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Breathing Through The Lens….

Aug 27

In Uncategorized at 6:39am


When asked, I’ve occasionally described shooting pictures, for me, as being akin to breathing. Something I just have to do. I accept the fact that there are many interruptions in the photographic breathing process that would not be tolerated or fortunate if they occurred in the natural breathing process, but suffice it to say, drawing air creatively and physically is very important to me, as they are to anyone who ever picks up a camera with serious intent.

So when I get the hiccups with my pictures, it gets me down. I spent two weeks recently getting a story off the ground for Nat Geo, and it was stressful, as always, in the photographic sense. This one was extremely stressful because of the physical risk involved. Thankfully, I had angels on my shoulders, and stayed safe, and managed some good frames along the way. My editor hasn’t seen it yet, so I may be apprised differently about these alleged good frames, but for now, for me, the pix are good to go. (Bill, my friend and editor, has a favorite phrase for pictures of mine that go away permanently during the edit process. He’ll say, “This one’s going to Toledo, Joe,” even if I argue vociferously for its’ inclusion. He tends to dispatch these unfortunate frames that will never, ever see the light of day, or the glow of a computer screen, or, God forbid, ink on paper with a malicious little chuckle and rueful “What exactly were you thinking?” kind of tilt of the head. As I always say, apologies to folks in Toledo, cause there’s evidently a suburb out there filled with my shitty pictures.)

Left that job, and had one day off before coming to Maine, where I’m winding down now after two weeks of teaching. Those damn days off. I think it was during that 24 hour period somebody let the air out of the tire. I mean, I’ve been teaching well, with good energy, but I couldn’t buy a picture over the last couple weeks. Last week, even my demo pictures on the first day of the class sucked. (A new low!)

So this week I was kind of determined to get something I could, for a moment, anyway, hang my photographic hat on. Luckily, Tom Sommo, a terrific young dancer, was modeling for my class, and for a demo, I lit up the boiler room in an old school. (The lights are out in the parking lot, for the most part.) Only shot 6 or 7 jumps, and I missed the mark on most of them, but did get a frame I like.

Amazing what just getting a decent picture can do for your spirits. He’s actually physically expressing through his dance what I needed to do at that moment, photographically. Get my eye into the camera, take a leap, make a picture. Breathing easier. More tk….

Catalin says:

on August 27, 2009 at 6:46 am

Very nice photograph! Love the way the light just looks like natural light at sunset!

Would love to know what was the dangerous Nat Geo job.. But I guess I’ll have to wait for the magazine!

Rusty Bryant says:

on August 27, 2009 at 6:53 am

Hang in there Joe. Just remember that even though you may not think some of your pics are good, we still love them. Your worst picture is probably better than my best picture will ever be. Keep up the great work. You’re an inspiration to many of us.

Ty Fischer says:

on August 27, 2009 at 6:56 am

Awesome work as usual. Love the setups and of course…. the lighting!

Christine Glade says:

on August 27, 2009 at 6:57 am

Well said. A good thing to read first thing in the morning.

I may add Toledo to the itinerary on my next mid-west road trip – just to look, just in case.

John Leonard says:

on August 27, 2009 at 7:11 am

Been there for sure…..being down that is, not Toledo.

Zeb Palmer says:

on August 27, 2009 at 7:16 am

hehe.. he’s obviously been to Toledo, been there one to many times myself. The last time our group van broke down and we spent 6 hours in front of a cracker barrel waiting on tow truck and repair. Even had to spend the night there. Lets just say there is a reason why “Toledo” is often used in the manner its often used.

I think most photographers hit a rut (for lack of a better term) once in a while, I hate to tell you but you’re not allowed, You’re the one and only Joe McNally. On behalf of you’re loyal fans, get over it! lol… hmmm… There are a lot of photogs that’d be happy with your your throw-anways. In fact, send me a couple, I’ve got a blank wall… it’s getting deep in here.

