much anymore. It's a very considered decision for a client to say, "Alright, we accept your estimate of 15,000 dollars, "you know, 2500 dollar fee "plus 12500 dollars in expenses "for airfares, location fees, et cetera." To get them to that point, where they're willing to drop cash on you for the photograph, they want what they want, you know? And that's the difficult interface, right? Have you guys experienced clients who kind of feel like photography's an assembly lined product like (continuous thuds), you know? Like stamping it out. And it ain't, it's very unpredictable. Jay Maisel, back in the day, he was one of the primary, motivating forces in lots of photographer's lives. I refer to him as the father of modern color photography, but he was also a very smart business man, and you know, he's largely retired now but he's still a formidable force in photography. He is to be revered. But he used to charge more for his stock photography on occasion, than his assignment photography. 'Cause his reasoning to the client, was, "Well, you buy my stock picture, "you have to pay me more, "because that's a physical entity, "you know what you're getting, "and you have to pay for that kind of certainty, bub." Jay is very direct, you know? And the other corollary reasoning to that, is you put me on assignment, you don't know what you're gonna get. I may surprise you in a wonderful way, it may not go that well. So, there was this kind of interesting business proposal there, because it's not an assembly line, right? You have to go out, and it is an adventure. It can be the Wild West out there, and you're not completely sure. You do your best to return to the client what they expect, but it's not a given, none of this is a given. So location assessment. Access is everything, okay? We have access to this bar. That's because Creative Live made arrangements, paid money, signed checks and permissions, and insurance, whatever needed to happen to get us in here. Access is everything. I've known this, this is kind of fun, because I was putting together this slideshow, this is a letter my father wrote in 1976, to help me as a young student photographer gain access to the 1976 Democratic National Convention in New York City. So I've been living with it my entire career. That was my first big time job, if you will. And I realized right then, you need to have access to these kinds of places. So, location assessment, oh my goodness. This was a bad idea, that's all I can say. I'll show more images about it later on. This is a swamp in Florida, and I don't know, I saw Lord of The Rings far too many times. I had this idea of smoke and mist, and a lady in the water on the boats, and this and that, and the tall trees, and the swampy forest, and the enchanted kind of mystical place. And what I found was, that good location for all of that, but also a location that was populated with mosquitoes, alligators and water moccasins. So it was dodgy, okay, dodgy. Or you get a location like this, where the, you just give up all hope. This basement location that I was introduced to, might as well have had a sign like Dante, like abandon all hope, ye who enter here, okay? So, it is what it is. Locations will rise and fall, and sometimes you are very limited, in terms of what you can do, and how you can do it. So, let's talk about this, alright. Guy walks into a bar, alright? And that's where we are today. Alright, I don't know, what can I say folks, I'm Irish Catholic, so perhaps I have an intuitively good sense of how to light a bar. Not to be generalized about it, but I actually love bars. They're charismatic, they're interesting, they have kind of this flavor, that you can latch onto. So there's an empty bar. And then I start to light it, okay? This is exactly what we're gonna do here, we're gonna build this set. So we had a dude, he was kind of a cool looking guy, with a porcupine hat or whatever that kind of hat is called. See these glasses, and all that sort of stuff, lit up. Flashes, I think there were six or seven flashes used, all small flash on this job. There's a little soft box, and a fill board. I'm behind camera over in here, talking to, I think that's Callie in there. This is our trigger light over here, this was done line of sight. So I'm moving my trigger light over here, connecting it to camera. It is triggering this soft box, and a variety of other lights around the bar. And there's a final, okay? Or close to a final. There is this one too, and we'll do that today. Different feel, different F stop, different feel, same guy, same position, same light, but it looks very different. Now what did I do in the background here? In terms of white balance. I threw myself into a tungsten white balance, because I'm looking at those windows, and they look kind of blah with just kind of cloudy daylight out there. So, this is still hot white, but I knew the inflection of the light as it came along in here, would turn blue. Floor would light up blue. But, this is also a black hole as it feather down in here, so where is that light? That light is coming from these lights, which are in the dining room, going through these windows. Coming down in here and creating a little splash of light down in here. You've heard this a thousand times, you know, it's like Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For you, "You're responsible for every pixel young man." And it's true, you are, you're responsible for every pixel, you are responsible for foreground, middle ground and background. And what I found I often times do, is I light right through a picture. I put almost inconsequential lights at the background of my photograph, just to spark a little interest back there, to define the room, let people know how big it is. If I just light up front, and slam dunk it, and then make the picture devoid of context, then I'm depriving my reader of the experience. That's the thing, what is our ultimate responsibility here? Who is that to? I would submit for your consideration the viewer of your photograph. Not so much the client even, the client is the conduit, you know, and you do have to satisfy the client, but ultimate, you have to enchant, inform and move the reader along. The viewer of your picture is your customer. And if I just shot this, and I let most of the bar go to this tenor and tone right here, then I'm depriving someone of the impossible enjoyment. Like, I enjoy this picture, not just because it's mine, you know, it's an okay picture, it's nothing great, but I have fun with my eye roaming around. Getting intrigued, information, I know where I am, right? I know that this guy is like this cool dude. I'm very careful, as you would be in any sort of venue, about having someone actually hold a glass of liqueur. Construed him to have a cup of coffee, and a couple of books. Dylan! Question about how much time would you allot yourself for a shoot like this, for setting it all up and getting the