Joe McNally's blog is about the travails, tribulations, oddities and high moments of being a photographer. Joe McNally is an internationally acclaimed photographer whose career has spanned more than 35 years and included assignments in 60 countries.
You know, I look at that relatively small box on the shelf and it’s just a little strange. I grew up photographically in the time of slides and negatives and glassine envelopes to slide them into and big filing cabinets to house it all. Many years of shooting takes up some real estate, I tell ya.
Then, around 2001, I started shooting ones and zeroes and not bits of acetate. Who knew it would come to this? All my work of any note, of any value, whether publishable or just a personal pic, lives now inside this little black box known as a Synology DS2419+. Significant film has been scanned (not enough of it) and, since that fateful day I first picked up a Nikon D1X and saw the pictures I was shooting on what would now be considered a primitive LCD (holy shit!), it’s been all digital. You could count the rolls of film I’ve shot since then pretty much on one set of fingers and toes. Now, everything fits inside this ultra-fast, up to date NAS. Wild.
It’s a question we all face, and must deal with. The wonderfully malleable nature of digital imagery lends itself to many things, amongst them, like, you know, disappearance, if we’re not careful. Working with the extraordinarily helpful folks at Synology, whose tech support has been stellar, we have now advanced to a mirror set of NAS arrays, one, a brand new Synology DS2419+, which is now our go to, and our older, DS2415+ becomes the backup. We are actively searching for an offsite solution for the 2415, but for now it has been moved to another area of the studio. Important to get it offsite–that’s a big concentration for us right now.
In many ways, we’re just scratching the surface of these units’ capabilities. Main thing, for us, as it is for all shooters, the cameras ain’t tending to produce smaller and smaller files. They’re producing bigger and bigger ones. A simple take now of even a few hundred images takes up a fair bit of hard drive turf. So the units are expandable. In the 2419 we currently have Seagate IronWolf Pro 14TB drives. Super dependable drives. Click here for more analysis and tech info.
Lots to learn about this essential new tech. But one thing I do know already, it’s a lifeline to my work.
So, this small, burbling box is very important to us. I look at it sometimes. Should I hug it, feed it? And now, we have two. Important. We’ve remapped the network in the studio to have them both on hard wires, but eventually, the offsite, which will onload imagery incrementally, take by take, will be a wireless situation.
Hard to imagine…..the picture below, from the old Yankee Stadium, was shot for the UPI, in 1977. That version of the stadium is long gone, and so is UPI, generally speaking.
And this picture below, shot just a few months ago, with the fanciest of the new digital cameras, the Nikon Z7.
Both live in the same box, quietly humming in the corner.
It’s a time worn piece of lighting knowledge. The bigger the source, the softer the light. (Repeat that phrase several times, using Thumper’s voice.) And, well, it’s true. There’s almost no more beautiful light that I have seen on location apart from the light created by a 12×12 silk, interceding between the hard, directional sun, and your subject. Straightforward and simple. Just the sun, and a big, big diffuser. But, just like any chef in the kitchen taking a simple dish and making it a bit more fancy, at the camera you can do the same thing. Use the sun and the silk to start, but stir in a couple of flash units to gussy things up a bit.
This stalwart runner, just finishing a piece of an obstacle course, is standing under an angled 12×12, (an Avenger Fold Away 12×12) and the sun is at my back at camera, already at a low angle in the sky. The only additional accent here is a large white foam core board held just out of frame below her shoulders. But, the sun being the fast mover that it is, I knew I would need to replace it, as I continued to shoot portraits of the runners late in the day. So, standing by, I had a Profoto B4 pack, with a narrow beam reflector pan on it. When the runner below stepped in for her portrait, the sun was gone, and the B4, placed a considerable distance from the silk, could act like a hard sun, replaced the light of the sun. Put a bit of warmth onto that light, via what I believe was a small cut of CTO gel. The fill board remained in place. Both of these portraits were shot with a Nikon D850 and the Nikkor 105mm f1.4. I programmed square format into the camera.
