Joe McNally interview



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Nikon in South Africa caught up with internationally acclaimed photographer, Joe McNally, whose career has spanned more than 30 years and included assignments in over 60 countries. Joe is best known for his ability to produce technically and logistically complex assignments with expert use of colour and light.

Brett Florens: What advice would you give the young Joe McNally twenty years ago?

JM – I don’t know if I would have listened back then, but the best advice that I would have given myself would have been to diversify. I think that is really important advice for any young photographer.

Reach out to a wide variety of clients. If you’re a general assignment photographer, try and establish clients who are not just in the editorial realm, but also commercial and corporate players. Stay on top of trends. I’ve been lucky because I kind of bounce along with my blog and my social media presence. I was always interested in writing and it seemed like a good idea, but it was never planned. When you choose the path of photography nowadays, you have to have a broad-based marketing plan with an idea on how to include social media: Having a voice in this industry can essentially put a lot of lines in the water for you.

When I look back now, I wish I had extended myself in a more forceful way in the commercial advertising market 20 years ago.


Craig Kolesky: Which photographers influenced you when you started out and what is it that you want to say  with your photographs?

JM – Well a topic with much to talk about, but when I left school I wanted to be W. Eugene Smith. He was influential to me  because he shot the way he saw; there was a moodiness in the way he presented his work. He had a way of literally, emotionally  and physically manipulating the eye of the viewer, making them see exactly what he wanted them to see.

I would say that Smith’s work remains one of the high peaks of photojournalism. A peak I have never climbed quite honestly, never even come close to, but it’s very aspirational for me to look at work like that.

John Loengard was another major influence through both his pictures and picture editing; he took me under his wing at LIFE magazine. The book he wrote, Pictures Under Discussion, is an important book for every photographer to read.

I want to give my viewer a visual path and communicate what I am feeling and seeing when I encounter the world with a camera.  There are photographers out there who view their own work as a completely personal statement, and perhaps stand with one foot  in the artistic realm and one foot in the storytelling realm. I tend to be more story driven. The narrative is very important, as is the  viewer of the photographs, meaning the readers of the magazine. I’m trying to make a connection with them, make them think, give them pause, and move them emotionally.


Christine Meintjes: What would your ideal setup be for a shot with a group of people, on the beach, in full sunlight (late afternoon)?

JM – If it’s late afternoon, generally you can use available light. If I can swing mostly natural light, I’ll do it. I wouldn’t try anything too fancy when it comes to a group since you often don’t have a lot of time. If I had to use lights, I’d put them up kind of high, so the group is covered by the lower wash of the light and a lot of the harder light goes sort of above and beyond them. I might put a couple of low lights down in the sand to create an incremental fill, which becomes a little bit of a harder edge version of clamshell lighting. The incremental fill ends up being below the point of view of the lens. Without really observing the actual situation, those are just quick, general guidelines I might observe if I get into a situation like that. How much lighting you can do is in direct relationship, often, to how much time you have.

Johan Pretorius: If you could use only one lens for the next year, what lens would you choose?

JM – I would probably choose a fast 28mm lens. Speed is obviously important in lowlight situations, that’s a given, and I do a lot of environmental portraiture. For me a  fast 28mm works out perfectly, because it shows enough environment without the danger of too much distortion.


Nikon SA – What advice do you have for new Speedlight users?

JM – Well, it sounds kind of basic, but read your instruction manual. Far too many people get the gear, take it out of the box, and assume it’s going to do everything for them. Then they get frustrated when it’s not working the way they’d like.

So, I would suggest that you start by reading the manual and experiment before getting frustrated. Do some tests with all the flash modes in various positions-direct flash, bounce, TTL, manual. I would work my way through the different iterations and learn how the Speedlight brain reacts to the camera brain. When do they work well together, and when do things go off the rails? Definitely do your research before going out into the field.

The other thing you can do is buy a book about Speedlight photography. There are a couple of good ones and I always look at what people do with light. Some photographers might really like a high-key look, others might like things that are more saturated. Find out the kind of light that you like – what you respond to – and then try to emulate it. Experiment with different types of lighting so you can achieve a result that’s right for you.

Always remember: If you lack confidence in your tools, your pictures will be tentative and uncertain. So confidence in your gear and knowing how to use it will have a direct positive result in your photographs.

Nikon SA – What is your favourite photographic accessory, other than your camera?

JM – Other than my camera, my Speedlight. I’m rarely, if ever, on a location without some type of artificial light. Although I always bring a variety of lenses and Speedlights, I don’t necessarily use everything. I’m very fond of a couple of types of small light shapers by Lastolite.

My camera bags are very important – they’re always on location with me whether it’s a roller bag or a shoulder bag. I find them to be logical and comfortable, and keep me organized. I’m a big fan of Think Tank products.


Nikon SA – In an age where we are exposed to so much imagery – what makes a great picture stand out from the average?

JM – I would say emotional impact; the ability of a photograph to speak both to your heart and head – it has to move you, quite simply. It’s not about how fancy it is, or how the post-processing was done, or if it was executed in a technically accurate fashion by the photographer, necessarily.  It should be a simple photograph that speaks very clearly on an emotional level; then you’ve done your job.


Nikon SA – When you were starting out as a photographer, what drove you?

JM – Fear of failure. The fear of failure is always within me, it remains with me. And I was absolutely consumed by photography. I loved everything about it and I still do.

I love the fact that you engage people, and that you are not in an office all day. I love the fact that you confront the world and all its uncertainties and you try to sort that out through a rectangular frame that you are looking through.


I love the fact that you can take a piece of your imagination and make it real by photographing it.

Imagine you are standing on a sidewalk, just looking around, waiting to see life in an interesting way while everybody else is on some kind of mission to get something accomplished. They are not actually observing life the way a photographer does. That’s a special thing.



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