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The Biz: Personal Work to Build Your Portfolio

Lesson 34 from: Lighting, Logistics, and Strategies for a Life in Photography

Joe McNally

The Biz: Personal Work to Build Your Portfolio

Lesson 34 from: Lighting, Logistics, and Strategies for a Life in Photography

Joe McNally

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Lesson Info

34. The Biz: Personal Work to Build Your Portfolio

Next Lesson: Photo Critique


Class Trailer

Class Introduction


Location Assessment


Gear Overview


Direction and Wardrobe


Exploring Location and Available Light


Bar Owner: Setting the Scene


Shoot: Bar Owner


Shoot: Bar Owner, Evolving the Look


Lesson Info

The Biz: Personal Work to Build Your Portfolio

How do I get a project started? Often times, I spend my own money, or I get an idea. The first slide here, you've already seen. Circus. I spend my own money, I'll show you that in a second, or I sit down with Lynn. (laughs) How you feeling? Can I get you, you look especially lovely today. (laughing) Oh my goodness. Can I get you a latte, maybe something? 'Cause she knows I'm about to ask quasi impossible things. So, one of the reasons we ended up in here in this circus venue, was I was looking for notions, ideas that I could hang a project on, and I had just seen that movie Water For Elephants. With Reese Witherspoon. With Reese Witherspoon, and some of the lighting in that movie and the fact that she was a performer, circus performer, and part of her act was to sort of languish on a horse in the middle of the arena, and it was an old-timey kind of feel to the lighting and the canvas and the background, and I showed it to Lynn, and I said, "I'd like to--" "I want that." Yeah, y...