Now, another potentially wonderful use of the big silk is to use it, again, as a baffle for the sun, but then instead of using a big white fill card, which I do in the above pix, fill, just gently, with Speedlights through a big umbrella. The umbrella can be a distance from the subject, next to camera.
The giveaway about the silk usage? Upper left corner of the frame, you can see evidence of how hard and high the sun was. Splash of highlight and the shadows of the silk frame. But our lovely artist Fefa is filled, i.e., opened up a touch, by three Speedlights popping through a big, shoot thru umbrella.
And then there’s another iteration, fancier, if you will. Speedlight fill from the umbrella, and another Speedlight fill, off the floor. Francesca Vilogron plays the part perfectly.
Now, you need help with a 12×12 and a frame, not to mention a few sandbags. So I realize this might not be the most practical tip in the world, but hey, a bedsheet over a window is a low tech, far less cumbersome alternative. And it’s all in the “bigger the light, softer the feel,” neighborhood. Just occasionally, you can add a twist.
I’ve always been energized at the camera by going to a new place, and that’s just one of the many reasons I’m looking forward to next spring, when we head to Ecuador. Never been there, and I’ve heard amazing things about the visual nature of the rainforest, and the city of Quito, both of which are destinations on this adventure. Dates are: March 23 – April 1, 2020.
Other reasons to be happy? I’m teaching with two of the truly stellar photogs walking the planet with a camera right now, Ami Vitale and Tamara Lackey. The three of us, all Nikon Ambassadors, will be teaching in triumvirate fashion, leading our group for a bit over a week through the bustling city of Quito, and then departing for the sumptuous, spectacular La Selva Lodge. The place is off the charts in terms of being situated safely in the midst of the lush scenery of the Amazon. We’ll be doing natural history tours with experienced guides, observing landscapes, wildlife, and flora and fauna indigenous to the region.
We’ll be photographing beautiful scenery and people as well. The days will be full. Tamara, Ami and I are experienced in just about any genre of photography, and we are available to the class all week, nonstop. Breakfast, lunch and dinner together as a group. Nightly slide shows, critiques, tech advice, Q&A, all week.
Once you get to Quito, Ecuador, basically all else is taken care of, from deluxe accommodations and touring in Quito, to the transit by short plane and river boats to La Selva where we will settle in!
I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with photogs who want/need to work super simple, fast, carry very little and still have a good result with flash work. Being at the TPS show recently in Birmingham, I had the pleasure of conducting a couple of photo walks with fellow shooters, and creating a couple of scenarios that are of the aforementioned “super simple” type.
I’ve really come to revere my little Ezybox Speed-Lite Two Plus soft box…..let’s just call it the Speed-lite 2, okay? It’s self-serving to say, as I had a hand in designing it with Lastolite, but it is the best damn little light shaper I have ever used. Witness Amber Tutton, below, in the deep dark woods. (Okay, it’s a nature trail near the Birmingham NEC and next to the Hilton Convention Center Hotel.)
Nuff said. One quickie Speedlight in a box that stuffs into your camera bag. Done. Nikon Z6, 35mm lens, f/1.8, ISO400, hi-speed sync at 1/640th of a second.
Next day, it was raining, go figure. Went to a tunnel connecting the properties out there at the convention complex. Had a thought. Much as I have raved about the evils of straight flash over the years, we were in a tunnel, and well, it seemed perhaps an easy way to go. So, one raw flash in the background, green gelled. On the ground with the little plastic floor stand that comes with the SB-5000. The other light is an SB-5000 on camera. Hard, edgy look. Let it blow out a bit. Fun, and done.
Now, for the above flash look, if I’d had styling control, I probably would have asked Amber to wear a torn t-shirt and ripped jeans and slung an electric guitar over her shoulder…or something besides a lovely baby blue jacket. But, as always, she inhabits the scene, and makes the light work.
