Blog Post

Joe McNally’s Top 10 Lighting Tips

July 26, 2010

Joe McNally is one of the world’s top photographers. He’s been doing it for more than 30 years and knows a thing or two about lighting. When I heard he would be bringing his location lighting tour to London, I jumped at the chance to hear him speak. Joe’s seminar was a lot of fun. His love and passion for what he does, was clearly evident throughout the day. I was also very impressed with the way he treated his crew.  Nothing was too much of a hassle and everyone had a blast.

Joe has written a very detailed summary on his blog about the day and has included a selection of  images that he took. If you want to see why the guy is such a master at lighting, check it out here. He offered many useful tips and suggestions on lighting. Here are the ten things that I learnt from Joe:

1. Be tenacious as hell. Stick with something until you get it right, especially on an assignment. You’re mistakes are a path to becoming a better photographer. You have to get used to the fact that you will fail more than you will succeed.

2. Keep it simple. Start small and add on. If you are using more than one flash, don’t put them all on at the same time. Start with the main light first, get that right, and then add the other flashes, one at a time. That way you can figure out exactly which flash is causing a problem and fix it.

3. The same philosophy applies to your camera. Start with setting the camera at its sync speed (1/250th sec for Nikon, 1/200th sec for Canon), f5.6, IS 400, on aperture priority mode and then work from there. Joe also shoots mainly on matrix/evaluative metering rather than center weighted. This makes it easier to work out how the camera thinks and compensate for its limitations.

4. Eighty percent of Joe’s flash work is shot in aperture priority mode, the rest is in manual mode. Shoot on manual mode if you want to darken the background or blow out the highlights. Shoot on aperture priority if you want to pick up the ambient light in the background.

5. When mixing ambient and flash, it’s a good idea to begin with no flashes and get the exposure right for the ambient light. Then add the flashes one by one, and adjust accordingly to get the right effect.

6. Start by positioning your main flash above the subject at a 45 degree angle. We are psychologically programmed to prefer shadows falling down, not to the right or to the left.

7. Get your lights a close as possible to your subject. It will put less drain on your batteries. If you are using a diffuser, it will also give you the best, softest, quality of light.

8. Test fire your flash units when you are positioning them to make sure they are pointing in exactly the right spot to light your subject.

9. Placing a fill or bounce light under the subject will dish some of the light back up at the subject in a pleasing and flattering way. If you are working on your own, you can achieve this by putting a reflector on a table or holding a trip grip reflector under the subject.

10. When shooting groups, don’t light from the side as it will create shadows. Light from above. Put two brollies in the front, pointing down at 45 degrees with the camera positioned in between them and two flashes or reflectors on the floor to give a fill light.

Leave a Reply