I work with Kelby Media a bunch, and, as I have said before, they are like family. So much so, the intrepid Scriv, their videographer, volunteered his lovely wife Kandra for a shoot we did not too long ago. (Why do guys persist in doing this to their women? Putting them on the spot? What part of “Honey, I don’t like surprises,” can’t we figure out? The phrase, “I don’t think that would be a good idea,” doesn’t leave a lot of room for interpretation, really. And it’s often uttered, methinks. Might be right up there with, “Thanks for the gift, honey! Got the receipt?”)
Anyway, Scriv talked Kandra into doing some work in the studio. I figured it was a good match, me and Kandra. She teaches kindergarden. She is also one of those very typical photo subjects–not exactly prone to love the camera, not completely certain of what to expect out of the whole process, not really trusting the photog (who the hell is this guy? he’s from New York!), and just, in general, a wonderful, attractive, bundle of anxiety. She kind of walked through the studio door like it was Stargate, you know, and there was this weird universe on the other side, with flashing lights and people assuring her it was all gonna be alright, fun, even.
Fun? Yeah, we all tell our subjects that. Then why are they out there on a big sheet of white paper all by their lonesome like some poor X-ray patient, just about naked on the table, eyeballing some Dr. Frankenstein roentgen machine, looking around for the lead shield, while we huddle behind metal and machinery? Ever think about that when you tell folks this’ll be “fun?”
Anyway, we started simple. One light. That ‘s all we were allowed. Straight flash. Okay, a party picture. Hot shoe, TTL Accurate exposure, shadow on the wall.
I still get giddy when it works, though, which is indicative of how much I get out. Maybe it’s because I grew up with flashes that had all the subtlety of Thor’s hammer and would basically irradiate your subject. As a measure of how long I’ve been doing this, check out the scene at Studio 54, circa 1977-78.
Sly, post the first Rocky.
Making a living on the streets of NY, as a kid with a camera. Geez….I look at where we are now. These pix were manual focus, manual flash, manual f-stops and shutter speeds. Lots and lots of misses, trust me.
Back to Kandra, still ill at ease. Understandably. My first picture did not merit confidence. In terms of light it looked like a close cousin to the pix above. But as I said to her at the time, this will get better. She was clearly unhappy, and did not trust my usual line of patter. (Remember she’s a teacher, so she has a real good BS meter.) Here’s the thing. I was being straight with her. I told her it was looking good, and she just needed to relax. She countered with, basically, you tell that to everyone, so I don’t believe you. I looked at her right back and said, no, if it wasn’t going well, I would call time, re-group, and let you know it wasn’t working, ’cause that’s my job right now. That full frontal veracity seemed to convince her that I wasn’t, you know, completely full of shit.
Next frame…..we start to craft light for what is a terrific face. Again, just one light.
This is one speedlight through a big Tri-grip one stop diffuser, with a little bit of passive fill off the floor, I suspect, it being white. The size of the Tri-grip comes into play here. I generally use the smaller versions for ease of handling, but this was the biggie, the 48 incher. It smooths out the spectral nature of the small flash, and opens the door to some worthwhile portraiture. You can tell the position is above her face and slightly right of camera angle from the fall of the shadow on her camera left cheek, and uh, the fact that the diffuser in in the frame. This part of my approach I don’t recommend.
This is pretty much the set, one light, off the camera, 70-200mm lens, with an SB900 as a commander.
With A clamps, we pinned the monster Tri-grip to an Avenger boom arm to make life easier for Drew, and to enable him to hold a fill board and a fan. I figured Kandra took the leap here, so we were gonna give her the star treatment; hair and makeup, lights, camera, fan, her own trailer, a 3 picture deal, office on the studio lot, the whole nine yards. (Actually, out of all that, I think we maybe gave her about five or six yards.) The addition of a fill board really perked up the light a bit, and of course, the fan gives the windswept look. (All production pix by Erin Nutini.)
Shot this at 5.6. One speedlight and a fill board, TTL. This shoot brought up a couple things in my head. One is, to work inside the box. I know everybody talks about “thinking outside the box,” but in this instance, because we were all about one light, I was inside that one light box. No “27 Speedlight Joe” today. I had one light and a camera. I harked back to the words of legendary photo director and creator of the “Photography at the Summit” workshops, Rich Clarkson. He always admonished photogs who brought too much gear. “When you bring all that stuff, you have no clarity of thought.” He’s right. Sometimes it’s good to not have options. (Jay Maisel offers his own variant of the same theme: “The more gear you take, the less pictures you make.”) You may look down the block and say, whoah, that would look nice with a 600mm, but darn all I’ve got is this 28.” Not necessarily a bad thing. On this day, your eyes see like your 28, and if you work it right, they will see quite clearly.
