My day with Joe McNally

Joe McNally is one of the the greatest photographers of all time.  Twenty six years with the National Geographic, the last staff photographer for LIFE magazine, a busy working pro, willing to shoot weddings, corporate projects, advertising, editorial, anything you can point a camera at, Joe’s your man.

Joe’s specialty is light–his friends say he never met a scene he couldn’t overlight.  None of this artsy natural light for Joe, he travels with dozens of cases of lights, umbrellas, gobos, cookies, C-stands and anything else you could possibly imagine to create, modify, harness and generally just muscle light into the shape he wants it.  Plus a couple of assistants to move everything into position.  It’s an enormous travelling roadshow, a complete studio flying a quarter of a million miles a year.

Today, I had the immense pleasure of attending a class he presented on how to use the smaller lights in the service of better photos.

Everything Joe shot immediately showed up on the two big screens

Everything Joe shot immediately showed up on the two big screens.  That’s Joe standing in the middle, with the model onstage

I was hardly alone.  These classes are put on by Kelby Training, and they are completely professional and hugely successful.  The room was sold out, so there were about 700 of us there to learn from the master.

This is a practical course–Joe spends the day setting up lights and taking photos, making spectacular portraits of audience members on the fly while he lectures.  His camera is attached to a computer that instantly downloads his shots, then sends them to two huge screens so you can see in real time what is happening–the good and the bad.  If something doesn’t work, you know it, Joe knows it, and he then teaches how to make it better.

A successful shot

A successful shot

There is a break after each hour of class–sort of.  Joe loves what he does, and often runs over.  Nobody complains.  Then during the breaks, he doesn’t escape into some hidden ready room, but rather stays right on stage and talks to the mobs of people who come up to ask questions.

Just talking to people

Just talking to people between lessons

This isn’t the first time I’ve seen McNally in operation, and may not be the last.  He’s fascinating, having been everywhere and photographed everyone and everything.  He’s got photos he took of Nixon, and he shot this week’s Sports Illustrated cover.

The secret of his success, beside tons of talent and an incredible work ethic, is empathy.  The key to making a great portrait isn’t in the technical details, anyone can learn that from a book, or Joe’s course.  The key is making a connection with the subject, forging an instant emotional bond with someone you’ve just met and may never see again and who may not even speak your language.  Joe is  so warm and open, so much a man’s man, the kind of guy you want to have a beer with even if you don’t drink beer, he can instantly relate to anyone.

Just relating to people

Just relating to people

It must be an interesting life–I read his blog and his tweets, and Joe is in a different city every day, and hits 6 continents every year.  Which would be great, but it must be hard to maintain a homelife.  

But I’m supposed to be writing about the class.  Joe starts with on light, mounted on the camera.  Then off the camera.  Then two lights.  Then three lights, with colored gels.  Then big lights, then little lights again.  It all moves at breakneck pace, as he covers a lifetime of skills in 6 very full hours, and still manages to answer every question the crowd comes up with, even the stupid questions from people who clearly haven’t been listening and need to prove their ignorance.  (I’m not noted for my patience with stupidity)

There is a lunch break, but a software vendor uses that time to demonstrate their product.  The people from Kelby are in the front lobby, hawking book and DVDs and membership in their organization.  The class only costs $69, which is a steal, but I’ve never gotten out of one without buying something else.  Today I bought the software that was demonstrated at lunch.


I always want to improve my photography, and spending a day with the best there is, maybe the best there ever was, can only help. I  learned as much about just being a great guy, about being empathetic, about getting along with people as I did about lighting.  And that’s surely worth the cost of admission.


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