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Joe McNally
Joe McNally

The Hot Shoe Diaries

Introduction: Joe McNally is an expert at lighting big jobs with small flashes. Besides being a successful commercial photographer, he also spends a great deal of time teaching. His new book is titled The Hot Shoe Diaries and is a virtual how to for setting up complex lighting using Nikon SB flashes.
Normally when we do interviews like this, we also discuss in detail how some of the photographer's classic images were taken. But Joe McNally's last two books, The Moment It Clicks and The Hot Shoe Diaries go into much more detail about the images than we would have room to discuss here. LB
Chris/Larry: Many consider you to be one of the best photographers working today. Can you give us some background on how you started, what influenced you in your development as a photographer?
Joe: I started off as a newspaper wire service photographer, which is a great teaching ground for making you improvisational. It enables you to think on your feet, rescuing pictures when things are really going south and it teaches you a lot about the kind of survival skills you need in the long run to stay the course in the business.

I had the benefit of coming along at a time when the field was really wide-open. Though there are many opportunities that you have now as a photographer, there was a less pressure when I first started. I hit New York and came under the tutelage and guidance of a lot of really good established shooters and editors. It was a kind of atmosphere that if you made a mistake, it wasn't a disaster, it was a learning experience, you got back in the saddle the next day and you went out and you shot again.

Because of time, budgets, and other factors, some of that grace period that you have to grow as a professional is truncated and more pressurized. I did have a lot of ups and downs and disasters, the typical sort of stuff that you would have when you start a career in New York.

Chris/Larry: You shoot a really wide range of subjects and have used some pretty creative lighting to define them. Can you give us an idea for how you approach your subject? How much do you plan, how much is spontaneous?
Joe: It's always a mix. I do rely on my well-developed sense of curiosity, researching my subject before hand so I kind of know what I'm getting into. Then I imagine what the job would be like and I imagine the picture. If I end up with a picture that was close to what I imagined it would be, I would consider it a pretty good day.
Chris/Larry: Do your images sometimes go beyond your wildest expectations?
Joe: Sure, that happens. Serendipity can, and does kick in on a regular basis. In terms of serendipity being so extended or grand as to provide something that you couldn't have dreamed up in your wildest dreams, that doesn't happen too often. The reverse happens much more often, where you walk into a situation, you're keyed up on a job, and you're thinking, oh, maybe I'll do this or maybe I'll do that. Then, in the very first ten minutes you're on the job you realize none of that stuff is going to happen. The subject is not cooperating, the weather stinks, the location is bad, there's a limited amount of time, or whatever might have happened to affect the outcome.

I was doing a portfolio for Sports Illustrated a couple years ago, and I ended up having to shoot a picture in three parts and have the magazine put it together back at the shop because I missed my connection in Salt Lake City. It's the practical aspect of being a photographer. I couldnít get to the location early enough because I missed my flight because of a plane delay, and that put me back on my heels and the shot that I had imagined that I could do in one piece, went out the window and I had to go into [when I teach classes I always call it] triage-mode. What do you have to do to save this patient? You walk in and that picture is dying on the table. What do you do to resuscitate it?

That's where, again, I harp back to my early experiences working the streets of New York, that you have that rolodex of survival in your head. Options. Quick fixes. I'm not saying that you want to have the job end up like that all the time. But it's a good thing to develop as a photographer because it does keep you fast on your feet and enables you to procure a reasonable, or even good frame out of a bad situation. Then, you live to fight again another day. You rev up the imagination for the next job.

Chris/Larry: Your confidence and ease in complex situations is clear. You seem to have mastery without any ego. What allows you to bring all the elements together?
Joe: I think it partly relates to the diversity of work Iíve gotten. I've been a generalist my whole career and been thrown everything including the kitchen sink. You would call some of the assignments, problem solving in nature. For example, Iíve shot stories for National Geographic for 25 years and some of those stories might make a lot of the other photographers run in the opposite direction.

I've done highly technical stories about science and space. To do that, you need to have a fair amount of imagination, and then sometimes that imagination leads you to a solution. Because what you're doing is trying to take a concept or an idea, or some sort of scientific theorem, something that most people are not going to have an immediate understanding about, and translate that into a photograph that's going to grab somebody. You have to imagine yourself in the reader's seat. I always view the reader as who I serve.

I'm not serving my ego, I'm not serving even the magazine Ė I mean, obviously, I am. But at the end of the day, if you've been able to move the reader, the consumer of your picture, then you've done a good job.

I look at a story from the perspective of a naÔve viewer. For example I don't know much about telescopes but I've done two big telescope stories for the Geographic. Most people don't know much about telescopes either. If I look at it a certain way and think that would be cool, then I imagine the reader might have the same reaction. So that's the way I pursue it. It's kind of simple really and sounds almost stupid, but it's the way you find pictures.