eah. Get me that. Just call Reese, just give her a call. No, it was the start of an imagination process for me that I thought, well, a circus type environment, if we could create that, would be potentially wonderful, to have a variety of pictures coming out of, literally, one tent. So, we kind of moved into the circus tent for a week. Just like that. Yep. To my credit, I'm not one of those where I'm like, "Make it happen, Lynn, make it happen." No, no, no. I'm very understanding of the painstaking nature of this. One phone call leads to potentially 50, 60, 70 phone calls, back and forth, back and forth to find how we can maybe pull this off, and sometimes it's pulled off in the fullest of possible ways. Other times, there's diversions, truncations, et cetera. Lynn will say, "No, that's just not gonna be possible, okay. "What we have to do is maybe this," and so I try to modify the ideas, et cetera, but this was one of those situations where Lynn worked probably for weeks. Oh, months and months. Months to finally get me to the point where I went click. I had no contacts in the circus industry, so it was, where do I start? Go figure. Yeah, I know. One thing I didn't have. But again, like I was saying yesterday, you go into the Rolodex of your mind and figure out, but who do I know how might know? So, I contacted a good friend of mine out in California, and she had been in the theater community and acting community, and I just figured, let me start with her, because she might very well know, and sure enough, she's like, "Yep, let me put you in touch with so and so," who was all involved with the circus, and then he put me in touch with the woman who actually was the stunt person who worked with Reese on that movie. So I was like, this is just getting better everyday, and that woman who was the person who assisted Reese, her mom is a circus agent. So, it was just like really amazing. Now, that didn't happen in a minute, but it did all come together. Now, at the time the circuses weren't being held anywhere near us. We were thinking we could do it locally. So, instead we had to go down to Florida. What's the name of that town? South of Tampa. It was, right, past Sarasota. It's a big circus community, and they actually built a circus for us. They literally put up the tent, brought in the bleachers, put in the sand, brought in the animals. It was unreal. It was very exciting. And for those folks, it's like falling off a log. That's what they do. They set up the circus, they leave it stayed for a few days, they pack it onto a train and they move. Yeah. So for them, it was just like business as usual. For us, it was like-- Whoa. Literally felt like we were running away with the circus, I don't know. Yeah. But this effort, obviously, is a big effort, and we had funding for it. Other things I try to do, I start off just, I spend my own money, and what you're seeing in some of my archive here that I've presented over the last couple of days, I think you've seen, I'm very fond of the performing arts. I work a lot with dancers, circus people, athletes. I'm very interested in obsession and excellence, and these people are amazing at what they do. I'm also interested in the idea, the notion, of someone who feels like they need to get on stage and captivate people, via it a musician, a poet, but I do tend to, obviously, visually I go more for the visual arts, performers who do kind of this amazing thing. I am like a kid, 'cause I could sit at the circus or the ballet or the theater and just be slack-jawed all day long at the talent of these people. And I'm also interested in their life or what happens behind the scenes and backstage. Got it. So hence, I have a tremendous respect for the athletes who work as performing artists down in Las Vegas, and so I have a friend down there who's worked in the shows, and his wife is in the shows, and they're a wonderful people, and they have a lot of contacts in the shows, and so I'm really looking for subjects, and occasionally I'll find that these pictures will apply, or I can maybe even use them for a job, or they'll lead to something else, but I started off here, and I rented a studio per se. It wasn't really, it's like a gym that these athletes work out at. I had to pay for the access to the place for a day, and then I had these acts come in, and they performed together, this lady and this gentleman. Okay, you saw him from a different direction. He was the guy leaping with the mirrors, okay. It was a wonderful, wonderful athlete, and you have to give flight to your imagination, too, 'cause hey, at this point, I don't have a client. That's the beautiful thing about spending your own money. (laughs) I'm the client and the art director and the lighting director and the photographer. So, I go forward and Lynn grits her teeth, and I say, "Look, I kind of need to do this, "I really wanna do this," and then I got, and John and Kelly were there when we showed up in Vegas, and I said, "Well, we gotta go to a truck rental store, "a garage, something," and they say, "Why?" and I said, "I want a tire." They said, "You want a tire?" and I said, "Yeah, I think it would be fun "to get these athletes to play with a tire," and so we went to this salvage garage, and the guy was kind of nonplus behind the counter. He's like, "Yeah, I'll rent you a tire," and he even offered to drop it off, and he says, "I'll bring it over, I'll pick it back up." It was like a 250 pound truck tire, so we have it hanging from ropes from the ceiling, and I got Manu under it, okay, and then Kat balances. I mean, can you imagine? Yeah, just get on the tire and balance. This is fantastic stuff. If you notice, there's a smoke machine in the background. (laughing) And they're just marvelous, beautiful, the camera stands in service to them. So, this has not gone anywhere yet, but I keep chipping away at it, and I mentioned it the other day, I may have interest from a national magazine that might wanna take a look at some of the athletic prowess that exists down in Vegas. We'll see, I have no idea. One of the things that runs counter to popular wisdom, and Lynn, again, her varied skill set sort of is in relationship to mine. I have widely diverse interests, so she's developed widely diverse sets of contacts over the course of time, because being a general assignment magazine shooter, I've kind of grown into this world being able to shoot sort of anything, being interested in shooting anything. I enjoy time behind the camera. Win, lose or draw, I like time in the field, I like looking through a lens, so hence, I'm not particularly directed by one absolute aspect of photography, a culture, a geography, geographical region or a cause. I'm the general assignment, I'm an assignment guy. That's what I am at the end of a day. So to that extent, I don't preach this, because I don't preach to anybody, you should be doing this. No, but I do say a notion of what I have is diversify, and that runs a little counter to maybe popular wisdom, which a lot of folks are out there saying, you really have to specialize, 'cause an art director is looking for somebody to shoot apples, and you've got oranges, I don't know, I don't know. Unfortunately, it's true though. So, we shoot fashion, okay. Just did that about a month ago. That's done with speed lights, and a heck of a lot of body paint. Brilliant body painter, Anastasia Durasova. She's a lovely and wonderful, and she works with us on a regular basis. I went to Rio. That's the closing ceremonies of the Rio Olympics and the hurdles there. I shoot whatever I need to. This is sports, but it's also related to a feature. I did a story for the National Geographic on human performance. You develop skillsets, your skillsets have to be varied. This is a handheld 600 millimeter lens from a helicopter in the wind. I can't go back to my editor at Geographic and say, "Oh, the lens was kind of heavy." I can't do that, I have to develop a skillset that allows me to frame this picture, being buffeted around in a helicopter through a very narrow angle of view. 600 millimeter is a pretty tight lens. We shoot medical stuff. This is a laser going into an eye. This was a hard picture to do, very hard picture to do. I shoot covers. This is the AAAS, it's the American Association for the Advancement of Science. This is shot with small flash, this cover shot, all small flash. Then we did a portrait of the doctor who owns it. That's glorious right? This isn't the French Riviera, this is a conference room at a weight loss clinic in Indianapolis, okay, and I'm lying on the table trying to get a picture. When things are at their worst, oddly enough, that is a time to be most aggressive, perhaps. Again, I can't tell anybody how to live their life, and again, I just bless the people involved in our studio, because we've been through some nail biting times. Definitely. Where we weren't sure where it was all gonna go. It seemed very likely that it might go south, numerous instances. So yeah, after 9/11, there wasn't much photographic work, anyplace, and so I just kind of fought, fought my way into a project where I used the world's only giant Polaroid camera, and I used every contact I had to try to piece this together in our tiny little studio. Lynn was with me at that time. A couple other people we had. We were backs to the wall, kind of, not without much resources, we pulled off this project. Then this project became a book and a traveling exhibit, and it helped raise nearly two million dollars, which was donated for the relieve of downtown public education in New York, and it is a resource now that I am in constant, not constant, but regular conversations with the 9/11 museum who wishes to acquire the entire archive. Has it been easy? No. No, it has not been easy. This has been a labor of love, but I have an emotional... This is maybe the way to close out. The business section here is all of these numbers. There's an emotional underpinning to all of this. You need to do this. If you're here in this classroom, sorry gang, the game is over, you're already involved, right. So, it's too late for you. (laughs) You're passionate and committed, and I personally can't stop taking pictures, I can't, I can't. So, it would have been easy just to roll up our tents and background that time. I didn't though, I didn't, and there's a very powerful emotional commitment I have to the group of people who came in front of this camera, okay, and it was a highly specialized camera. I won't go into it, but it was only kind in the world. It's the size of a one-car garage, okay, and that's a life-size picture, which translates into a lot of pictures in storage. Four foot by nine foot frames that weigh 300 pounds, so I have about 20 thousand pounds of photography in museum quality storage for the last 17 years. It's been a lot to maintain. That's not easy. It's like having a second mortgage, right, but I have hung in there, because these folks deserve to be ultimately involved in that museum. So, I stay with it, and that's just another track I have at the studio. That's another responsibility, okay. I never thought I'd grow up. I was a scatterbrained kid, but all of a sudden I look around and say, "Geez, I'm actually fairly responsible." I know. How did that-- I'm an adult. I grew up somehow. How did that happen? My counsel to you is find something so beautiful you can't help but shoot it. It will save your soul in the middle of all this business stuff. Now, one of my very first ballet pictures, just a very simple thing to do. I met her, she was a dancer, we lived near Lincoln Center, she needed some pictures, I volunteered. This I shot in 1977, okay, and I'm still shooting dance. Food for the table and food for the soul. Always make room for shoot what you love. It's the only way to keep your heart beating as a photographer. I just shot that a couple years ago in Mexico. Simple picture, just me on the street with a dancer, available light, no flash, nothing going on.

