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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Blogger Steve Hebert said...

Perhaps all those strobes are over-kill. But if you want lots of cheap lights; got to Home Depot and but those fun worklights.
Steve Hebert

May 18, 2008 10:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm gonna have to get me one of those SB-800 trees. It's one of the goofiest things I have ever seen, but i'm jealous of it.

May 18, 2008 11:11 PM  
Anonymous Thomas Boydston said...

I can only assume Joe McNally has a fully time writer/movie buff trailing him at all times. Who would think to reference the ROUS?


May 18, 2008 11:17 PM  
Blogger Steve Hebert said...

I have $200 an need to get a lighting set up complete with diffusion. I have access to a Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-V3, a vivitar 283, and a sunpak 533 (44?). I am not opposed to constant lighting or used equipment. Any help would be greatly appreciated .
Steve Hebert

May 18, 2008 11:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very cool video. Joe is one of the most inspirational photographers. You guys constantley push the envolope and are kind enough to share your skills with the rest of us. Thanks.

May 18, 2008 11:38 PM  
Anonymous Joel said...

What an experience! What I wouldn't give to be able to tag along with Joe for a trip into the desert. I just wanted to say bravo for such an interesting and by far the most informative blog I have ever come upon. And Joe is great... his RSS feed is right next to yours.

May 18, 2008 11:55 PM  
Blogger ASimpleFarmer said...

definately a great video learning tool!


May 19, 2008 12:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You were in Dubai -- why the Indian music in the background instead of some Arabic music??

May 19, 2008 1:05 AM  
Blogger J. Beckley said...

HA HA! I had to laugh, because when I saw the video of the guys taking air out of the tires to go through the sand dunes it brought back memories! I've been on tour there in '05 where we got to go camel back riding and other things and did the exact same thing. Of course I took the day tour which was a mistake because it was so hot and all I had at the time was my Canon 20D with kit lens. Man I've learned sooo much since then and I know now I'm taking the evening tour next time armed with some speedlights and reflectors. I don't think I'll have that rig Joe McNally has though, but I think I'll have enough friends to hold some lights for me.

May 19, 2008 1:49 AM  
Anonymous Strobane said...

What a cool shoot, and a cool video too! Very informative. This gives a whole new meaning to, another one bites the dust ;-)
As always packed with little secrets of the trade, like covering the bottom half of the brolly. So simple, so effective and who would have thought of that, oh ya, Joe of cause. Will give it a try at tomorrow’s Strobist meetup in Copenhagen, Denmark. Thanks David.

May 19, 2008 2:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

David - the truffle: was it goat, sheep or camel flavoured?

May 19, 2008 3:26 AM  
Blogger Pixyst said...

Thanks for that video David, I have been looking forward to it since seeing your posts on Flickr. The pics at the end were real icing - wonderful. It was an honor and a pleasure meeting you in Dubai!

David Apeji

May 19, 2008 4:29 AM  
Anonymous Matt said...

Great stuff there!

May 19, 2008 5:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Amazing shots! Really cool setup. Thanks for sharing, ill be rembering this the next time I pass through the dessert with my gear and a supermodel ;)


May 19, 2008 5:13 AM  
Anonymous lomoseb said...

Shielded umbrella is an excellent trick ! The surface is silver so it acts as a piece of reflector a bit too.
Excellent video thanks.

May 19, 2008 5:46 AM  
Blogger Paulo Rodrigues said...

So I'm looking at that Flock of lights and thinking, wouldn't it be easier to take some studio lights and a power pack.

I was wondering what the advantage was of using all those lights. I guess that the advantage they have over a powerful strobe is that you can sync at 1/1000s or faster which means you can use a wide aperture and still kill the ambient light. You would never be able to do that with studio strobes. Or for that matter worklights from home depot.

May 19, 2008 6:08 AM  
Blogger Pixyst said...

That G9 video quality is insane. I am really tempted.

May 19, 2008 6:11 AM  
Blogger Rick said...

David: Could you please tell us more about the umbrella with the (partially) removable black skirt?


May 19, 2008 6:53 AM  
Blogger Bishai said...

