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My Friend, Donald

Aug 11

In Friends at 7:54am


Happily, I was in Donald’s company last week in Santa Fe, when a storm came up. Wind was rattling through the old penitentiary, speaking in tongues, maybe in the voices of those who died so viciously there. I looked outside, and looked at the sky. Then I went looking for Donald.

Donald and I go back a ways now. I think the reason I’ve been able to knock off the occasional good frame of him is that I like him so damn much. To say he is wise and decent is to understate the case. He is a soulful, a twinkly eyed water witcher of the human spirit. He finds what is good in people.

He recognizes the flip side, too. We had a hoot sitting and talking last week. He arched his brows as he mentioned a couple of posing experiences he had lately, referring to one shooter we had mutual knowledge of as “as bull headed pain in the ass.” Ah, Donald. Not only wise, but to the point. Photogs need to remember they make an impression, and it’s a lasting one.

I’ve seen him weather his own storms. He is a cancer survivor, and a few years back, he kept coming to class, posing for the workshops, without his wonderful swatch of white hair. That danger receded, and his hair grew back, and blessedly, he kept working for the workshops. And when he comes to class, he comes to class. He brings his own clothes rack, and array of boots that would stock your average western apparel store, multiple hats, dusters, overcoats, and ties. He is always early.

And, he knows more about lighting than your average Joe. I’ve seen him coach a workshop participant. “You’re gonna wanna lower that light.” He’s invariably right.

We shot this together in a matter of minutes, again, ’cause we know and trust each other. We jumped up in a pickup bed to get some elevation. I told Mike Sakas, who was working with me to help him up, even though I knew that was fruitless. Donald jumped into the back of the pickup easier than I did, that’s for sure. Help? Not in his vocabulary, unless he’s offering that to others.

Shot it with a D3X, 24-70mm lens, and a Quadra pack and head, jacked into a small strip light soft box. Maxed the Quadra to give me about f22, so I could drag shutter to about an eighth or so. Hoping the wind might whip his hair into a frenzy, which it did. The wind almost whipped poor Michael away, trying desperately to position the light. See below, shot by Garrett Garms.


With my course assistants Michael, Meghan, and Sakas coaching me, I pushed and pulled this a touch in post. (Mongo push slider! Mongo like!) They were great. I felt like a person in a self help workshop, being coached to overcome some debilitating malady or fear. “You can do it Joe! Just use the slider! You can walk! Walk to me Joe!”

Donald don’t really need much pushing and pulling. He is comfortable in his own skin, and that’s the way I’ve always shot him. He loves his honey, and takes her out on the dance floor every week. He told me at one point, “Joe, we really complicated our lives this past year. We learned a new dance step.”

He also said to me once, “Joe, the day they put me down, all the music in the world’s gonna stop.”

Here’s to the music playing for a long time…..more tk….

Catherine says:

on August 11, 2010 at 8:04 am

Hahaha Joe you crack me up every time! What an incredible sky! And with Donald, perfection. I love the moses one too, in the hot shoe diaries (and thank you for writing that, my eyes just get wider and wider with every page).

David McLaughlin says:

on August 11, 2010 at 8:08 am

Thanks Joe for the nice read. There are some good people left out there….The way the story was going I felt it was going to have a different ending… Glad it didn’t.


Ingoman says:

on August 11, 2010 at 8:14 am

Amazing portrait Joe! Very nicely done!

Doede says:

on August 11, 2010 at 8:18 am

Nice how-to, Joe! Just wondering: why did you stop down so far instead of underexposing for the sky?

Teymur Madjderey (icedsoul photography) says:

on August 11, 2010 at 8:22 am

so wonderful!

again and again! :-)

Tim Skipper says:

on August 11, 2010 at 8:27 am

I have seen several pictures you’ve done of Donald. I would love to have someone like this to shoot on a regular basis. He has such character that shows in his look.

He reminds me of an actor I’ve seen in movies, I don’t know the actors name but he was in the first Home Alone movie as the neighbor. Don’t suppose it’s the same guy?