The title comes from a legendarily tough critique offered to a young aspiring photog by a picture editor who was obviously a devotee of “tough love.” Whether these words were said is the subject of debate. But, I can say, I have overheard some very nasty critiques in my time, some of which were the equivalent of taking a sledgehammer to the very fragile ego structure of a burgeoning (or not) photographer. “Why do you pollute the earth with these bad pictures?” is one I believe I might have heard once at the Eddie Adams’ Workshop, though again, given the haze 2am critiques mixed with numerous beers produces, I might be off on that quote myself.
The point Jimmy makes, quite eloquently, is that there are ways to go about critiques, or the offering of opinions. Difference, mixed with respect, is a healthy thing. No one is always gonna love your pictures. Failure is an ever present aspect of the photographer’s portfolio, along with the successes. Jimmy knows this, coming from a picture editing family. His brother Jay was also a photo editor, and his dad, Sandy, was a legend at the Associated Press.
I was on assignment, as a very young photographer, for the AP, at the finish of the Belmont Stakes. It was a potential triple crown run, and expectations were high. So were my nerves. I was sent to shoot the third race as a test. It was perfect. But for the big race, I hung with Spectacular Bid, the favorite, too long, and then swung to the eventual winner, which was Coastal. My film was miserably unsharp, to the point of being unusable. Tommy DiLustro, the AP editor on site, simply called out to me as he was furiously punching out selects, simply saying, “I wanna talk to you about your film, Joe.” He pulled me aside, quietly, and spoke to me about my mistake. He didn’t humiliate me, scream, dress me down in front of the other shooters. But he made his point. It was constructive, not destructive.
Many years later, I was on assignment for Jimmy when he was at SI. It was a big, expensive job, with a lot riding on it. It was the pictorial announcement package for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. Jimmy wanted a highly evolved, technically complex, whiz bang set of pictures, such as below. The entire United States’ trampolining team, in the air, in an airport hangar in Lubbock, Tx. Multiple exposure. Four days of prep. Lots of dough. Lots of tension at the camera. Shot on one piece of film. Done.
You have to realize as a photog, a pic like the above is a big leap of faith for your picture editor as well. This goes off the rails, their butt is on the line, maybe even more so than yours. You are in it together. So when Jimmy called me with a thumbs up on this, it was better than getting any photo award.
‘Cause Jimmy was in it with me. His counsel was always available to you as a shooter in the field, or back at the office with a group of pictures you didn’t really know what to do with. He remained, throughout his career, a safe harbor for photogs. He remembered, and not all inside staff at the magazines do, how cold it can get out here in Freelanceville.
So his plumbing post has special resonance for me. In this age of discord, his admonishment to all of us to keep it civil and supportive is wise. Differ, of course, but do so graciously, constructively. Let’s face it, there’s plenty of people out there who are only too ready to screw photographers right to the wall via onerous contracts, rights grabs, lack of loyalty, underpayment or non-payment. To quote Ned in the 1981 movie, Body Heat, “Sometimes the shit comes down so heavy I feel like I should wear a hat.”
Lots of adversity and nastiness out there. No need for it amongst ourselves.
(The banner photo up top is a screen grab from Jimmy’s PhotoJournal. Portrait by the very fine photog, David Berkwitz. Jimmy and I go way back, by the way. He was the editor on location for Newsweek for John Paul II’s first visit to his native Poland. That was a crazy trip, and we’ve been friends ever since.)
I’ve always maintained the Mike Grippi is one of the coolest dudes I know. Photographer, musician, film maker, and long time friend and colleague, he made a perfect subject for a (very) quick film we shot recently in NYC.
Atomos came to me and asked if I could shoot with the Nikon Z6 Filmmaker’s Kit, which comes complete with Z6 camera, 24-70 f4 S lens, Rode VideoMic, Moza stablilizer, and the Atomos Ninja V5 4K Recording Monitor, amongst other bits and pieces. The whole thing is geared towards simple, light and fast filmmaking. They wanted it on deadline, and they insisted it be shot in one day. The first thought that popped into my head was to shoot something about Grippi’s life and times.