Great video! I'm going to try the leave-half-the-cover-on-the-umbrella trick.

Any ideas re: what body / lens was used?

May 19, 2008 7:29 AM  
Blogger Vincent said...

Fantastic!!! beautiful pics. I use now 2 sb-800 on my assignments and getting the hang of it. It suprises me daily (while my 3 head multiblitz monoblocs stay in the car) how quickly, lightweighted i can work now with great results. Got used very easily to not using mod. lights. Man you guys opened a new way of working for me. Keep up the good work and the blog

Thank you so much!!


May 19, 2008 7:47 AM  
Anonymous simon said...

Sand truffle?

I think somebody was getting you back for April 1st.

That looks like a camel Turd to me, no matter how you polish it!!

May 19, 2008 7:52 AM  
Blogger mikeboy said...


May 19, 2008 7:59 AM  
Anonymous Jeff said...

David, you should try using Vimeo for your videos. You won't lose the quality in the transfer process, as the site supports H.264 encoding (and even HD!).

It would save you the extra work of uploading a second video for download.

May 19, 2008 9:05 AM  
Blogger Adam said...

Looks like great fun, I'd have love to have stayed on for a few more days to do some shooting but that hotel was just too damn expensive!

The strobe tree is awesome, totally over the top and ghetto.

Love it :D

May 19, 2008 9:06 AM  
Blogger Patrick Snook said...

Great video, David. I'm thinking of another trash-bag use: I'm going to put a black trash bag and a couple of clothespins in with my shoot-through umbrella, so I can flag the light source like that (and it's way cheaper than going out and buying another brolly with a removable black cover just for that purpose).

Thanks for this glimpse of JM at work.

May 19, 2008 9:26 AM  
Anonymous Robert said...

I'd like to know about that skirted umbrella too. Is the shield retrofit?

May 19, 2008 9:57 AM  
Blogger Black English said...

Cliffs of Insanity??? ROUS???? I can't stop laughing at that part!!! The pictures were nice too.

May 19, 2008 10:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love this site and everything, and appreciate the tips and advice it gives, but 7 SB-800'S? What, at $400 Canadian (my cost) plus stands and crap? I'm sorry, that's stupid. I'll get a powerful alien bee's strobe with portable power and a pair of pocket wizards for half that.

May 19, 2008 11:09 AM  
Blogger Derek said...

Ok, until now I'd only seen video off of a G9 as posted through YouTube, which as you point out, stomps pretty hard on the quality.

On a whim I downloaded the high quality video an I'm totally impressed with the video quality. Granted, you had a ton of light for the shoot (i.e. blazing desert sun), but that better PQ than my miniDV camera which cost more than the G9.

May 19, 2008 11:11 AM  
Blogger Addison Geary said...

Were all Joe's strobes fired using CLS or were some fired via optical slave? If all were CLS it must work better than my Canon IR. It seems the IR pickups on the strobe tree were pointed all over the place and might not see the signal from the transmitter Sid was holding, thethered to Joe's camera. Apparently the CLS works in the bright sun. A working CLS is better than buying 8 radio receivers, not to mention HP sync. Curious as I'm an unhappy STE2 550EX, 580EX user. Thanks for the post and download. Oh,and where exactly is Baltimore, N.Y.?

May 19, 2008 11:13 AM  
Blogger tangcla said...

Can someone please explain the partially shielded umbrella concept? :)

May 19, 2008 11:27 AM  
Blogger Advocate said...

next time get a hensel porty and ditch the extra guys!

May 19, 2008 12:15 PM  
Blogger Clayton said...

I can't believe I'm going to be "that guy," but Mathew Brady is spelled with only one T.

My inability to control these pedantic instincts aside, positively great post.

May 19, 2008 12:39 PM  
Blogger Marshall said...

Why is it that when a commenter calls someone like Joe or David "stupid" it's always done anonymously?

Well, anonymous, part of the answer is right there in the post: high-speed synch. Can't high-speed synch with that alien bee. That doesn't mean there isn't a good role for that, or that maybe you're perfectly happy with f/18 in the desert. But that wasn't what Joe was going for, and he has all the strobes.