The other thing is the confidence level of your subject. If you can brew that up somehow, and engage them in the process, and make them feel good about themselves and what they are projecting into the lens, it is so much more than half the battle. All faces have their own particular power, irregardless if they get in front of a camera frequently, occasionally, or not at all. Those folks who run screaming from a camera might actually have the greatest power. It is the photog’s job, out there in the shadows of the set, to unlock that power. Whether it’s with your light, your mood, your manner, or your BS. We have to open that door, and, once open, we then have to return to our subjects that promise we made to them by inviting them into the studio. To take care of them. (Asking someone to come in and do their portrait is an unwritten contract that obligates both parties.) Our subjects venture a great deal. They expose themselves to an unflinching process. They move, smile, and turn. The camera simply stares back. It’s a machine. We have to put a human face on that machine, and our leap of faith, our potential risk, has to be as great as theirs.
Kandra survived. (Scriv, who volunteered her for this ordeal, survived, too. I knew behind the lens, in addition to making good pictures of Kandra, I held Scriv’s life in my hands:-) She even, I think, had some fun. On another shoot at an old junk yard, once again, we needed subjects. She volunteered herself this time. And this time, she stepped in front of the camera like she owned it. Very cool.
AndrÃ© Weigel says
What’s how we like it… less gear, pretty nice results !
Thank’s, for this blog post !
Awesome blog post! Love how you described it all
john jackson says
I never tire of this lesson its amazing the simplicity of great photography when you think outside the box………Now stop playing around and go write a new book for me to read lol
“Our subjects venture a great deal. They expose themselves to an unflinching process. They move, smile, and turn. The camera simply stares back. It’s a machine. We have to put a human face on that machine, and our leap of faith, our potential risk, has to be as great as theirs.
Joe (Not Completely full of BS) McNally”
Now there is some real wisdom. I think I will put that on a plaque somewhere I’ll be sure to see it.
Monte Stevens says
This was very interesting to read as you walked us through the process. Thanks!
What a good tutorial but really, really a stunning looking model, McNally or not!
Really nice result!
It’s always lovely and how you describe it at your blog! 🙂
Tommy Lynch says
Good blog Joe….thanks for all you have done this past year…..my year started with a workshop of yours in Dobbs Ferry last January…..and ends with a couple jobs from some large Ad Agencies as well as lots of portrait work…..thanks again, have a Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year!
Terrific face, indeed! Wow!
But why does she have Nutella on her chest? 😉
Kevin Blackburn says
I love the one light answer I us it a lot on assignment these days. But even bigger is bringing someone out of their shell to want to be photographed there is a lesson in there for us all I think.
Dave S says
I think the first time models or subjects, I call victims LOL. Find their place after 10 shots.
I keep it simple right off the batt also, then second session load up the tech and get more creative. But great results here. They always love the first shots Hmm. Great tute.
Mike McFerrin says
Just goes to show that simple is sometimes all that’s needed. Keep up the GREAT work, buddy and thanks for sharing your wisdom on a level we can all understand.
Great final result.
Very nice read as well. Very informative and helpful.
Is it necessary to use a tripod with such a setup, at least for the inexperienced.
Ron Mandsager says
Really appreciate this post, Joe… Always amazing to see what you accomplish – such beautiful work! And although its fascinating to see what “27 speedlight Joe” creates, all I have is – 1 light. So this really challenges me – reminds me that I can’t use the excuse of ‘I need more gear’! 🙂 My wife may love you for that… 🙂
Omar D. Rivero says
As always, a great (and free) lesson from the master. My inner grammar checker though went off on “irregardless”. Don’t overt tank the plumbing when “regardless” will do. Sorry man, I know I need to seek counseling. 🙂
Lloyd Eldredge says
Great post. I needed this one today. Thanks.
Lewis W says
What would the “1977” Joe McNally say to the Joe McNally who just posted this blog? Wow.
Really enjoyed photos and reading commentary. I always think about how many lights is too many, how few can be used to get the great result. It’s really encouraging to see someone so inspiring like you, Mr McNally, share your thoughts and the process of selecting type, position, strength etc of lights.
Thank you! I really enjoy your blog!
Merry Christmas Joe,
I just sold my SB800’s and replaced them with SB900’s. Still in the box though. Got a shoot on Wend and going to use what you call “those puppies”.