Chris/Larry: What about youíre own projects or self-assignments? Do you still think in terms of how people might understand or perceive the end result, or is it a process of playing and discovery?
Joe: A combination; I do try to play with pictures. And I always counsel young photographers to have fun out there. First and foremost, you're in this blessed position. You're out there in the world breathing the air and not in an office. That's a really privileged place to be. And secondly, there's so much pressure on the business side of photography, that if you really thought about it too much, you'd probably just stop dead in your tracks. The main thing is to enjoy yourself and have fun.

I always quote Jay Maisel, who's a good friend and wonderful teacher. He'll look at somebody and say, "I don't think you cared about shooting this picture because you're not making me care about it when I look at it." That's a pretty pungent criticism and it's also very accurate. You've got to pursue pictures out there. Great pictures, or even really good pictures, don't drop from trees. They're sometimes a product of a lot of hard work, a lot of tenacity, a lot of problem solving, and then that final fill-up of good luck or good fortune. That's the guy behind the curtain stuff and readers don't want to see that. They want to look at a picture and view it as effortless, like, wow, that's really cool. That's what the viewerís first reaction should be. It shouldn't be like, oh, this must have been a lot of work.

So there are a lot of different threads that come together when you're finally pulling a picture out of the fire. You're trying to make it accessible to people, and also intriguing enough for them to spend time with.

Chris/Larry: You seem to be doing an amazing amount of shooting, teaching, writing as well as keeping a detailed running commentary on your blog. How do you keep so connected to your work? It canít all be fun.
Joe: No. Part of the fast pace is about the nature of photography today. You're making all of this come together as an enterprise, as a living, not just as a hobby.

I went to school to be a writer. My books and the blog have enabled me to re-embrace that art form. I really have a good time doing that because I enjoy writing. If truth be told, I enjoy it almost as much as I do photography. You sit down and plan to write the story of what just happened to you in the field, and it's inevitably kind of ridiculous, humorous, and mildly compelling, because itís the stuff that happens to a photographer in the field.

We were teaching yesterday (Photoshop World Boston) and we had these four models sitting on this WWII jeep in front of a Destroyer in the Boston Shipyard, we didn't know it, but the place was closing. So this guy just walked over while I'm shooting, I had 75 people around and these models on a jeep, and the guy just came to the jeep, turned it on and said Iíve got to take the jeep. There went the prop. The class just convulsed; I turned around and said this is what happens on location. Everybody can send you down the tubes on location, from your subject to the freight elevator guy.

Chris/Larry: So many of the images you create seem magical, even when you are teaching a workshop. Can you tell us about your though process, give our readers a sense of how you connect, overcome problems, and deliver such excellent work?
Joe: Let's first get something on the table; it's not all magical work. Sometimes you have your ups and downs. It's like playing a sport; you have your good days and bad days. But I do think the core of what keeps me going forward is basic love and enthusiasm for being a photographer.

I enjoy the coupling of shooting for clients and teaching. I shoot when I teach and people in a class expect you to produce something that's really worthwhile as you demonstrate. Iím shooting live so it's up on the screen in front of 300 to 400 people. That's what I do all the time. Other photographers have come up to me and said, "Man, I can't believe you do that. I would never let them videotape me live. I would have it rehearsed; I'd have it in the can." I just accept that kind of pressure, itís part and parcel of being an assignment photographer. I always caution people that we're going to make a series of mistakes and find our path through our mistakes; I'm very unabashed about that. I make mistakes all the time and that is a very valid way to approach any location scenario.

Your digital contact sheet shows your thought process, from the first frame where you're just doing location assessment and following that through, it's your thought process right there. When I came up photographically, really good photo editors couldn't care less about your portfolio, you know, your greatest hits. They were like yeah, sure kid, yeah that's nice, but let me see your contact sheets.

Your contact sheets are the roadmap for what you're thinking when you have a camera in your hand. If you go through a digital take when you are building a solution, lighting or whatever, you go back through that and youíll see the photograph build. You see frames where you misfired, frames where things were off, and then finally, usually through this process, you establish what I refer to as clarity of thought.

I teach a lot of lighting; people are messing with the lighting, but I say look, before you start messing with the lighting, you got to mess with the picture. Where the camera goes is much more important than where the light goes. Once you figure out where the camera goes, then putting the light in an effective place is much easier.