Now if only I had 7 SB800s to work with and a little time from David and Joe to learn how to do it right. (Oh, wait, I DO get time from them: it's right her on this interweb thingy.)

- Marshall (my real name)

May 19, 2008 12:50 PM  
Blogger David said...


Er, I always try to hide *at least* one typo/misspelling in each post, to see who is on their toes. Excellent work. Can't believe everyone else missed it..

May 19, 2008 1:32 PM  
Blogger Ken Lopez said...

I've been on that desert tour in those same Toyota trucks; it amazes me that those things never flip!

Great post, although the tree of SB-800's made me laugh! How long did McNally have to water it before it was big enough to use???

Seriously though, I completely understand the need for that much power when knocking down desert sun via shutter speed. Looks like you guys had fun.


May 19, 2008 1:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just have to ask a question. Does the simple sunny f/16 rule hold true when you are in the desert in Dubi? Thanks for posting this video!
Jim Escalante

May 19, 2008 2:43 PM  
Blogger Ambient Life said...

Joking aside Joe your use of Speedlights is really inventive and simple and is great to see. I had a mail from Scott K at home the other night asking for some stuff on lighting cars, I know he's mates with you and can't help but wonder how you'd not manage to light any situation, great piece as ever.
Kind Regards
Tim Wallace

May 19, 2008 2:55 PM  
Blogger Rockhopper said...

Thank you so much, really hate shooting in strong sunlight, but that hi res video that I patiently waited four hours on dial up has rekindled my interest in shooting in strong sunlight. I have a commercial shoot tomorrow and will be using this technique. All be it with less strobes.

I spent 18 months in the desert and I can smell the sand in the video. If I had known you were going I would have shared the best strobist make ever. The desert fridge.

Get a thick black woolly sock insert a couple of warm cans of coke inside. Soak liberally with water. Hang up in direct sunlight. When the sock has dried or gone a bit damp pull out the cans and they will be chilled.

This works due to rapid evaporation chilling the cans. It is amazing what you learn in the desert. Do this trick and you will make some friends.

Anyhow look forward to more, that video was brilliant by the way.


May 19, 2008 6:51 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

I've been playing with flash ever since I started reading this amazing blog about a year ago, and I have learned more than I could of ever imagined. My only stop up is I cant afford umbrellas or a soft-box, so I've been limited to hard light for some time now. Is there anything i can do to counter this problem until I grab the cash for the diffusion?

May 19, 2008 9:39 PM  
Anonymous Harry said...

Just watched the vid through twice! Amazing stuff, thanks for making it. Loved the Princess Bride references at the end lol!

May 19, 2008 10:08 PM  
Blogger Jim Harding said...

After looking at this set up, I need to ask... Where can I find a book or vendor pamphlet that shows how to use various setups of grip equipment?
I've been a professional on my own for over 5 years but still draw a blank sometimes at how to fully utilize the various grip equipment options.

May 20, 2008 12:50 AM  
Anonymous Danop said...

I love the video with the living legends in action, the soundtrack, the editing and all. But why using the puny SB's against the desert sun? Wouldn't a portable monolight system like the Elinchrom Ranger be more practical for this sort of shoot? I'm just curious.

May 20, 2008 6:28 AM  
Anonymous Jay Clark said...

Dude -
You registered on McNally's "cool meter." Your work is complete -- you are a Jedi.

May 20, 2008 8:20 AM  
Blogger JS said...

That first photo looks like a deleted scene from Star Wars. "Help me, Hobby Wan McNally. You're my only hope!"

May 20, 2008 8:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A great article. I am always fascenated by Joes' setups. He's got unlimited access to SB-800's (I sold my old camera just to buy 1!).

Wouldn't he be better off to get some portable power and some soft boxes? I think he's just showing off with the "tree of SB".

He is a "jedi master" like someone else said.

May 20, 2008 9:07 AM  
Anonymous Tony said...

Man, crazy...that many cool is that.

Great article.

