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Understanding Shooting Process: Q&A

Lesson 13 from: Lighting, Logistics, and Strategies for a Life in Photography

Joe McNally

Understanding Shooting Process: Q&A

Lesson 13 from: Lighting, Logistics, and Strategies for a Life in Photography

Joe McNally

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Lesson Info

13. Understanding Shooting Process: Q&A


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

Understanding Shooting Process: Q&A

Anybody have lingering sort of like when you did this, or why did that happen, or something gear-wise, question-wise, all that sort of stuff. I just wanted to make sure that I understood how you shot yesterday, right? So how you start the process of shooting, do you start from making the exposure for the background right and then go from there? Good question. Yep, I have a method, as indiscernible as that might have been yesterday. But I do have a method. One of the first things I said, the most important light in that room was the level of ambient light, that which exist. Same thing here. You know, if I'm gonna come in here, I'm gonna look at these. The beauty of being in here is I can control these. The ambient light out in the world most of the time we cannot control. So you're always being directed by that, pushed and pulled by the level, condition, impact of that ambient light that you observed. What's the big three of light? Quality, color, direction. Those three are with you...

all the time. Quality, is it hard or soft? Color? Obvious. Direction? Obvious, okay? So, constantly reacting to that and observing it: quality, color, direction. Where is this light gonna assist me? Is it gonna impede me? Do I have to squash it? Or do I just tweak it? You know, there's two schools of thought there, right? Anybody know the work of Gregory Heisler? Wonderful photographer, you know. Just an amazing artist and craftsman and been a friend for many years. And Greg always says, and it's very true, and I'm kind of borrowing couple of terms from him, they are somewhat universal, but you've got editorial lighting over here. Now editorial lighting, you could describe as lighting so it doesn't look like it's lit, right? Lighting so it looks like it belongs there. Lighting that you could walk in and say, "Okay, those are coming from the windows. "I just need to tweak it up a little bit, directionalize it, maybe throw a flash outside or whatever, and amp up the color of it." Whatever the reasons might be. But the observer of your photograph doesn't immediately know. The hand of the photographer is not overt, right? And that's one of the things I always say. You don't want people looking up the sleeve of the magician. You want people just to embrace your photograph and have a visceral, emotional impactful sort of relationship with it. For me to get a picture on the National Geographic, I'm talking really fast. I've had a lot of coffee so far. Stick with me, okay? For me to get a picture on the National Geographic historically speaking, it would have to succeed on the pictorial level and informational level and on emotional level. So, kind of three pistons firing there has to move the story along, has to have information, 'cause Geographic is not about fluff, right? It has to be pictorially worthwhile. It has to be "pretty", or it has to have a pictorial composition, resonance, lighting, et cetera, portrait quality of the impact of the face, all that sort of stuff speaks to yes, it has a place in the story. And then it should, in the best of worlds, have an emotional connection that it can make with your viewer. Eddie Adams. Remember Eddie Adams? He's passed on now. The famous photograph of the execution of the suspected Viet Cong. Pulitzer Prize winning picture that was one of those photographs along with Nick Ut, picture of Kim Phuc that really turned the tide of public sentiment in our country about the Vietnam war. So Eddie used to say that what's a good photograph? And Eddie was pretty bare bones and basic. A good photograph is a photograph that reaches into your ribcage and rips your heart out. Yeah (laughs). Seen one of those lately, Kiako (laughs)? So, yeah, and as I said too yesterday, when you see that powerful picture, when you see something that really moves you, you are changed forever, even if you're not completely aware of it at that moment. You will remember things. Your memory - anybody speculate on the structure of their memory? My memory is fixed in still imagery. Absolutely. Completely. The great kind of events of our time, okay? Still images come float right up in my memory. And that is the power of an enduring still photograph, which is what we are trying to do. So, that's (laughs) a long tour around the block there, Kiak. So the thing that I observed, we went into quality of light, color of light, direction of light, I do observe that light, and that is my first exposure. If you notice yesterday, I went into aperture priority, and I just went click, you know? The camera's pretty smart. I'm gonna listen to the camera. I'd be stupid to spend $5000, $6000 on a D and then say, "I'm only using this baby on manual 'cause I don't trust it, you know what I'm saying? I'm old school." Well then, I'm just an idiot, you know? You spend money on this gear and the sophistication levels that it comes back to you with are an assist. I just look at the technology that's available to us as, I'm not a geeky person. I don't sit there and go into the numbers of pixels. I don't care about that stuff. What I do care is about certain levels of technology that are presented to us now that make my job easier, expand my ability to imagine, okay? Expand my envelop of what is possible for me as a lone photographer or a photographer with a lone assistant to go out into the world and create. Right? Because we're still photographers. We