Time to Get Out of Your Photographic Comfort Zone

I had the opportunity to attend a photography workshop given by someone whose pictures I’ve admired long before I was bitten by the photography bug. In fact, anyone who has looked at a major magazine cover over the last 40 years has likely admired the work of Joe McNally. He has done cover work for National Geographic, Time, Life, Sports Illustrated, and People to name a few. You can check out Joe’s incredible work here. (Seriously, check it out!)

As an early birthday gift, my wife bought me a ticket to Joe’s all day workshop at the Shaw Centre in Ottawa. As Wedding Photographers in Ottawa, Joe’s work does not really lend itself to the type of pictures we typically take. Joe is the undisputed champion of lighting, and we do not use a lot of lighting techniques in our sessions, but I have admired his work and wanted the opportunity to learn from the best.

The day started off with Joe giving us a personal, behind the scenes adventure into some of his most popular photos. He is so down-to-earth. A great speaker with a great sense of humour. He then spent a good portion of the day explaining how he can take the dullest, most poorly light room, (sorry Shaw Centre) and turn it into an amazing location for corporate head shots, or even a crime scene! It was truly inspiring and showed  me how much I still need to learn about lighting.

My favourite part of the day, however was the audience critiques. As part of the course, participants were invited to submit up to five photos for Joe to critique. This guy has spent 40 years listening to photo editors for newspapers and magazines! The thought of him looking at, and tearing apart my work was not something that I wanted. Not to mention putting my work out in a room full of photographers, so I decided against it. Putting myself out there was too much. I couldn’t do it. But then, three days before the workshop, I realized that the only way to move forward with my work, was to have someone I respect give me an honest baseline of where I was.

Boy, was I glad I did!

Joe’s critiques were honest and clear, albeit sometimes harsh, but always truthful, informative and helpful to the participants.

What did I get out of it? Well, I submitted four photographs for critique, not necessarily my best photos, but the ones I wanted him to analyze how I had used light in the photo. Included in my submission was the photo below, which is one of my personal favourites and one of the more popular photos both on our website and Facebook page. Joe hated it!

“These must be very special shoes for you to want to light them like that.”

Actually, when first scrolling through my submission, his initial comment on this photo was, “Wow”, but upon coming back to it, he was somewhat less enthused. He really liked my lighting, asked me for a brief explanation, then asked me what significance the shoes had. You see, by lighting the shoes and putting the couple out of focus and in silhouette, I made the shoes the star of the show!

“These must be very special shoes for you to want to light them like that.” We all laughed. Joe continued, “The only time I think you should take a picture of shoes on a traintrack is if the shoes are the only thing in the photo.” The room went silent. “You know…… cause the guy got hit by a train and all thats left are his shoes!” The room filled with laughter.

Joe was right. A photo tells a story, (like someone got hit by a train) but the only story this photo told was that these were nice shoes.

It was a bad picture despite the proper execution. Nothing wrong with the picture itself, just the wrong subject.
It’s really hard to put yourself out there for all to see, but if you ever hope to improve at something, it may be just the thing you need.

My takeaways for day:

  • Joe is a stinkin’ genius, especially where light is concerned.
  • My goal for last year was to be able to effectively incorporate lighting into our workflow. Joe’s comments on this and the other photos I submitted, tell me that I am well on my way towards these goals, and I’m ready to push harder. He liked my lighting.
  • Putting yourself out there and getting out of your comfort zone is really, really scary, really liberating and is really necessary if you want to move forward in anything.
  • Shoes don’t belong on a train track no matter how nice the shoes are, or how well you light them……unless someone has been hit by a train. ;-))

Thanks Joe!
And thanks to Guylaine giving me a gift that ended up being more valuable then the price of admission!


February 20, 2021

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