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  • 8 Photography Lessons from Joe McNally

    Red Dot Photo was extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to attend My Journey, 30 Years On, a talk by Joe McNally at Vivocity's GV Max theatre on 10th January 2011.

    In a presentation that lasted approximately one and a half hours, McNally brought the audience through his 30 years as a photographer with anecdotes, photographs and thoughts.

    Here is a summary of McNally's main points that engaged the audience throughout the talk.

    1. There aren't any secrets in photography.


    McNally started at the now defunct LIFE's magazine as a photographer, where he was assigned to editor John Leognard. McNally refers to Leognard as "visually intelligent", hard to please, and also someone who makes him extremely nervous".

    McNally continues by saying that there are no big secrets in photography, and that he finds the notion of some photographers wanting their apprentices to sign release forms ridiculous.

    McNally explains that in order to become good, one must be willing to spend his waking hours behind the camera to shoot. Photographers must have "thick skin" and "hard elbows" to overcome burnout, difficulties that they may face in pursuit of the craft.

    2. Human gesture is more important than anything else in a picture; it is what gets people to look at your photographs.


    (image from The Hot Shoe Diaries: Big Light from Small Flashes by Joe McNally)

    Although there is a lot of focus on good exposure, focus and other technical aspects of photography, he stressed that human gesture is what stands out in a photograph to grab people's attention.

    He relates this to his first "big" photograph that got published "everywhere"; a young band member attempting to pull up his pants which came off during a band performance.

    McNally points out that although it was not a well taken photograph, it was the human gesture and aspect that enabled it to be published in many publications.

    3. You need to get involved with people.

    McNally stressed the importance of involvement with people in photography, telling the audience about a point in his life where he lived in single room occupancy hotels with lots of cockroaches and more importantly, what he termed New York characters.

    It was an opportunity for him to see people from all walks of life, and also gave him the chance to take photographs of these people at their most authentic and candid moments.

    4. Resolve and tenacity



    McNally pointed out that photographers must have two characteristics - resolve and tenacity. He gave an example of Mikhail Gorbachev, the former USSR leader with whom he had a rare opportunity to shoot in a studio session.

    However, McNally was not satisfied with the results and managed to persuade Gorbachev (after a number of refusals) to do another photography session, outdoors in the snowy woods .

    Although the photograph was never published, the incident demonstrates his determination to not back down even if something he wants to achieve is difficult or seemingly impossible.

    Another example that McNally pointed out was his determination to get shots of John Glenn, the oldest man to travel to space, while he was in his spacecraft and looking at the sun. To do this, it took a lot of permission seeking and approvals from NASA, plus patience and resolve on McNally's part, which finally rewarded him with a hard to get photograph of Glenn in flight.

    5. When the window of opportunity is open to you, make sure you achieve something.



    McNally explained that having a job as a photographer also meant that there was a lot of pressure involved. There would be many opportunities to shoot potentially wonderful images, but a photographer needs to also deal with the stress and make sure that the money, effort, time and equipment put into the setup are accounted for.

    He related this to a time when he had the chance to take a photograph of an exposed human brain during surgery. He was whisked into the surgery for only a short 15 seconds, but managed to capture a photograph with impact because he knew that he had to get a good shot in such a rare setting and context.

    6. Photography is like an iceberg.

    McNally likened photography to an iceberg. Similar to an iceberg, only around 10% of photographs will be present on the surface (published), while the remaining 90% will remain submerged, unpublished.

    He mentioned that photographers should not be concerned about getting their images published, but to be completely in love with the moment of capturing an image.

    He went on to say that some of his favourite shots were never published, but that's okay because he's in love with photography, not getting his photographs published.

    7. Photograph what moves you.


    (image from The Moment it Clicks by Joe McNally)

    During the Q & A session, McNally was posed this question by a member of the audience: How does one know whether he/she is going in the right direction instead of merely producing rubbish shots?

    He gave a simple answer, "Photograph what moves you."; that it can be anything, and one can start by looking at classical photography to find out what exactly it is that moves him/her.

    Once someone sees a shot that makes his/her heart skip, that would be the direction to go. There will definitely be more valleys than peaks in photography, but photographing what one is passionate about allows photographers to continue in the craft.

    He also touched on how the digital age sells photographers a "digital dream" by camera manufacturers and how such people start to believe that if they had a certain number of megapixels, accessories, and cameras, they will be able to capture legendary shots.

    Equipment to him, is a good place to start, but photographers still need to tell stories with that images they capture.

    8. The best photograph does not exist.



    McNally closed the presentation by telling the audience that in photography, there is no such thing as a best photograph. He cautioned the audience to not be content with something that is impressive in the present moment and regard it as their best.

    Something else will definitely come along to outseat the current best in future and photographers cannot depend solely on experience. They have to continually strive to improve on their skills by being open to new knowledge, techniques and ways of doing things.

    To do this, McNally still takes photography classes 30 years on, which shows how he is able to remain on top after so long.



    Red Dot Photo is very thankful to Nikon Singapore, Nikon Club, Nikon Professional Society (NPS) and Clubsnap for the opportunity to attend the Joe McNally talk.

    Joe McNally's books, The Moment it Clicks and The Hot Shoe Diaries can be purchased from Red Dot Photo's e-commerce store and reputed book stores in Singapore
    This article was originally published in forum thread: 8 Photography Lessons from Joe McNally started by MJ View original post
    Comments 5 Comments
    1. kklee's Avatar
      Can't seem to see the pics.
    1. Poseidon's Avatar
      Minor technical glitch, should be solved now. Let me know if you still can't see the images.

      Quote Originally Posted by kklee View Post
      Can't seem to see the pics.
    1. colourfulfaces's Avatar
      Very nice coverage and summary of the talk. Very inspiring talk.
    1. MJ's Avatar
      Quote Originally Posted by colourfulfaces View Post
      Very nice coverage and summary of the talk. Very inspiring talk.
      Hi, thank you Yes it was a very motivating and inspiring talk!
    1. Brown Bear's Avatar
      I think tenacity is my take home message. Most people (especially Singaporeans), will give up after a while, give in to societal norms and stop dreaming their dreams.

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