Excerpt: 'The LIFE Guide to Photography'

Joe McNally explains the basics of taking pictures.

ByABC News via via logo
December 26, 2010, 6:48 PM

Dec. 27, 2010 — -- Joe McNally's LIFE Guide to Digital Photography is full of tips, tricks, how-to, and pictures from the author's photo career, which spans over three decades. He writes about the basics of photography in an entertaining way, with a taste of humor.

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Here are excerpts from the book:

Foreword: The Right Photographer, The Right Guide

Nearly 75 years ago, four photographers were listed on the masthead of the first issue of LIFE magazine. They, and the technical wizards who followed them on the staff, were quite willing to explain how they took their eye-catching pictures. They felt there was little danger of being copied. "A good photograph is one that can't be repeated," says Harry Benson. What mattered was catching the moment, and each LIFE photographer felt he or she knew how to do that better than anyone else. Joe McNally, the 90th (and last) photographer to join LIFE's staff, brings this benign egoism into the digital age.

McNally is a talented photographer with a wise voice. He once draped movie star Michelle Pfeiffer with diamonds and, on a separate occasion, he talked the U.S. Olympic water polo team into posing naked for a LIFE cover. He writes in a friendly, conversational tone that makes him an ideal choice to pen a guide for the beginning photographer. His pictures speak for themselves.

This is a beautiful book, but McNally's advice is not limited to amateurs. He has never been to the moon. If he were to go, he would point out that, on the near side, we see that the light is the same as on the beach at Malibu or in the Hamptons. Working on the moon's far, dark side is a problem. I'd really like to know what advice he'd offer. He knows from experience what is important in photography and what's just distraction.

With today's digital cameras, photography appears to be as complicated as boiling an egg (which is not quite so simple as you might think, of course—a two-minute egg in Denver being quite different from a two-minute egg in New York City). Indeed, as McNally explains, digital cameras can be used to skirt such problems as focus, color balance and exposure that long bedeviled even the greatest photographers of the past. And we do not have to wait for days to see if the picture came out. There are even little gyroscopes built into lenses to counteract the shakiness of our hands. Those of us who worked with film in the 20th century can only smack our foreheads and exclaim how easy things would have been if we'd had digital way back when. We are free today to concentrate on timing and perspective, on quality of light and composition. All of these topics McNally discusses at the proper length.

Still, I should add a note of caution. "You could have the most modern cameras and not see picture possibilities," the wonderful LIFE photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt told me when he was 94 years old. "I see picture possibilities in many things. I could stay for hours and watch a raindrop. I see pictures all the time. I think like this."

So does Joe McNally. And you should, too.

Introduction: The Democracy of Digital

I've been doing this for a long time—I've been living in this world we call photography for a long, long time—and I remember a few things from the old days. The olden days. The days of yore.

Photography used to be not for the faint of heart. Its rigors would weed out the not-so-committed pretty quickly. You had to crank the f-stop ring yourself! And you often had to focus lenses that were so slow and dark, it was like peering down a side alley through a dirty window. Then you needed a basement or a bathtub, plumbing, tubes, clamps, drainage, pans, reels, chemicals, red lights, clothespins, special paper and drying racks—just to see what you thought you just shot. Many times, you were wrong about what you thought you'd just shot.

You also needed a good-sized chunk of that amazing thing we always seemed to run out of: time.

There was a tremendous gulf between the pro and the enthusiast. Ansel Adams rattled around the Southwest with his battered truck and his view camera, which looked like a giant accordion with a lens attached to it. Richard Avedon shot legendary beauties in Manhattan lofts and was therefore worshipped by fashionistas and attended to by legions of assistants. There were these luminaries, these magicians, and then there was pretty much everybody else, punting along with Brownies or Instamatics, making hopeful trips to the drugstore and generally picking up packages filled with disappointment a week or so later.

It all seemed pretty hard, right? And unfair.

Now we live in a place and age I refer to as the Democracy of Digital. Technology has eliminated the basement darkroom and the whole notion of photography as an intense labor of love for obsessives and replaced them with a sense of immediacy and instant gratification. Shoot the picture; look at the picture. Shoot and look, shoot and look. If it doesn't look good, shoot again. And again . . . and again. It's just reusable ones and zeroes now, not frames of film winding around in a cassette, each cassette with a processing price tag.

The result has been like turning a two-lane country road traveled by just a hardy few into a multilane superhighway, with lots and lots of folks driving fancy machines real, real fast—even if they don't have a clue where they're going. Digital technology has thrown a closed shop wide open, and there are more people out there snapping away than ever before. Some of the pictures are bad, some of them are good and many of them need some seasoning and direction. But the point is, a lot of people are doing photography—there are record numbers of shooters everywhere.

Presumably, if you have this book in your hands, you're one of them. Perhaps you've been at it a while but feel you could take better pictures. Maybe you just got the camera. You found it under the tree or you received it for your birthday or you bought it yourself after much agonizing about which of the myriad models out there might suit your fancy, your visual ambition and your budget.

You found during your research that digital photography is a fast-moving river; you just have to jump in at some point and start swimming. No more waiting to see if a new model is coming out next month. You already know it is, and it will have 20 or 30 million more pixels than the model you bought today. No matter. You now have a camera, which is this miracle device you've been longing for, a tool designed to catch, record and interpret light. To freeze a moment and a memory. And this magical instrument can go with you everywhere.

