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Joe McNally Desert Shoot

UPDATE: Joe has posted Joe has posted his version of the day, with his stills from the setups seen below.

What do you do when you get the chance to hang out with Joe McNally, shooting in the desert for an afternoon?

You go, that's what you do. And that's exactly what happened to me the day after finishing up teaching at Gulf Photo Plus earlier this month in Dubai.

Video, learned tidbits, setup shots and desert delicacies, after the jump.

The video runs about 6 1/2 minutes, and was done with a Canon G9 point-and-shoot camera -- video, setup still shots, voiceover audio in the truck on the way back, too. This one really got stepped on in the YouTube upload process, but I have placed a full-res version that can run full-screen here for downloading. (Fair warning: It's 68 megs, but it looks much better.)

So, what do you do during an afternoon shooting in the desert with McNally? You watch, take notes (or video, if you are sneaky and say you "need it for your blog," and learn as much as you can.)

That's Joe on the left, as if you did not already know, setting up 7 SB-800's to be used as a single, powerful TTL light source. On the right is Sid, our grip (and fellow dumbstruck photo student).

Joe's setup process for the SB-800's is this: Sid unlocks the Land Cruiser, (we traveled in style) Joe whistles, and all of the SB-800's jump out of the bag, set themselves to "remote" and channel 1-A. Then they mount themselves to Justin clamps and leap up onto a "C-stand." Joe has them well-trained when it comes to the CLS wireless stuff.

(Joe actually carried the stand manually from the truck to the shoot site himself, because the site of fully-ladened C-stand running across the desert on its own would have freaked out Lenka, our model.)

Why seven speedlights? Because he wanted to punch through a diffuser in a high ambient light environment. He was using high-speed, focal-plane sync -- a fancy-pants Nikon thing that works wonders at the cost of lighting efficiency. I would explain it better but it is late, and I am on allergy meds. You are lucky I am using punctuation at this point.

But with multiple SB's, you can make up for the efficiency issues. And when you have as many SB's as Joe does, well, you can pretty much do whatever you want WRT light levels. A military helicopter actually flew by about a half-mile away from us. I would imagine that Joe could have spun that C-stand around and lit it, TTL, at f/8 at ISO 200.

He started off soft on the light, then lost the diffuser and went with hard light against the sun. As you can see, the SB's were from front camera right, and the sun was from hard back camera right. I later became a VAL/Videographer, filming with my little Canon and holding a rim light (yet another SB-800) from back camera left. It was nice to feel useful, but I probably looked like the biggest geek ever. Just stick a photo vest on me and be done with it.

For the second setup, he shot right into setting, hazy sun and pushed an umbrella in real close. Just three SB's in this one, which after seeing seven aimed as one source seemed positively weenie.

The umbrella was shielded on the bottom, which I had read about in "The Moment it Clicks", but never actually tried. I can tell you I will be trying it from now on. It painted Lenka's face beautifully, and totally left the sand alone. The result was a shot that looked lit, but with an environment that was left unspoiled. Just a really nice, simple tip that will stay with me.

Another thing was watching Joe's interaction with Lenka. He has been doing this for so long (Joe apprenticed with Mathew Brady) that his interaction is constant, quick, loose, and totally unforced.

I often wince at meetups as someone will take a shot and proceed to lose their model for the next 30 seconds while they chimp and work out technical problems. I would like to thing that I am not quite that bad. But in comparison to McNally, I felt like that guy.

No use in lighting a photo only to polish it off with with crappy photog-subject interaction. We all need those follow-through skills and it was great to watch someone work it so well.

For the last setup (things were moving fast as the sun was quickly dropping and Joe had a plane to catch) we used the unshielded umbrella with a gold Lastolite panel (underneath Lenka's face) to get a quick clamshell-style light.

There was a question in the Flickr comments of the previous photo (the one with w/Joe sitting, above) wondering if his legs in fact constituted a fill reflector. I didn't ask. But in retrospect I thnk that might be one of those in-the-know, pro secrets that the truly-greats like McNally hold back on telling people.

Finally, we also got a chance to sample a rare delicacy, the sand truffle. I would describe it as an "acquired taste". But who knows -- thinly shaved in an omelette it just might work.

Joe has posted his version a of the day, in which he displayed highly suspect picture editing skills: He led with a shot of me and ran all of the "Lenka" photos as secondary art. It's good reading, after you scroll down about four inches...

And feel free to download the full-res movie if you like. It is much better quality -- and bigger -- than the YouTube version. Especially on the stills.


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