haven't got Hollywood movie budgets. We can't walk in down in Sta. Fe. One of the best locations I've ever been at is the old Railyard Center. Anybody here ever take a workshop in Sta. Fe? Workshops? They are great area of the country. Good teaching institution. They have this old railyards in Albuquerque that are abandoned largely. And we used to use them, and we have classes like, I don't know, like 300 bucks or something. The Sta. Fe workshops would sign over an agreement and we'd be able to ramble around these magnificent, decrepit old buildings that's fantastic. I tried to use it myself. I went back at one point and I called up the people to see if I could rent it, and they said Transformers had a lease on it for a year. (laughs) I'm like, "Oh, okay. So I suspect you're not interested in my $300. (laughs)" So, that is kind of the way the world for us, you know? We work minimally, so this technology that we has made available enables us to step forward in a more aggressive fashion. So I'm gonna listen to that camera. So first move, make an aperture priority document of the scene, right? To see what's around. Click around. Click, click, click. And that's your weather report for the day. That LCD is a beautiful thing, a little high-def television in the back of your camera. I look at it, I listen to it, I kind of "Hmm, alright." So, you start to see things at that point. Then, okay, I engage on what's called the game of ratios, okay? What exists and what do I layer over what exists? And that relates to that, and this is all coming full circle, Kiako. I know this is a dangerous question for you to have asked. We're 15 minutes in and I'm just getting warmed up. But the editorial aspects of the lighting scenarios I described, where you don't make the hand of the photographer completely noticeable, that's where that comes in, that aperture priority thing. Like, okay, where's light coming from? I can augment from here. I can push from here without too much notice. All that sort of stuff is available to me given that aperture priority read out. Then I start to apply, you know, I go from there, I get the level of light, and how hard and how much can I push this light? Do I just tweak it? Do I push it hard? How much do I have to, you know? Am I working small flash or big flash? How hard can I push these units? What's capable? What do I have in my gear kit right now that I can access that will squash this situation for me? That'll help me master it? Sometimes, I haven't got enough. I'm like they're, you know, we're wishful thinkers, right? Photographers? We really are. Ever been out there like, "Yeah, that looks very well. I wish I had a 600 millimeter F4. That'll be looking pretty good, you know? And you got a 50, you know (laughs)? So everybody always thinks about thinking outside the box. I think inside the box, you know? Everybody's, "Oh, outside the box, yeah. Possibilities." No, as photographers, we oftentimes have to think inside the box. What do I have in my bag? Dave Harvey - David Allan Harvey, okay? It sounds really simplistic, and I believe this quote is attributable to him. He would say like, "I try to make the best picture wherever I am." That's pretty logical, right? You look across the valley and there's magnificent light over there, and there's horses running up the hill. And you think, "Oh my god, I wish I was over there." You're not! And by the time you get there, that light's gone and the horses are in the corral. So live in that moment and make the best of what you have. All of that stuff is going on in your head. So, the game of ratios proceeds. What do I do? How do I manage this location? And then I go from there. But the very first imperative I have is metering, measuring, examining the light that exists. Then, sometimes, the weather report comes back and says, "Uh-oh, not good. There is no light here that is usable on any level." That's when you proceed to what you might call non-editorial photography, where the other end of the scale, which is Greg Heisler always says, "Sometimes I light something just to make it look cool." And that's also in our bag of tricks. Gels, hard-light, soft-light, gritted light, backlight, silhouettes, smoke, all that sort of stuff that we just introduce to a scene to make it look like a Hollywood movie within the limits of our abilities, okay? So that was a long, kind of, go around there, Kiako. But it is a method, I observed. The very first thing I would do, I find the angle. I find where I'm gonna think the camera is gonna live. I make an exposure. I determine where I think my subject is gonna be. Make an exposure. Get all the stuff adjusted. Apply some light. I don't even think about light until I get the scene right. I'm outside in the street. Is it, I don't know, zero-zero? No, looks like minus two. Saturate the background. The beautiful thing about having a flash in your bag is that that applied light, what some people refer to as artificial light, which is a term I don't really embrace. Light is light, and it doesn't matter if it's car headlight or a speed light or the sun. But, you apply light, okay? And what can I do? Like, if I took you outside right now and I use this example a lot, if I took you outside right now, let's say it's 250 at 56 outside and I make your picture. I mean, let's stay with 250. It's Seattle, so it's probably 225th at F4. But, you know, at 250 at 56, I make your picture. What is the problem with that picture? You're an absolutely lovely person. You're a good portrait, and I take it, and I go click. Everything out there is 250 at 56. The cars around the street, the buildings, all the stuff down the block. Have I differentiated, have I sent the message to my viewer that cackle is really, really important? No, I have not. But I take a little flash, like the first thing I used yesterday was a speed light and that little