I wrote a quick treatment of it, and titled it “Young Creative in the City,” or, perhaps catchier, “Where Creativity Meets Concrete.” Let’s face it, NYC is a magnet for young, talented, internet savvy, visual people who hope to take their skills and make a dent. I’m sympathetic. It’s what I came to the city to do in 1976. I lived in a flophouse hotel, had my place broken into, lost all my gear, and took home a paycheck that read $109 after taxes. I found out that calzones are cheap and filling, and McDonald’s was saved for a real treat. I wrote the below, and sketched out some possible shots.
Seeing this as a visual tone poem to the city of New York and the reasons people come here, to seek an audience, to offer their voice in the chorus, and their hopes to rise beyond the mundane, the day-to-day drill of living and breathing. To be heard. To make difference. To rabble rouse, to offend, to be noticed. And of course, the sheer, unblinking monolith of the city becomes the crushing reality. Indifference, lack of traction, overwhelming odds and numbers, the insufferable attitudes, the constant BS of everyone chattering like magpies in Brooklyn watering holes about how they’re “doing this video and it’s gonna be so cool ‘cause there’s these people who are really cool and interested are going to fund it and show it….somewhere.” Versus the sincerity of expression, the honesty of thought, feeling and creation. The moth to flame aspects of what the city capriciously, enticingly, holds in her hands, like a Cheerio in its fingers, trying to get the baby to reach, only to pull it away. A place where hopes and dreams seek nourishment, like an irrepressible weed, flourishing in a crack in the sidewalk. Depending on the day, you can feel vibrant, alive and in the mix. Or, you can feel like a windup toy someone jut placed in front of a brick wall.
Grippi in the City - YouTube
It’s even harder now, just by dint of sheer numbers and the incessant noise of the internet. How to break through all the me-me-me based shouting and get somebody to notice that fillip of difference that separates you from the pack? Grippi is engaged in such a mission. I called him up and he was down, so we grabbed the gear and went to work.
I was blessed with two terrific young shooters, Mike Cali and Andrew Tomasino. And Dan Chung of Atomos, a fine photog out of the UK, shot a BTS. Dan and I have known each other since his newspaper and wire service days, when he was winning all sorts of press awards in Great Britain. He shot a BTS film of our adventure, and I grabbed a slice of it for the banner and visual you see below.
The grab and go aspects of the kit worked well. We had to balance the Moza, of course. And we opted for a pro to run our audio, with his own pro level gear. What we have found as we plunge ahead into video is that one of the hardest parts of video is….audio. So we now leave that to the professionals.
But the Z6 hung in there well, and recording to the Atomos made a huge difference in our potential quality, delivering ProRes RAW files through the HDMI connect. It gives you access to maximum dynamic range and detail, and opens up a world of possibilities in post-production. Cali devised a cool feeling LUT prior to shooting, so we were able to store that in the Atomos and actually look at the color and feel of what we were producing on location.
It’s a great learning curve to be on right now, as we shoot more and more video. Thanks to the wonderful crew, and Atomos, and most of all, to Grippi, one of the coolest guys out there.
I’ve always loved the legend of Dracula, and Vlad the Impaler, and the many and varied vampire movies that have resulted from the blood sucking myth over the years. In my senior year of high school, I had to write an in-depth book report, and I chose Bram Stoker’s Dracula. My mother disallowed it. She thought it would make me, in her words, strange. Little did she know the “strange-ification” process was well underway, and continues to this day.
So I loved this job below, back in the 70’s no less. Working on location, by myself, shooting Kodachrome and lighting with my old set of 800ws Dynalites. Below, actor Jack Betts as Dracula. He was on daytime TV for ABC, and I was a staff photog for the network at the time. He had an understudy role, as I remember, on Broadway, as the Count. And he was into the role! I recall having a blast doing these pictures, even given my uncertainty with lights and chrome, back in the day.
