Master Of The Moment

The Photo Traveler in conversation with Joe McNally

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Photo Traveler - Joe McNally Joe McNally’s new book The Moment It Clicks includes advice on shooting everything from twilight aerials from a helicopter over New York City to a wedding reception in Ireland.

Photographers are a funny lot. Because we're so visual, we're often, shall we say, less than articulate with the written word. That's why how-to books tend to fall into one of two categories: well written with mediocre photos or strongly photographed with pedestrian text. To find one that's as well written as it is photographed is a rare treat.

Everyone in the business knows what a major talent my friend Joe McNally is. His list of accomplishments and clients are legion: Life (its sole staff photographer for many years), National Geographic, Sports Illustrated, the Day in the Life books—the list is nearly endless. But who knew that Joe was such a great writer, storyteller and teacher, too? Anyone who has had the pleasure of reading his recent book, The Moment It Clicks: Photography Secrets from One of the World's Top Shooters (Peachpit Press, Berkeley, Calif., 2008, $54).

Photo Traveler - Joe McNally The book is more of a hybrid between a coffee-table book and a how-to volume. You get a beautiful display of a wide variety of Joe's greatest hits, with his candid, funny stories behind the photo, as well as tips on how to incorporate the techniques he used into your own work. It's an eminently readable combination, hard to put down, and guaranteed to teach you something about photography and the ingenuity and creativity it takes to do it on a world-class level, the way Joe has been doing it for the last 30 years.

Although he's known primarily for large-scale production shots, Joe also has done travel work for magazines like Travel & Leisure and National Geographic Traveler, and it was travel we spoke about in a recent interview.

Outdoor Photographer: Joe, how do you prepare for travel assignments? Is it different than some of the editorial assignments you've mentioned in the book?

Joe McNally: For a travel piece, you might skew your research a little bit differently. You're certainly not looking to do the seamy side of life or the problems that might associate themselves with a location. You're looking to capture high moments, or you're looking, most of the time, to capture beauty and the fiber of a culture to see where those things might occur. So you might take a look at, say, the calendar of events, and you might try to time your travel for major festivals or street fairs or for whenever life in any particular travel destination is at its most exuberant. So the basics are the same, but you might skew the research a bit to optimize the chances of getting something really resonant, really beautiful.

Outdoor Photographer: I love the story about the Day in the Life of Ireland assignment. They sent you to shoot a coal mine, and you ended up with a killer shot of a wedding reception. How did that come about?

McNally: When you've been doing this as long as you and I have, you know that Murphy's Law is always sitting in your camera bag ready to jump out—that can mean anything from bad information to bad weather. The [Day in the Life] research team in Ireland had the best of intentions, but they probably just thought, "Okay, we hear there's this coal mine. That would be great for McNally, he can go there."

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Photo Traveler - Joe McNally

So I arrive in town and go to the pub, and a fella says to me, "You know, that mine's been closed for 20 years; it's just an empty black hole in the ground." At that point, improvisation kicks in, as it almost always does on location, and you start scouting around. You read local papers. You go to the candy stores. You flip through postcards. You talk people up at the local pub and let them know you're an American photographer, and you ask, "Hey, what's going on?" That led me to the local priest—I mean, I was in Ireland, right?—and it turned out a young couple was getting married on the day of the Day in the Life coverage. I met the family, and they couldn't have been nicer and more gracious. I shot the wedding and the reception, and it made the book. I love to shoot weddings, especially when I'm not the wedding photographer!

Outdoor Photographer: You talk a lot in the chapters about getting there early, which has been one of my mantras, too. What's your thinking behind getting to an event or happening or any appointment early? What happens then?

McNally: Well, I like the sense of calm that that introduces into my head. I like to be able to walk into locations knowing that I haven't screwed up by simply being late. I met my deadline or I met my appointment time. It's a house of cards working on location, and if one card falls, the whole thing can go down. So, by getting there early, I know I'm not going to shoot myself in my own foot.

Outdoor Photographer: There's a great story in the book about arriving early for a celebrity portrait—in this case, the actor Jason Robards—and photographing him at the table of a coffee shop you ducked into while waiting for the appointed portrait time at the theater next door. He was there rehearsing, and you got a wonderful picture. So, as you say, covering the event itself is good, but sometimes the best pictures happen around the edges of these events—the slices of life that occur just before or after the event you're supposed to shoot.

McNally: Absolutely. I mean, I'm sure you do the same thing. For instance, I don't care about the stage production; I care about the makeup rooms and behind the scenes and off in the wings. I don't care about the actual horse race; I like going to the back side of the track in the early morning. That, to me, is always where the really sweet pictures are.

Outdoor Photographer: You talk in a great chapter about being a pest, being persistent. How does this help you?

Photo Traveler - Joe McNally

McNally: I think it's important to convey the sense to someone that you're not going away and that you're honest and very curious about them or their event; you're really committed and interested in showing this aspect of their lives to the world.

It absolutely works in your favor, not only in the sense of getting the job done and getting the photographs, but also when somebody sees that you're really intense, really committed, and working hard, they're more likely to give you a break than at first blush when they're often prepared to just say no.

Outdoor Photographer: Another great point that you make in the book, especially for people who think they want to become professional photographers, is to "never underestimate terror as a motivational tool."

McNally: We've both been there, right? The competition is stiff and, you know, you'd rather die than fail! You get nervous. You want to do well, especially in a tough photo shoot where there's a lot of anticipation and a lot of pressure riding on the outcome. To me, it's like playing a sport or going onstage for a big opening night or something like that. There may be butterflies, but they're not necessarily a distraction; they often focus my attention.

Bob Krist is speaking for Outdoor Photographer with Nikon and Epson in three U.S. cities this year. For more information, log on to For a complete schedule of Bob Krist’s workshops and seminars, check his website,, under the "Teach and Talk" heading. Visit Joe McNally's website at

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