In our blog-mad, tweeting, Facebooking, Citizen Journalist world, where everybody out there is screaming in one way or another NOTICE ME!, this digital camera is not just required of the ardent hobbyist, it is needed by just about everyone. You record, therefore you are. In one way or another—be it in a blog or on Flickr or in an electronic album that you put together for the family and then print—you -publish. You share your news with the world. The airwaves no longer belong to networks. The news is no longer gathered and disseminated by the select few. You are the news. You are the editor and publisher of your own life and times. And just like any cranky, old-time newspaper editor with a hole to fill in the Metro section, you need pictures to go with the story.

So, let's make them good pictures, shall we?

Getting Started

As I said at the top, I've been doing this a long time, but I haven't yet lost so many memory cells that I don't remember way back when. I can still recall those first, awkward, fumbling attempts with a camera that was, in its basic way, far simpler to operate than today's digital marvels—if you choose to employ all the latest bells and whistles. Back then, I would shoot, then curse, knowing I had just missed a moment. Then I would curse some more back in the darkroom when what drifted up to me through the liquid in the tray looked nothing like what my overreaching mind and imagination had hoped for when I'd clicked.

You know something? I still get frustrated. I still shout at the rain and the sun and the wind when they conspire against my aspirations. When I'm frustrated, I entirely forget the time just last week when the sun and wind and a light rain all worked in concert for me, as if I were a conductor with a baton standing before the natural elements, not a plain ol' photog with a camera.

The simple truth of it is that even the most experienced shooters still miss the moment, still make mistakes—sometimes mistakes so basic that they wonder if there's ever any way to really and reliably learn this art and craft.

In this way, digital photography is no different from old-time photography. Good pictures are good pictures; you make some, you miss some. Not all of the photographs on the following pages were shot digitally, but those that weren't were selected because they could have been. Digital has changed the game, to be sure, but as in sports, the same rule applies eternally: The one who performs best—the one with the most points—wins. Whether we're talking football or tennis or photography, you play the game the right way, you win. I hope some of the info and tips that follow allow you to win more than you lose.

It's an unfortunate truth that the magic box you just feverishly unpacked is a machine designed to do two things—make pictures and drive you mad. But here's the thing: If you didn't care, you wouldn't get upset, right? If you weren't passionate and determined about all of this, you would just put your camera down like yesterday's newspaper. But you can't, just like I can't, all these years downstream.

Remember this: Good pictures demand care, and truly good pictures are hard to make. The manufacturers are out there selling us the digital dream, telling us that the camera does it all. And some of these machines almost do; they are marvelous contraptions. But no matter how fancy the gear, photography itself, at the end of the day, rules. Just like Mother Nature, the photo gods are mercurial indeed and smile upon us only occasionally and reluctantly. So relax. You will make mistakes! As someone much smarter than I once said, "Failure is a form of progress." He must have been thinking about photography.

Do these things first: • Take the camera out of the box and attach the shoulder strap. I generally put a little bit of gaffer tape (not duct tape, but photographer's gaffer tape) around the tails of the strap so they don't flap around and slip.

• Fully charge the battery. It usually comes from the manufacturer only partially loaded.

• Don't read the manual right away. You'll either get discouraged or fall asleep.

• Most cameras come with a "quick guide" designed to get you taking pictures right away. Do read that.

• Make sure you have either the cord to connect the camera directly to your computer or some sort of card reader by which you can pull your images off the card and onto your desktop.

• Make sure you have some sort of browsing software so you can take a look at the pictures. Many digital cameras come with viewing software bundled with the hard-ware. If yours doesn't, there are many, many fairly simple, not-too-expensive viewing programs out there.

• Then, put the camera on P. It stands for "program," but it is also jokingly referred to as "perfect" or "professional." No matter. In this mode, you let the camera drive, and for your first few spins, that's a good strategy. Most of these cameras have such a high level of technology and sophistication that they will sort things out for you very well, without you expending any thought (or sweat) whatsoever.

This allows you to . . .

Have fun! Picture-making can be hard to do, yes, but it shouldn't be in any way miserable. Shoot pictures. Look at the hits, near misses and complete disasters. Make some more of them. Get used to the feel of the camera.

Many cameras now come with a "kit" lens, a reasonably decent, all-purpose zoom that goes pretty wide to sorta telephoto. Work both ends of the lens, and see what the wide view and telephoto view can do for you. Start thinking about when it might be suitable to use one or the other.

Put yourself in different situations: bright sun, interiors, birthday parties, on the sidelines of ball games. See how the camera handles all this nutty stuff you see out there, the stuff that constitutes your world. Continue to shoot; take lots of pictures. Remember, you don't have to run to the drugstore to develop these. No pixels have to die! If something is intriguing enough to make you lift your camera to your eye, then it is worth making 50 pictures of it, not just 5. Shoot! You will only get better at this after you do it repeatedly. Many folks have asked me over the years how I got to be a LIFE photographer—how I got to be a guy who actually gets Michelle Pfeiffer to pose for his camera. The question always reminds me of that old joke about the lost tourist in Manhattan asking a New Yorker, "How do I get to Carnegie Hall?"

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