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I Coulda Been a Contendah…..

Sep 17

In Rants at 11:34am


Gotta love The Onion. First rate reporting.

It’d be great to be a Blue Angels pilot, I think. But having flown in formation with them a couple of times and having my head scrambled to the point of not being able to find my ass with both hands while these guys are flying wingtip to wingtip at several hundred knots, I know that’s not happening. Ever. Just ain’t got the skills.

Everybody has occasionally wished to be something else, or perhaps something they cannot be. I wanted to play center for the New York Knicks many years ago. My meager athletic skills and tendency to remain steadfastly governed by the laws of gravity made that unrealistic.

I’m sure all of us who endeavor photographically have met folks who want to be photographers, which is totally cool. I’ve always been of the opinion that we’re all in this mix together. It can be a tough gig, but also a wonderful one and thus very alluring, so questions and aspirations abound. And, once the photographic cat is out of the bag, a gear discussion often ensues. Also cool. I’m a gearhead, so hey, let’s talk f-stops. But then there are those folks who don’t discuss wanting to be, or the fact that they love shooting and are thinking of dipping a toe in the market waters, or they are working on a project and learning and seeking advice and pushing and getting better. There are those folks who coulda been.

Met a pretty confident, aggressive guy recently, while shooting this Geographic job that is currently turning me into an angst ridden pretzel. He went the equipment route immediately. No wonder. He had lots of turbocharged stuff, like, I don’t know, the Canon 3D Mark4S with the Eddie Bauer camo coating and the fast glass with the low rider flame decals. I was, you know, respectful, saying intelligent, pithy things, like “Whoah.” And, “Cool.” Maybe the occasional, “Yeah!”

It was an extensive recitation, to be sure. He flat out said he really had the gear down, knew how to work all of that stuff and that he could be a photog. Lock solid. Done deal. Shoots lots of pictures.  Then, he got thoughtful and said, “My big problem is content.”

You know how you’re smiling at someone and there’s that moment where your face just kinda gets fixed and slightly immobile, cause it doesn’t know what to do next? You keep smiling, but it feels like somebody just slapped on a quick facial mask, one of those gooey, crusty, pomagranate, blue green algae seaweed paste numbers? A glazing, if you will.

What do you say? In my head I’m screaming, like, “That’s a pretty big problem, dude!” But I think I mumbled something about just hanging in and working it.

Happens, right? I had someone once, swear to God, say to me that they could be a photographer, but they just didn’t have the time. I kind of spluttered a reply, something like, yeah, wow, it can be time consuming. You’d have to take fewer shifts on the lube rack.

I love photographic dreams and aspirations. Got a ton of ‘em, even still. I love looking at pictures and sorting out ideas. Especially at a workshop, where there is one essential element in the room all of us share–the desire to find the next level. It’s great looking at work, especially a project, ’cause that set of pictures is really a road map to how that person thinks and feels. That’s why picture editors I came up working for wanted to see your contact sheets, not just your greatest hits. Your contact sheets show very clearly where you hit it right, or where you went off the rails.

I especially love the fact that I still feel overwhelmed in the field. There are time I am so completely bereft of inspiration and ideas I say to myself, “I wonder what a really good photographer would do right now?” I’m not kidding, or being self effacing. There are some jobs I just feel like I’m standing there, the last human in a horror movie, and the zombies are closing in.

So you have to be confident, to be sure. (Or project confidence even while inside your head the insecurity meter has gone to DefCon Five.) But a healthy dose of anxiety and self doubt (“I’m using a 200–maybe I should go wide?”) are also important tools in your bag. Causes you to double check yourself and remember how fragile photographic success is, and while your last frame was Fat City the next one might be a ticket to Pismo Beach. The fact that you rarely have THE answer is a good one to remember. No need to focus on it to the point of paralysis. Just remember it.  You are only as good as your last job. The next one may just eat your lunch and your soul.

So I don’t have too much patience for the odd person or two or three or dozen who gives you that kind wink and cocksure nod about how they could do this bang on full time and you should see the fantastic stuff they just shot. I used to just smile and nod. Now, thirty years on in the struggle to be good at this seemingly easy thing to do, I think I just nod.