Howard Haby says:

on August 11, 2010 at 8:37 am

Wow, Joe. Incredible subject and photo. He looks like a great wizard or something. He may have conjured up the storm himself! Nice work.

David Zappa says:

on August 11, 2010 at 8:44 am

Dear Mr McNally,
this is one of my favorite shots of yours!!!!!!

being great fans of yours and convinced Nikon users, we’d like you to see a project we are working on…. why? well, you inspired us may times, especially when using SB900. We bet Nikon would be happy to see what we managed to do with their speed-lights.
Well, just hope you have the time to take a quick look.
Umberto & Paolo
P.S. hope you’ll soon come to Italy… you bet you got a place to stay in one of Italy’s (and the world) prettiest places… LERICI (close to Cinque Terre (but prettier)… your friend Scott Kelby knows the place)

Daniel says:

on August 11, 2010 at 8:50 am

Great images, great post. Thanks!

Heinz Schmidt says:

on August 11, 2010 at 8:51 am

Great post!

It is so true. Life’s two biggest treasures are nature and good people.

The first is endangered and the second is even more difficult to find.

May you live forever Joe!

bobwyo says:

on August 11, 2010 at 8:54 am

I photographed Donald at the Santa Fe DLWS. He did just as you say, suggesting he stand over there, rather than over here because the light was more interesting. A fine man and a fine blog post.

And don’t be afraid of those sliders, Mongo, they won’t bite you. Just nip at you.


Rich Charpentier says:

on August 11, 2010 at 9:09 am


Thanks for sharing another great image of Donald. Personally, I’m still learning a lot about photographing people and off camera flash. With the help of folks like you I’m moving forward.

Since reading your “Hot Shoe Diaries” I find myself looking around for those unique people that could make my images even better. Donald is fantastic! Here’s hoping that someday I find super unique subjects, and that my own skills do them justice. :)

Mike Neale says:

on August 11, 2010 at 9:12 am

Great Spot Joe,…thanks for motivating and inspiring us all!

Sarah Kavanaugh says:

on August 11, 2010 at 9:19 am

No words! (Well, maybe “WHOOOAAA!”, or “OOOO AAAHHH”)

johnwaire says:

on August 11, 2010 at 9:41 am

donald’s got a face that demands capturing. love the shot! cheers to the music playing for a long long time…

Tim says:

on August 11, 2010 at 9:59 am

Great image! Absolutely great!

Will Borges says:

on August 11, 2010 at 9:59 am

Holy Cow, McNally! You’ve always got some hot pixie dust, but this image is a real knockout! There’s just something about it that harkens back to your some of your earlier NatGeo work, in the sense that it showcases a perfect dichotomy of intricate details over a grand scope. In this case, Donald is much more than a direct subject to the viewer; the expression and ‘melting’ of his hair against such a commanding atmosphere looming beyond him.. it’s exciting, yet very soft & painterly at the same time. Bravo Champ, Bravo! :)

Ben says:

on August 11, 2010 at 10:02 am

I follow quite a few photogs blogs these days and get quite used to seeing great photos, but this portrait really made me stop and say ‘wow’, like literally out loud, I’m in a room on my own and I still said it out loud! Really shows great character, I know that you’re a world famous photographer and I am not a professional by any mean (I am visually impaired and still shoot with a D50), so you don’t need me to say it’s a nice photo, but hey compliments are always nice right?

Also did you hand hold the shot? I would worry about hand holding at an eighth, even if the flash freezes it a bit.

Vince Carmichel says:

on August 11, 2010 at 10:22 am

What’s with the nose and lip halo Joe?

Tom Sperduto says:

on August 11, 2010 at 10:27 am

All great posts Joe, but this one is my favorite.
As is the portrait of Donald!

Heather (Heather's Dish) says:

on August 11, 2010 at 10:29 am

i think i just fell in love with your friend Donald! beautifully written and photographed!

