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Joe McNally: Shooting a Portrait with Speedlights

Joe McNally sets up a portrait on location using Speedlights

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Using Shadows for Dimension in Photographs

Joe McNally explains how shadows add dimension

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Photography Lighting Tutorial Part 2 - Control of Color

Go on location with Joe McNally for a video tutorial on lighting…

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Photography Lighting Tutorial Part 1 - Control of Color

Go on location with Joe McNally for a video tutorial on lighting…

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Joe McNally

Commercial photojournalist Joe McNally is a Nikon Ambassador. Learn more about his photography.

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Six Steps to Lighting Magic with Joe McNally

Follow lighting expert Joe McNally's instructions for easy flash photography…

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Imagine That

Nope, we didn't make a mistake. The photos you see here were not taken by several different photographers;…

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Joe McNally and the new SB-910 AF Speedlight

Behind the Scenes of a Marketing Campaign Shoot

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Using Multiple Lights in the Studio

Blair Bunting discusses checking lights on set

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Flash Points: The Control of Light

Color temperature, rear sync, slow sync: Three key elements in flash photography.

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Introduction to Three-Point Lighting & Other Video Lighting Techniques

Advanced lighting for video

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Using Shadows and Light in Your Photographs

Cliff Maunter on using shadows and light

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5.0 Rating
Do a Test Run for Important Portrait Shoots

Dave Black discusses setting up shoots in advance

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4.2 Rating
How to Shoot a Silhouette

Photographing a subject in silhouette

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Photograph Family and Friends During the Holidays

The holidays are prime picture-taking time. Get some great tips on…

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Flash Photography on Location

Ami Vitale on using a single Speedlight for illumination

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Smart Portrait System

Nikon’s Smart Portrait System incorporates into COOLPIX cameras a series of automatic functions,…

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Bright Idea: Adding Star Power
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Bright Idea: Adding Star Power

Creating a starburst in your photographs

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How to Use Aperture and ND Filters to Control the Depth-of-Field in Movies

Depth-of-field for video

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COOLPIX Cameras and Cool Lighting with Speedlights

Lucas Gilman shows you how to use Speedlights with COOLPIX cameras

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4.3 Rating
Shooting Abstract Photos that Make the Viewer Guess

Sometimes showing just a hint of your subject can be more compelling…

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Shooting Long Exposures:

Deborah Sandidge on shooting long exposure landscapes and cityscapes

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3.1 Rating
Photographing People Using Wireless Lighting Techniques

Tom Bol's images inspire new ways of taking a portrait photo.

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ISO Control

For digital photography, ISO refers to the sensitivity of the camera's sensor. The ISO setting is one of…

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Destination Latin America:

Blaine Harrington on photographing Latin America

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4.6 Rating
One Shot: City Lights

Mark Alberhasky's silhouette of people against bright Times Square signage

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3.6 Rating
Halloween & Autumn Harvest Photography

Take better photos during the colorful fall season

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3.3 Rating
Rich Clarkson: The Right Place at the Right Time to Get the Shots

Rich Clarkson, an acclaimed photojournalist, who…

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4.3 Rating
Photographing the Night Sky: Star Trails

Astrophotography: tips for making great star trail images

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One Shot: Spin Doctor

Mark Alberhasky on why images may work in multiple ways

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Chromatic Aberration

Chromatic aberration is a phenomenon in which light rays passing through a lens focus at different…

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3.9 Rating
Tips for Shooting Sports

Sports shooter Bill Sallaz knows what he wants and where to stand in order to get it

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Using the D810A DSLR for Deep Space and Nebulae Astrophotography

Photographing Nebulae and other celestial objects with…

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Learning How to Use Your Camera's Histogram

The histogram is a useful tool that analyzes tonal range and helps in…

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4.2 Rating
Shooting a Rock Concert

Whether you're taking photos at a major rock concert or at your child's school performance, these…

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4.6 Rating
Underwater Photography

Tips for getting started shooting underwater with David Doubilet

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4.3 Rating
Polarizing Filters Add POW to Pictures

An Easy to Use Accessory, Polarizing Filters Bring out the Color and Definition in…

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4.2 Rating
Using Teleconverters

Teleconverters let you extend your photographic reach

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How a Sports Illustrated Photographer Shoots his Kid's Games

What can a Sports Illustrated photographer teach you about…

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Moose Peterson: How to Photograph Winter Landscapes

Exposing so the Snow’s White and Six Other Tips for Great Winter…

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4.3 Rating
Prime Lenses

What is a prime lens? Well, it's a lens that isn't a zoom. A prime lens has a fixed focal length which means…

