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Shoot the Bloggers: John E. McIntyre

One of the best things about spending 20 years in newspapers is getting to work with people like copy editor John E. McIntyre. He worked at The Sun for 23 years, including 14 years as head of the copy desk.

John was the last line of defense against errors -- or outright stupidity -- getting into print. And that line of defense was well-fortified.

It was not at all unusual to get a midnight call from the copy desk, beginning with, " We have a little question about something in your caption..."

And more often than not, it was your sleepy butt they were saving.

Who Needs a Cpy Desk, Anyway?

As the newspaper industry continues to implode, they now have to make do without luxuries such as copy desk chiefs. I'm not sure what the fat-cutters will go after next -- electricity in the newsroom? Reporters' pads and pencils?

If you've watched the last year of The Wire on TV, you already know the mantra: "We simply must learn to do more with less…"

David Simon, the creator of The Wire, was a Baltimore Sun reporter. And that association makes me very proud. As fas as I am concerned, that show was the all-time high water mark for TV.

Since leaving The Sun last April, John McIntyre has since passed on to the other side.

Oh, he's still very much alive. By "the other side," I mean that his current duties now include blogging. And if you come from newspapers or enjoy language or just like guys with a wry sense of humor who wear bow ties, you'll definitely want to check out his site.

I caught up with John again as part of a new portrait project on bloggers.

Shoot the Bloggers

The blogger series is one of three projects I have for 2010. At this point I am working locally, with the idea of expanding the scope later as the project gains a little momentum.

Throughout, I hope to write about it here not only in terms of the lighting details but also the process and logistics of the project itself.

Why bloggers? Lots of reasons.

As a group, they are on the vanguard of a huge disruption in the traditional media model. As the Fourth Estate disintegrates, is being replaced a new form of news gathering which has proved better in some ways, and worse in others.

No one knows exactly how the transition is going to turn out. But a lot of bloggers are already out there, taking risks and blazing new trails.

In my experience, bloggers have proven to be an interesting group of people. To blog successfully you have to be self-motivated, persistent, have a focus to your knowledge and be somewhat of an entrepreneur.

And, obviously, I have foot in the door with the industry. Which always helps when trying to get access and referrals.

The project is at present self-assigned. I have several ideas for partners, funding and eventual uses for the photos. But as for now the series is in the chicken-or-egg stage, and I am absolutely fine with that.

If I have learned anything in the last three years it that taking a chance on a cool idea can come back at you in a good way.

Christening the Photo Cave

John was one of the very first people to be shot in my new studio, which sits at the corner of my L-shaped office. It is a sitting studio (low ceiling) and my only background so far is a big square of blank wall painted dark gray.

In a way, that height limitation is useful. Working without tall ceilings means that any lighting technique I use in my studio can be brought to nearly any location. (At least, that is the positive spin I am putting on it for myself.)

This pullback shot shows half of the four lights that were used to make John's photo. I used a combination of big lights and small lights. There were two ABs and two SBs, total.

The key was an AlienBee fitted with a gridded beauty dish. I like this light source, as it gives me soft-ish light with absolute control over the spill. It's not soft-box-soft, but in close creates an in-between quality of light that I like.

The fill was on-axis, courtesy an AB-800 and small moon unit. I can vary the fill intensity to create a wide variety of looks by controlling the contrast range of the photo.

With the background so near, even a Moon Unit is going to throw a tell-tale ring light shadow. I minimized that to some degree with an SB-800 background light on the gray backdrop. Not too much -- just enough to lessen the ring shadow and create a slight gradient.

Last is another SB-800 top light hanging from a small scissor-clamp on the ceiling. This nifty little light support turns any suspended ceiling into a boom light at the ready -- as long as the light source is not too heavy.

As for ratios, start with the ring fill. Get a good exposure, then drop it down to where everything is dark but still legible. (You can drop it with the aperture or by using the ring's power level.)

On top of that, add your key light (here, the dish) at full exposure. Then add background and top light to taste. It's quick, full manual, and no meters needed.