speed light two box, which I have actually really embraced as kind of a nice little light source. That puppy is going with me now everywhere. I've got two prototypes, and they're about to come out. I'm really liking the way that light is behaving, so I bring that in, and I make her 250 at F8. What have I done? Squash the background, right? Right? She's now 250 at F8. The background's 250 at 56. Background goes down. Okay, bring here to 250 at 11. Two more stops. I can go to three stops: 250 at 16. Really flash her, okay? Bang! Bring her out. Background goes three stops down. So that's not mechanics, even though it is numbers, F stops, but that's a message to the viewer of your picture. She's important; all the stuff not so much. Then I go into high-speed sync, okay? From there, 250 at 16. Do the scale with me, okay? If you go, if you're 250 at 16, what is that? 511, right? Right, a thousand at F8? 2000 at 56, right? 4000 at F4? 8000 at 2.8. Then I shoot that picture at 8000 at 2.8. I've minimized the background by three stops, and at 2.8, I've thrown it way out of focus. So with one stupid little flash, I've given myself a lever of control not only on my foreground but on my background. When I like the foreground, I refer to it as formalizing my foreground. If I'm gonna make a picture of Nick right up in front here, I'm gonna say, "Okay, this and this and this." And that's all the numbers in F stops and light shape versus this and that. But what essentially I'm doing is I'm formalizing my foreground. I'm making my foreground look the way I want it to look. Very important. That's what we're paid for. To interpret the situation. Now I just go click with my fancy D5 camera. What have I turned that camera into? A Xerox machine. It's not an interpretive document at that point. It's a record. Nick is sitting here in front row, and that's basically all I can say, alright? You saw where I was going with that picture of Ryan yesterday with the two spooky ladies in the paintings. That had a language to it, and the language that I was imparting to that scene derived really from obviously Ryan's facial structure, but also the light I was applying to it, alright? So, very important: with one small flash, you formalize your foreground, and you also give yourself a lever of control over your background. It's like this third gear shift, and what are your primary gear shift that you're just... F stops and shutter speeds, push and pull, push and pull. Add the flash, you've got another, right? Worthwhile response? (audience murmurs) Sorry, it only. (laughter) We could talk about this all day, Kioko. You know what you're gonna do. Anybody else (laughs) have a question? Anybody else got a question now, huh? (laughs) Yes, Cliff? So yesterday when you're adding the CTO gels, and you would go one cut to cut, what determines on the cut the you use different? Good question. A full cut of CTO or conversion gel takes your daylight flash, which is 5200, 5400° K pushes it down to 3200, 3400 in that neighborhood. It goes from a daylight balance to a tungsten balance. Makes it look the color and temperature a sort of what used to be your bedroom lamp. Now, bedroom lamps comes in CFLs and their neutral lights and this and that and everything else. But historically speaking, a tungsten bulb had a yellowish color if you photographed it in a daylight condition, with daylight film, for instance, back in the day. Go very warm. So, I think about like the color of the light. You know, quality color direction. What's the color of a light in bars most of the time? Kind of warmish, right? You know, warm lights, it makes everybody feel good. You know, cool light is a little bit icy, pushes you away. It's not that intimate. Warm light invites you in. So a bar wants to be a glowing, warm haven on that winter evening when you're stumbling home from work and you really just really wanna have a drink. That bar is beckoning you and that warm light is psychologically bringing you in. So, I look at the environment and I say, "Alright, CTO full cut, full conversion." And yesterday, I think we definitely used full conversion, 'cause I was going absolutely from a daylight type of balance all the way jumping to a tungsten white balance. So it's a full cut. What I used to do, and I don't have to do it so much anymore, but flashes, when they come from the factory, tend to burn a little neutral. They're absolutely calibrated to be neutral daylight, which can appear to be kind of blue, a little bit on the cool side. Neutral is like the next stop. So careful about that because people look better warm than they do cool, so what I have done many times is just take scotch tape and an eighth cut of CTO. The movie guys sometime refer to it as straw. You know, a straw gelatin. Put it over the lamp head of the flash, scotch tape it and just leave it there. It's a tiny, tiny increment of warm light that takes a newer flash and edges it back out of that frontier. So I try to look, Cliff, at the scene, how much, how little. Do I want it to be a little bit warm? Or do I wanna go all the way? Am I converting to tungsten that I need to go all the way? Do I want the impact of that warm background? I think yesterday, occasionally, I was a little maybe too warm with Ryan. We'll see when we look at the pictures today. And you have to be careful too. Somebody's skin tone. If you're gonna push a very warm light at them, you had the danger zone there as you could turn somebody into the great pumpkin, and you don't wanna do that, right? So a little bit of warmth. Modulated is a good thing, and as I said yesterday, they come in cuts, eight quarter half full. And then there's, I'll show them to you when you get inside the equipment pack. We travel with two gel wallets for our small flashes. One is our color correction, and that's CTOs, CTBs, corrective blue. Okay, you know, push the other