Class Materials

Bonus Materials with Purchase

Joe McNally Gear List
McNally Lighting Diagrams

Ratings and Reviews


What is there to say, this is a master at work. I feel like I owe Joe a hundred lunches for the information I’ve learned from him and used in jobs through the years. Personally I relate to his slightly self-deprecating style quite well. Joe’s a confident, supremely knowledgeable and incredibly experienced photographer who doesn’t need to wear that on his sleeve to get the point across. He is also clearly a great leader who has built a terrific team. I snap up everything of Joe’s I can find and use it as a library, where every time you watch you take away something new. Thanks Joe, you’re a legend and good on Creative Live for offering this wonderful and beautifully curated course.

ileana gonzales photography

When I saw the chance to learn from the great Joe McNally I jumped through the screen at the chance to be in the audience. It's one thing to see how a fantastic photographer works, thinks, composes and styles, but to get a behind the curtain view at the way his entire shop operates was truly amazing. By allowing us to see Lynn's processes and Cali's workflow it encouraged me to diversify before taking the plunge into the business side of photography. Truly an amazing team and an unforgettable learning experience.


Joe is fantastic! The wealth of information, experience and extraordinary talent he shares is invaluable! He's also a very engaging, humorous instructor who keeps an audience a part of the "discussion." Don't miss a Joe McNally class, seminar or workshop opportunity!

Student Work