The result is, I think, a character-driven style of light. Which is appropriate to John, who is quite the character. Honestly, I think that comes with being copy desk chief. But that may just be anecdotal experience on my part.

For now, I am starting with tight portraits and trying for interesting, controlled lighting. But that is probably going to change. I hope to move into photos which are more conceptual as I go. A few ideas are percolating.

I am pleased to see that one of my photos is already appearing on John's blog, You Don't Say. For now the project is completely collaborative, with the idea being to leverage photos into introductions to other bloggers. As the series starts to get more momentum, my hope is that the work itself will open new doors.

And speaking of opening new doors, be sure to check out You Don't Say if you are even remotely interested in language and/or newspapers. John hits all things linguistic, including the proper use of alcohol while writing, punctuation without fear and even how to pronounce Louisville.

You Don't Say is spartan enough not to even have an RSS button, but I pulled the RSS link from my browser and read it religiously. You can also follow him on Twitter.

Next: Climber Hands


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Blogger Alex said...

Sounds Brilliant David!
I'm looking forward to the bloggers photo series because I can't think of a greater diversion of people within one group.
Good luck to you!

January 18, 2010 12:49 PM  
Blogger Paul Colvin said...

I checked out John's blog and I'll be following it. As the husband of a retired (read "bought out") copy editor here in Oregon, I can identify with what he says about shrinking news-gathering and editing departments. We see our paper self destructing before our very eyes.

On the photo end of things, I noticed the portrait you took of John looks quite a bit different on your page than his. Your's is much lighter with more detail in the shadows. Different versions of the same shot?

January 18, 2010 1:05 PM  
Blogger Geoffrey said...

God bless 'im.
My daughter is copy desk chief for a small newspaper group in North Carolina. Of course, that's in addition to her duties of page layout, Photoshopping the papers' images, dealing with last-second changes before going on-press, and writing the occasional feature when the nominal writers fail to come through in time.

As you suggest, copy-editing is increasingly a thankless and underpaid task that is nonetheless critical if newspapers are to avoid looking like cretins due to bone-headed spelling errors and factual howlers.

January 18, 2010 1:12 PM  
Blogger Rick said...

Thanks for sharing so much useful information. The portraits look great.

Where did you get the gridded beauty dish?

Which AB model did you use with the beauty dish? I have the AB beauty dish and, if I remember right from the last time I used it, it's too efficient to be use up close on a portrait with an AB 1600. Or am I wrong?

January 18, 2010 1:41 PM  
Blogger Debbi_in_California said...

Love this post, (miss you when you don't blog).

What do you use for that beauty dish stand and boom? If you said I missed it

January 18, 2010 2:35 PM  
Blogger Todd said...

We all see the images and the pull-backs. They are of great help. I am wondering if you can sometime post a video, so we can hear how you talk a subject through the session. I find explaining myself while behind the lens one of the most difficult things to do. And you?

On a side note: Why oh why did I take the hyperlink? Now I am more confused than ever as to when to use a hyphen vs a dash! And semi-colons? Don't get me started

January 18, 2010 4:20 PM  
Blogger Todd said...

We all see the images and the pull-backs. They are of great help. I am wondering if you can sometime post a video, so we can hear how you talk a subject through the session. I find explaining myself while behind the lens one of the most difficult things to do. And you?

On a side note: Why oh why did I take the hyperlink? Now I am more confused than ever as to when to use a hyphen vs a dash! And semi-colons? Don't get me started

January 18, 2010 4:21 PM  
Blogger Frozen Forever Photography said...

Thanks for sharing this set up. I haven't shot in my studio for a long time because I was just board with most set ups.


January 18, 2010 4:28 PM  
Blogger David said...


Yes, he used an earlier version which was too dark. I mailed him a second file, trying to get him to change it out. But copy editors can be stubborn (he said, knowing John would eventually read the comments out of vanity if nothing else.)


All AB dish/boom, standard issue.


One-man band, sometimes there are not enough hours in the day. Never had much trouble with the actual talkin' tho.