direction. Neutral density, little grayed out filters, one stop, two stop, three stop to take the stuffing out of a light. CTGs, fluorescent conversion, green. And they come in various strengths. And then we have our theatrical pack, which is reds and blues and stage colors. Cool? Yeah, thank you. Sure. You shot with people from all over the world, all different walks of life, and so this isn't necessarily a lighting question, but it's something that you would be great at answering. When you get a subject that is uncomfortable in front of camera, and I have problem with making my subjects comfortable sometimes, what do you do? Can you give us any tips on how to make people comfortable in front of the camera? You know, you do all these nice lighting. How do you make them shine? Sure, sure. I mean, it's not a universal science, obviously, and it's not an exact science. It's personality-driven. If you notice yesterday with the young lady Corina? Very nice young lady. I chattered here up. I had not matter until basically like, you know, she walked down into the set pretty much, and so I chattered her up and found out she was a student. I had seen her doing homework, so I was like, okay, something grist, you know. One thing you do beforehand, and I could not do so much with Ryan and Corina. I mean, I knew about them beforehand and I did a little bit of research on them, but if you are pointing toward somebody say, I don't know, CEO or author or playwright or whatever, you do your research. Get on the internet, find out stuff about them, okay? Get the magazine or the signing agency. You got an eclipse, any tear sheets, anything about that that you can send gives you grist for conversation. Like, do you have kids? Yes, I have a two-year-old, sir. So I would find that out before I photograph you. So you'd be on the set and I'd be like, what's your baby now, like two? Very young, right? And you'd be like, oh yeah, oh yeah. Okay. So yeah, it eases people up, right? It eases people up. And it makes them aware that you've done your homework and points them in the direction of thinking that you really do care about them, that you're interested in this, okay? And makes for grist, simple grist for conversation, right? Then I also kind of, like with her, I really didn't need to 'cause she was kind of very, very expressive to the point where I had to reel her back in a couple of times. But I'd give her something to think about, like okay, you have a boyfriend. The boyfriend's late. You're at the bar. So give me kind of that expression like you're French beret. What do I need? He's late again. So what? I do not need a man; I have my glass of wine. I mean, whatever. Sometimes I give people roles from movies. I shot the entire cast and producers and writers of the Jersey Boys when they debuted on Broadway. So I had like seven or eight guys, and they were very smart and they were very impatient, and they could have eaten me alive in a heartbeat if you're not strong in that situation and confident. If you're like, I don't know, I mean, they will just be on you like a pack of wolves that allows the photoshoot would turn into a National Geographic special, you know. (making animal noises) And the wolves close in on the lone bull, you know, the aging bull. And this camera pans to the sky. (hums) Whatever. Anyway, I digress. I'm back. So I say, let's walk down the block, and I had my assistant flashing them with a portable flash as we're backpedaling all those long lens on the sidewalks of New York, and they were like kind of like this. And like, guys, guys, stop. Okay, line up. This, this, this. Come at me. Give me reservoir dogs. And they immediately related to that. The guy movie archive kicked in and they were like, Oh, raise my eye. And they gave me that, you know. I gave people roles to play. Imagine this: look out, the flash is here, but it's not really a flash. It's a window on a cloudy day, and you just seen your lover go to war. I try to be funny about it, but the thing that makes people most comfortable is your attitude, your persona. Bottomline: no matter how many questions you ask him, if you make them feel like you really care, that you are passionate about this moment and you convince them of several things, the more important the person is, the more you have to convince them, you know. Some folks are like the Barbershop Quartet. Those guys are happy to hang around Theodore all day, 'cause they were all retired and they didn't exactly have a lot of places to go. But most folks are like, what's the first question somebody ask you when you propose a shooting to them? How much time is this gonna take. And I try my best to convince them a) I'm really good at what I do, b) I'm not gonna waste your time, and c) this is worth it. And if you can convince people of those three things, they will more than likely walk off the pier with you. (laughs) So, yeah. You have to, and again, it's part and parcel of what I said yesterday. You can't just be this bat behind the camera in his glassy eye. You're telling someone a story. You can't hide behind the camera. You have to be, you know, the best of shoots, always remember, being in front of the camera is an emotionally vulnerable place to be for most folks. You have to be emotionally vulnerable behind the camera as well. You have to care. You have to risk failure. You have to relate. If you're just in this safe zone behind a brick wall, you might as well run a remote chord to the camera and go out of the room, you know? God Almighty, I can't believe those television anchors. I would have a hard time with that. All the television news shows are done with robot cameras now. The cameras are moving around and there's nobody there. It's really weird to me, you know. So, yeah.

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!

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