Drew Gurian says:

on August 11, 2010 at 10:29 am

Hey Vince and Will,

Hand-holding is something that takes a bit of work at get down, but even at that low of a shutter speed, flash will still freeze the motion. With that said, Vince, you mentioned the halo around his nose and lip- which is due to the low shutter speed and a bit of motion, either on Joe’s behalf, Donald’s behalf, or both.

joe says:

on August 11, 2010 at 10:41 am

I should very much like for the illustrious Donald to put on a nationwide series of workshops for brides and their mothers’ called “How to be decent with the photographer who is working so hard to create stunning photographs for you”

Scott Slattery says:

on August 11, 2010 at 10:45 am

Donald is one of the guys that I didn’t get to meet in my two trips to Santa Fe Workshops that I wished I had! Joe, your comment about the prison is right on – I still get that eerie feeling and see the burn marks on the floor when I think of it. Great shot!

Giovanni Ferlito says:

on August 11, 2010 at 11:07 am

Great image, great post again, Joe!
I love to read your little stories every time.

When is your next book coming out?

Shall the music never stop!

Victoria says:

on August 11, 2010 at 11:31 am

Looooove it!

Michael Ririe says:

on August 11, 2010 at 11:41 am

Very intriguing. Through your story we all know Donald a little better, but this picture could stand alone… and relate.

michael says:

on August 11, 2010 at 11:42 am

No wonder your photos have soul. You see the soul of your subjects.

Bob DeChiara says:

on August 11, 2010 at 2:21 pm

I like it..i like it a lot (in my best Jim Carey voice).

Jeremy says:

on August 11, 2010 at 3:32 pm

Awesome, this is right up there as one of my all time faves.

John A. says:

on August 11, 2010 at 4:41 pm

Awesome portrait! I love the ethereal feel this shot has and since you know the subject, it has to make the portrait that much cooler.

Trevor says:

on August 11, 2010 at 6:16 pm

It’s like he is part of the weather in this shot.

Jim child says:

on August 11, 2010 at 6:57 pm

I thought I would never say this but….this is my favorite shot!

Tom Bricker says:

on August 11, 2010 at 7:24 pm


Jana says:

on August 11, 2010 at 7:29 pm

Wonderful, and the introduction to Donald makes it even more special!

Megan says:

on August 11, 2010 at 7:31 pm

This isn’t just an amazing is an amazing story. But its always great when you can look at a portrait and see who that person truly is without even knowing the story.

Rian Hall says:

on August 11, 2010 at 7:33 pm

Great shot. Love the dark feel to it. :-)

Barbara Thorbjörnsson says:

on August 11, 2010 at 7:35 pm

I know praise is something to which you have become quite accustomed andl in some respects desensitized, but I LOVE this portrait of Donald. It touches many notes. It is spiritualm it is aesthetically pleasing, it is dramatic, colorful, it tells a story.
It is a thing of true beauty and a testament to your vision.
Thank you for sharing.

Louis Pang says:

on August 11, 2010 at 7:41 pm

Amazing capture & story. Love the ideas that rattle in your brain. Would love to work with Donald again…that would mean flying from Malaysia to LA and then to Albuquerque and then jumping on a rental car for an hour. Oh well, I can see that happening.

Rob Byron says:

on August 11, 2010 at 8:09 pm

Wow what a face! Such character and an amazing twinkle in his eyes. You can just see the wisdom. A truly great subject.

Tirthankar says:

on August 11, 2010 at 8:54 pm

I’ve learnt more about lights from you than I’ve done from my two years at the art school. Thanks for enlightening us lesser mortals Joe. BTW, not that it need to be said, but amazing portrait.

Doug Ward says:

on August 11, 2010 at 9:03 pm

Man Joe,,,,you can tell a GREAT story. I feel like I know Donald already. I love the picture, Thanks for sharing your work with us !!!!

stephen says:

on August 11, 2010 at 10:35 pm

That’s one of the best shots I’ve seen by anybody in a long time. Well done!

