On Saturday 29th November I booked myself onto one of the many training courses put on by Nikon UK at their Centre of Excellence in London. The main focus on this course was looking at off camera flash control to create quality flash light to work with ambient light. The course was presented by the flash guru that is Joe McNally.

The day started off with Joe running through some of his own sample images going into how he created his most famous photographs. If you’re not familiar with McNally’s work he’s been one of the most influential photographers for clients like National Geographic and Time Magazine. A few of the photos shown were even before the digital age and performance of digital flashes, showing he’s a true master of his craft.

Joe McNally - The Flash Master

I myself do quite a lot of off camera flash work, especially with my skateboarding photos, however the way the lighting set ups were created today really changed my perspective on using TTL flashes off camera. With Nikon flashes they have a mode on them which enables them to work off camera via a Nikon Creative Light System menu. With this you can control Nikon Speedlights via a commander unit operating multiple slave units. Most of the day’s shooting was around this simplicity of working.

Joe told us how the first thing he does when going into a shoot, entering the location is to find the “soul” of the location. Seeing what available light is around already, window light and where this lighting falls. If the location has artificial lights, to turn those off so you can fully see what you have to work with. With lighting such as windows you can now build you flashlights around this to sculpt the depth within the photo. Sometimes the shoot might just work by bouncing the flash off objects such as a wall behind, by doing this you’re pushing that light back as a bigger light source. The bigger the light source the softer the light becomes. However this is all relevant to the distance away from the subject.

Nikon D810 - The Power of Imagination "The Bedroom"

Whilst a lot of Joe McNally’s work is mainly done via small flashes like SB-910’s, sometimes on larger location shoots having a larger more powerful light source is needed. This is down to quality of light to create a dynamic within the frame. Sometimes however even the larger lights need the help of the smaller Speedlights for shaping. This was how Joe created this photograph below, using a mixture of Profoto B1’s and Nikon SB-910’s.

The video shows you how all of this was put together, demonstrating even the smallest of objects like a table side lamp can benefit from a little pop of light.

Although if you’re working with larger more powerful flashes you still need to remember the three big points to lighting – Direction/Quality/Colour. You still need to remember the direction the light is coming from, the size and spread of the light and colour of the ambient light that’s already there. If you’re shooting early morning the light is normally quite warm so maybe an orange gel would be appropriate to balance this, late evening it’s more of a subdued cool tone so a blue gel. However you can always change the white balance of the camera to record more of the cooler tone, then add a warming gel on the subject to add back the colour to the correct spectrum.

Profoto Studio Lighting

After we had been shown the various lighting setups for the rest of the session it was time to put what Joe had taught us into practice. One of the setups was a Profoto B1 with a large beauty dish positioned above the model pointing down, then another B1 behind the model with a 5 degree spot as a rim light. We could also use a Lasolite tri-grip silver reflector to bounce some of the light off the beauty dish back into the model. The outcome was rather impressive.

The other Profoto setup was two strip lights on a musician to layer the lighting on both sides for more drama and character. Similar to the beauty set up, controlling the flashes via TTL and using exposure compensation for mixing the ratio of key light and fill light. This lighting set up is very effective for shooting athletes as the harsher lighting of a strip light can wrap around and bring more shape for sculpturing the definition.

Downstairs there were a few smaller sets to work on, these were just using Speedlights in various light modifers, softboxes, bouncing off foam core board and using a slatted window to create a detailed background. I’d never really explored the power that TTL can bring to a shoot and how simple it is in working. I could control everything from the back of the camera without having to touch my flashes, especially when one unit was outside!

Thank You Nikon UK and Joe McNally

Overall it was a brilliant day and well worth the visit to London. To meet someone whose work I’ve followed since I started photography and watch how Joe McNally thinks when shooting was truly inspiring. I even managed to a book signed by the master himself! Definitely worth the visit to London!