Joe McNally: the location and the light

Earlier this month, I attended a talk, The location and the light, by the renowned documentary photographer Joe McNally at The Photography Show, held at the NEC. He gave a fascinating tour d’horizon of his career and his approach to photography, as well as some of the people he has photographed. Here are the lessons I drew from it.

1. Take the breaks you’re offered and be grateful for them

Having secured the opportunity to work for National Geographic by some judicious networking, he built his reputation as their go-to guy for assignments nobody else would take, flying off around the world at very short notice, shooting the core of a nuclear reactor and accompanying the man who changes the light bulb at the very top of the Empire State Building on his climb.

2. Gear and technique isn’t the last word in photography

Most photos he has taken, he thinks, probably have some small technical flaw in them. What counts at the end of the day are the stories they tell.

3. Be flexible and approach your brief creatively

One National Graphic story covered different aspects of the brain. Thus he attended an operation during which part of somebody’s brain was removed to capture a shot of the living organ; he also spent time with people suffering from mental illness to capture a different dimension. Projects, then, can and should involve multiple genres of photography.

3. Think big

He can spends several days and thousands of dollars setting up a shoot. For example, to photograph the Very Large Telescope in Chile, he hired a big crane and directed proceedings via walkie-talkie from 300ft aloft, capturing the right moment at dawn after a very early start.

4. Know your place

Even though, the shoot itself might be complicated and expensive, his day-rate is still on $650. Photographers, he suggested, are still the ultimate expendable resource for publishers.

5. Get to know your subjects, and keep in touch with them

Nowhere was this more true for him than the survivors of 9/11 who he met and photographed in the aftermath of the tragedy. Being the good shepherd of their images, as he put it, earned the trust of his subjects and created the opportunity to return to their lives ten years later and update their stories.

6. Catch the off-guard moments

The essence of documentary photography – his speciality – is capturing the face behind the mask: real emotion and natural behaviour rather than a pose for the camera.

7. Be humble, polite and interested in the other person

This lesson I took from his demeanour in front of us. A few minutes before he started, he entered the hall quietly and shook hands with everybody in the front row of his audience, whilst sharing pleasantries with them. Afterwards, he waited patiently behind to enable everybody who wanted a quick chat, an autograph – or indeed a shared selfie –to spend a moment with him.

Man signing autographs
Joe McNally signing autographs

To be one of the world’s leading photographers and yet still have time for the little guy: that is the mark of a true professional.

Over to you: which photographers particularly inspire you and what impresses you about their style?

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People in landscape photos

There’s a bit of red-herring that does the rounds sometimes: landscapes should never contain people. On the contrary: they lend a sense of scale to the vista, as these two photos illustrate. This one was taken on the beach at Westward Ho! in North Devon and features a lone figure looking out to sea.

On the beach
On the beach

Out of the camera, the shot was much more drab; I warmed up the colour balance quite heavily to capture the reflective mood I sought.

My next shot was taken at sunset on Dunkery Beacon, the highest hill in Somerset. It features several figures in silhouette, enjoying the view at the end of their climb.

On Dunkery Beacon
On Dunkery Beacon

The walkers here convey not only scale but mood. Next time somebody is standing in the middle of your view, therefore, don’t just stand there seething until they walk away: think about how you can use them for creative effect.

Do you capture figures in your landscapes? Tell me about them and feel free to share a link.

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Five rail projects that offer better value than HS2

A few days ago, in the aftermath of the great storm that swept away the sea wall at Dawlish and left the rails of the London to Plymouth flapping around like cord on a washing line, I called for this single point of failure to be eliminated by reopening the old Southern Railway line between Plymouth and Okehampton as an additional rail route across Devon. It was a refrain that was swiftly taken up by Petroc Trelawny in the Telegraph and featured  in press and television coverage.

In the light of the billions that HS2 is likely to cost – anywhere between 40 and 70 (think of a number and then double it?) – here are five other more modest projects that could deliver a higher rate of return.

1. Upgrade the rest of the old Southern main line

To the east of Exeter, the old Southern Railway is still in service, albeit largely as a single-track stopping service for most of the distance to Salisbury. With most of the Cotswold line now having been re-doubled, this is now the only main line out of London that peters out into a single track for half of its length.