shot. Think, we're on location, just like here, we have, we're pumpkins, I think we turn into pumpkins at four o'clock, we have to get out of here, 'cause this place will start to open. So you get used to working in off hours. So I think we came in about 10 o'clock in the morning, and we worked for about five hours. So it was a complete soup to nuts day, to create this one photograph. And you can move faster than that, but there's a lot of stuff going on. There's lights up here, clamped up in here. They're warm gelled, so there's a highlight up in here. This blue reflection coming from the background, I hyper accentuated that, by putting a daylight flash. Sure, Susan. To play off of Dylan's question, you said five hours to set it up, how long do you have your model there then? Do you just-- I asked the model to come in downstream. Let's say for instance, I don't remember this exactly, don't hold me to it, so say we show up at 10 o'clock. We get our basic grip done. With him, he's not a fashion model, he doesn't have hair, make-up and styling, and all that sort of stuff. So he probably came in about noon, got a little clean up, you know, a little wardrobe selection, got him in front of camera. It might have actually been less than five hours, that we were there. So you were shooting him for only two hours? Max. You can tell, there's a switch that gets flipped in your subject's eyes. You've experienced that I'm sure. You know, where it's just like, all of a sudden they go a little glassy, and you know the shoot's over. That's why it's really important to keep them off the set for as long as you possibly can. So that when you are ready to hit it, you are ready to hit it, and I've done a fair amount of work advertising and commercial-wise in Hollywood, and I did a series of ads for Target at one point. We used television personalities. Camryn Manheim from, was she L.A. Law, a big, a legal show, you know, she's a powerful lady. She came in, and she made it clear, that I'd get like 10 minutes of full-blown camera, and she was absolutely lovely to work with. But, like, she was gonna spike that energy button, boom. And she expected me, fully and completely, absolutely, to be on my game, and get that. And I did, you know. It's like, it was an ad series about teachers having been important in your life, and so they went back out and they found teachers that like, high school teacher or a grammar school teacher, who was important in the development of who they are. And they brought them in as an honorific. It was an homage to education, and Camryn had her teacher on her back, and she was running around holding her up like this, and stuff like that. Bang, bang, and I am just working like crazy, and 10 minutes later, it was over. And that's actually a beautiful thing. Does anybody else relish that when you're on set? We always ask for time, there's never enough time, right? And you go on location, there's never enough time. But I've come to a point in my career, where like, somebody tells me you only have this finite amount of time, I'm like, "Cool." Because, I'm gonna match you step-by-step, we're gonna knock this out of the park, and then we're done. And that's a beautiful feeling, like, "Okay, thank you very much." 'Cause again, I'm riffing here okay? We're gonna get into more of this here. Why do you oftentimes get sent someplace as a photographer? To someone, why do you do that? They're in the news maybe, you know. I wouldn't wanna photograph a lot of the people in the news now, so let's just leave that go. But in the best sense of portrait work, you're oftentimes sent to photograph somebody because they're so excellent at what they do. They themselves are extraordinary, and so you are witness to the extraordinary. You're witness to genius, you're witness to sublime talent, and that is a gift to you as the photographer. You have to repay that gift, at the camera, by being excellent at what you do. I've done a lot of dance work in my life, and when a dancer gives you a gift, and they hit that moment, and they are in the air, and their legs are perfect, and their fingers are just like that, and you miss that? I mean, time to fall on your tripod, you know? Ah, I'm so sorry, I just need, you can beat me now. 'Cause that is not a gift that you wanna miss. And it happens, it happens, you can't beat yourself up too badly. Oftentimes they're not completely right, or this and that. But that interchange, that nexus, where you both come to, and you've got the camera in hand, and they've got their genius on display, that's a beautiful thing. And you just wanna be prepared for that. So I'm more than happy if someone says, "Look, "can we do this in 10 minutes?" I'm like, "Yeah, I think we can." Unless it's something radically you know, complicated, that I have to explain that, "No, we're gonna "be here for a while, et cetera." And then presumably, someone's on board with you on that level. So this guy, there's one light picture, right? Just a little fill board. There's not much else going on here, except of course, the lights I described coming through here, coming up in here. Now, back in here, we use these clamps, you'll see them in play here. There's a bar stool behind him, and I just put a white light flash on that. White light flash in tungsten conditions, is gonna go blue, right? Kind of a cobalt-y sort of blue if you expose it properly. So that's what's creating this little rim right here. This light is not doing this, or that. There's a flash behind him, that's mimicking the door light. What do we do when we walk into a situation oftentimes? We want our light to look like it's supposed to be there anyway. Like to the uninitiated, like we're photographers, we look at that and say, "Oh, guy did a pretty good job." There's a little soft box maybe, this and that, we maybe take it apart. Your average person's like, "Oh, wow cool, "cool looking dude." You know, "Nice portrait." They're not gonna think about the technique. So we work oftentimes extremely hard as photographers, to make sure that nobody notices how hard we are working. This was a fair amount of work, you know? But it's pleasant work, it was fun to do, all that sort of stuff. And we got a good picture out of it, he's got a great face, angular kind of deal. Easily, not easily done, that would be the wrong thing to say, but fun to do, and the ultimate expression of the photograph worked out pretty well. Which version do you like? The F stop version? Or the wide open version? Both. Both? I like the F stop. F stop. The F stop version with the information? Yeah, that's probably where we'll start today, something along those lines. I once photographed Geraldo Rivera in a bar, for a cover of Esquire Magazine. So I've photographed all manner of people in bars.

Class Materials

Bonus Materials with Purchase

Joe McNally Gear List
McNally Lighting Diagrams

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!

Student Work