Oh well, just part of the human condition I guess. I mean, I coulda been a brain surgeon. I just always had a little trouble with math and science. More tk….

90 Responses to “I Coulda Been a Contendah…..”

Pete says:

on September 17, 2009 at 11:48 am

God, I hate that I’m doing this, but…check on the definition of knots. It’s already distance/hour.
From another numnut….with nothing better to do but knitpick.

Jonathan says:

on September 17, 2009 at 11:49 am

I’m trying to become a photographer, and the thing I notice when I talk to pros is how old and beat up some of their equipment is. I think, “even your camera has more experience than I do.”

Shawn Rundblade says:

on September 17, 2009 at 11:59 am

Joe, thanks! That makes me feel a lot better. I am one of those photographers who is always worried what I should do, if I should do this or that. I love my gear too, but I could give a rats *** what I am using. I just want to capture the shot. If I need my 1941 4×5, or thats all thats around, I will do what I need to get the shot, the whole time worrying, what will the client think when I pull this thing out. I really want to be a great photog, hope i have the guts to get there. Time will tell, but I am going to keep chuggin away till I figure it out.

TC says:

on September 17, 2009 at 12:00 pm

That was fun – love your parting line.

Jeff Lynch says:

on September 17, 2009 at 12:05 pm

“My big problem is content.” – You still kill me Joe. I laughed all the way to the coffee pot. You gotta quit dissing the Eddie Bauer camo coat or da Moose gonna come afta yer butt dude.

Rock says:

on September 17, 2009 at 12:06 pm

I could be a big time shooter, if only Nikon would give me free stuff, Elinchrome would have to pitch in too. After I finished my photographic career in record time, I could have a tryst with Elle McPherson….you know, I could.

If I wanted to.

Life’s wasted on coulds and shoulds. It’s better spent half terrified and half excited of the things you actually did.

Larry Smith says:

on September 17, 2009 at 12:20 pm

I like when people say, “that’s a lot of equipment you’ve got there, you must be a professional.”
I want to say “Only when I get paid.”

jeremy mayhew says:

on September 17, 2009 at 12:21 pm

I love ya brother. There is so much technical info out there, info on lighting and composition and framing, but the stuff i love reading is your stuff about how to deal with the internal battle of photography. Everyones looking at you and your like “how the hell do i pull of this photoshoot..”, or being on assignment shooting sports for a living and standing next to 5 people with better equipment just “doing it for fun and so i can see my name in the paper.”

I love ya joe, your the best teacher i never even met.

TC says:

on September 17, 2009 at 12:22 pm

But on a serious note – it also hurts a bit.

I’m 41 and only started thinking about living of my photography a year ago. I’ve been shooting for a long time, but that’s when I started to take it seriously. I’ve stuff to say with my photos. I love working with other people. I’ve found my voice.

I also have two small kids, a wife and a rather expensive apartment. And a well paying job in IT.

That’s a hard switch.

I guess that kinda makes me coulda been.

Except, I’m working on it. And I’ll get there. I’ve a plan.

Dave Allen says:

on September 17, 2009 at 12:45 pm

Joe, I must have met the exact same guy at our last exhibition. All the gear and a stack of average photos in his back pocket that probably weren’t even his, telling us all about how great he is but he just doesn’t have the time to bother becoming a photographer. Ya gotta love it…

Thanks for all of your wonderful insights!

Megan says:

on September 17, 2009 at 12:45 pm

Thanks Joe–just the pep talk/commiseration I needed today!

Robert says:

on September 17, 2009 at 12:48 pm


What do you say to those folks who, say, have the content, have …some… equipment, but are too uncertain to “dip their toe in the market waters”? How do we get past the holy-crap-what-if-I-don’t-make-enough-to-pay-rent thoughts without any market experience?

Greg says:

on September 17, 2009 at 12:52 pm

I thought knots were something you got in the pit of your stomach when you fly with the blue angels.

