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Getting Your Camera in the Right Place

Dec 20

In In The Field at 9:34am

Is sometimes hard to do. We talk so much about lighting, in general, and on this blog, but the thing to always remember….where you put the camera is much more important than where you put the light. Put the camera in the “right” spot, everything flows, including the sense of the light. Put the camera in a tough or “wrong” spot, man, you can have a rough day. For this recent job on the 21st Century Grid for the Geographic, the light was whatever it was gonna be. The real deal was the towers. Get the camera on the towers.

The above was shot pre-DSLR video, with a little mini-cam Drew had in his pocket. Very rough bits and pieces, which when we finally looked at it, had enough there to connect the dots. Drew did a great job stitching it together here in the studio.

In “Shit Always Happens to the New Guy” category….

I got into those little carts you saw in the video, and went out on the wires. The things are a bitch, excuse my French. Powered by a little gas engine, those rollers crank along and will chew up anything in their way–loose bits of clothing, camera straps, thumbs, you name it. They roll over your fingers, it hurts. They grab a piece of your hoodie, and they will reel you in like a fish. I was finally getting used to the drill, chugging along with the guys who were putting in spacer bars, when my engine blew. I was on an uphill section of the wires, so, due to gravity and lack of experience, I just started sliding backwards, and banged right into the next lineman’s cart, whose name was Joe. He took it in stride as both are carts rolled downhill, gathering momentum and speed. He shouted to me, “Don’t worry Joe! See that spacer comin’ up? We’re goin’ no further than that!”

And the spacer did, in fact, stop us. Which gave us some breathing room to analyze our predicament. They considered dropping a “long line” to my cart and towing me up the wires, but I didn’t have the experience or the arm strength to tie it off at the top of the towers. I think for a minute they even considered long lining me outta there, and that woulda been fun. In the end, it was decided that Joe would take my cart, I would get into his, ’cause the motor still worked. They would then tow Joe up the wires, with me putting along in the background.

Which meant, of course, we hadda switch buggies. Joe looked at me and took some dip out of his back pocket. He said, “Joe, before we do this, I’m gonna have some West Virginia cole slaw!” Then, still clipped to the wires with our safety lines, got up, out of our respective carts, and did a little dosey-do on the wires to switch it up. Finally got up near the towers, got out of my buggy, straddled the cables, climbed back up the drop ladders they got up there, and got picked up by the chopper. I was played out. Think I fell asleep in the rental truck before we even left the parking lot.

You develop a healthy respect for what other folks do for a living, I tell ya. As the linemen said to me, “Yeah, everybody likes to just flip a switch. Nobody thinks about where the juice comes from!”

More tk…..

Christina Siler says:

on December 20, 2010 at 9:56 am

Awesome~ I work in the Energy Business as a landman, so I see much of what you shot, just not from the vantage point you had in doing this~~~ Loved it~~ Someday I will be there too, shoting with my camera…



Shawn says:

on December 20, 2010 at 9:57 am


I admire your ability to put yourself in the places other people wouldn’t even go even if someone had a gun to their head. I could “feel” this shoot and the video and shots are AMAZING! Keep it up and I’ll keep watching!


Ray Lundrigan says:

on December 20, 2010 at 10:06 am

Wow, is all I can say. Well, maybe a few more things… Thank you, Joe, for posting this. Not only is it a unique shoot but, as you said, it makes one think about some of the important and sometimes thankless jobs people have.

Thanks again,

Paul Hodgson says:

on December 20, 2010 at 10:07 am

Utterly incredible, just as well you’re OK with heights otherwise those below might be in for a surprise more messy than a dropped 200mm! lol

James T says:

on December 20, 2010 at 10:14 am


Your stories are absolutely amazing and only paralleled by your ability to tell them. If I could have 1/10th of the experiences you’ve had in your career, I would be happy!

Thanks again for sharing!

Tyson Murray says:

on December 20, 2010 at 10:17 am

Awesome work Joe! I can feel the intensity of every project you photograph. Thats why I admire your work!

Chris says:

on December 20, 2010 at 10:29 am

Very interesting to watch. Thanks for the insight and behind the scenes look. Very often we overlook what the photographer had to endure to get those shots we find amazing. Strong images don’t happen by themselves. Thanks for sharing.

Were I in that position I’d be thankful for autofocus, what with tears in my eyes and my overwhelming desire to cry…

John A. says:

on December 20, 2010 at 10:47 am

Love the shots you got from this, and I have more than admiration for you. No way in H-E-double toothpicks would you get me up there. :)

Nico Chapman says:

on December 20, 2010 at 10:52 am


I loved that video. I adore the way that one day you can be in a studio then the next hanging out of a helicopter. As a young photographer you inspire me so much. Thanks.

Nico Chapman

Wayne says:

on December 20, 2010 at 11:17 am

Great work Joe. Great work Drew.