Single-track main line
Single-track main line: Southern shame

Reinstating the second track for all of its length and bringing back the second platform at Yeovil Junction to service would enable South West Trains, the current franchise holder, to run a mixture of express and local services between London Waterloo and Exeter (and perhaps even Plymouth once more, in the longer term). Proper competition with First Great Western would encourage both companies to improve their services further.

2. BML2

Acronyms are much in vogue among rail scheme supporters nowadays, it seems. By contrast with the Waterloo route to Wessex and beyond, the London Victoria to Brighton line is four track for much of its length. Even so, being such a busy commuter line, it runs at nearly full capacity for much of the time and features one particular pinch-point, the 37-arch Balcombe Viaduct, a marvel of Victorian engineering that crosses the Ouse Valley. This is only double track and a much more utilitarian modern concrete viaduct next to it would be a real eyesore.

Yet there is an alternative that would involve relaying only a few miles of empty trackbed between Lewes and Uckfield, as well as re-dualling the line north of Uckfield. This BML2 proposal would not just increase capacity in this busy travel corridor but could also, its supporters claim, provide connections through to Canary Wharf, Stratford International and Stansted Airport in the longer term.

3. Matlock to Manchester

Moving on from acronyms to alliteration, reopening this line would restore the direct connection from London’s St. Pancras terminus, also used by Eurostar high-speed continental services, to Manchester. Relaying some 15 miles of track would add capacity into Manchester from the Midland main line, which probably has more spare capacity than the line from Euston, as well as strengthening rail links into the Peak District – an area very popular with walkers and tourists.

The Famous Monsal Head Viewpoint
No longer crossed by trains: the Monsal Dale Viaduct © Simon Douglas

A feasibility study carried out in 2004 concluded that the business case was for reopening the line in the period to 2011 was not very strong but improved over the longer term. On this basis, I hope the local authorities in the area keep the trackbed intact and continue to support Peak Rail, the group that is now operating and extending a heritage railway over the southern section of the route.

4. Harrogate to Northallerton

To the north of Leeds is another missing link. Severing it in the late 1960s cut a direct route from the city to the north-east of England as well as removing the city of Ripon – gateway to Wensleydale – from the rail network. The alternative, via York, takes the traveller around two sides of quite a large triangle.

5. Aylesbury to Leicester

Lack of freight capacity on the West Coast main line is often cited as a reason for building HS2. That being the case, the more cost effective response would be to reopen part of the old Great Central line from its current southern terminus at Aylesbury to Leicester, with the emphasis on freight traffic. There is, for example, a large and expanding road/rail freight interchange terminal at Daventry, near Rugby, where a connection could also be established to the West Coast main line.

Serious proposals were put forward to reinstate this line during the 1990s – a parliamentary bill was even introduced – but the idea failed to gain traction. With about 70 miles of track to re-lay and most of the earthworks still in place, the cost of this scheme could well be less than a quarter of the cost of the HS2.

Political enthusiasm for the has shown that there is at least appetite for spending money on the railways. The five projects I have suggested would deliver greater capacity for passengers and freight in places where it is really needed – and cost a lot less than a high-speed grand projet.

Now over to you. Should these projects be pursued? Which other rail schemes would you like to see? Should we just spend the money on road schemes or broadband networks instead?


9 February

Sharing this post online generated an animated discussion on Twitter and the following suggested line reopenings:

  • The Kenilworth and Hampton-in-Arden to Coleshill line, linking the Chiltern line with Birmingham International Airport and the North.
  • March to Spalding, creating an alternative to the East Coast main line and another route for Felixstowe-bound freight trains.
  • Oxford to Cambridge, via Bedford.
  • Various other routes identified in the Association of Train-Operating Companies 2009 report Connecting Communities (PDF).

By contrast, one voice on Twitter argued that the North will rot without the infrastructure of HS2, which could cut travel times to London to less than two hours.