Charlie Stevens says:

on September 17, 2009 at 12:55 pm

Joe, I love your insights and truthiness… it is a comfort to hear that no matter how well you do something, you are still subject to moments of self doubt. Thanks for telling it like it is!

Justin Van Leeuwen says:

on September 17, 2009 at 12:59 pm

People looking for time I have your answer, cut out sleep. If you’re a parent you’re already doing this. The rest is easy, ignore your relationship, daydream at work, then take whatever camera you have and make it work for you.

Doug says:

on September 17, 2009 at 1:01 pm


I think humility is a good trait for any human to have let alone a photog. Thanks for sharing all that you do. As for me? I’m just a hack. But I’m having fun! I don’t make any money from my camera.

“My big problem is content” – wow – how do you keep you face from contorting into the “holy smokes how can you function with only two brain cells” look?

Jim Wilson says:

on September 17, 2009 at 1:03 pm

Joe, you wax as eloquently in words as you do in the visual realm. Thirty years of shooting commercially, I so relate. One of the most frequent questions asked over the years has disappeared……”How do ya like that 1000 speed film?” But I still get the folks who have never mustered the courage to move the dial from “P”, telling me they know they could do this professionally. At a time when “pro” shooters are vanishing faster than the buffalo, I nod as well. Hope to see you at ISAP 2010, or maybe before as we cross paths at 5 am in a sky cap zone somewhere.


Dave Kallaway says:

on September 17, 2009 at 1:05 pm

Have you ever read Janet Evanovich??? Your blog read like her books about a really disfunctional family..and that’s a good thing. This camera man with the flames on the Eddie Bauer lens coat discription..just precious. You created a visual again…that’s what you do. :) DK

Lisa says:

on September 17, 2009 at 1:11 pm

I met a wonderful man and I think our mutual love of photography clinched the deal. And, almost from date one, he was talking about you and The Moment it Clicks and how good your tips are. You’ve really inspired him.
He’s the type who always has a good dose of anxiety and self doubt.
He’s a highschool teacher who gets to teach photography among some other things [like how to put a yearbook together]. He loves it!

I’m am a radio DJ who shoots for my own enjoyment though I tell him that, when we get married, we need to start up a photography business on the side. He says “Well, let’s practice some more because I’m rusty.” I laugh because he’s rather good and I say, “Sure, we’ll do more practice shoots. But have you seen what’s out there and who’s out there charging for shoots… and how much better you are than they?”

He lent me the aforementioned book (and I have since bought it for another aspiring photographer).
About a month ago, I did a shoot with my best friend in front of a huge sun flower field. I used a white pillow as a light modifier. It’s all we had… I own no fancy gear but a D40… Open sunshine and a pillow!

Lou H says:

on September 17, 2009 at 1:12 pm

Ha! That frozen rictus face is exactly the one I had when a woman looked at my prints and exclaimed “my 10 year old takes pictures every good as that”. My eyes still bulge with indignation over that one. They’d never say that about someone’s watercolour sketches – it is the sheer ubiquity of cameras that makes people think photography is easy. And that improvement is a function of expenditure.

Thatcher says:

on September 17, 2009 at 1:15 pm

I’m one of those wanna be photogs. But I know I suck. I know have a shit load to learn and it’s not just about f-stops. I know I have to sell the hell out of it. I was trying to figure out how I could go out full-time. But I knew I need to work with someone first. Sorry, but school won’t cut it for me. Then BAMM! My dream came true!! I just got hired by a photographer full-time! I’m leaving the graphic design world, I paid a ton of money to learn, for a photog gig, self-taught. I’m scared shitless but super stoked at the same time. I love it.

Grady says:

on September 17, 2009 at 1:18 pm

I agree with Rock. Spent more time doing and less time talking. One of the best things about photography is you have tons of images to look back on and remember what it was like shooting that day. Oh and ya I could be a millionaire if I would just play the lotto…

Rocky says:

on September 17, 2009 at 1:19 pm

I was a commercial photographer right out of college. Gave it up. Became a cop and got beat on and shot at for 28 years. It was much easier…

Aaron says:

on September 17, 2009 at 1:24 pm

Straight talk and writing born from hard won experience driven by love and fascination.