Seems since I got back from my Vacation last month, I’ve been carrying my camera more than using it. Those are my ruts, I get to where I’m holding the camera and as much as I want to use it and be creative and seems like taking another picture is to much of a hassle and if I’m not 100% sure I’ll be proud of the outcome, I don’t click. Your last line sums it up for me. For me it was night before last, I was taking an evening walk through a local (and quiet) park with my wife and dog. I always have my camera backpack with me just in case (dakine sequence, doesn’t look like a camera bag). We got stopped by group of women, most from out of town and they asked us to take their picture. She handed me her cybershot and forced a brief lesson in how to operate it, lol. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t just snap a pic with it and know forever my face would be associated with that image. So, I pulled out my DSLR and a 50mm prime and fired off a few shots. Natural light nothing special, (I’m not Joe McNally or David Hobby, I don’t always have four SBs attached to my belt) gave them a card and told them I’d email them the files. They unknowingly forced me to “get my eye into the camera.”

p.s. I recently signed up for Kelby Training to watch the CS4 videos, took some time and watched yours as well, some good stuff in there. It was entertaining and informative… Infotainment.


David McDonald says:

on August 27, 2009 at 7:16 am

Nice post Joe, the comparison to breathing feels right to me too, I obsess on taking photos, I love shooting. Even though I’m not in the game commercially as a graphic designer shooting is important to my visual thinking processes – and I do get the odd shot that I’m happy with as an image in it’s own right. But the obsession/need is always there, a healthy thing in my opinion.

And it’s always a terrific feeling to overcome a creative block.


Rob says:

on August 27, 2009 at 7:28 am

Thanks for this Joe. This post only increases the great respect and admiration I have for you and your work.

Bob M. Montgomery says:

on August 27, 2009 at 7:29 am

Another homerun post, Joe. It is amazing what one good frame can do for for a down mind…

So, when’s the next book, Irish Stew for the Photographer’s Soul, coming out? :)

Jeremy Earl Mayhew says:

on August 27, 2009 at 7:32 am

Your self doubt is refreshing, it makes me feel better about my own…and I would kill to have the skill enought just to be able to shoot photos half as good as yours ones :-)

arun says:

on August 27, 2009 at 8:02 am

I was waiting to read about the “dangerous” shoot. C’mon fill us in and don’t let our imagination wander !!
-War Zone shoot ?
_Hanging off a Cliff ?

Help us out

art meripol says:

on August 27, 2009 at 8:08 am

four weeks ago, good shoot-high energy-happy editors. Three weeks ago, good shoot-same results-two weeks ago-same result. Last week, nothing…just nothing there. And after all these years, I still can’t really articulate what’s missing when a week’s shooting goes like that. Your thoughtful musings keep me working towards an answer. Maybe I’ll get a bracelet with WWJD (What would Joe do?) on it.
safe travels

Steve Perks says:

on August 27, 2009 at 8:13 am

I get a Christmas card from the Mayor of Toledo every year..I keep his office wall well stocked.

Love the image. Kinda reminds me of a screengrab from a very high quality video game!

“If you want to make something look interesting..don’t light it all” comes to mind here too.

Send me some of your ‘duff’ shots and I’ll set a twitter acount pretending to be you..oops, didn’t someone already do something similar? :)

Eli Silva says:

on August 27, 2009 at 9:08 am

Cool as always… Love the sharpness on the image and the reflected shape..

Charlie Clift says:

on August 27, 2009 at 9:27 am

Love this shot, its really inspiring and so beautiful. It’s made me really want to go out and take some photos NOW! thanks joe!

muyiwa says:

on August 27, 2009 at 9:28 am

Jeremy pretty much said what I wanted to say – it’s easy to imagine that at Joe’s stage in the game, he shoots, he scores – with no interruption and static in between. It’s interesting to see that there’s just as much of an approval process as there is for the rest of us. It might be worse – as a wedding photographer, the clients are not often as critical as a professional photo editor. I can’t imagine a bride and groom looking at an image and wondering what the hell I was thinking. Or maybe they just don’t tell me…

Jim White says:

on August 27, 2009 at 9:37 am

Ditto on what Rusty Bryant said. You may not realize it Joe, but your work is truly an inspiration for many of us . . really cool shot btw :)

stephen hunton says:

on August 27, 2009 at 9:56 am

Great image as usual, but just a great post. It’s sort of what I need to hear right now. I’m a newbie. Still trying to find my way in this crazy business. Been full-time for 3 months and thankfully, sorta busy but hungrier and trying to figure it out.

I feel like this so often right now, so it’s comforting/encouraging/etc to hear of someone at a completely different level struggling with the same thoughts. I guess no matter where you’re at, the desire to be creative and to get better and better never stops…probably why I love (and sometimes hate) my camera.