Reading you blog today inspires me and watched your Nikon vid at NikonUSA.
I will post again when I use the SB900. Of course I am the world’s best, foremost,and humble lighting expert, so I know I can help you sell at least another 500,000 books.
I am waiting till I am perfect before I go to press.
With all humility, the greatest
Ken in Ky
Eric Geidl says
Great words Joe, thank you for sharing!
Yes, when our subjects open up and show us their hidden, vulnerable, beautiful and authentic face we are obliged to return this magic moment on image.
Sharon Hinze says
Mr. McNally, you are beautiful inside! And one of the most generous photogs with your talent and insight. Thank you!
Great soup-to-nuts tech post! And you’re right – great face.
John Sturr says
I just watched this on KelbyTraining yesterday — good stuff — I’m now starting to figure out how you cook this stuff out on approach… call the ball — call the ball Maverick
Mike Neale says
Kandra,…well done,…u r a beautiful model!….more please!
Carl Schaefer says
The second photo of Kandra from the top of your post is amazing. The quality of the light really softens her face (and it is a beautiful face!) I’m not a fan, so much, of the next two shots. On the photo with the wind-blown hair, the light appears harsh, giving Kandra’s face a hard, angular look exacerbated by the blown hair on the right side of her face. It almost looks like a different person in that photo. WRT the last photo, the light is softer than the third but I’m a fan of her hair style in the second. But, that’s just me.
Thanks once again, Joe, for showing us what one can do with a single strobe.
“the fact that the diffuser in in the frame” It actually looks like a (light source) prop behind her. Looks good to me. Thanks for all your “teaching”
Kandra is a lovely woman! And a great testimony to “less is more”, in the right hands!
Dom Romney says
In the sixth Picture what are the big pannels agaisnt the wall, and how big is the biggest one (if you know)
Just one question – it’s kind of nit picking and don’t mean to be a nitpicker but…
How come’s all of your setup shots look like the diffuser is to the left of the subject a bit as opposed to the right of the subject as shown in the actual shots and your description? Obviously I cannot see the end of the boom and where the SB actually is. Is it just the angle of the setup shots?
Karen Johnson says
I’m just learning this off camera lighting stuff and I really appreciate this post. Thanks for sharing your wisdom!
Joe – Great images and write up. I am partial to the look you got with the image of the subject with the tri grip in the frame. Less is more – and you prove it again!
PS will you be doing Dobbs Ferry in 2010 ??
Keith M. says
I could’ve used this post last Thursday when I did a Santa shoot with a bunch of kids from my unit’s Christmas party (I’m in the Army and the unit photog). Being a beginner with light, I was lost. Dark room, red Santa, deep orange wall, and one light. It didn’t help that as soon as the flash went off, so did the kids off Santas lap! One shot for most! With a diffuser panel (and kicking up the ISO) and the pics would have come out much better. Off to get that panel!
Wow cool stuff for people like me:-) Nice post Mr McNally!
Jim Frazier says
I remember this video. I was thinking, as I watched it, that she seemed really uncomfortable. It was interesting to watch you trying to lighten her up. I wondered how she had gotten Shanghaied into doing the shoot. Nice to know the backstory.
And great post, as usual.
Mark Olwick says
You may want to check out Zack Arias’ OneLight workshops or DVD. He’s the master of the single light portrait.
Sarah Kavanaugh says
Who was it (besides my father, repeating it?!) who said, “every time you add a light, you add a problem.” ?
Some of my best shots are with one, maybe two lights. (Well, I’m also poor!)
First off, of course, a shout out to numnuts… YOU!!! no, really… you. this chick’s hot, but you sir are beautiful – behind the camera.
But seriously, thanks to everyone else for the kind words about Kandra. It is true that I’ve been inducted into the elite club of men who got the better end of the deal. She’s hot… inside & out, but doesn’t realize it. This is what makes her great.
She’s an elementary art teacher (was kindergarten for a while but went back to what she loves) and not a model. She’d never done anything like this before, but if you watch the Kelby classes you can’t tell. I love the pics, and there are many more that Joe took that I have up on FB proudly 🙂
Anyway, they say opposites attract. She looks better in front of the camera and I look better BEHIND it.
cool thanks to tha man.
scriv, video guy.
I really needed this today – a reminder on just how much one can do with less gear, and to stay engaged & keep my subject(s) at ease. Thanks for continuing to share from your wealth of knowledge Joe!
Merry Christmas & a Happy New Year to you & yours!!