12 March

Thanks to a recent post by Christian Wolmar, HS2 is the wrong scheme in the wrong place, I commend HIGHSPEEDUK to you. Published by a pair of experienced railway engineers, this proposal sets out a useful alternative model to HS2. In short, they envisage not merely a high-speed line but a network that, through connecting services and routing high-speed trains along conventional lines for part of their journey, would spread the benefits throughout the country. This is how it works in France and Germany; I can only hope that the government takes their proposals seriously.

Thank you to everybody for your comments and suggestions: do keep them coming.

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Reopen the Plymouth to Okehampton railway line

The horrendous storm that severed the main line between London and Cornwall today in Dawlish has illustrated the folly of closing a line some 50 years ago that could have served as a diversion.

The picturesque stretch of line between Dawlish Warren and Teignmouth is certainly picturesque:

The Great Western main line at Dawlish
This line has now been severed for several weeks by a violent storm.

Even so, it is the single point of failure in the West of England rail network – and today it failed in spectacular fashion, the raging sea demolishing the substantial sea wall, washing away all the ballast and leaving both tracks suspended in mid-air.

Whilst Network Rail has rightly pledged to rebuild the sea wall and reinstate the line, it will take several weeks and cost millions, both directly in repairs and indirectly in disruption to businesses in the region.

Until the late 1960s, an alternative route existed from Plymouth to Exeter via Tavistock and Okehampton. Both ends of this line are still in place:

Branch line today, main line once more tomorrow?
The old Southern line to Exeter curving beneath the outer spans of Brunel’s Tamar Bridge to Cornwall.

Alas the central section – about 20 miles – was closed as part of the infamous Beeching cuts. There are already plans to re-open the section from Bere Alston to Tavistock but I would argue that it is now time to extend the logic and restore this severed artery all the way back to the buffers at Meldon, west of Okehampton.

Okehampton station
A ghost station, for now.

Doing so would mean that bad weather can never again cut rail links from the South West to the rest of the country; it would also make the heart of this beautiful county much more accessible to the tourist trade on which it has come to depend. If the government can find anywhere between £40 bn and £70 bn to fund HS2, it surely ought to be able to find a much smaller sum to pay for a less ambitious but nevertheless important scheme like this – and many others like it.

Update: according to the BBC on 10 February, this route is now actively being considered by Network Rail in preference to the other alternative to the Dawlish line, via Heathfield.

Moving on from this proposal, I have also outlined five other rail projects that offer better value than HS2.

Does this make sense to you? Please leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Okehampton station
Yet it’s time this old station – lovingly restored in the last few years – welcomed through trains once more.
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Taken on a pedestrian level crossing outside Romsey, Hampshire, this is a classic ‘photo as metaphor’ shot.

Railway receding into the distance

I shot it hand-held rather than on a tripod because there is always the risk, even on a quiet, single-track line like this, of being caught unawares by a train that isn’t on the public timetable. Real Time Trains is a useful resource for finding out the times of all trains – freight as well as passenger – so that you don’t find yourself in the horrifying position of hearing a train bearing down behind you. Even so, exercise extreme caution and do not linger on level crossings for any longer than absolutely necessary.

Post-processing of this shot in Lightroom included making full use of the dynamic range of the raw file, darkening the sky a little and selectively lightening some of the undergrowth.

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Three favourite Claudio Abbado recordings

The death of Claudio Abbado earlier today marks the passing of an era for me. Along with Herbert von Karajan  and Leonard Bernstein, he was one of three celebrated conductors from the Deutsche Grammophon roster who led me on a voyage of musical discovery during my teenage years. Obituaries abound – as already published by Gramophone and the Daily Telegraph – so I will reflect on three of my favourite Abbado recordings.

CD coverThe first is not obvious territory for an Italian maestro, although it dates from his years at the helm of the London Symphony Orchestra during an era when conductors ploughed through symphony cycles to create CD boxed sets. Mendelssohn’s Second Symphony, the Hymn of Praise, seemed to me like an undiscovered, alternative Choral Symphony – better in some ways to my younger ears than Beethoven’s Ninth because there was more choral than symphony. In particular, I liked his monumental treatment of the opening brass chorale and the exciting way it returned both at the entrance of the choir and again right at the end of the work.