Chris/Larry: When Nikon introduced the Creative Lighting System in 2003, they asked you to create the DVD Speed of Light, which really showed what the system could do. Did it take you long to grasp and master CLS?
Joe: Yes and no. Not to come down the middle there, but no in the sense that once you crank through the buttons and dials the first few times, it becomes pretty intuitive. Physically working the flashes is not too much of an issue. Wrangling good light from small spectral light sources like these becomes the larger issue for me. How to craft that in the same way as if you were shooting bigger studio lights. The CLS, as Nikon brought it out, is a truly a wonderful flash system because it works.

Does it have glitches, ups and downs, misfires, and stuff like that? Of course, every camera and every system does, and I think that that's where some folks get a little frustrated. I always remind people that it's a TTL system, Through The Lens, so when you point the lens at something, all that exposure information is streaming into the camera. You shift your angle, change your lens, you're going to get a different stream of photo information or exposure information, which is going to send a different message to your flash.

Therefore, the flash will react in a way that it thinks is appropriate but it might be way off and you say hey, wait a minute, it was fine a minute ago. Then you start to identify situations where TTL is going to not work so well, and other situations you walk in and see immediately that this is tailor-made for TTL.

The nice thing about the lights is that by working with the information that's occurring at the moment of exposure, you've got a tremendous amount of intuitive technology to use, which is pretty great. I always regard it as a gift. Young photographers sometimes get frustrated with it and I'm like hey, wait a minute dude, you know, not too long ago we were out there with a couple of rocks trying to make sparks. This is very sophisticated stuff that we're doing now, so just roll with it.

Chris/Larry: You convinced National Geographic to let you shoot The Future of Flying story entirely digitally back in the two megapixel era of 2002. Can you tell us a little bit about how you convince your clients when you want to take them to the next level, a place that maybe they don't even understand?
Joe: I think part of our mission is to educate our clients, to make them aware of possibilities, to talk them back off the cliff of where they have always been standing, and say look, you don't have to jump that way this time, you can maybe do something different. I've been really blessed to work with some really great art directors. A couple of commercial clients I have an ongoing relationship with and they really are open to that because the best relationship is that the client picks the photographer because they feel this photographer can bring something to the party they really are interested in.
Chris/Larry: What about your workflow? Can you tell us a little bit about the technical side and how you review and post-process your final images?
Joe: My camera system is Nikon and I'm shooting D3's. I shoot Lexar cards. All the imagery is organized in Aperture libraries and we use Aperture as a management program: sorting, pulling, slideshows, and this and that. I do raw finishing in Nikon Capture NX 2 and then the final shaping and presentation of the imagery in Photoshop CS4. My assistant and I have MacBook Proís and we have three Macs in the studio with the Cinema Displays and a Wacom Cintique. Let me also issue this disclaimer, I don't do much retouching. I'm not good at it; I've tried off and on to learn about it, but I've been staying kind of busy, so it's a little hard and a little elusive for me. If there is any post-processing and finishing to be done, my assistant does it and we consult with each other.
Chris/Larry: Do you have any advice for photographers who are struggling now to maintain their love of photography and their professional standing, things that have helped you deal with these difficult economic times?
Joe: Tenacity is definitely part of the equation, always has been, probably even more so now. There's a lot of competition out there and there's a lot of re-trenching on the part of clients. Money that they might have spent in a more freewheeling way, they're watching much more carefully and they're deciding to go with last year's pictures or stock images as opposed to generating work. I'm facing the same thing, absolutely. I have a new story coming out for Geographic in June. I shot two stories for them last year and I haven't heard from them so far this year. We'll see where that goes.

When I was a staff photographer at Life Magazine, it was an interesting and blessed position. I really had kind of a benevolent patron who would listen to my ideas and fund them if the editors found them worthwhile. Now, so much of that is back on the photographer's shoulders, finding funding, going forward, and generating ideas. It's pretty madcap in lots of ways, the whole idea of trying to make a living as a photographer now is a high wire act. Tenacity is a huge part of the equation as well as the ability to maintain good humor and a positive outlook despite the fact that you're hearing the word "no" a great deal.

You have to be able to keep moving forward and you have to keep apprised of new technology. To have a market presence as a photographer, a blog, or certainly a web site, is required. Itís a way of communicating and letting people know that you're out there.

Also, try your best to remain aggressive, even in lean times. I think it's important for photographers because if you look through your portfolio, your best pictures have almost always occurred when you took a risk. Whether that is creative, emotional, financial, or whatever it might be, and nowadays the word is to be risk-adverse. You know, shutter your doors, close down, do nothing, and weather the storm. But I would argue that no matter what, to the best of your ability, you have to keep creating work and take chances. You have to keep pushing your own envelope or you'll wither right along with the economy.

Check out Joe McNally's blog and web site

Contents of the Interview © 2009 Chris Maher and Larry Berman
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