Monday, November 29, 2010

Watching Joe McNally at work

Yesterday I visited a Dutch Photography fair organised by the magazine "Zoom". Judging from the other guests their average reader shoots Canon, needs L glass and preferably a big flash. I've seen 30-40 people shoot the same poor model, quite a few feeling the need to add their own hotshoe mounted flash to the studio lights that were already in place.

Insanity aside there were some interesting bits. My friend Akos and me had an interesting time at the Sigma stand where Akos felt the need to try out their latest 24-70 f2.8 on me:

Quite a big hunk of glass, almost dwarfing his D90 but at approximately 700 euros an interesting alternative to the Nikon.

I had a chance to toy with their 150-500 on a Canon (they didn't bring the Nikon version). Nice lens, good handling, suprisingly good autofocus in that tricky light. High on my list as my new birding lens.

Over at Nikon we played a bit with the D7000 and were very, very impressed. Handling is roughly equal to the D90, the AF is significantly better and the high iso performance surprised me.
This was shot at iso3200 under poor lighting. It's roughly equal to what the D90/D300 will do at iso 1600. Impressive.

Last year Nikon's "try and fondle"department was located in a dark corner of their stand. This year, as you can see from this shot, it was a lot better. I asked to try a 300mm f4 and a TC, since that's another option for my next birding lens, but was told that that lens was no longer in stock. The guy from Nikon hinted that we would see a replacement with VR soon.

With birding in mind I also had a look at their really long lenses. Took the chance to play with a 500mm f4. Unfortunately these were all fixed on serious gimbals with serious bodies attached. Quality was astonishing but I couldn't test the weight.

After all these toys and Akos buying a 8gb Sandisk card for only 19 euros it was of to the Nikon theatre. Here Nikon showed that they'd learned their lesson last year, it was big, roomy and you had a good view from all sides.

Joe McNally
One of those photographers who, thanks to his website and books and videos, is now quite famous. Typical American was my first impression after I noticed he uses cool and great at interpunction. Joe is quite famous for his use of flash and rightly so, the portfolio shots on the big screens while we were waiting for the show were impressive.

Joe is a little guy who sounds a bit like Jerry Springer and looks vaguely like the Dutch top chef Robert Kranenborg. I stopped noticing all that after 5 minutes. Joe showed us what you can do with a good model. (He had found someone in the Nikon service center who looks like a rocker with 20 years of hard living behind him). What he could do with two flashes was simply stunning.

He did the entire demonstration with a D3s and a single SB-900 on camera as commander, lenses used were Nikon's "holy trinity", 14-24, 24-70 and 70-200. All the remote flashes were also SB-900 with the optional SD-9 battery pack. Joe started out slowly showing us that even a single SB-900 "on a stick" with an umbrella already makes a big difference when compared to straight ahead hotshoe flashing. The "stick" Joe seems to favour looked to me like a Manfrotto stand. The white panel was Lastolite, probably one of their skylight series.

From this basic setup Joe went on to do a front and backlit setup using nothing but the standard diffuser and coloured gel that comes with the SB-900. I was surprised at the working distance, he put these lights at quite a distance from the model. Adding just an assistant with a Lastolite Trigrip difflector and he got this:

I don't know about you but if I got this I would wipe away a few tears of emotion and pack up my gear convinced it wouldn't get any better than this. Not Joe, he went on to show a packed Nikon theater how to light a scene of a rock star with his entourage.
What we see here is two flashes behind the big Lastolite panel, an assistant behind Joe holding the commander flash to ensure all the flashes got a good view of the commander. Two assistants pointing flashes on a gold colored sheet of a big 6x4 reflector and, not in this view, a single sb-900 firing straight at the back of this group. Quite an impressive result of course.

After this Joe proceded in showing what 4 backlights and 2 flashes on each side can do to a jumping figure.

At this time I was quite impressed. Not only was he capable of putting together a complex setup seemingly on the fly, directing two assistants but at the same time he kept joking with the audience.

Now studio photography is not my thing at all, I prefer to be out in the field shooting birds or other animals but this made my fingers itch.

What I learned from this:
  • There's a two flash minimum for the more creative setups.
  • Some room to work is nice
  • Shooting at high shutter speeds is a sure way to eliminate ambient light (duh!)
  • Don't be afraid to get your equipment quite close to the model
  • Even with two bare flashes and a single diffuser or even an old sheet you can already accomplish nice shots.
  • Experiment, try seemingly strange things (like that gold sheet on the floor)

So, thanks to Joe McNally and Nikon for an inspiring session!

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