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?

Thank you for sharing

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