Joe McNally Seminar

Joe McNally Seminar


GPP 2014, the Dubai Photography Festival is in full swing, March 7-14. The event is the region’s only photography festival and brings some of the world’s best photographers and instructors to Dubai to share their experience and knowledge to the Middle East and Africa’s professional and amateur photography community.

As part of the festival I enrolled for a Seminar: Small Lights Made Simple with U.S. Photographer Joe McNally. McNally is in internationally acclaimed photographer with a career spanning over 30 years. His work has included covers for National Geographic, TIME and Newsweek.


McNally began by introducing the programme for the day as beginning with hot shoe flash, moving on to off camera flash, multiple wireless flash, portrait strategies and advanced techniques.

The structure of the day was a live demonstration with McNally’s camera connected to a large projector screen allowing every shot he took to be seen by the audience. At the side of the room a large white sweep was set up and an array of different light stands, flash units, light shapers and models were waiting to be called upon. He also had two assistants.

The Shoot – Using models, professional and from the audience, Joe began by showing the effects of on camera flash and experimenting with bouncing flash to improve the shot.

He moved through the programme as a very quick pace introducing light modifiers, such as umbrella, soft boxes (both large and small), cutters, reflectors, beauty dish and grids.

He talked about feminine and masculine light, opting to use an umbrella to shape the light for a young woman and to use a hard light to achieve dramatic shadows in a man’s face and also dramatic shadows on a wall.

McNally also introduced the use of gels to the flash units. While I experimented a little bit with correction gels, McNally used theatrical gels, which strongly influenced the light and the effect in the images on the large screen.

Nearing towards the end of the seminar McNally had set up a scenes involving as many as five different flash units although he did not that on many occasions he works with just a single light.

While I found the entire seminar extremely interesting these are the areas that I found to give me most food for thought.

What we need to consider about light- Quality, Colour and Direction. While, having completed my light section of this course, I was aware that these factors were important I found it useful to have these summarised do neatly. Recalling these three words will be helpful when planning or setting up a shoot.

TTL v’s Manual- Responding to an audience question, Joe discussed his thoughts on using flash units in TTL mode v’s Manual mode. McNally notes that he will use TTL mode the majority of the time, switching to Manual when TTL fails to give his the results he wants, such as in high contrast scenes. I found this interesting as on many photography forums I have read the use of Manual mode is usually advocated with the implication that TTL is in some way ‘cheating’. However, as McNally notes why make things hard for yourself if you don’t have to. He also noted that if you only have a very limited amount of time to get a shot TTL can save you valuable set up time. He demonstrated use of both Manual and TTL in his shoot.

Shutter speed/flash duration- While the duration of the flash influences the amount of light reaching the subject in the foreground it is the shutter speed that needs to be adjusted to increase/decrease background light.

Multiple flash units- When using multiple flash units you can mix-up TTL and Manual flash mode. Using different modes on different lights. While I only have one flash unit I did find this interesting for future reference.

High Speed Sync- For every f/stop about max shutter speed you lose about ½ your flash power. While I knew the maximum sync speed for my camera/flash was 1/200s I didn’t realise that the fall off in flash power was quite so high.

Start with a single light- McNally stressed that he only ever starts with a single light then builds the lighting as needed. He notes that this is important as if you set up five lights all at once and find out something isn’t working it would be more difficult to find out what light/lights were causing the problem. Very useful advice that could save a lot of frustration and valuable time.

Light positioning- As speedlights are small lights it is very important to have them in the exact position. McNally demonstrated the effect that even the slightest change of light position had to a photograph.


The seminar was at a fast pace and full of lots of information. McNally imparted the information and demonstrated the practical application in an easygoing, informal, entertaining manner. While gaining a huge amount of information, I also found it extremely useful to see the practical side of a photography shoot and found to interesting to note that pleasing results could be achieved with a single as well as a multiple light set up. Following this seminar, my speedlight has become a little less of a mystery and I look forward to using it with more confidence.

More information on Joe McNally and his work can be found here

More information on Gulf Photo Plus and GPP can be found here

1 thought on “Joe McNally Seminar

  1. Pingback: Applying the techniques of illustration and narrative- Progress towards Assessment Criteria | catherinefinniganphotography

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