Professional Insights

Professional Insights

Joe McNally

Joe McNally

Photojournalism/Commercial (U.S.A.)

Unabashedly Versatile: The Life of a Committed Generalist

Joe McNally is an internationally acclaimed photographer whose career has spanned 30 years and included assignments in over 50 countries. Although the majority of his career has been spent shooting for magazines such as Time, Sports Illustrated and National Geographic, in the mid-1990s Joe served as LIFE magazine's staff photographer, the first one in 23 years.

Joe is a recipient of the Alfred Eisenstaedt Award and has been honored by Pictures of the Year International, World Press Photo, The Art Directors Club, American Photo, Communication Arts, and Graphis. He shot the first all-digital coverage in the history of National Geographic, called "The Future of Flying," a 32-page cover story commemorating the centennial observance of the Wright Brothers' flight. The coverage was deemed noteworthy enough to be incorporated into the archives of the Library of Congress.

He conducts numerous workshops around the world as part of his teaching activities. One of Joe's most notable projects, Faces of Ground Zero, has become known as one of the most significant artistic responses to the tragedy at the World Trade Center. In the last two years, McNally has written two books, The Moment It Clicks, and The Hot Shoe Diaries, both of which cracked Amazon's top-ten list of bestsellers. His advertising and commercial clients include FedEx, Sony, Target, Land's End, General Electric, MetLife, Adidas, the American Ballet Theater and the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Diversity as an Asset

For most of my career, I've been a general assignment magazine photographer: staff photographer for LIFE magazine, contract photographer for Sports Illustrated, and a contributor to National Geographic for the last 25 years. Under that umbrella, I've been thrown just about anything you can imagine. I've shot celebrities, news and sports. I've done everything from big productions to stylized studio work, from conceptual images to helicopter shooting. Over the years, I have also had the privilege to "parachute" into unfamiliar countries such as China, a place I started visiting in the late 80's. I just made my eleventh or twelfth trip, and each time I must reintroduce myself to this fascinating place and its growth, energy and history. The people are very receptive and growing more open to contact with journalists and photographers, and their society has started to have a global effect with everything they do. These trips have been very exciting for me, as they utilize the variety of the skills I have acquired in the field over the years, and continue to replenish my love for the craft. You have to maintain a continuous level of enthusiasm — not only to do your job, but also to relate to those you are working with. It is important for me to remember that a camera is a visa into people's lives, and I should never take that for granted.

I've always admired some of the old LIFE magazine photographers and have tried to emulate them in some faint way. They could shoot anything: celebrity work, conflict photography, sports, politics, features and anything else required of them. Over the years, photographic genres have become more specialized, but I have always wanted to be more like the old LIFE guys: unabashedly willing and able to shoot anything that was assigned to them with whatever tools were at their disposal. Virtually every story I have worked on for the National Geographic involves elements of journalism, storytelling, portrait work and conceptual photography, so my diverse background has been a real asset. As photographers, we have to reach for every tool we possibly we can.

Heroes, Motivation and Confidence

When I was young, I had no idea I would be a photographer. In fact, I didn't use cameras seriously until my early twenties. However, my father had some old photo books, and I remember going through them as a child and then going back to them again and again, flipping through and staring at the images. I didn't realize then how it was affecting me, but I was fascinated with the way images portrayed a much bigger world than I knew then. My family didn't travel much, so I think the window that those images provided me was very important.

I still reflect on some of those pictures and go back to them, just as I did when I started learning about the craft. Some of those photographers went on to become heroes of mine — photographers like W. Eugene Smith, Carl Mydans, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Gordon Parks and Jim Stanfield. I wasn't trying to copy them exactly, but I did want to feel their spirit through their pictures. Photographers such as Ernst Haas and his book The Creation also had a profound effect on my life. Ernst has passed on, but that book remains a touchstone for me, and I reflect on those images and on his obstinacy: while other photographers of his day moved to faster-speed films and tried to convince him to do the same, he stubbornly followed his own path. I liked that: he had a vision and he stuck to it, regardless of the world around him pushing him in a different direction. Everyone should have dedication like this — it gives fortitude to your own work.

Being a photographer is like walking a tightrope: sometimes you really have to push yourself to get back on and perform. On the other hand, the fear of failure can be a powerful motivator, but you must find your motivation however you can. It is vital. Be willing to be denied. Hang in there through the bad times, even when you feel like your creative impulses are lost, or when you don't know where your next assignment is coming from. Be tenacious.

Perhaps the most important advice is to be confident. I always tell young photographers that 90% of this job is confidence. If you are not confident with what you are doing, then there is no reason to do it at all. As a photographer, you are constantly improvising and adapting to new scenarios. You must believe in yourself, and that has to show.

The Power and Importance of Storytelling

To be a good photographer is to be a good storyteller. You will not be present to explain your photographs every time someone looks at them. The pictures themselves must tell the story. For example, when I have a picture published in National Geographic, it goes all over the world. I won't be there to explain what's happening in my pictures as people thumb through the pages. If you can let the picture speak to the heart of the matter, relate the story to people who were not there and make them understand, if you can occasionally turn that corner, then you can remain a photographer.