Laura says:

on December 20, 2010 at 11:26 am

Wow! The photos are just magnificent. I am a photographer for a local media company here in New England and I often surprise myself at the lengths I will go to get the shot. However going to the top of the towers made me, like Shawn above said, “feel it.”
If this fear of heights phobic person(me) was presented with the same opportunity to shoot in that situation – I ask myself would I take it? And yes I would but I would be shaking in my boots for a good part of the time. BTW love the aerial shots of the city.

I love reading your blog and books. Thanks so much.

Terry Moore says:

on December 20, 2010 at 11:35 am

Fantastic!!! Drew did a great job putting that video together, good on ya Drew!! Joe Its great to see the story behind your work. It inspires me creatively and make me more enthusiastic and daring to get out there and do something different and ask permission to do stuff that people dont do. Cheers!!

Mike McKinney says:

on December 20, 2010 at 11:54 am

Well, it’s official Joe, you definitely need your own personal helicopter and pilot. And as luck would have it, I’m your man!!!

Drop me a line and we can discuss salary. 😉

BTW, thanks for signing my book in Santa Fe.

Paul Conrad says:

on December 20, 2010 at 12:06 pm

That was some good work with the mini cam. Thanks for sharing. The photos, of course, were also of exceptional quality.

Ana GR says:

on December 20, 2010 at 1:03 pm

Absolutely awesome! And you seem to be having so much fun! The photos are just impressive.
I don’t think I would have the guts to get into these situations!
Well done!

Alex Buiter says:

on December 20, 2010 at 2:05 pm

OMG! You are so lucky to be able to get in these places. I’d love to get into those places and capture the moment! Most of my work is done rope access industrial climbing. No budget for helicopters and such, just old school hard work climbing. Although a lot of the times the first part is done by elevator. Great stuff!
Thanks for sharing


Linda Brinckehroff says:

on December 20, 2010 at 3:24 pm

Really cool video. Nice pace and transitions and great music selection, Drew. Oh – and McNally? yeah, he did a nice job too on the stills…..
Joe, do you carry your own harness, or do you use the ones they give you at the sites? Just wonderin….
A Blessed Christmas to all.

Tim Skipper says:

on December 20, 2010 at 4:09 pm


As always you deliver great shots, but I think the thing that is most impressive is the steel balls that came with your Nikon. I own Canon gear, they didn’t give out balls of steel with the camera. 😉

Michael Murphy says:

on December 20, 2010 at 4:43 pm

That is just awesome!

Amryl Malek says:

on December 20, 2010 at 5:09 pm

Incredible shots! It really shows the importance of location! My best effort was driving 1 hour into the hills near my house climb a few hundred meter and took a few pics, that feels like child plays compare against you… Btw, I used to work planning building those tower pylons. It’s a desk job. It takes guts and gumption to climb up those towers and pull those electric cables into place and maintaining those lines. My full respect to those workers.

Vartok says:

on December 20, 2010 at 9:58 pm

It’s no small wonder that Joe McNally is known for being one of the best – he demonstrates it continuously. This last one had to be a blast too!

gregory peel says:

on December 20, 2010 at 11:04 pm

Big and brass!

Jay Mann says:

on December 21, 2010 at 5:20 am

Hey Joe,

Back in the day (’84)I was sent up to supervise and photo a helicopter transported rig. Sounded like fun, ride in a chopper, shoot with a Hassleblad… until I found myself in the rain (the camera was put away) standing on a 6 inch beam, 8ft off the ground, with a Bell 214 6 inches above my head and a hook in my hand. I hooked that latch first try and since there is nothing more scary than being under a tethered chopper, I set world record for the 50 meter dash, right off the beam, no time for ladders! :)

Got the shot the next day.

Have a Safe and Happy Holiday Season,


Jim says:

on December 21, 2010 at 7:24 am

Halfway through the video I was asking myself if ANY photographer could get good shots if he had access to a helicopter and a big budget. Then I saw the pictures. Great job! Light in photography is indeed everything, but location – as Amryl pointed out – is also very important.
And for these blog posts, as with your books, humor goes a long way to making the reading entertaining.

Nestmac says:

on December 21, 2010 at 8:31 am

This is awesome Joe, just overwhelmed by the risk you take in getting the right image. I’ll refer to you now as “Joe McNally, The Houdini of photography”. You inspire me every time that I see your images. Other thing that I admire is your sense of humor and your candidness toward the people with whom you work. Just Awesome Joe.

Oscar says:

on December 21, 2010 at 8:45 am

Amazing. You got a mean set of bullocks on you there Joe. You really do what it takes to get that shot. Great job.

Bob DeChiara says:

on December 21, 2010 at 8:47 am


Tristan says:

on December 21, 2010 at 8:49 am

Thanks Joe, I really enjoyed this great post!

JerseyStyle Photography says:

on December 21, 2010 at 8:50 am

Loved this vid and the access you and Drew gave us. Awesome.

