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Mar 7

In Rants, Thoughts at 7:10pm

Goofy Joe
(Photo by Scott Holstein)

“Hi, my name is Joe, and I make mistakes.”

I always say it. In Webster’s, next to photographer, it says “he or she who makes mistakes constantly.” Let’s face it, we are the most fallible of creatures, and I’m not saying that to knock us down. Lord knows, your average photog does enough self flagellation to qualify for a 13th century monastic order. (Chant after me, and Monty Python. “Pie Jesu Domine, dona eis requiem.” Thwack!)

No, mistakes are just with us, that’s the deal. I could wax on/wax off poetically about how we make mistakes because we are supposed to embrace the world with the eyes of a child: So new! So fresh! (Say the last with Michael Jackson’s voice.) But that could easily be construed to be just so much smarmy bullshit. I think we just plunge ahead, as the English say, bash on regardless, and mistakes occur. I make tons of ’em on location. Zig when you should zag. Commit to the wrong angle, and get back to the studio and look at a bunch of images that might as well have “What was I thinking?” embedded right there in the EXIF data.

I can’t tell you how many times on a job I’ve looked at a Polaroid, or an image on my laptop, and shook my head in dismay and thought it was a great thing I wasn’t doing brain surgery cause there just went the piano lessons and the gift of speech. (These are inside thoughts, of course, cause usually the client is looking over your shoulder and you have to be happy happy joy joy. “Oh yes, it is going to be fine! We just have to tweak the lighting a little! Just soften the tones, you know, because we’re being forced to shoot the boss man right after he got hammered at lunch and now he looks like a stoplight with a neck tie, but that can be fixed in post and if we move the light this way a bit you won’t even see that stylish plaid shirt!”)

[More after the jump]

Also, perhaps because there is no “right way” or “wrong way” to do most pictures, it’s really tough to sort out what exactly is or isn’t a mistake. There’s no road map, or directory, just a gut feel, like, “Whoa, I let down the side today,” or, “I coulda done that better.” Unlike a lab experiment where you might have precise mixes of ingredients, and an exact timetable of how to mix them, there’s lots of things out of your control as a shooter. It’s frustrating. That’s when I remember the lesson of the Japanese potters. The great masters of that craft know that they can only control about 85% of the process of firing one of their creations in the kiln. For the rest, the kiln will just do what it will do, depending on temperature, type and dryness of the wood, etc. At the end, if it has imparted imperfections or unexpected gifts, the potters quite literally thank the kiln.

So maybe the location, or the subject, is our kiln. We can only get it so far, and then we just have to roll. And it’s always different, so we can’t pull out the blueprint from that day when everything went so well (remember that one?) and apply it to today. We just have to embrace our mistakes, and get comfortable with them. I urge folks to take them out to dinner, sit down and have a chat. If you listen to them, they will show you the way. They are the path to better pictures.

Lopez FamilyI talk about mistakes in The Moment It Clicks a bit (now back in stock). There are some mistakes in the pictures that have been pointed out to me by some readers. There’s a piece of me (my reflection) in the picture of the Lopez family kitchen on page 140. That one I’m aware of. I had shot most of the take from camera right, not looking through the finder, using a cable, staying out of the mirror. Then things got a bit animated at chez Lopez, and I was shouting and laughing with them, getting the energy meter to spike a bit, and I thought, hang the reflection. I put my eye in the camera and started rocking and rolling. So I’m in there with the slightly wacky and talented Lopez’s. Always brings a smile to my face.

So there it is. I fuck up. More than occasionally. I can maybe issue a statement. “After many years of hearing…’We have no budget for this shoot’….as the first words spoken in most conversations with a client about a potential assignment, I began to take painkillers, which drastically affected my judgment and led to the making of many mistakes on location. My stays at mistake rehab have proved fruitless. I urge the public to respect my privacy while I go through this terrible period (my entire career) and I hope to communicate again after healing conversations with my therapist, my rep, my colorist and my personal bhagwan.”

Mentioned in this post:
Monty Python and the Holy Grail (That’s no ordinary rabbit!)