It’s what makes you one of the best on or offline as well as a down to earth inspiration for many of us.

Janine Smith says:

on September 17, 2009 at 1:28 pm

I’ll bet you also get “I could write like you” from someone who has no idea how hard it is to write like you. And that most people couldn’t come close. This was a joy to read.

Brian Hatch says:

on September 17, 2009 at 1:32 pm

A very interesting commentary. I’ll be happy if I make “coulda been” status someday.

Both my grandfathers were photographers. One stormed the gates at Buchenwald, taking pictures on Gen. Patton’s orders. The other had a dark room in his basement and was self-taught.

Did I want to be a photographer when I was a kid? Naw. I wanted to be a paramedic. So I became one. Oddly enough, I get the same kind of questions. “Boy, I’ll bet you’ve seen some cool stuff?” “Gee, I wish I could do that!”

No you don’t. No one should ever have to see the things I’ve seen.

A photographer I admire one said you don’t have to go to Afghanistan to get good pictures, but oddly enough, that’s where I am. Saving money for gear and school.

I understand it’s not all about the gear. I’d like to show people the world as I see it. Feel it how I felt it, and every once in awhile take someone’s breath away. I’d also like to do what my grandfather did. Record history, show people that there are things in this world that they should be aware of, and should never forget.

Maybe “Coulda been a contendah” is all the further I’ll get, but I’ll go down swinging. I know my grandfather would expect nothing less of me.

I’ve made a difference in this world, albeit a small one in the grand scheme of things. I’m hoping it’s my time to do that in a different way now. I’m not the next Indiana Jones, looking for “Fortune and glory” and I’ve read a couple books by this guy name Joe McNally that inspire me and show me that if you try hard enough and keep at it, it is possible to do this.

I’ve fought what seemed like losing battles at the time, in fact I hardly know anything else. I’m ready to try it again.

I also hope that if some day, I am fortunate enough to meet you, I’m worthy of more than a nod.


Rick Bern says:

on September 17, 2009 at 1:37 pm

Thanks for the pep talk as I stumble out the door to a big shoot. I think you hit it on the head with needing a “healthy dose of anxiety and self-doubt”. All that angst keeps one humble and hopefully open to seeing things with a fresh eye.

Always a great read – thank you.

Jonathan Fleming says:

on September 17, 2009 at 1:40 pm

Really appreciate this article Joe! Your extensive experience is tempered with true humility, and I think that’s what draws people to you as an instructor and source of inspiration. It has definitely made me a big fan!

Mark says:

on September 17, 2009 at 1:56 pm

That’s why picture editors I came up working for wanted to see your contact sheets, not just your greatest hits.

Sheeeeeeesh! That’s like one of my journalism teachers asking to see all my scratched out story drafts. Talk about building courage.

And I don’t ask “What would a really good photographer do?” I just ask “What Would McNally Do?” (Thinking about getting some WWMD? bracelets made up.) But I know that that won’t even give me the answer. You not only know your gear, but you have 30+ years of experience behind you to support and validate every decision behind the lens you make.

Brian Strauss says:

on September 17, 2009 at 1:59 pm

The other imaging personality I have spoken with is the “if i only had” dude.
If i only had a ticket to… if i only had a faster… my X is not Y, so i can’t…

Well gee, I believe you run with what you have and see what happens…

Last night I was watching amish contractors putting up vinyl siding in the late day light

I had my pocket P&S and made a few frames
Straw hats & pneumatic hammers on roof silhouetted with a pink/red sky.

Maybe i got something maybe i didn’t
but i tried.

val sorrells says:

on September 17, 2009 at 1:59 pm

Joe, the first thing that came to mind after I finished reading, (with a smile I might add) was this:

Yoda: “No. Try not. Do… or do not. There is no try.”

Dan says:

on September 17, 2009 at 2:15 pm

Great post Joe. Having been voted off the company island a couple of months ago, I’ve been spending a lot of time lately shooting while trying to decide what to do next. And by trying to decide, I mean putting off making a decision and psyching myself out with dumb amounts of self doubt and anxiety. Thanks for helping with a little push.