May 20, 2008 10:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"He shielded or cupped the light with his hand, holding the SB unit with his other hand and then running the video camera clenched between his teeth. Just an astonishing display of versatility."
And you don't tell us what you go trough for us? :)

May 20, 2008 12:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One tip for video taken with the Canon G9, a small piece of a cotton ball and a bit of scotch tape will act like a wind muffler (big fuzzy or foam thing on pro-mics) and will cut the wind noise a ton. I figured it was a Strobist approved tip because you should have all the materials already.

May 20, 2008 1:13 PM  
Blogger shutterthink said...

Where are your shots of Lenka?

May 20, 2008 1:22 PM  
Blogger Andy M said...

for those asking about the half covered umbrella technique, Joe has explained this before in his blog:
"The above was shot as a class demo with two SB800 strobes firing through a shoot thru umbrella. Key to the deal was the outer skin of the shoot thru was peeled back halfway which is a good trick to use when trying to get the flash to concentrate a bit and gradate down the body. I use Lastolite umbrellas, with an outer black/silver skin covering the standard white umbrella diffusion. You can peel the outer layer back by half, and thus block low spillage of light. Concentrates nice, soft light on the face, right where you want it"

May 20, 2008 3:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have enough trouble getting my ST-E2 to trigger my strobes in overcast weather. Interesting to see the trigger being used off camera as well as the strobes. I'll have to give that a try when some of my lights cannot "see" the ST-E2.

Jim Scott

May 20, 2008 3:28 PM  
Anonymous Rob said...

While we are thinking about umbrellas again...I have Westcott 43" double folds - the convertible black/white ones. Thing is, the removable cover is black; not black/silver.

Anyone know if the Lastolite black/silver cover slips on andd fits properly or if indeed you can buy just the black/silver cover?

Every stop counts in this Strobist game after all...

May 20, 2008 6:15 PM  
Blogger chadw said...

Congratulations on your blossoming "bro-mance" with Joe!

Cool video, thanks!

May 20, 2008 6:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's great to watch such talent in the desert. Makes me wish someone would make a leaf shutter 35mm style digital camera with interchangeable lenses. That way we could sync up to 1/500th or so without losing power on the flash at high speed sync. It would be sooo much easier to carry and cheaper to boot. I miss my 'blad.

May 20, 2008 9:26 PM  
Anonymous Dave Prelosky said...

For all the folks who think Joe McNally is a SB-XX show off, or something of the sort consider several things.
A. He has a body of work that documents his use of multi-strobe technology.
B. Mrs. Joe is a Nikon Pro Markets rep. I would imagine he has no trouble with access to equipment. For some of us, it would be like borrowing the brother-in-law's pickup to haul junk to the dump.

May 20, 2008 10:38 PM  
Anonymous Isabel Alvarez said...

Cool! I actually just finished reading Joe's book "The Moment it Clicks!"

May 20, 2008 10:54 PM  
Anonymous Jay Mann said...


Joe introduced me to you in Dubai. I have been able to attend Joe's seminars 3 times. When I introduce myself to a class, I say I am repeating becasue I am a slow learner, which is probably true,(I bought my first new SLR was a Pentax SP1000, I played with multiple flash in '76.) but every single scenario that Joe comes up with is a true experience. He really is working on aanother level from everyone else. I like your comment about his interaction with models, definitely a much overlooked skill. Keep up the great blog, really enjoy it even though the local ISP blocks the images.


May 21, 2008 1:00 AM  
Anonymous Klaus Harbo said...

Great video, David, thx. Although it may be slightly off topic, I'm fascinated that you can create such a video with a puny G9. Also, I'm curious as to what tools you use to edit the video?

May 21, 2008 2:14 AM  
Anonymous Kit said...

Joe McNally is a great photographer and I respect his work, however that collection of strobes is absurd. Was that really necessary?

Personally, I think this was an elaborate hoax to see how stupid most strobist readers really are.

May 21, 2008 11:15 AM  
Anonymous Ben said...

question: why not just use an ND filter(s) to cut down sun light and prevent the need for such high shutter speeds (then no FP sync necessary, and full-power flash is available). Any ideas?