January 18, 2010 4:32 PM  
Blogger Jennifer said...

I stumbled onto this site recently have found it to be a wealth of information for an amateur like myself. Thank you.

Incidentally, I'm commenting on this particular post because husband was a former copy editor (and prior to that, a copy desk chief) who left the industry three years ago for family. My rhetorical question is: Where do copy editors go after print journalism? Some actually need careers and, in the case of my husband, loved his profession and is nowhere near retirement age.

He's also of an older generation whose job description did not include designing. Looking at job posts now, there's virtually nothing for those sorts of copy editors.

Ah, times they are a-changin'.

January 18, 2010 5:05 PM  
Blogger budrowilson said...

"With the background so near, even a Moon Unit is going to through a tell-tale ring light shadow. I minimized that to some degree with an SB-800 background light on the gray backdrop. "

Did you mean throw a tell-tale ring light shadow? ;-)

January 18, 2010 5:31 PM  
Blogger M said...

Speaking of copy desks, I couldn't help noticing a spelling mistake (and I am not even a native speaker :)
Shouldn't it read "...even a Moon Unit is going to THROW a tell-tale ring light shadow."?


January 18, 2010 5:56 PM  
Blogger David said...

Thanks - fixed. Maybe I need a copy desk, too!

January 18, 2010 6:03 PM  
Blogger Fabio said...

Great post, David, and, let me say: great «self-assignment». ;)
I found the 4-lights-head-shot-technique you used here very appealing.
The blogger project is very interesting and I'm looking forward the developments.
Greetings from a newbie Italian strobist! :)

January 18, 2010 6:43 PM  
Blogger captaindash said...

I don't know about the limitations of the clamp itself, but suspended ceilings are held up by wires. Pretty strong ones usually. If you push one ceiling panel aside and poke your head up into the dark abyss (might require an SB's modeling light) ceiling, you'll see it's supported by wires attached to the real ceiling. You can put a tremendous amount of weight directly below one of these vertical wire supports and it won't hurt a thing. The tensile strength of wire is amazing. As long as your clamp is good, you can attach a monobloc with ease. I've installed these ceilings and actually hung from them at these points of strength. I weight more than a monobloc.

January 18, 2010 7:38 PM  
Blogger Daniel said...


Love the post, especially since I've picked up some AB's too ;D

Quick question for you, did you paint your beauty dish? or did it come that way? Mine didn't, but I like the black "stealth" look you've got going on there!

Thanks, Daniel

January 18, 2010 8:50 PM  
Blogger Graham & Graham Photography said...

Nice shot--what would it have looked like with one or two lights? Isn't five lights kind of an overkill for a studio portrait? How badly do you need the extras and what did they add?

January 18, 2010 8:51 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

Wonderful piece about John. I think we all find ourselves in situations were something gets torn down only to be built back up. Kind of like lighting.

Looking forward to you bagging a few more bloggers.

January 18, 2010 10:30 PM  
Blogger Adam said...

What's the difference between your gridded beauty dish and a gridded soft box of the same size (assuming you had one?) I have a few different sizes of softbox... what's the argument for (or against) adding a beauty dish to that?


January 19, 2010 9:08 AM  
Blogger Sandra said...

Who needs a cpy desk, Anyway. It looks like you do or is it a ploy to entice Mr McIntyre to participate?

I have been reading your blog daily for some months now. There is more than enough information in previous posts to keep me occupied for many months yet on the days when you don't actually post.

I have made my first purchase on the road to me becoming a strobist. I just bought the strobist lighting seminar DVD. I know it will be extremely valuable as I plan to light in 2010.

Many thanks from Sandra in Scotland

January 19, 2010 3:50 PM  
Blogger Max said...

I love the cave. I moved into a house with a finished/white wall basement and it's been great. Low-ceiling sucks for tall subjects but you work extra hard to find a solution and when something better comes along, it'll be too easy. I seem to be able to do mostly anything I want with three lights for subject and background. One AB plus 2 speedlights. Check into it when you move in somewhere new.

