Joe McNally’s 3 Secrets to Photography Dream Lighting

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fisheye on angel island by Remy Gervais

I went to my first Kelby Training seminar on photography Location Lighting Techniques.

Joe McNally, one of the world’s top shooters and one of the instructors who led the National Geographic Workshop I took in Italy back in 2007 facilitated the workshop.

For about 12 bucks an hour we got to learn from our industry’s rock star – I think it was a pretty good deal.

These are a few of the rock star lighting secrets we learned–

Fight for natural light always. If at all possible, NEVER use the built in flash on the camera. But if natural light is not possible, use one of these approaches based on the needs of the shoot.

1. One external flash:
Most of us have lighting kits and could relate to the tips he was giving us here. He spent an hour taking image after image of the model on the stage – changing settings, moving the one flash around, bounced it here and there – one move would change the entire energy of the final image. It gave me lots of ideas on what to try on my own.

2. Multiple flashes:
This was a more sophisticated demonstration for those who had studios or did a lot of location work.  Joe was masterful – he shot image after image, and all the changes he made we would compare back to prior shots. When it got overwhelming  I put my pen down and just watched  It will be a while before I jump to this level, but at least I know now what I need get there.

3. The Big Guns:
He demonstrated the use of HUGE powerful spotlights and multiple strings – the size of these flash units were unreal -and maybe one day I’ll get to shoot on a project that had the need for this kind of set up.  The downside to the big guns is that it takes a tremendous amount of time to set up, adjust, reset and use.  Patience would be the biggest key here.

So I watched in awe as he led this workshop with incredible knowledge and confidence.

flower photograph by Remy Gervais

I came for the technical training, but I also got stuff that wasn’t on the agenda.

Here is what I learned from Joe about being a successful photographer, just by watching him lead –

  • Photography requires patience.
    If you try to hurry or push, your work will look hurried and pushed.
  • Anticipate ugly.
    Expect mistakes.  Embrace the 10/1 rule – which means for every ten you take, if you get one good image, you’re ahead of the game. Really.
  • Always go back to square one,
    your starting point, if something goes wrong.
  • Don’t quit till you get the shot
    or, until you can say “I’ve tried everything I know how to do, and I’m not getting there, so lets move on and try something else.”
  • You can’t shine a turd.
    Ah, one of my favorite Joe McNally quotes – he got it from one of his past editors.  It means this:  wait – and create a good image.  Don’t rely on editing afterwords to make it right.  If you take a so-so shot in the field, no amount of time in heavy post production will make it right. It will always be crap.  Pretty, shiny, edited crap.  But crap nonetheless.

Have you ever had a chance to learn from your dream rock star?

What did you learn?  What difference did it make for you in following your dreams?

Until next photo,


Remy’s dream is creating opportunities for photography showings and public displays of her work.

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  • Remy, the photographer

    Oh, BD Thank you! I didn’t even know you wore hats. I appreciate your comments very much.

  • Michael BD

    I think it is wonderful that the ‘rush’ you had on that trip to Italy has not faded. You remain excited – focused – and thirsty as a sponge for the next revelation on you path. Diligence and determination are what makes the divide between rank amateurs and true professionals.

    I tip my hat to you GS.

  • I *have* been lucky to learn from many dream rock stars… Awesome blog post Remy… So excited for you!!!

    “Don’t quit until you get the shot.” One of our other favorite dream rock stars, Rudy, talks about that: “It’s always too early to quit.”

    Love watching you learn and grow and perfect your craft! You go girl!


    • Remy G

      Thanks Lis! Its interesting, finding the famous rock stars out there in the world…and maybe the rock stars among us also have alot to give too. Thanks for your support! RUDY! :) Rem

  • Margherita B

    Love the photos. The middle one makes me want to travel.

    • Remy G

      THx Margherita! I Love traveling…this one was actually taken on Angel Island here in San Francisco.

  • Toni Schram

    Joe McNally should be one of my Dream Rock Stars!

    I’ve heard William Goldman, Academy winning screenwriter of “Princess Bride” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” speak twice. He left me gobsmacked both times.

    After he had his way with me, he left me filled with inspiration.

    I anticipate and embrace the ugly. Thank God for digital!
    A real treat to erase the turds.

    A greatly informative blog girl!

    • Remy G

      Princess Bride, one of my faves for sure. Thank you Toni for your ongoing support and the reminder to stay the course! It’s crazy sometimes, but reading comments like yours helps bring me back to center often….Rem

  • Dana Gervais

    Love the fact that you are always open to learning new things and never have a fear of the unknown. Your talent will only get better because you are ok with the fact you don’t know everything. That’s awesome!

    • Remy, the photographer

      Ah, that was a Papa thing. Don’t you remember him saying things like “always find out the truth” and “people who say they know everything don’t know anything” – Get your glasses and look at this! Rem

  • Catherine, Site Admin

    Lovely photos and congratulations on taking more photography classes!

    Photography requires patience alright. Lordy, every time I try and photo Brian’s dog I think I am going to lose my mind trying to get her to sit right.

    I’d rather be coding ;-)

    • Remy, the photographer

      um EEW. Coding? I guess everyone has their thing! Anyway, use Jessie Freiden as your guide, have you seen his gallery? The dogs are not posed or perfect…he’s able to get some cool shots just by being at their level…so get down on the floor lady! and if you need help getting up call me! R