Phat Photographer says:

on August 12, 2010 at 12:09 am


Luis Orellana says:

on August 12, 2010 at 12:21 am

What a beautiful shot! Well done!!!

Ban_D says:

on August 12, 2010 at 3:11 am

What a great portrait again!

Libby says:

on August 12, 2010 at 8:07 am

I really love your posts about Donald. You really captured a fine soul with this image, Joe!

Bobby says:

on August 12, 2010 at 9:04 am

hey Joe great portrait, do you ever use ND filters?

Joe McNally says:

on August 12, 2010 at 1:21 pm

occasionally….but being that is a global adjustment in the frame, I’d still have to make the flash work real hard…but yep, they are an option for sure…Joe

Bill Bogle Jr. says:

on August 12, 2010 at 5:36 pm

Great hair.

Michal Fanta says:

on August 12, 2010 at 8:42 pm

Awesome post as always!
I have to “copy & past” the way you talk/write about the story behind the photo! :)
Great work!
Thank you for sharing.

Charlie Flynn says:

on August 13, 2010 at 7:53 am

Please provide a tutorial to explain (once more) the process of “drag shutter”.

I have several of you fine books, and may have missed “drag shutter ” chapter.

Charlie Flynn
Amateur Photographer

Todd says:

on August 13, 2010 at 11:43 am


Love it. Thanks for pushing… which invariably pushes all of us folks to get out there and create. Feel like I am in the same boat with PS. Sometimes I am afraid to let Mongol out of the cage as well!

Thanks again!


Bryan says:

on August 13, 2010 at 4:37 pm

Your stories and your pictures transport us into your amazing world ..

Brian says:

on August 14, 2010 at 10:33 am

Great photo. Donald’s hair blowing in the wind looks like lightning crackling across the sky. Very cool.

Michael Murphy says:

on August 15, 2010 at 12:42 pm

Simply, Awesome!!!

Michael Shi says:

on August 15, 2010 at 10:03 pm

jizhuangxiang says:

on August 16, 2010 at 2:39 am


Sina says:

on August 16, 2010 at 2:51 am

It’s all about the passion… I think it will be different taking picture of the people that you already “know” with person that we just know. I think it is not just about the light.

Fotograf Katowice says:

on August 16, 2010 at 11:02 am

Great work Joe. I,m here first time and i see it’s the pursuit of knowledge (i apologize for my english).
Greetings from Poland !

Lee says:

on August 17, 2010 at 1:11 am

Charlie, dragging the shutter is simply a term used to indicate a slow shutter speed that allows you to capture the ambient light. Some cameras allow when using TTL to use a rear shutter that delays the flash a split second to enhance the effect to get some what of a blur.

Will Alan says:

on August 17, 2010 at 1:31 am

A beautiful portrait and touching respectful story… thank you.

AYRTON360 says:

on August 17, 2010 at 5:08 pm

Joe, this is a COOL portrait.
I really like it.
Thanks for sharing so much stuff on your posts

Greg Zenitsky says:

on August 17, 2010 at 6:25 pm

Fascinating portraiture!

Greg Brave says:

on August 19, 2010 at 8:36 am

That last sentence tells a lot about this man…

Amy Parish says:

on August 20, 2010 at 1:55 pm

What a magical post about your wonderful shot of Donald! I love Donald, and really enjoyed photographing him. I would like to photograph him again sometime soon. Maybe i will try to take YOUR class next summer in Santa Fe. Thanks for keeping it real.
Amy Parish (Albuquerque)

Shaana MAC says:

on August 21, 2010 at 11:32 pm

Hey Joe great photo – can you please explain what you mean by “Maxed the Quadra to give me about f22, so I could drag shutter to about an eighth or so?” I understand that your probably pushing all the power that the Quadra has but it’s the F22 that has me stuck – don’t you just set your camera to F22.? How does maxing the Quadra give you about F2. Sorry if this seem like a dumb question but I am trying to understand lighting.

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