Writing from Mass, where you just have to remember to turn the basement heat on plenty of time before your subject shows. Happy trails all.

January 19, 2010 5:16 PM  
Blogger Through the glass said...

I'm proud to say that I am a former student of John McIntyre, and I believe this image definitely does him justice.

January 19, 2010 6:56 PM  
Blogger Reese said...

I am not sure if you have seen this but Your page seems to render incorrectly in Safari 4...

January 19, 2010 7:39 PM  
Blogger David said...


It's a Safari 4 / Blogger combo glitch. Hit refresh, always clears it up.


January 19, 2010 8:49 PM  
Blogger Eugen S said...

Indeed, bloggers are a very interesting group to photograph. Recently I have been photographing quite a few myself for a project I'm working on.

Aside from being very interesting people, bloggers can often give you and your work a lot of exposure. A link in a post or a mention on Twitter can open your work up to their audience, which if they are well known can be in the thousands.

January 19, 2010 10:56 PM  
OpenID yo-sarrian said...

Hey, David... always a pleasure to read your posts, and I so very rarely comment because I know you get SWAMPED, but I had to ask about the scissor clamps, as I've never heard of them before.

Can you enlighten me on them a little bit?

January 20, 2010 12:42 AM  
Blogger JakobG said...

Hey David,

Dunno if you've seen this before and posted about it (there's no numbers in the strobist index that I can see?).

By chance following a number of links I came across this guy's site:

He takes 3D pics, but on that page he happens to have a walk-through video, which also shows his lighting setup, as well as the end 3d shot so you can see the lighting effect from several angles, kinda neat.

Thanks for this site, an absolute gem and my most visited, practically daily!

January 20, 2010 4:27 PM  
Blogger Jim said...

I understand that this is the way to communicate with you...

I saw that you're doing a seminar in Dubai on social media marketing. Since my wife has put her foot down on the Dubai thing, I was wondering if you are planning to do that seminar in the US. You are my idol when it comes to this stuff, and I'd love to learn at your feet. ;-)


Jim Frazier

January 20, 2010 6:37 PM  
Blogger David said...


Cpy Desk was a bit of a joke. :)

January 20, 2010 8:24 PM  
Blogger David said...


Thanks! Not really relevant to lighting, but just tweeted it.


Nope, no plans to do anything on social media here. GPP wanted to throw something a little different into the mix and I suggested that. Looking forward to it!

January 20, 2010 8:31 PM  
Blogger MasterOfGoingFaster said...

For those who are/were/know ex-copy desk professionals, who may be looking for work:
Have you considered opening your own copy desk business, and offering your services to bloggers and corporate writers?

I'm working on my own blog and boy could I use an editor. When I wrote for magazines, it was a lot easier.
If you think about it, the internet version of the paper is a user-collected selection of columnists (blogs) and feature sections (web sites). Those writers still need the services of an editor. The old model (newspaper) had everyone under one roof, and had a top-down organization. The new model is more of a bazaar, with everyone scattered, and the reader gets to pick and choose.

At the magazines, we got a lot of services built into the system. We no longer have access to those services as bloggers. Or maybe I'm missing something.

So think about how you can be of service to the new media and you may have a new business model.

January 21, 2010 10:34 AM  
Blogger John said...

I love this set of shots, and Mr. McIntyre's work is entertaining to say the least.

Thought you might like to know this, PDN just released the top 30 most influential photographers of the decade, and you (DH) are listed! Very cool.

January 21, 2010 5:36 PM  
Blogger TK said...

My first impression of the title photo is that light quality is very "thin" as what I expect from hot-shoe flashes. It isn't a sellable technique to me. I am not a good sale man though. To add some richness to hot-shoe flash lighting, I have to use a few of light panels (reflectors). Here is a sample of the approach:

January 22, 2010 2:17 PM  
Blogger Ervan Rvn said...

what the size of that beauty dish you use that? thank you

March 18, 2014 9:55 PM  

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