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Lesson 36 from: Lighting, Logistics, and Strategies for a Life in Photography

Joe McNally

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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


We got one task left here. We're gonna do a group photograph which is, of course, as I mentioned already, everybody's dream thing to do. There was a photographer, or still is, I mean he's still around, but is, a lot of the very significant work he did was a number of years ago, Neal Slavin. Specialized (hands clap) in doing groups. That's what he did. (hands clap) He actually... The biggest expression of his imagination vis a vis group photography was shooting for the book A Day in the Life of America. He did a portrait of the entire on-the-floor staff of the New York Stock Exchange before the opening bell. We're talkin'... And this is the toughest crowd in the world. I mean obscenity, laten, hate-photographers crowd. Trust me, I know because I did the New York Stock Exchange annual report four years in a row. And any time you bring out a flash on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, on the odd occasion that you get dispensation to do that, you invoke the ire of these traders beca...

use you... You know, I just missed a million dollar trade, or whatever it is, and they didn't. But they just hated the idea of having photographers down there. And so Neal managed to pull it off. The entire thing is lit and all the personnel, we're talkin' 600 people in one group photograph. And so he was a specialist at that. That was his milieu, if you will. All right, but hopefully it will not become ours. (laughs) Hopefully it'll be an occasional thing and even occasionally fun. I've done group portraiture over the course of time. Anybody who's taken up with serious intent has done that. This is the largest gathering of jazz musicians ever. And everybody's in there; the Marsalis family, Lionel Hampton, you name it. It's shot at Silver Cup Studios in Queens. And the... Uh (deep sigh) It was a hard job, let me put it that way. I needed around F 16 front to back, it was shot on film with a 2 1/4 camera and I needed everybody to be bathed in light. I couldn't just slam a light at 'em like you do in maybe a Sports Illustrated kind of four corner arena kind of a lighting that you're shooting basketball with and hard light slanting all over the place. Everybody needed to be lit well, lit beautifully. And we kinda pulled it off. You see what's happening up in here? These are all pro photos. 2400 watt-second units into umbrellas, into silks. There's silks built over here, there's silks built over here. Everything was reflected in double defused light. This group portrait represents about 40,000 watt-seconds of light. Okay, pow! And we did it, we pulled it off. And it worked pretty well, actually. Worked pretty well. I let stuff stay. See there's sandbags, and stuff, and everything else in the photograph? It's part of the scene, it's okay with me. It's okay. But then a more manageable thing I just did for... This was done for Adorama Television. We had three young people in the studio and that's window light. You can see the windows right behind me. There's me, like that little black blob in there, that's me. And then there's windows around me and there might have been a little bit of a fill board, I'm not completely remembering. But these three people, I got 'em to be intense and sort of heads together and all of that. So a couple of different ways of expressing, obviously, a group. We're gonna work in Chase's old studio, right next door, and that is... When I was here a month ago, I did this gentleman here jumping off the wall and did that and I did this as a quick portrait so they could have some stuff to kinda put out there with the class and all of that. And that's that room that we're about to walk into and it's gonna look, yet again, different today via the mechanics of light. And I'll just sign off to you. And this is the formal aspect of the class closing. The power point's, mercifully, is over. (woman chuckles in audience) As photographers we always try and achieve the power of memory with our photographs. That's the long hallway at Ellis Island. I've always like that as an analogous to a photographic career. It's kinda this endless hallway you just keep walking passed or walking through. And also a quick piece of advice, don't pack pack up your camera until you've left the location. That is our former first assistant, Drew Gurian, who's gone on to be a very successful rock and roll photographer in New York. That's Jeff Snyder, I mentioned Jeff the other day. He's my camera guru, Adorama Camera. if you want your personal camera confidante, advisor, soothe sayer, the Gandalf of cameras. Jeff is a great guy, good shooter and he'll spend time with you and direct your purchases. That is Cali, of course, at a younger age, and that's me, still looking bent and stooped and laboring forward. And our good friends at Think Tank, we patronize them a great deal. I've bought a lot of stuff from Think Tank for sure over time and they make good traveling stuff and we use a lot of it. And that is pretty much the deal gang. If you care to follow me, that's stuff that you can take a look at. So yeah, here we are in this room again and we'll try to make something out of it. And it's gonna involve you guys, you guys are gonna have to help me out. Now, it's a little bit of a conundrum or, I don't know what you would call it, an open question. Come into a room like this, why would you light it? It's pretty, it's nice. I use... Actually, your hand has ridges and surfaces just like a face so every once in a while I just kinda look. I look where is the good light right in here. I can find it, I just walk around and it looks stupid. You don't wanna do it with a client on the set. They're like, "Oh my God. (audience laughs) "Is he off his meds?" 'Cause you're wandering around like, "Oh, yes. See?" And it doesn't go over well. But (hands clap) I pursue light, I look around. So obviously, the big impetus of light here is coming this way, kinda flying towards us. And the one graphic I sorted out in the room... We could work this way but we did that yesterday, we worked with the windows yesterday. So let's... Or worked against them yesterday. Today we'll work with them. And so I'm gonna use this as kind of a frame for you guys. And that's gonna be my kinda graphic I guess. The graphical underpinnings of the photograph. Now I already know I've got some problems. When you set off a big flash against that metal door, you're gonna get some glisteny hits. And what I'm gonna do is feather it so they're not egregious. If there's some highlighting, I can live with that. If the shape of the octa is three stops hot and in the middle of the photograph, then I have a problem. But I think I'll be okay. But then again I've thought I would be okay on many, many instances where it hasn't actually panned out that way. All right. So a lot of people have been asking, Joe, about some of the, sort of like, what's