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Learning the art of light with Joe McNally

Renowned photographer Joe McNally is in Australia for a month-long tour. Here's what goes on behind-the-scenes at one of his workshops, all to do with the art of lighting.

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Lexy Savvides
Lexy is an on-air presenter and award-winning producer who covers consumer tech, including the latest smartphones, wearables and emerging trends like assistive robotics. She's won two Gold Telly Awards for her video series Beta Test. Prior to her career at CNET, she was a magazine editor, radio announcer and DJ. Lexy is based in San Francisco.
Lexy Savvides
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1 of 6 Lexy Savvides/CNET Australia

Joe McNally is a renowned American photographer who has worked for publications like National Geographic, Sports Illustrated and Time.

(Credit: CBSi)

McNally is in Australia to hold a series of workshops, keynote presentations and seminars across the country, over the coming month.

The one-day workshop, which is also being held in Melbourne and on the Gold Coast, covers the fundamentals of working with light in order to best capture a series of subjects, with McNally providing personal one-on-one tuition throughout the event, as well as group guidance. There's plenty of advanced lighting equipment to use on the day, including camera flashes, Nikon SLRs such as the D800 and D4, reflectors and professional studio lights.

His approach to lighting is particularly organic, and McNally is a big advocate of "thinking inside the box" — that is, working with what you have. You don't need to have experience working with flashes to take part in the workshop; just a love for photography and to know your way around your camera in manual exposure mode.

To find out about locations and events, visit the Through the Lens website.

The first exercise for the day is working with one light source. The workshop is divided into small groups where you all help each other achieve a particular shot, whether that's holding reflectors, positioning flash units or tweaking settings on equipment.

Here, I used a Nikon SB-910 flash unit inside a small soft box, triggered by another master unit on top of the D800, to provide a single burst of light onto our model's face. Given the flat and even ambient light outside on an overcast day, only a small amount of illumination was required to create a dramatic effect underneath this archway.

Exposure: 1/320, f/5.6, ISO 200 using a 24-70mm f/2.8 lens.

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2 of 6 Lexy Savvides/CNET Australia

Moving beyond Speedlights, the next exercise was to use studio flash units. The room was particularly dark, but filled with sumptuous colours from items, like the red curtain.

Using a large soft box, positioned to the left of frame and just above our subject, I chose to diffuse the studio flash even further by putting a white reflector in front of it, to create a bigger surface area for the light to travel through. This gave a particularly even fall of light on her face, as well as catching the rich red of the curtain backdrop. There was also a gold reflector at the right of the camera to catch some of the extra light and bounce it into her hair, providing a bit more fill.

Exposure: 1/200, f/5.6, ISO 160 using a 24-70mm f/2.8 lens.

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3 of 6 Lexy Savvides/CNET Australia

And now, for something completely different. The next shoot was set up in the dungeon underneath Vaucluse House, and I wanted to stage an Escape from Alcatraz-style shoot. Using our two models, I positioned a studio flash facing them, at the top of the stairs. Then, behind each of them, an SB-910 fitted with an orange gel, which fired to give the glowing effect behind them. I manually entered the white balance to around 2600K, in order to simulate night time. See the next shot for an example of what the shoot actually looked like.

Exposure: 1/160, f/13, ISO 160 using a 24-70mm f/2.8 lens.

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4 of 6 Lexy Savvides/CNET Australia

Here's the same shot as before, just using automatic white balance instead of a manual Kelvin entry.

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5 of 6 Lexy Savvides/CNET Australia

Sometimes, all that's needed is natural light. Another photographer had a flash positioned high up above the subjects, but the natural light worked just as well here.

Exposure: 1/500, f/1.4, ISO 400 using an 85mm f/1.4 lens.

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6 of 6 Lexy Savvides/CNET Australia

Towards the end of the day, McNally gets the group back together to go through another demonstration on how best to work with flashes in a dark environment. On the screen above — though it doesn't do the original photo justice — you can see the finished shot that McNally captures in the dark stables. He pieces it together by using just two light sources; one flash positioned on a boom pole, pointing directly through the rear window with an orange gel, and one large flash in front of a very large and flat white diffuser that the model is looking into. Using a smoke machine to diffuse the light, it falls through the rear window and creates a moody, romantic atmosphere.

Lexy Savvides attended the Through the Lens workshop as a guest of Nikon Australia.

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