CD coverFreshness characterise not just the orchestral movements of the Hymn of Praise but also my second choice: Schubert’s Fifth Symphony. Abbado recorded it as part of a Schubert cycle with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. Compared with period orchestral accounts, it lacks the pungency of gut strings and more rustic-sounding woodwinds, yet it is utterly charming and very well played; the bustling opening bars set the tone perfectly.

Beethoven's Pastoral SymphonyMy final choice sees him paired with the illustrious pianist Maurizio Pollini. of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic mainly for the couplings: the Choral Fantasy – part piano sonata, part piano concerto, part – well, just what do you call a piece that concludes with piano, soloists, chorus and orchestra? Pollini’s playng was suitably aristocratic and the piece ends with a suitably cheerful and emphatic flourish. The recording began with Beethoven’s enigmatic Meerestille und glückliche Fahrt and showed how well Abbado could coax pianissimi from a large choir and orchestra. His account of the Pastoral Symphony was panned by critics, mainly for being too slow as I recall, but I certainly enjoyed all the detail he brought out in the orchestral texture.

If I say that I bought the cassette of his recording during a school French exchange visit to Paris during the 1980s, that dates me somewhat. Unlike Karajan, who died in 1989, Abbado moved well beyond the sounds of  my teenage years and went on to embrace the authentic music movement, forming Orchestra Mozart in 2004 to perform with hand-picked like-minded musicians.  He surely leaves a huge legacy, both in terms of recordings and the musicians he must have inspired over the decades.

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Two Queens in port

Yesterday  afternoon, I went to Hythe Marina on the south side of Southampton Water and was fortunate to capture blue-hour shots of two Cunard ocean liners in port.

Two Queens in port
Queen Mary 2 and Queen Elizabeth

Queen Elizabeth (on the right) set sail in the evening on a round-the-world cruise via New York, San Francisco, Australia, the Far East and the Suez Canal; Queen Mary 2 left at almost the same time for a cruise around the Eastern Hemisphere around the Cape of Good Hope to Australia and the Far East, also returning through the Suez Canal.

With the distinctive black and white liveries of their liners and fortune in being able to drawn on the dignity of monarchy in the names they give them, Cunard Line is almost uniquely placed in being able to evoke the romance of the inter-war golden age of ocean liners.

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9 steps towards better landscape photos

There are snapshots that you can take on your mobile phone – and then there are great shots: the ones that you’ll want to frame and showcase online. These are my tips for capturing the ones you’ll want to add to your portfolio.

1. Check the weather forecast before you go out.

A great landscape shot requires an interesting sky. From a photographic perspective, milky grey cloud – of the sort that accompanies drizzle or rain – is boring. That said, the few brief minutes after heavy rain finishes can be a very good time to take landscapes because the cloud looks smoky and interesting. Cloudless blue skies are also uninteresting; if you’re favoured by them, go out and enjoy the sun on your face (such days are all too rare in England) and don’t worry about taking serious photos.

2. Take your camera out at the right time of day.

Photographers talk about the ‘golden hours’ around sunrise and sunset for good reason: when the sun is low in the sky, haze softens its light and features in the landscape cast long shadows. These immediately make your subject look more appealing than if captured in the middle of the day, when the light is either very harsh beneath the midday sun or completely diffused by nondescript hazy cloud.

3. Check where the sun is going to rise and set.

Smartphone apps like The Photographer’s Ephemeris are a very good way to work out the optimum time of year to photograph, for example, the sun rising behind a particular peak or, in the case of ‘Manhattanhenge’, setting along one of New York’s concrete canyons.

4. Take the right gear with you.

If you’re photographing landscapes when the sun is low in the sky, as well as your camera, you will definitely need a tripod. It simply needs to prevent camera shake when you take the photo and doesn’t need to be expensive if you’re starting out.

Whilst any point’n'shoot camera with a self-timer that screws into a tripod will do the job, for better results you need to invest slightly more in a camera that shoots uncompressed ‘RAW’ files as well as JPG files. Raw files (Raw isn’t actually an acronym) are to JPGs what dough is to bread. Just as dough can be kneaded into any shape you like before you bake it in the oven, raw image files can be enhanced – ‘post-processed’ – using software such as Adobe Lightroom before export to JPG to a far greater extent than JPGs created in-camera.