Maurizio Camagna says
Quick question: What fan is it? Seems something I’ve never seen before. Anyone can help?
My comment is not directly related to today’s blog… just thought I’d share with you that I attempted to check out a copy of “Hot Shoe Diaries” through inter-library loan and the book is so popular and precious that all of the libraries in the state that had a copy refused to share! 🙂 Apparently frightened that once I got my hands on it, I’d never give it back…
Oh I wish I had read this before yesterday…
With less than an hour to produce a beauty shot on location, I had almost every piece of equipment I own. I spent most of the time pushing lights about the room with a frown on my face, coming away with less than desirable results.
A timely insight… thank you
Eek, the big headshot looks like she has rubber skin with all that photoshopping! I truly think she looks much better in the first shot, poor lighting notwithstanding.
Frank Burch says
I bet I’ve watched your “Photographing with One Light” video on KelbyTraining.com three times. I like all your Kelby videos, but this one really resonates for an amateur photographer like me that struggles to rein in the expenses of my addiction. It’s amazing what you do with just one light. I think KelbyTraining.com is the best training value anywhere and I’m always looking forward to your next production.
Now this is wonderful!!!! Cause some folks just can’t afford a lot of gear and knowing wonderful portraits can be taken using just these items is motivating and inspiring for those who feel overwhelmed by the never ending amount of gear everyone is using. And the small little detail about building confidence in your subject is extremely helpful. Thanks Joe!
I love this bit you wrote:
“Fun? Yeah, we all tell our subjects that. Then why are they out there on a big sheet of white paper all by their lonesome like some poor X-ray patient, just about naked on the table, eyeballing some Dr. Frankenstein roentgen machine, looking around for the lead shield, while we huddle behind metal and machinery? Ever think about that when you tell folks this’ll be “fun?”
Cos I know EXACTLY how that feels – mind you I volunteered but I had no idea what that would entail – and the shot was worth it – but the link below involved me lying on a cold concrete floor with only a thin layer of white paper between me and it, and I was naked and contorted in 4 dimensions, and had to hold still cos of the rose petals. And I had to hold that pose for a good 45 min while the photog (two) played around with softbox settings and light and took shots and climbed on ladders. So YES – that statement is OH SO TRUE
But if you can get a pic like this – for me it was totally worht it 🙂 The joys of being a life model!
Joe, But the 77 pics “manual focus, manual flash, manual f-stops and shutter speeds.” are better than the first pic above that is “TTL Accurate”. I bet you would still shoot Sly and Liz manual, manual and manual in the same party environment today. No?
We have all learnt a significant amount from you.. Thank you for giving so much!
How about taking this one step further? Back to how the pix of Stallone/Taylor were taken, one speed light, on location, no assistants, no studio, no stands, you can use a reflector/diffuser providing you can hold it while shooting!
What would you do differently?
sid siva says
Drew is wearing a shirt and jeans! incredible and shoes too.. is this the christmas look?
Eric W. Gregory says
Good write up 🙂 I just watched those videos on kelbytraining.com yesterday. Good stuff man!
Thanks for the great instructional post. It really complements “The Hot Shoe Diaries”. Would live to know what that little hand held fan is. Looks like just the right thing for portrait work.
Here we go says
Sometimes it’s good to not have options. thanks for post !
Arpad Daniel Ronaszegi says
I mostly do architectural photography so this post gave me several ideas how to manage the people/ camera/ photographer dynamics when I do portraits. I like your thought that “all faces have their own particular power”. This seems to suggest the beauty that is amplified by honesty.
Thank you and have a Happy New Year!
Perry Watson says
Great post. I love the way you gently build up the models confidence. I would really like to se more of the junk yard images.
Tom A says
To simply say “great post” would be a slight. There are so many good ideas here it could be a reference book itself. I will zero in on the comment about too much gear (and options) being a distraction. I couldn’t agree more. I am not a pro photog, it’s a hobby. I mostly do computer software. Working with computers, and processes, I have come to the conclusion that, for me at least, automation can lead to dead brain cells. You MUST think for yourself sometimes. By doing so, you become a better problem-solver. You become creative. Ask anyone who has ever worked on a help desk about creativity. Of course, there are times when you should bring every piece of gear you own to a shoot. But not every time.
Thanks for the thought-provoking post.
Louis Pang says
Love how eloquently you described the process of engaging the subject and earning their confidence. Can’t wait to work with you in Malaysia!
Jack Thompson says
I watched this whole class on Kelby Training. A beautiful model, and joe, once again you have captured her perfectly!