Now, where did you say those BA tryouts were? I just kick ass at Flight Simulator X. Might as well get paid for it, right?

RemyG says:

on September 17, 2009 at 2:30 pm

Joe, I met you in Italy on a NG workshop in 2007. I was so worried about being an uber novice. I showed up with my manual and my laptop and a whole book on post production. Something you said on the first day kept me up the first night, and now, the words that I wrote down still hang on my board in the office.

“photo editing is not where pictures happen, the camera is..the exerience is….so tap in to your passion for photography. Take risks in ways that you never thought you would when you are out there. Because in the field is where the photos are, not here in the lab…” When you said that, the whole class took a collective breath in, and then the only sound we heard was jerry courvoisier fainting in the back of the room. lol

It was because of you and your insights that I left the manual in the room, and came home without it. It was the push into the pool that I needed to figure out why I love it. Thank you, infinity.
Remy Gervais, CA

Sid and Michelle says:

on September 17, 2009 at 2:47 pm

Great post, Joe. As gallery owners, we frequently heard from photographers visiting any given exhibition: “I have photos like that!” or “I shot there, let me show you”. As you so eloquently say; “You know how you’re smiling at someone and there’s that moment where your face just kinda gets fixed and slightly immobile, cause it doesn’t know what to do next?”

Kathryn L says:

on September 17, 2009 at 3:13 pm

Thanks Joe. I’m set to do a shoot in ohhh four hours and just had a major case of the “HOLY CRAP I CAN”T TAKE A PICTURE TO SAVE MY LIFE”-itis. Turned to my blog list to find some inspiration and lo and behold you delivered it. Thanks so much for being there when I needed the confidence to take the baby-steps again.

caroline says:

on September 17, 2009 at 3:13 pm

As my dad’s always told me, you don’t have to have all the answers, you just have to know where to find them.

I’ve been put in any number of situations where I haven’t, exactly, you know, KNOWN what I was doing. And of course that produces some anxiety. You take a breath, and you figure it out. I’ve done photo shoots, overseen commercial productions, taught a class, and all the while I’m waiting for someone to storm the doors and yell “Fraud!” So far, nothing. In fact, most of the time, all I hear is “Great job!”

Bruce Philpott says:

on September 17, 2009 at 3:20 pm

Since I put black gaffer tape over my Canon logos and over my lens’ red lines, I’ve had fewer of those wannabes approach me while I’m working. They used to recognize “their” 5D in my hands and HAVE to tell me they had one, and proceed to list the rest of their gear.

The inverse of this phenomenon is someone seeing one of your better photos and saying, “Wow… you must have a GREAT camera!”

Yes, and thanks for a wonderful dinner. You must have some great pots and pans.

Matt Hunt says:

on September 17, 2009 at 4:13 pm

Another good point.

Trying is all, even if you then fail – at least you tried. Last night my neighbour (who does audio visual stuff that is very clever but cannot use a camera at all) came up with an brilliant suggestion that we do something together commercially. This evening I am looking at some raw files from 2 weeks ago and thinking I should tell him go elsewhere but there is the idea. Push, push, push.


Richard Cave says:

on September 17, 2009 at 4:22 pm

Been there, I hate journos telling me what to shoot, My biggest pet hate whilst working is a gearhead coming up to you who expects you to stop and talk to them. Im working!!!

Or someone that follows you around,

I am working,

the trick is to be a duck, smooth on the surface paddling like mad underneath,

I despise fix it in photoshop magazines, even though I have great respect for Mr Kelby and his band of merry men.

If you want to see an inspirational photographer check out mystic pics.com yes he does use photoshop however his visions are outstanding.

