Chasing Light With Joe McNally


Kongo just finished a 4-day Photo Workshop in San Francisco with National Geographic photographer and photo legend Joe McNally.  One of the many things Joe is famous for is his creative use of artificial light to build stunning images.  This weekend was no exception.  While working with Joe, Kongo was able to take some images too, but without all the equipment Joe normally uses.

Over the four days we did three lighting demonstrations on location in the field.  One was at Baker Beach on the Pacific Ocean south of the Golden Gate Bridge on a blustery cloudy afternoon as the sun was setting.  The other two locations were in the city, one in the Stockton Street tunnel and the other at Golden Gate Park.  For “talent,” Joe used a couple of students on the beach then zeroed in on Trish Cronin, one of the workshop instructors who lives in San Francisco and had a former career on Broadway and on tour as a dancer.  Pretty cool stuff.

Setting up for a photo shoot in the Stockton Street tunnel.

The tunnel shoot was fascinating and as random pedestrians walked through the scene and cars and buses zoomed by Joe pointed out the frequent “real life” problems you have to work with as you build an image.  Students got pressed into duty as equipment haulers, grips, and traffic directors.



Joe spent a lot of time building the image step-by-step.  His first priority is to get the ambient light under control.  Within the tunnel there was the proverbial “light at the end of the tunnel” that was causing a big problem.  Model placement and exposure settings tamed that beast and then he started adding lights, gels, changing white balance, and lenses until he got the effect he was looking for.  The venue was definitely tricky and we couldn’t all see exactly what was happening all the time so Joe hooked his camera up to a remote computer where we could monitor the progress.  He came back every few minutes to explain what he was doing and why.

_DM30062This was such an effective way to teach and for Kongo being able to actually see it happen in the field instead of just talking about it in a classroom was the top banana!

The next day we headed to Golden Gate Park to shoot Trish in some exotic scenery that did not involve tunnels.

Trish warms up in the Greek Theater near the de Young museum.
Trish warms up in the Greek Theater near the de Young museum.



Trish did a number of flying leaps as Joe again brought the ambient light under control and began building the image flash by flash.  Although this was a much easier shoot than dodging buses in the tunnel, there were moments when innocent real people photo bombed an otherwise super shot.  At least it was super as far as the monkey was concerned.

Trish gets photo-bombed. An example of the kinds of things that happens when you shoot outside a studio.


In the workshop we were not allowed to do any editing at all.  Everything had to come straight out of the camera exactly as shot.  But since Kongo is home now and a certified workshop graduate, he deftly erased the errant guy wandering through the photo in the image above.  Trish looks so much better here, don’t you agree?

Joe’s images with the light were far and above anything the monkey was shooting using ambient light but Kongo was still pretty happy with the way these images turned out.  This is one of only a few times Kongo has had a model in front of the camera and it’s a lot of fun to work with one who is as talented and savvy as Trish.

After the Greek Theater, Joe had Trish climbing trees to get set up for the next shoot.


The tree shoot was naturally something the monkey could grasp since he spends a lot of time in the trees.  It also gave rise to one of the best lines of the workshop when Joe said, “OK, time to lose the pants…”  Trish had modestly donned a pair of short pants under her dress to climb the tree and when all the set up was done, it was time to lose the pants.  All the monkeys naturally turned away to giver Trish her “privacy” in the middle of Golden Gate park surrounded by 25 students and another couple dozen interested onlookers.  Trish is from Manhattan so what can you say?


Joe’s instructions were to “make yourself small.”  Trish said, “like a bird?” and curled up on the limb.  Great balance.

Joe McNally shoots Trish in a tree.

This is the third workshop Kongo has attended with Joe McNally.  His first one was a week  long session in Santa Fe, which was followed by a four day workshop in New York City.  The San Francisco workshop was an “advanced” class and Kongo will go into an in-depth review of that in the near future.

A few days with Joe is enough to inspire you for an entire year.  If you are interested in a National Geographic Photo Workshop check out their webpage here.

Travel safe.  Have fun.


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