Jeffrey Chapman says:

on August 27, 2009 at 10:09 am

Somebody in Toledo is probably making a very nice living off of all those Nat Geo rejects. There’s probably a strip mall with a Joe McNally Factory Seconds shop.

Craig Ferguson (@cfimages) says:

on August 27, 2009 at 10:36 am

Nice post Joe. Sometimes you just need to slow down and take a break in order to recharge.

Bill Bogle, Jr. says:

on August 27, 2009 at 10:47 am


You may the patron saint of boiler rooms, dank basement corridors, and loading docks. Any place most people would not give a second look due to the crappy lighting. We should all have your rough patches, as they would be our galleries.

Great work.

Bill Bogle, Jr.

Israel Zenteno says:

on August 27, 2009 at 10:48 am

Dude, sounds like you need a vacation, Toledo perhaps? Great inspiration, amazing photo!

On times like this wine always gets me through, but then again, I am a winemaker, your milage may vary.


Alton Marsh says:

on August 27, 2009 at 11:18 am

Poor Toledo. Decades ago the late John Denver had the whole country making fun of Saturday night in Toledo, Ohio (it’s like being nowhere at all). Now we find it is where bad pictures go to die. But Joe points out the pictures actually go to a suburb. Not even they want to be part of the city proper.

Kathy Chin says:

on August 27, 2009 at 11:41 am

Exactly where in Toledo are your “bad” shots, what street…i was thinking of visiting there and….
Seriously, your shots are honestly superb, and i aspire to be 1/10th as good…then i would be really happy.
Nice to know that even the best feel self-doubts…but when do those go away? My goals are modest, don’t need the super high-paying gigs, but i want consistency and as much “wow” factor as possible.
Need to take another DLWS…but Yellowstone in January will be hard to beat…maybe just another workshop with you!
Thanks for all you do in teaching and showing…it’s much appreciated!

Ryan Brenizer says:

on August 27, 2009 at 11:50 am

This one is f***ing crazy good, even by your lofty standards. My jaw dropped. You can breathe well.

Otto Rascon says:

on August 27, 2009 at 12:00 pm

Thanks for sharing Joe! I love this photograph, but I especially love reading about your experiences. I have my lows all of the time, so it is good to hear that you, and all, have them as well. Rock on!

Tom Peterson says:

on August 27, 2009 at 12:01 pm

Sounds like you know what brings golfers out every weekend. 80 or 90 bad shots and that one good one on the 18th hole gives the hacker such a high that he/she plunks down more money next weekend.

Only problem is that comparing your “bad shots” is sort of like comparing Tiger’s “bad shots”. 99% sure that 99% of your readers would be happy to take one of either your or Tiger’s “bad shots”.

“Bad” is a relative term. I’d be doing backflips to get one of your “bad shots” in my camera. The humor, on the other hand, never fails.

Steve says:

on August 27, 2009 at 12:15 pm

As always Joe, good post. They always leave me laughing, or maybe insightful or inspired or… something. Keep shooting, keep writing.

Vanessa Segars says:

on August 27, 2009 at 12:22 pm

Nicely said Joe. You articluated how I’ve felt for the past few days – you know, when you have some incredible kinetic, creative force bouncing around your head, but you just can’t figure out how to translate it to the sensor. My mind can tell me a million reasons why a potential shot may not work, but in the end I just have to “shutter up and click”.

David says:

on August 27, 2009 at 12:34 pm

amazing! Great work!

randy baran says:

on August 27, 2009 at 12:47 pm


i read that segovia used to have days where he literally pounded on his guitar because – his opinion – he couldn’t play a note. if segovia can suck, you can too! but only for a few days. vacation time! then back at it refreshed.


Lewis W says:

on August 27, 2009 at 1:02 pm

Thank you for sharing that with us, Joe. Mentioning that makes it even easier to relate to you on another level. An alternative explanation to “ambient angst”.

Jeremy Sale says:

on August 27, 2009 at 1:18 pm

“Forget it, Jake. It’s Toledo.”

Dave Kallaway says:

on August 27, 2009 at 1:30 pm

There’s inspiration even in your quote-unquote “crummy” ones. It’s art. You create it. We love it. Never stop Joe. Never….