Now for my fifteenth cup of java before the gearfreak spots me, gotta go


Shawn Fields says:

on September 17, 2009 at 4:54 pm

Thats an elegant post! I often metaphorically compare photography to golf. Both I consider forms of art. Do professional golfers still get nervous on the first tee? Do professional golfers have bad days? We all golf (or try). We’ve all hit that drive or putt that sends the same feeling of accomplishment up our spines and into the part of our brains that tells us to pull out our wallets and do it again ’cause the next time, I might have that feeling all day! Or I might not. Fancy golf clubs don’t hit the ball straighter! ;-)

Jim Smith says:

on September 17, 2009 at 5:45 pm

Great post Joe. It speaks to a humility that all of us should possess.

This is the best thing I’ve read this week.

Sarah Kavanaugh says:

on September 17, 2009 at 5:56 pm

I really think Brian Strauss hit on another really good point. When I was in the AF I always had a studio to play in, backgrounds and lights galore (and they used to encourage playing). When I got out I went through withdrawals. I had a great camera and flash but almost nuthin’ else. It took me some years to realize that a “studio” (and this is going to sound simplistic and moronic!) consists of; a subject, a light source (could be the sun), a camera, and a photog who knows or is willing to learn what to do with the first three. The rest is gravy.

Jonathan Garver says:

on September 17, 2009 at 6:11 pm

Pete may be right about the definition of “knots,” but your usage of the word appears to be correct.

Speaking of physics, I recently confirmed the accuracy of one of Newton’s laws. Dropped my Canon 40D. Memo to backpack users: Zip it up before you put it on. Memo to backpack users who didn’t get this message on time: Canon’s Factory Repair Service is actually pretty good. A bit pricy, but no surprise there.

Joe says:

on September 17, 2009 at 6:14 pm

Great words of encouragement… You area absolutely correct about feeling overwhelmed with panic, as well as frustration and the feeling of not being as good as the other guy. That being said, with an artform as subjective as photography, hanging in there and constantly searching for the next level is the key… Your books and blog are some of the best reading around, thanks Joe!

Michael says:

on September 17, 2009 at 11:19 pm

Thanks for that post Joe. I’ve dealt with this type of thing and figure I always will. I have a famous photo school in my area and I have to laugh when they trot out the expensive stuff.
An old newspaper photographer said to me once that while its nice to have the latest, greatest and most expensive gear that if you don’t start learning how to create the photo with the gear you got (I was shooting high school football with a 70-200 zoom) than you’ll never have a full understanding how to create with the big stuff (the college kid had a 400mm 2.8 and a new brand new digital body from the school’s camera pool).
I have always though about that as I’ve slowly built my equipment list this past decade.

Adam Sanders says:

on September 18, 2009 at 1:39 am

I enjoyed the post. It’s like a conversation you have with someone about someone else, and it reminds you of who not to be. Of course, I find that as long as I don’t give up the merry-go-round, I take my turn on every carousel horse.

There is only one problem: You are Joe “De-facto/via the mechanism of . . .” McNally, and each of us is . . . one of millions.

Sure, you’ve been where a lot of us are – learning and failing – but weren’t times different? Were there as many cameras as there are today? Did you look at a massive Red Sea of aspiring photographers and think, “Is it even possible for me to distinguish myself?”

You have doubts, and it’s great that you share them. Please continue to do so. I’m done. I feel better.

Allan Bank says:

on September 18, 2009 at 4:35 am

Thanks Joe!

Kim Bentsen says:

on September 18, 2009 at 5:35 am

Thank you for being so candid about everything. If you have issues, where does that leave the rest of us then ;-) Photography exposes the human condition more than most other activities. Many live in fear, but hope for the future.

Carla says:

on September 18, 2009 at 6:48 am

It’s amazing how even the most experienced and talented of artists (photographers, musicians, writers, filmmakers etc) often feel like they’re not expert at all. I think it’s partly what defines a real artist. The knowledge that inspiration comes from somewhere we can neither understand nor completely control. Looking forward to many more of your forays into the unknown :-)

Patrick says:

on September 18, 2009 at 8:29 am

Knowing that at times even great photographers feel overwhelmed and need to search for their next inspiration is the most honest proclamation I have heard this week. It gives me hope that when I feel these same emotions their is still light at the end of the tunnel. Thanks Joe and give Nigel a scratch for me!

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