5 Lessons from Master Photographer Joe McNally

Some photographers wait for inspiration to strike before clicking the shutter. Others need the perfect expression, the perfect light, and the perfect location to align in order to be able to make a photograph of which they can be proud. But for those who truly desire to have a life in photography, it is more important to develop a strategy to create a life that will allow constant creativity (and a steady stream of income) than it is to find a gorgeous muse and an even more gorgeous landscape before you are willing to take your camera out of the bag.

Photographer Joe McNally learned long ago that it if he were to wait for a stroke of brilliance on every assignment that a career in photography would be impossible. Instead, he approached photography as an art and a craft to be honed in order to make photographs that consistently stand out, no matter the circumstance or location, rather than relying on luck.   

In Joe’s CreativeLive class, Lighting, Logistics, and Strategies for a Life in Photography, Joe bears all about the “Rolodex of Survival” he has developed over his career spanning more than thirty-five years in order to consistently make photographs that not just tell the story, but stop viewers in their tracks time and time again.

Here are just a few of the tricks Joe keeps in his Rolodex so that he has the confidence to create memorable images anywhere, anytime, with any subject.  

  1. Be Adaptable:  In order to approach photo sessions with confidence, it’s essential to be adaptable.  Even though yesterday you (and every other photographer) were able to make an amazing portrait in amazing golden hour light, you need to be prepared to shoot at the same location the next day when it’s overcast and windy.  It’s also not enough to have one go-to lighting set-up that you use every time.  The set-up you use for a memorable photo of a perky High School senior cheerleader is not the same set-up you would use make a show-stopping photograph a Wall Street tycoon.
  2. Embrace Fear:  Even experienced and accomplished photographers make bad photographs — a lot of them – but they don’t let that fear stop them.  In fact, the more afraid you are of photographing something or someone, the greater the pull to do it should be.  While there is little challenge in using tried-and-true techniques, you will walk away from every situation that scared you having learned something new.  You will likely also walk away with a great sense of accomplishment.  Facing your fears will make you a better photographer every time.  
  3. Find the Beauty in Everyone:  While it may be easy to get excited about photographing a professional model or public figure, it is necessary to find the beauty in everyone you photograph.  This is a necessary first step in order to give your subjects the gift of photos where they see the beauty in themselves.  Developing a relationship with everyone you photograph is key, whether you are photographing a super model or a Grandmother.  Once you have a relationship with your subject, it is easier to see the beauty in them and to in turn get them to project confidence and beauty towards the camera.

  4. Use what You Have:  When approaching a new or challenging situation it can be tempting to dwell on what you don’t have:  a 200mm lens; an assistant; a little more sun; a bit more time; or a even more cooperative subject.  Instead, focus on what you do have and never lose sight of the goal of the photo session.  Staying focused will help you figure out how you can accomplish your goals using the gear you have and circumstances in which you find yourself.  Focusing on what you have in front of you, rather than on what you don’t, will allow you to make the best images you can for each and every session.
  5. Be Confident:  Although it may seem obvious, it is difficult to develop the confidence you need to be successful without having a firm understanding of the art and craft that is photography and constantly challenging yourself to learn new things.  The photography community is a wonderful place full of photographers willing to share their knowledge.  Seek out photographers working in your field and learn from them.  Seek out education in areas where you need help to ensure you have a firm understanding of everything from lighting options to posing.  With a firm knowledge base you will gain the confidence to enter any situation knowing you make a great photograph – even if you make a few mistakes along the way. 

Although he is a legendary photographer today, Joe McNally is quick to admit that he relied on learning from more experienced photographers to gain the confidence he needed to get where he is today.  Joe credits some of his success to photographers like Ralph Morris who taught him much of what he knew – even when Ralph, who worked for Time Magazine, was Joe’s direct competition when Joe worked for Life Magazine.  Now that Joe is the photographer with experience to share he sees teaching at CreativeLive as an opportunity to give back and teach others everything that he knows.  

Joe values the photography community as a “pass-it-along” society in which all creatives can benefit from sharing knowledge.   In his class, Joe will share, not just what he has learned from his decades of experience in the field, but technical tricks and trips that bot new and experienced photographers can implement using the equipment they already have.   

After more than 35 years as a working photographer, Joe has a lot to share about surviving and thriving as a creative without losing your passion. Creatives from all disciplines will benefit from watching Joe tell-all.

Watch Joe’s class here:

Jamie Davis Smith FOLLOW >

Jamie Davis Smith is a Washington, DC based photographer and writer. Follow her on Facebook at Jamie Davis Smith and Instagram at @jamiedavissmith