next with Joe? So is there... This is from Riza who says, "What is a project "of your dreams that you would like to leave "the world with before you hang it up? "The one with no limit budget, that is "the ultimate food for your soul?" Well, disclosing that would just be-- (laughs) To disclose future projects. I have a couple of near term things that I'm very wrapped around that I hope I can get done and get funding for to start working on this year. Ultimately, I have said this many times, at the Geographic every year, for a number of years there, I proposed a story on the nature and origins of the circus and never got it across for lots of good reasons for sure. They know what they're doing. And I would love to do something that had a look at the age old circuses of Asia and Eastern Europe and Russia and bring that forward to the modern expression of the circus which would be, naturally, Cirque du Soleil and some of the digital and technological wizardry that currently attends that manifestation. It gets a little bit on my mind because I think just yesterday Ringling Brothers closed its doors for good after 149 years. And the very first photo I say I did when I went to New York City was on a little clown, Prince Paul. And he was a member of the red unit. The Ringling Brothers, the Feld Entertainment group had several circuses; a red unit and a gold unit and a blue unit and they would circulate in various areas of the country and internationally. So that might be something I would gravitate towards given my penchant or interest in the performing arts. Great. Cool. Perhaps. Next question had come in from a few different people. And Bob UK says, "Do you still shoot film? "And if so, in what scenarios?" I do not. If I do it's negligible. I do have a couple of old 35mm panoramic cameras. Every once in a while I'd drag them out and shoot 35mm film. Panorama in that format actually is remarkable for how close you can get it for portraits and not feel a distortion level. And there's construction of the lens, I can move a portrait, kinda scenario, over in here, I come pretty close. Now if you're this close with a standard DSLR wide lens, you're gonna get some wonkiness, some zoomy kinda stuff going on with the panorama because you lose this aspect and you compress down to here. It's much more "normal looking". So I do like that. Anybody here see the last Mad Max movie? What was that one with Charlize Theron? Road Warrior? (sighs) [Woman In Audience] Fury Road? [Woman In Audience] Fury Road. That's it, yeah, that's it, yeah. There were some really good shots there that were... Kind of came in close, they were panoramic fashion but came in tight into a... Sorry for that (laughs).. (audience laughs) I love you man. I like that aspect ratio and I like working it close. So every once in a while I drag out those film cameras. But my needs and the pace that we work at at the studio tends to speak to sticking with my DSLRs. Okay, so Jean Snowden says, "With the number "of ideas in your head, how do you keep focus?" And so I guess I'm wondering do you have a place where you store, like your idea box? Or do you... Where do you get that inspiration ideas? What do you do with them? How do they set? Sure. Yeah. I text myself. 'Cause I'm writin' a new book and I come up with notions or ideas and then I'll text myself and then I'll try to remember bits and pieces of the way I would like to go. And I'm also pretty veracious when I look to other photographs. I've got a really... My poor wife Annie, she's so patient and wonderful, I've got a pretty over developed photo library at home. I've got 2-, 300 photo books, easy, easy. I'm surprised that the living room hasn't started to bow, like this, with the weight of the books. And I just enjoy going back and looking at The Creation by Ernst Haas. Makes me feel clean, again, it's like taking a visual shower. It reminds me of why I'm a photographer 'cause Ernst's vision was very strong. His color pallette was amazing. And just a lovely, lovely book to just kind of feel good about the idea of pictures and what they might mean to us. So this one is from Jean Luca-Abango who says, "How do you deal with failure when you're just starting out? "If you do not deliver good photos "people would not want to work with you anymore." So I guess the bigger question is what's your advice to people who are just starting in terms of failure? Get used to it. Hopefully not a steady diet of it. But get used to the fact that you will occasionally fail. And sometimes the client will not like things that really aren't a failure. You just didn't meet expectations or there were crossed wires or communication wasn't good, all those kinds of things can occur. God almighty, (sighs) you just live, you learn, you survive. I volunteered at the New York Daily News to shoot July 4th fireworks, they were tight on staff. I was not a staff photographer and George Mattson, the night side picture editor said, "All right, yeah. "It's yours kid." And I made the mistake of getting into my car in Manhattan on July 4th night and I spent the rest of my time in gridlock and I never even saw the fireworks. And I had to call George at the end of the night and I said, "George, I never made it." And he goes, "Kid, you know we got a hole in the paper. "I'll fill it with Associated Press picture. "But tell ya, fireworks in New York always go up." I should've just gone to the roof of my building. But it was a complete total rookie mistake. And Tommy diLustro at the Associated Press, he had me at the finish line of the Belmont one year, big Belmont. I shot the fourth race, perfect. 300mm, perfect. Took a look at my test film, Tommy said, "Way to go. That's it. "That's what I need. Exactly that." On the eighth race, the big race, I slipped. I wasn't comfortable and I slipped in the dirt. And I lost my focus, and it was manual focus back in the day. You had to track, you had to track. No catching up with auto focus and stuff like that. And I pulled this way to get the lead horse and it was way out of focus. And Tommy was gracious. Tommy was a wonderful gentleman. I walked back in, I knew I had blown it, I walked back in to the AP newsroom, it's buzzin' 'cause they're shippin' stuff out like crazy and Tommy is just... And he goes, "Talk to you about your film in a minute Joe." And he pulled me aside and he said I blew it. He hired me again. Mistakes are mistakes. If someone just kinda slam dunks you because you made a mistake and just kills you about it well then they're not worth working for again anyway. They're just not. So move on. And if anything, it's fuel for the fire. I'm a bit of a cussed son-of-a-gun and if you tell me I'm not good enough or you tell me I can't do something or you tell me that this didn't work, I will double down, I will work harder. I will get to that position you tell me I can't occupy. All of that sort of stuff, it just becomes very, very focused and I get very determined to not fail. It's just not in the vernacular. You will go back at it until something works.

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