Stan says:

on March 7, 2008 at 8:22 pm

Hey Joe, your blog is truly awesome! Your book too!! I’ve learned so much and gained such an incredible amount of inspiration through your work! Many, many thanks to you

Anyways, what I wanted to say is.. I try to keep a positive outlook at my mistakes – it’s not easy, often it’s hard. Since I moved from shooting film to digital, the process of making a mistake and correcting it right away while shooting has become one of my greatest personal teaching tools. I’ve learned so much since I began shooting digital.

And if it wasn’t for digital photography, I don’t think I ever would have picked up a strobe to experiment. Now I have 3. It’s not much but I’m constantly learning, trying new things, making mistakes. But hey, sometimes the mistakes work. And when they work, sometimes it’s awesome. All because of a mistake. Haha, welcome to the world of photography, right?

Jan Winther says:

on March 7, 2008 at 9:10 pm

Hey Joe,

S**t happens. Too often.

But even you, must have had a “f**k up” that turned out to be a “double truck” at one point. If thats true I would think that it would be back in the film era.

I would love to hear more about mistakes that worked for you, and how you might have used the mistake technique for another shoot.

Mistakes is a great way to improve…as long as it wont cost your job.

kathy towe says:

on March 7, 2008 at 9:17 pm

Mr McNally — are you having a bad day. Really I think your work is great and I really like your blog. I have to say as one who reads blogs and looks at other peoples pictures, for ideas etc. — I do struggle with some of the so called constructive criticism, it is just being rudely picky, not to say a lot tacky. It makes me want to find where their pictures are and do the same to them (but I don’t). Please don’t let the critical people of this world get you to you. I have so much enjoyed your book and your blog. Your blog makes me laugh and gives me so strive for. Believe me, I work at a difficult job and your blog is often times the high point of my day. You are so kind to put all of the infomation out here so people like me (who know nothing of what I am doing with my camera) can do better at taking pictures. Even the fact that we can comment on your blog — it is fun reading the comments. Keep up the good work! Always remember you cannot do everthing perfect — there is only one who can and He is looking down from heaven smiling on you. thanks for being you!! kathyt

Rich Taylor says:

on March 7, 2008 at 11:00 pm

Joe, it’s great to hear these firsthand stories. I bought “Clicks” when it first came out, devoured it, and am about to read it for a second time. I learned a great deal from my first read, and have no doubt I’ll learn more the second time through.

Being older than I care to admit, your “Holy Mudhead, mackerel” reference hit home with me. All I can say is that I would like a little thirty-weight on my groat cakes and how you be two places at once when you’re not anywhere at all? Oh yeah, and I’m really good with the help.

Do I get a prize for having the brain cells to remember that? Maybe it’s just state dependent learning.

Keep the blog posts coming. You’re a real inspiration to us.


Ken l says:

on March 7, 2008 at 11:06 pm

Well well, I am glad you are human……….You must know the root of perfectionism?

A self centered fear of being criticized. I paid about $600 bucks to find this out about me, and I thought these herpetologist….I mean, I don’t expect a therapist to tell me the truth……….

Ken in KY

James says:

on March 7, 2008 at 11:13 pm

I wish all my mistakes looked as good as yours Mr. McNally.

David says:

on March 8, 2008 at 3:47 am

Hi Joe,

Thanks again for such honest insight into the world of photography. I am just starting out in this business and to say that is a time of frequent self doubt would be an understatement. Is it just me or do all photographers just see a litany of mistakes in their own work, even when their customers are happy?

I’m on the third read of your book and it just keeps on giving,

Take care

David in Dublin, Ireland

Eric says:

on March 8, 2008 at 11:20 am

preach on Joe.
Killer book as well!

Billy Mitchell says:

on March 8, 2008 at 1:26 pm


Reminds me of a shoot long ago. I had been photographing Waylon Jennings for a couple years (family members, album covers) and He an his wife Jessi asked me to photograph all the family at Christmas for portraits to be given to all of them. After I delivered the portraits, Jessi called me and said “Billy, you’re in all our photographs”.