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Speaking For Themselves: The Veterans Portrait Project

The power of portraits

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4.4 Rating
Understanding Focal Length

Focal length, usually represented in millimeters (mm), is the basic description of a…

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4.8 Rating
At the Moment

Greg Gibson trades photojournalism for documentary wedding photography

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FOCUS First: A System for Better Photos

Mark Alberhasky's 5 step system for taking better pictures

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Shooting Spectacular Sunrises and Sunsets

Jim Harmer’s tips for photographing at dawn and dusk

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Photographing the US National Parks

Chris Nicholson on photographing in the US National Parks

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Zoom Lens Maximum Aperture: Fixed and Variable Apertures

Zoom lenses can have either a fixed maximum aperture or a…

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Joe McNally: Shooting a Portrait with Speedlights

Firefighters. They share, along with cowboys, an innate ability to simply step in front of a camera and become a photograph. Henry, of the Soufriere Fire Department in St. Lucia, has a look, a presence, if you will, that speaks to the camera.

To do this portrait, I made some camera moves before I even put it to my eye. When doing what one might call a "formal" portrait, I've always enjoyed a more blocky type of aspect ratio. Don't know exactly why. It might hark back to film days when I shot a lot of 6x7 and square medium format stuff. In the D4S there is a menu setting where you can alter your frame from the standard DSLR view to 5x4, which is what I did here. I also shifted into Monochrome. I still have color in the raw file, but when I shoot B&W, I like to see in B&W. It makes a difference. I rarely shoot in color and then convert it to monochrome later. I try my best to think and see in the palette I am shooting, at the moment of exposure.

One subject? One light, at least to start. (Best to keep it simple and move fast when working with firefighters, as they’re likely to disappear at any moment.)

Here’s where light placement, hence a C-stand, comes in, well, not just handy, but pretty much essential. Depending on your taste, of course. You can light from the side, or elsewhere. You can light from any place you want. But, my instincts said, light from overhead, symmetrically, and for this, you’ve got to extend, or boom the light source.

Which is, in this particular equation, a 24” white interior Lastolite hotshoe soft box. Handy, simple, all purpose light source. It’s pretty soft and forgiving, but also directional, hence the shadows.

It gives Henry a look, for sure. It’s moody, and has attitude. But, pitched from up above, that’s all it gives. You don’t see the eyes.

Want the eyes? That calls for another light, given the attitude of the first light, which I didn’t want to change. I washed a Group B TTL light off the silver reflective sleeve of a Lastolite trip-grip diffuser, placed on the floor, about 8’ in front of the subject. Voila! Eyes.

But, this is a wash of light, it flows upwards towards Henry, and lights not just his eyes, but it puts details into his overall frame and what he’s sitting on, which happens to be some sort of air filter we found in the firehouse. It's nice enough, but not really specific. If you want a light just dedicated to his eyes, best to use something like a gridded or snooted source, something that produces a small, concentrated splash of light that really locates the eyes and not much else.

For the above, there are a couple things you could use. Lastolite makes a gridded, magnetized snoot that is collapsible and cool. It travels well, and the whole kit, with the grids, frame and snoot give you lots of options. The big blow of light behind Henry is the same contraption I had just used to fill the front of him. It's a Speedlight bounced into a silver tri-grip.

Give a little, get a little, is the rule of location. Other rules abound. Solve one problem, create two more. Murphy's law. The frequency of the bread falling butter side down is in direct relationship to how expensive the carpeting is. etc.

Location is problem solving, often times. Eliminating the frontal, general fill and going with a very specific source meant I lost a touch of detail in the background. So, I pulled the floor fill rig around to the back of Henry, to light up the rack of bunker gear hanging back there. True to the general pattern of TTL, the camera's brain rightly perceived that area to be dark and pumped out too much light, as you can see above.

Plugged in - 2 EV (also tried - 3) and dialed up the background to a decent, moody level.

We ended up here, with three lights. Group A, overhead, boomed Lastolite 24" hot shoe soft box. Group B, fill snoot for his face and eyes, running low power, about - 3 EV. And the background, Group C, a bounce off of a silver reflective surface (the Speedlight is just laying on it) running in similar toned down fashion, minus 2 or 3.

Here's the final camera specs. D4S, 1/20th, f/5.6, 70-200mm f/2.8, set at 170mm. I have minus three programmed into the camera, but the D4S ignores that command because of it being set in manual mode. I did my scout in aperture priority, getting the rough exposure for the scene dialed in, and then flipped the camera into manual to proceed through the making of the shot.

Joe McNally is a Nikon Ambassador.

Learn more about Joe on his ambassador page.

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