Got two brand new workshops in Europe this year – starting soon. Leading the way is producer extraordinaire Liza Politi who not only does a terrific job in research and planning, but somehow also attracts wonderful people to enjoy these adventures with. Really looking forward to exploring Portugal since I’ve never been….
Only 1-2 spots open for Portugal next month, so email Liza for details email@example.com.
And Romania well, both weeks filled up fast, I guess spurred by the notion of wandering around Transylvania – the legendarily beautiful home of Dracula. (Annie has already told me if I deploy my Bela Lugosi imitation even once, she’s going home.) But 2 spots just opened up now for the first week of Romania, so email Liza at: firstname.lastname@example.org to register if you dare to enter the forests of Transylvania with me:) Also Bucharest. Wow….beautiful city.
And Romania itself, perhaps a bit less visited? There are tried and true places for photo workshops, to be sure. Iceland and Tuscany come to mind. But Romania! Visually quite different, and exciting. Can’t wait to go back. And Portugal, wow, never been there, so that is always fuel for picture making.
From the wilds of Las Vegas and the wonderful Joli Irvine in a lifeguard chair to the woods of Birmingham, UK….you never know what you’ll find:)
Truth is, I’ve always enjoyed wandering with a bunch of photogs, finding pictures. Got two such adventures coming up! In Birmingham! Looking forward to working with folks during our two photo walks (March 16 & March 17) hosted by Nikon School UK at The Photography Show in Birmingham. It’s around the corner, literally, on the calendar.
Annie and Cali will be with me on our photo adventure and….drum roll…so will the wonderful and well-known Amber Tutton for both days.
We’ve always had fun together, and shot some worthwhile pictures. The above was a recent effort in London, out on the streets, working with terrific shooter and trainer Neil Freeman and the crew from Nikon School UK. Shot with two new Lastolite strip lights, each fitted with two SB-5000 Speedlights. FYI, I’ve promised her I will not ask her to be barefoot this time.
As you can see above, shot with nine Speedlights, we take batteries seriously at our shop!
Maha contest winners! As promised, today’s blog is about the wonderful shooters who submitted their pictures in honor of National Battery Week. We announced a contest on last week’s blog, sponsored by and in conjunction with Maha, the folks who bring you Powerex, which is our go-to power source on location.
So, here’s the thing. We asked for pictures of the actual devices powered by Powerex batteries. Some folks construed that to mean pictures of actual stuff–stuff being people, birds, etc.–they shot with lights or cameras with Powerex. Okay, so I split the two main awards. One goes to the pic of the powered device, and the other goes to…a lovely picture. Of which there were a few.
In terms of a device, the below, submitted by Marshall Gardner, had great energy:-))) And not just battery power. It seems he used the kitchen as a venue, put utensils at risk, and came up with a shot where the flash itself is firing, and the graphics of the yellow grating the flash is sitting on are helpful. Good color synchronicity. Good effort and a lot of work in this pic.
Production shot was included. As I said above, I believe Marshall might have commandeered the kitchen for this, and thus may owe his family a dinner out on the town. Just sayin’, Marshall.
As far as a picture simply made with a Powerex powered device, I chose the below. Simple, lovely portrait, submitted by Sudeep. Enjoyed the slightly whimsical expression of the subject. Nicely handled portrait. Way to go, Sudeep!
So, good news for Marshall and Sudeep, but also good news for the contest entrants in general. Maha has agreed to give everyone who entered a coupon for purchase. Amount TBD. Annie and I will communicate via our email@example.com address and get back to all the folks who entered on delivery of prizes, and sending of coupons. Below are a couple more pix that were fun to see. Birds below by Alejandro Camacho.
And another very clean gear shot by Sergio Lopez.
So, a bit of fun, hopefully was had. Many thanks to all the photogs who entered, and of course to Maha, who collaborated with us on this small-scale contest effort. They are good folks, who make super dependable batteries and chargers. Been using them for years.