Francesco Bonomo says:

on August 27, 2009 at 2:32 pm

Great post, Joe, and great piece of advice!
Awesome picture, by the way :-)

Michel Jacobs says:

on August 27, 2009 at 2:55 pm

How refreshing to find out that you’re human after all.

Callum Winton says:

on August 27, 2009 at 3:20 pm

Blimey Joe, I wish I was as “bad” as you.

This may not mean much coming from a random freelancer struggling in the UK, but just don’t stop breathing…. it provides inspiration to others, not just you :o)


Ben Madden says:

on August 27, 2009 at 3:32 pm

Joe, with your crazy schedule, what’s amazing is that you don’t hit more dead zones. The human psyche can’t maintain a constant state of high-performance.
Though we would all miss your updates fiercely, a little time off (more than a day!) with deep breathing and no thoughts of shooting could be restorative.
Hang in there and know your honesty is duly noted.

Cindy Farr-Weinfeld says:

on August 27, 2009 at 3:35 pm

I couldn’t agree with you more, that photographic hiccups stink, Joe! Glad you got that beautiful frame out! Cindy

Scott Ptak says:

on August 27, 2009 at 4:22 pm

Thanks for you just being you – and that, my friend, is pretty awesome. Just finished reading, once again, “The Moment It Clicks” and it always causes me to remember why I shoot. I have been a big fan over the years and I have never taken the time to say “thanks”, but I didn’t want to let this moment pass without doing that. Your passion is contagious, your skill-set is unmatched, and your heart is transparent in your work. My goodness, after reading this again it would appear I have a man-crush! Seriously, thanks again. Blessings, – Scott

David Helms says:

on August 27, 2009 at 4:55 pm

Hey now Joe…… Don’t get a bad case of Opti-Rectum-Itis (AKA Shitty Outlook) over anything sent to Toledo! People there are great and so is your work!!!! Perhaps the pics went to digi-heaven there??? NAAAAAAWWWWWWW………..
Now be a good Irishman and drink!! 😉

Doug E. says:

on August 27, 2009 at 5:17 pm

Joe –

You are indeed the most humble artistic genius I’ve ever known of or met. Perhaps it’s that humility that keeps you constantly reaching for the artists unattainable dream of perfection as well as making you such a fun, engaging instructor and teacher. When I take one miserable shot after another, it’s a wee bit discouraging (I’m doing an awful lot of learning from these mistakes, but geeze!), until I hear / read your dialog. It keeps me going, hopeful that I’ll soon be rid of the hiccups – until then, what’s that Toledo address I can send to? 😉

I just spent a week in Cape Ann, took a bunch of shitty pictures, but did have wonderful dialog with two friends / shooters (both medium / large format film shooters). Andy Borsari and Bob Lerch – both in Rockport, MA (on the neck) – beautiful work, but terrible websites – best to just visit the galleries as their sites do not represent their work well.

So again, that Toledo address please. 😉

btw: Just finished your “One Light” training vid @ Kelby Training – thanks! Very helpful & fun – Erin looked great as a woodland “creature.”

Thanks for your inspiration and keeping it all real!

Take Care…


Rich Bianchini says:

on August 27, 2009 at 6:15 pm

Sometimes our brains get stuck in Reverse for a reason unknown to us.

Joe, Congrats on getting it into first gear. This is where it starts you just have to keep gathering speed now.

at the risk of looking like a total dunce, I have to ask a question. Many of your posts end with “more t/k” I can’t figure it out for the life of me

Looking forward to seeing you and the gang in Las Vegas in Oct. for Photoshop World

Scott says:

on August 27, 2009 at 9:30 pm

What an awesome location, love the photo, if this was flickr, I’d “fave” it.

Rich – I’ve assumed “more to k(c)ome. But I’d like to know the real meaning :)

arthur says:

on August 27, 2009 at 10:24 pm

Joe, you continue to amaze and inspire us all….If down, just get out into the open and fire off a few shots…you have great ideas man, do your thing.

Navdeep says:

on August 28, 2009 at 12:05 am

I like the framing here.. good one

Ranil says:

on August 28, 2009 at 4:47 am

“decent” picture????
this is an awesome shot!!!! Absolutely love it :)
you do high standards good sir! :)
Really enjoy reading your posts.