Ideally, your camera will be a DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) camera that enables you to change lenses in future; better quality glass in front of your camera’s sensor is a better way to improve image quality than buying a new camera body equipped with a basic ‘kit lens’.

Further accessories in which you could invest for landscape photography are neutral density (ND filters) and remote shutter releases. Varying in strength, ND filters reduce the amount of light hitting your cameras and enable you to increase the length of your exposures, blurring skies and water to create pleasingly dreamy effects. Wired or remote-control shutter releases enable you to take very long exposures without inadvertantly shaking the camera when operating the shutter by pressing a start/stop button on a handset away from the camera body.

5. Stand in front of an interesting view

Any view worth photographing comprises a good sky as the backdrop, interesting detail on the horizon – mountains or hills, say – and foreground elements that lead the eye towards the centre of it it, be it a river, road, railway,hedge, furrow or simply a rock or two. If these elements lead you in an S-shaped curve towards it, such as in the photo below, so much the better.

Winter sunset
Winter sunset

Landscapes that don’t work so well are those which lack interest, such as flat, empty fields, large expanses of water or empty deserts. Maps are a good way of identifying potential locations; you can also take a look at sites like or to find places from which other photographers have taken great shots.

6. Better still, crouch or lie flat

A dog’s eye view of the world lends greater prominence to the foreground and thus increases the depth of field in the image. A very simple technique that can be used by anybody, it is missed by so many casual phototgraphers.

7. Frame your shot carefully

Many novice photographers make the mistake of placing a tree, say, and the horizon dead centre in the frame. It is far better to follow the ‘rule of thirds’ and move position so that the tree appears in the lower left-hand third of the frame and the horizon traces a line across the upper third.

8. Keep it simple

Avoid distracting elements, such as tree branches intruding into the top and sides of the frame, by focusing in tighter or moving to a different position. It’s always good practice to look around the perimeter of the frame before pressing the shutter.

9. Expose for the highlights

DSLRs and many compact cameras nowadays include histogram displays on the rear screen that illustrate the spread of tones, from dark to light, in the image captured. Take a test shot and, if it shows clipped highlights (pure white), dial in negative exposure compensation to darken the overall image and ensure that tones other than pure white are captured across the image. By shooting raw files, you can restore the correct exposure, whilst retaining detail that would otherwise have been blown out in bright areas, during post-processing.


Taking the right gear to a good location under broken skies early or late in the day will maximse your chances of capturing some memorable shots. Your next step should be to use the alchemy of post-processing to turn the  rather flat raw image that comes out of your camera into the golden landscape that you saw in your mind’s eye.

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5 tips for photographing Autumn landscapes

Perhaps more than any other, Autumn is a season for visual metaphor in landscape photography. The sight of leaves turning colour and falling evokes advancing age, maturity, wisdom and looking back wistfully on years gone by and, in particular, the happier times among them.

Tip 1: Make shades of copper and gold the dominant colours in your composition, as in this view of livestock grazing in a field on the Mottisfont Estate in Hampshire, owned by the National Trust:

Trees and cloud in late afternoon sunshine
Autumn in Hampshire

Tip 2: To amplify the nostalgic metaphor, introduce water: the river of life. This is a view of the stream that runs through the estate:

A river flowing beneath trees in Autumn
Remembering times past

Tip 3: For additional interest, add another focal point, such as a lone figure or, as here, water rushing over a weir:


This is the start of a culvert that ensures the estate stream does not flood the grounds of the main house; it provided the ideal opportunity for a long-exposure shot. It could be said to represent the turbulence of life-changing events, although that it probably taking symbolism too far!

Tip 4: In taking all of these long-exposure photos in fading, late afternoon sunlight, a tripod is essential to avoid camera shake and permit the use of ISO1OO to minimise noise.

Tip 5: Key to bathing the landscape in a golden autumnal glow is shadow detail and rich saturation. Whilst you can use neutral density filters and gels to achieve these effects in-camera, it is often easier to do so via post-processing in Lightroom or Photohsop.

Each of the photos above trended Popular on shortly after upload.

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