~ Mark

Johan Sopiee says:

on December 21, 2010 at 9:13 am

woah!! way to go Joe!! you ROCK!!

Cynthia Farr-Weinfeld says:

on December 21, 2010 at 9:29 am

Joe, I just love to see your behind the scenes tours of the crazy things you do to get the awesome shots you take! Once again, you’ve wowed me! Merry Christmas, Cindy

Stefano Aguiar says:

on December 21, 2010 at 10:23 am

Simply fantastic! I love to come here and see you working.

Charlie says:

on December 21, 2010 at 11:03 am

This is why video DSLR cameras ROCK!!! Excellent footage and a great story to boot.

Mike says:

on December 21, 2010 at 12:55 pm

Joe –

Your skills and ability are beyond compare. As well, man, the adventures you’ve been on, the things you’ve seen and done? What? Way cool.

Will Duris says:

on December 21, 2010 at 1:17 pm

Very cool indeed as usual. There is really nothing you haven’t done.

Patrik says:

on December 21, 2010 at 2:21 pm

Joe, you are the man that goes all the way to get the best pictures! Great stuff, as always.
I haven´t seen this in print, but i saw the Photo Gallery on
Question: How many pictures do you deliver on a huge job like this?
How long did this actually take, the whole gig.
Can you persuade the people making the layout on which pictures they “should” use?
Let´s say if there is a picture that you like more than the one they have already chosen.

I appreciate your time if you can answer these questions.

Mark says:

on December 21, 2010 at 5:29 pm

For me this is the best blog entry on the web for 2010. I could feel the job, perhaps because I am no longer very comfortable with heights. Recently, to the total amusement of the workers, I had to use a large scissor lift on a building site to get some shots. Apparently the workers could see that I was not comfortable with the height due to the movement (shake) in the lift. 😉

John says:

on December 21, 2010 at 10:37 pm

You may know this already…but you you have a really cool job!

Thanks for sharing the BTS video.

BTW, I just went and bought Roy Ashen’s Album!


Sina says:

on December 21, 2010 at 11:31 pm

amazing work Joe… thanks for share… I also love the results.

Tom says:

on December 22, 2010 at 6:00 am

That was excellent. I’d love to see more of these. That last shot reminded me of the shuttle payload bay doors closing!

Mitch says:

on December 22, 2010 at 6:32 am

After your efforts atop the Empire State building I guess this was a walk in the park 😉

Thanks for sharing Joe, its very inspiring, as with most of your work. I find it interesting to see the ‘raw’ views from the video compared with what you ended up with in final processed DSLR shots.

And a big thanks to Drew for his time and efforts in bringing us this.

Best Christmas wishes to you and the team, and hope 2011’s good to you.

Lee Walters says:

on December 22, 2010 at 10:00 am

Incredible! I was stressed just watching and heights don’t really bother me. Thanks for sharing this.

Paul says:

on December 22, 2010 at 10:51 am

Would love to have an opportunity for a shoot like that, before I’m far too old. Brilliant work, Joe. Those liney’s sure earn their pay. Respect to you and huge respect to them.

Tomasz Mumot says:

on December 23, 2010 at 2:46 am

Great job. I love it!

Ole says:

on December 23, 2010 at 2:56 am

Hi Joe,

Super vid! Great example of showing that it take time and effort (just a little haha) to get great pics and location still matters most. Have a good one!

Joyce says:

on December 28, 2010 at 2:11 am

It’s fascinating to see what goes into taking Joe McNally photographs–more, more! Great video, Drew. Eclipse was an inspired choice for the background music. Not only can you see the action, you can feel it.

viscara says:

on December 29, 2010 at 5:20 am

This was one of your best blog post Joe. Loved it.. My uncle used to climb and set those towers up in Florida often in gator infested marsh lands. You told a story about men that do a job others could never handle “Including yours”. What was the part with the San Fran PD? thats my neck of the woods. Also was the wind turbines in the san francisco bay area? along 580hwy? I driven by those more than I can count.

Joe says:

on January 7, 2011 at 3:09 pm

Just show’s ya gotta have balls to get the shot.
Thank’s Joe, very inspiring

Mary says:

on January 9, 2011 at 9:43 am

I’m afraid of heights so I found you video more exciting than others might but your story switching carts really got my heart pounding. Incredible work!

Ken Collins, Dutch 21 says:

on January 10, 2011 at 3:36 pm

Joe, The SR-71 photos were about 10 years ago…Time flies, as did the SR-71. I always liked the photo on page 79 in the American Photo. I am not sure what to think about the “The effect also popped the old pilot more strongly”…???
Annie Jacobsen’s book and the Nat Geo’s video re the A-12 Oxcart will be released this May. Cheers, Ken

cat says:

on March 18, 2012 at 5:45 am

Inspiring quest there. What happened after? Good luck!

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