Bob DeChiara says:

on August 28, 2009 at 12:04 pm

JM you are simply one of the best. I always look foward to reading this blog. Keep inspiring us all!


Kevin Williams says:

on August 28, 2009 at 3:15 pm


Wow for the image, and wow for you being bummed out, and wow that it takes an image of this quality to bring you up out of that funk.

Next time you’re in a funk, just give me a call. I could blow sunshine [redacted] for hours. You rock!

Feel better? Good. Stop whining and relax. :)

Fred Everett says:

on August 28, 2009 at 6:08 pm

It’s good to hear that even you get into a funk – you sure busted out of it in a big way. This is gritty and powerful with amazing light as always – nice work!!


Eric says:

on August 28, 2009 at 8:10 pm

As usual Joe, great shot with a good story for desert.

Gail says:

on August 29, 2009 at 10:40 pm

It’s heartening to know you have bad picture moments too. It makes me feel better knowing it isn’t just me.

Megan Bean says:

on August 29, 2009 at 11:02 pm

It was an honor to witness Joe creating this shot. Believe me folks, this is a dark, dreary, and probably highly toxic location. With a touch of magic, Joe transformed it into a place of euphoric energy. Wow. (PS. When in doubt, don’t forget to pack a smoke machine).

Baine Carruthers says:

on August 30, 2009 at 9:31 am

I’ve never made it to Toledo but I look forward to spedning some time there, especially now that I know of the remnants to be found. Surely there’s much to learn from.

All one needs is to have the vision and to persevere, no matter if others see what we see. You realize that we can’t make others see but we can be a positive example as you are, and it makes no difference at what level we play : ) It’s a game where the ones with faith and vision come to know everlasting life.

And yes “the angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him and he delivers them” It always pays to know where the good things come from.

Have a great day – you’ve made mine


J. Matt Buchanan says:

on August 31, 2009 at 8:49 am

Joe –

I live in Perrysburg, a suburb of Toledo. We’d love to have your rejected frames. Send as many as you’d like.


Joseph Rowland says:

on August 31, 2009 at 9:57 am

Would love if you could include your famous lighting diagram scribbles with these images, so that I can feebly attempt to recreate and understand :-) As always, love your stuff.

Rich Charpentier says:

on August 31, 2009 at 10:26 am

Great photo, great story! Been following your blog for a little while now, and I’m glad to not be alone when it comes to “off” weeks.

Looks like your off week is over. Thanks for sharing such a cool image!

Denyse Conrad says:

on August 31, 2009 at 7:33 pm

I was there, in Maine, an attendee! Cool beans! Joe created this image on day two of a week long workshop, just another lighting demo (ho hum). You can imagine how jazzed we all were! Needless to say, the rest of Joe’s demos yielded similarly impressive results.
The cool thing was, he demystified the process, in a most generous, candid, and always entertaining way. I’m sure I speak for everyone in saying we enjoyed the week immensely, and gained a measure of confidence in our lighting capabilities. You rock, Joe!

Chris says:

on August 31, 2009 at 8:16 pm

A compelling image, and great reflections.
Congratulations on shooting for National Geographic! That would be a dream.

dawn kish says:

on September 2, 2009 at 5:08 pm

that shot rocks!…i’m having the same problem lately…my photos just suck…when i looked at this one it makes me want to rock the camera…a little hope goes a long way…thanks buddy!

Ani says:

on September 3, 2009 at 2:20 pm

Ealier this year I attended one of the seminars in Cologne for the Nikon Solutions when you talked about photography, what makes a photographer tick and some basic, but highly inspiring philosophy.
Back then I found myself agreeing to almost every sentence. (probably all of em once I get 30 years of experience under my belt 😉 )
This post really reminded me of those words. And again I’m amazed to see how similar everyone’s experience is to my own.
Thanks for always finding a unique way of describing the undescribable! 😉

Mick says:

on September 9, 2009 at 1:41 am

Damn! I wish I had taken this one of Tom instead of the one I took.
Great photo, Joe! Thanks…and Keep Breathing!
ps. BTW your demos the first week weren’t as bad as you make them out to be.

yuga says:

on September 10, 2009 at 12:53 am

saavadi in tamil language means perfect!!!!!
gud shot….amazed with dat
thanx joe for being unique

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