Because of a Mirror on the wall, right in the middle of the group, I have been a part of their family for over 25 years in more ways then the photographs.

Some things are good.


David Hobby says:

on March 8, 2008 at 1:31 pm

I am surpirsed to hear that you occasionally screw up. Personally, I never make misteaks.

Cynthia Sobkowich says:

on March 8, 2008 at 5:03 pm

Hi Joe,

Funny – I think your mistakes are great! I’m still making lots and learning from yours too. I love your DVD and I’m trying to learn more about what my Nikon Strobes can do. They are a great way to travel light and have the power of good lighting too.

People who have the bollocks to critique your work better have the income to show they do a better job at what you do and the resume to prove it.

Thanks for the great education on KelbyTraining and your new book – I just love them!


Emon says:

on March 8, 2008 at 10:02 pm

I’d read somewhere – or maybe heard – that once we allow ourselves to make mistakes we are likely to create great work.

Just today I read in an acting book [Actors at Work] that Al Pacino, after many many takes of a scene asked the director, (paraphrasing) “Which one are you printing?” Director answers “3, 5, or 20″. Pacino replied “Print take 12, there’s something happening in that one.”

Something was happening in those pictures that ended up in your book. Yes, a little bit of you may be in the picture. But who cares.

Re: David Hobby’s comment: Heh heh! :)

Lekke says:

on March 9, 2008 at 4:07 pm

Somehow, having you write this makes it all easier. I constantly beat myself up even if the photos turn out good… I for one know they could have been even better. Anyway, thanks.

Sean Shimmel says:

on March 9, 2008 at 4:45 pm

Ahhh… what sweet comfort. All the more durable coming from a pro.

And to think that the brilliance of (seeming) imperfection has been immortalized and honored as a character… Columbo. :)

You both make it look artful.

Sean in Wheaton

Jonathan Ryan says:

on March 10, 2008 at 2:03 am

>> look at a bunch of images that might as well have “What was I thinking?” embedded right there in the EXIF data.

And I thought I was the only person to use that tag….:)

But then, the man who never made a mistake…..

Marc says:

on March 10, 2008 at 6:56 am

Hi Joe,

it is extremely nice that you share your negatives as well as the positives with us!
(Even when the mistakes you make still are excellent pictures for me :-)

That is what i love about the professionals in the US:
You share your insight and knowledge with the rest of the world. I learned so much when ready your blog and the several others like Scott Kelby’s, Michael Reichmann’s, just to name some.)

Here in Europe i have never seen this attitude, everyone is keeping their knowledge secret and is very narrow-minded when it comes to sharing it!

Many thanks for your blog, please keep on with it, it is a very inspiring read,

MikeScott - Rhode Island says:

on March 10, 2008 at 7:52 am

You have such nice, straight teeth. Don’t think I noticed that when I attended your workshop in Maine a few years back (perhaps our group gave you little to grin about).
Love the blog. This post encourages me to get out there and make more mistakes of my own. Thanks.

Chad Phillips says:

on March 11, 2008 at 10:04 am

You mean you’re normal?

E. L. Adams says:

on March 11, 2008 at 2:32 pm

Joe: It’s nice to see someone who, despite their level of accomplishment, can laugh at themselves AND admit that they, too, make mistakes. I’m ordering the book (since I missed the first “wave”) and I look forward to learning more from you. Love your sense of humor also. I found myself laughing on several occasions, especially about the baby crying and the dog yelping.

Laurie Meehan-Elmer says:

on December 12, 2008 at 2:54 pm

Joe, Just watched your video from your Google visit and have read through several blog entries. This one on mistakes came at a perfect time for me. I won’t elaborate in case my client somehow lands here (if they do land here and deduce they’re the client to which I’m referring, all is well since I shot so damn many frames!) Just wanted to thank you for making me feel better about being such a bone head!

The great thing about hard learned lessons is they’re usually well learned. I just wish there weren’t so many of them to suffer through!

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