Back in May 2008, I signed up for what is still the best photo workshop I ever took,  Moose Peterson’s Digital Landscape Workshop Series.  The location was the Northern California coastal town of Crescent City.  Shooting locales included the port area, Battery Point Lighthouse, and the nearby Redwoods.   The daily drill was killer: Up at 4am for a dawn shoot, digital darkroom class in the hotel all day, then back out for a sunset shoot.  It was simultaneously educational, funny, exhausting, and thrilling.  Anyway, on to the real story…

NOTE:  All images in here were taken by (and are copyright of) Joe McNally.

One of the instructors, and one of the main reasons I signed up for the workshop,  was Joe McNally.   Joe’s been one of my photo heros every since I heard about his Faces of Ground Zero project, and the chance to learn directly from him was too good to miss.   Joe thinks of himself as primarily a people shooter, so I’m not sure how he got connected to Moose’s landscape workshop, but he certainly made it better.  I think he views all landscapes as just something interesting to put behind a person.

Anyway, next to the last day of class, and we’re on a brief afternoon break.  I’m talking to a small group of fellow classmates.  Joe sidles up to me and says “Hey, can I borrow you for a few minutes?”.  My first instinct is to shriek like a little girl and run out of the room, but decided that would be unseemly.  So, like a chump, I say “Sure”.  Of course, Joe was going to teach the class how to light a portrait, and had decided I would be his challenge for the day.  Next thing I know, I’m standing in front of 25 fellow photographers and the rest of the teaching staff with my image projected on a giant screen.  I’m sort of comfortable in front of people, but not when they’re all photographers and Joe McNally is pointing his camera at me!  I was re-considering my initial run & scream instinct.

If you’ve ever seen Joe do his thing, he’s a master at starting simple, explaining what’s wrong, then building on it until he comes up with “the” shot.  Here’s where we started:

Starting point...

I’m pretty sure I heard him whisper “uh-oh” to Brad, his assistant at the time.  Clearly I was a subject that needed some loosening up, so he cracked a couple jokes and we chatted for a little while.  We tried a series of smiling ones, like this:


Try #2...

This one (and the ones just before and after) elicited some polite guffawing from the crowd.  I don’t know where those slabs of meat come from under my eyes when I smile, but they were clearly going to pose a challenge for Joe.  He talked about this, along with other challenges like glasses.

Try #4...

Yeah, great.  I wasn’t looking crappy enough before, so now he grabs some glasses from somebody (maybe his own) and sticks them on me.  The above is after he dealt with the reflection issues.  I will say he had me pretty loose by now and it was starting to get kinda fun.  As long as I didn’t turn around and look at the 10 foot version of myself on the screen.  Up til now, the light was basically Brad firing a handheld SB800 through a Tri-grip just off camera right, experimenting with various amount of feathering.

Its about now that Joe decides I’m more the strong, silent type.  Which I believe is photographer-speak for “there’s nothing I can do about those bags under your eyes so just stop smiling damnit”.

Now we’re starting to get into some more interesting light.  Plus, this was the first one that got some murmurs of approval from the crowd.

Try #4...

Not smiling is definitely a better look for me.  [Note: My Mom strongly disagrees with this statement.  To her, it isn’t a picture unless the subject is smiling and looking straight into the camera.  But I digress…].  Of course, little dark on camera left.  So Joe grabs an audience volunteer to skip another flash off the side of my face.

Try #5...

He liked the highlight, but it was too much.  And the flash was too close, hence the lens flare.  An adjustment took it to here:

Try #6...

Getting close, and running out of time for the demo.  Just about time to head out for the sunset shoot.  Final shot:

Final shot

At this point, I believe the lighting consisted of:

1) Brad firing one (maybe two?) SB800 flashes through a diffusion panel, camera right

2) An audience volunteer skipping a handheld, zoomed, flash off my face, camera left.

3) Another audience volunteer holding a white reflector under my face, just out of frame.

I wish I had a setup shot of this.  I felt like quite the supermodel.  I had three people holding stuff within about 24 inches of me, with Joe in front telling them (and me) what to do and people actively discussing the process in the audience.

An interesting note is that Joe never changed his camera settings during the whole shoot.  Whole thing was f/5.6 at 1/80s, ISO 200.  Everything was done by varying the light.  I’ve tried to remember that in my own work.

By now I had snuck a peek at the screen.  I gotta say, that is the best picture I’ve ever had taken of me.  I have a feeling that most people that get to stand in front of Joe come away thinking that.   And by the end, he had somehow gotten me to totally relax and have fun throughout the process.

I realize now that I was pretty lucky to get pulled up there.  Not everybody gets the chance to be photographed by Joe McNally, so you can bet I hit him up the next day for copies of the pictures, which he happily gave me.  I knew a lot about Joe’s work before the workshop, but the experience really solidified what my wife has begun referring to as my man-crush on him.

Seriously, I very much admire and respect the work he does in educating and mentoring photographers, especially the ones much younger than myself.   Check out his blog; in addition to being a fantastic photographer, he’s also a wonderful writer.