Wow! Today I (and 700 other pro and near-pro photographers) got to spend over five intensive hours watching Joe McNally demonstrate and explain his (mostly) small flash location lighting techniques. I’m sure he’ll post some of the images he created on his blog soon.
He uses mostly ITTL (Canon calls it ETTL) auto flash(es) off-camera. He dials down the ambient light exposure and pumps up the flash output (adjusting it from the camera) as desired, firing up to three groups of flashes with varying intensity as he wants. I’d been using some of his techniques for months, having learned them from his books, but it was just terrific watching him wing it and create lighting on the fly.
He had a bunch of light stands on stage and his assistants had (I guess) a dozen Nikon flashes ready to install in modifiers at his instruction. He’d create a portrait of a lovely young woman right before our eyes, then show us how he’d modify those lights if it were a muscular male executive who then changed clothes and was spritzed into a “sweaty” basketball star.
He’d finish with one demonsration, then say, “OK, you in the audience… what’s your name? Come on up here. You, too… we’re going to put you with our model and try to create a shot that looks like…” and go on from there to experiment right in front of us.
His camera was hooked to his laptop which was projected onto huge screens so we could see each shot as it was taken and compare it to the previous attempt. He even made mistakes as we all do, and we watched as he explained how he quickly troubleshot the problem (starting by taking the blame himself first).
He began the day with his flash on camera and it quickly became obvious how poor the results of on-camera flash are and then he moved on to doing a few portraits of his two models (one a pretty woman, the other a real hunk guy) with just one flash that was off-camera and then using light modifiers (a diffuser, umbrella, softbox, reflectors, etc.) Then he added a second light and showed us various ways we can use that light with modifiers. He wound up using these flashes in two banks of three flashes each plus two others in a couple of shots. It was absolutely fascinating to watch him work and explain as he went along.
His second to last demo was with 1100 watt second studio flash units (switching from auto flash to full manual… without a light meter), one of which was placed in the back of the audience to light each of his models on stage for varying effects. He'll use hotshoe flashes (on manual) with these as accent lights. Then he repeated one of those effects with just a Nikon SB900 hot shoe flash from the back of the audience. VERY impressive!
In many of his demos we’d see a problem in the last shot (projected before us) and he’d say, “What’s wrong here?” Some of us would say, “That kicker’s spilling onto the background!” and he’d say, “Easy fix… let’s gobo it,” and he’d explain what a gobo is and his guys would grab their gaffer tape and makeshift gobos on the offending flashes on the spot.
Joe has a casual, amusing way of writing, but in person he’s practically a stand-up comic! He’s very spontaneous (although you could tell the day was extrememly carefully structured along a rigid timeline so he could cover all he’d planned to), and really funny! He had 700 of us cracking up and applauding all day. Even though we’d just been sitting and watching him all day, I think every one of us was pretty tired when we got into our cars to join the Friday night commute traffic on our ways home.
If you’re at all interested in getting your flash off your camera for more interesting location lighting, I strongly recommend Joe’s two books, The Moment It Clicks and Hot Shoe Diaries and I encourage you to attend this seminar if it comes to a city near you. Here's an outline of the seminar.
Joe, if you’re reading this, THANK YOU for an absolutely wonderful, fun, informative day which was well worth attending.