I think the technology involved in today's photographic tools is wonderful. It opens doors for us in ways that were simply not possible before. The danger zone of technology, however, is when you believe that it can replace good storytelling technique. It does not. Shooting the pictures with the D4 is wonderful. Shooting pictures with an F2 back in that time was also wonderful, and at the end of the day, they are both still cameras. The technology may be different, but the mission remains the same. No matter what you are doing, you have to communicate well. The technology doesn't replace that skill — it merely complements it.

Perfection and the Drive Forward

I have a confession to make: after I make a picture, I usually lose interest in it. In fact, after I look at it the first time, I rarely go back to it because it becomes "yesterday's picture." What propels me forward is the next picture. I think there is a sense of urgency in the photographic spirit: you are propelled by what happens next, not by what you've done. If you are satisfied with what you've already completed, then you lose a piece of that spirit, and I believe that you should dig deeper into yourself. No photographer has made a perfect picture. Hopefully, I'm smart enough — or old enough — to know at this point that it is simply not possible, and that's one reason why photographers should always strive for more. They should never be satisfied.

The Central Role of Light

I've said it thousands of times, but I will keep saying it: light is language, and it is a language that photographers must be fluent in. There is no life in a picture without the right light. Light and the resulting shadows and patterns give your subjects edge and definition. They establish the environment while adding volume and dimension. They breathe life into a photograph. One of the amazing things about photography is that if one piece of the puzzle falls, everything else comes down with it. If the subject isn't interesting, then the image fails. If I didn't light the subject well enough, then no matter how interesting the subject matter is, the picture can fall flat or simply disappear.

On the D4

The pictures I proposed making on this shoot were not simple ideas, and they were not easy photographs to make. When you get your hands on such an amazing machine as the D4, I think it's appropriate to challenge it. I wanted to take the camera into new territory — somewhere it hasn't gone before — so as I came up with these ideas, I considered photographs that would be very hard to recreate. That's difficult to do nowadays because just about everything has been photographed in some way. My challenge was: what or how can I shoot that has never been done before? How can I impart just a little bit of the difference? How can I differentiate? A different angle, perhaps? Could it be by placing the camera in a surprising place? How can I light something in a way it has never been lit before? I ask myself these kinds of questions on projects like this, where the goal is to generate ideas for photographs that would be tough to top or reproduce, I think part of the process on an assignment like this is to let your imagination roam freely.

I think the single most important reason I would move to the D4 is responsiveness. I'm always looking for my equipment to be more intuitive and to react to situations as I see them. This camera has substantial improvements. My workhorse cameras, the D3s and D3x, are both exceptional cameras, but the D4 is another evolution. I feel it's my responsibility to my clients to bring the best tool I know of, and the D4 is certainly that.

When I'm considering a new camera, I look for improved responsiveness in terms of file size, speed of operation, and frame rate. I also look for improvement in the metering systems because I do so much flash work, and this augments the performance of the Creative Lighting System, which I use a great deal. This new flagship gave me all of this.

Another improvement I picked up on immediately was the skin tone. When I teach, I always tell photographers that at the end of the day, if you have to let everything else go, make sure to get the skin tone right. If you want the viewer to have an emotional reaction to your photograph, the skin tone has to be very true. The D4 produced the smooth, natural skin tone that I need.

Shooting HD video is becoming an increasingly important component for any photographic studio. Client requests for video have grown for my studio as well. I'm migrating there, and luckily have some younger guys in the studio who are very intuitive with video. The D4 video quality is incredible, but the greatest thing is that with just a flick of the switch, I can go from stills to video and back again, all the while staying within the Nikon system and shooting through NIKKOR optics.

The Role of NPS

There are many reasons why I have stayed shooting Nikon cameras since 1973. I can cite the "usual" factors, such as quality of optics, reliability of performance and durability. These are all very important, because I put my cameras through hell, and am often presented with a photographic opportunity that will never be repeated, hence I have a huge need to rely on my gear and trust that it won't break down at crucial moments.

These, however, are not the only reasons why I have stayed with Nikon for so long. My muscle memory — in other words, the way my hands and fingers know the terrain of a camera — is often the difference between success and failure on a job. If I foundered at the camera, or needed to take time to adjust settings while things are happening, it would be frustrating and counter-productive. I need to be fluid and spontaneous behind the lens, the same way I hope my subjects will be in front of it.

Support from NPS (Nikon Professional Services) has always been crucial as well. I rely on NPS to fill in gaps on specialty assignments and deliver both hardware and expertise to help me through something really challenging in the field. Knowing that they respond to photographers' needs is very important to me.

NPS is there when I need them. In a sense, they are always there, at the very least at the other end of the phone. It is wonderful to know that after all these years, Nikon remains, in a very real sense, in the field with me. When you buy a Nikon camera, you are entering into a relationship, and NPS is one of the biggest manifestations of that relationship.

Photographers are emotional creatures. We do not buy into a camera system considering it to be just a combination of glass, metal and electronics. We are buying into a relationship, a sense of connection to the camera, and thus a sense of connection to the camera maker. We bring these tools into the field to record history, the human condition, and important moments in time, both large and small. We occasionally risk everything, quite literally, for a picture, and we want to know that the people who make and represent the cameras we use are right there in the trenches with us. We want them to understand the problems, risks and difficulties we face in the field, and then bring our messages back to the engineers and the production lines. We want to know there is someone listening to us, and heeding our advice and requests. NPS is the biggest, most personal way this relationship can be expressed.

See more from Joe by visiting his website, blog and twitter. Open in new window.