May 21, 2008 1:49 PM  
Blogger Ken Lopez said...

For Kit,

2)We're not stupid.


May 21, 2008 1:57 PM  
Anonymous Elliott - 21st Century Dad said...

In the video, I noticed Joe had the head of the SB800 Commander pointed toward the Remote units. It probably improves the reliability of triggering via CLS.

May 21, 2008 3:48 PM  
Blogger Bruko said...

This is where you were instead of having coffee with me on my honeymoon, huh?

DAMMIT I would have gladly skipped my honeymoon as well to be there!
(also: video with the g9 turned out really good. I need to send you the questions via e-mail asap)

May 22, 2008 5:35 AM  
Anonymous Ken said...

absurd :)

May 22, 2008 1:44 PM  
Blogger Casey said...

I don't think his shots were that great. You went all the way to Dubai and didn't really fully utilize the backgrounds. I can find similar dunes in California's deserts.

Also, I understand the need for high power but with all the money used for the strobes, we not buy high end professional grade light? I mean they did take a whole crew to Dubai, I'm sure they can afford a few of those and go to California instead.

I think it is over hyped. Look past the $$ of 580ex and i think this could have been executed much better and differently.

May 22, 2008 7:38 PM  
Blogger Leviathor said...

It's so cool to see the partially-flagged umbrella trick.

Last year when David was asking us to do the kitchen assignment for Lighting 102 (July '07) I stumbled upon this little "trick" on my own. I posted about it to my blog, but didn't get any feedback on the idea then.

Back when I posted about it I called it a "self-goboed" shoot-through umbrella. Check it out for some how-to images on how I kept it all pinned together.

May 23, 2008 1:14 AM  
Blogger Canterbury Tails said...

I headed off to the four corners in June, three SB800s in hand, for some landscape and macro photography. What hardware was used to "join" the SB800s (lights on the umbrella)

May 24, 2008 10:15 AM  
Anonymous Sonia said...

Very cooool experience! To see the two of you lighting geniuses pumping it out together was a treat, so thanks for the video, David.
My favorite shot: the pan in the jeep that went from inside to outside where the camels were, then panned across the road and back in>>that really placed the whole experience in perspective for me.

But, frankly, when I look at McNally's final shots, I just have to wonder what all the fuss was about. The results were just barely OK in my book. I mean, they didn't say anything, and they weren't dramatic or sexy even.

It was fun to watch you play in the sand nevertheless!

May 29, 2008 12:45 AM  
Blogger said...

gorgeous photo---great color

June 10, 2008 10:23 PM  
OpenID Paul said...

Canon does high speed sync too... any of the flashes do it. Just because the marketing may not call it "focal plane" doesn't mean it's not the same thing.

January 12, 2009 1:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

thanks for all the posts. great video too. i wonder if we could get tips on surviving a photoshoot in the desert. what you brought, what you should have brought instead. if you could do it all over again...did the wind/dust mess up any of your equipment? how'd you clean your camera? small stuff that noobs who've never done a shoot in the desert or beach will find useful. thanks again.

January 13, 2009 12:12 PM  
Anonymous pat said...

Joe McNally never ceases to amaze me with his stunning photography and creativity.

Guess the sun doesn't get any hotter than in the desert, so to over power them with half a dozen flashguns in incredible!

January 14, 2009 8:01 AM  
Blogger Mat said...

Wow - I know it's sometimes useful to have an alternative light source to the sun in situations like that but are you serious - all those strobes?!

January 17, 2009 9:11 PM  
Anonymous Adam Holtrop said...

the pictures came out great.

January 20, 2009 6:22 PM  
Anonymous Dror said...

Very nice - can we see some of the final images?

February 22, 2009 3:22 AM  
Blogger Łukasz Kruk said...

great post, gives me some information i've been looking for. currently i'm trying to figure out how to do the off-camera lit, f/1.4 (f2 would also do) sunset portrait and seems i'm out of luck since pentax HSS needs a modern (well, newer-than-purely-manual) lens in order to HSS. and i hate myslef every time i take the kit for portraits...

June 07, 2009 8:49 PM  

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