Last year I got a call from photographer Joe McNally asking to talk to me about a project that he wanted me to work on. I have the absolute pleasure of being able to call Joe a friend , but its never really lost on me the fact that when we are working, this is Joe "Frigging" McNally we are talking about. Joe is one of the three most influential and inspiring photographers for me - a long studied idol. To be asked to do a project with him filled me with anticipation.
As it turned out, Joe wanted me to work as a guest instructor with him on an annual class that he does: The Advanced Flash workshops at Jade Mountain. Jade Mountain is a beautiful resort in St. Lucia. In this wonderful paradise, Joe takes out a small group of photographers and takes them through the paces of a variety of different flash scenarios. This isn't a "What is your favorite Fstop" kind of event - you are a shooter.. with an assignment.. and your goal is to produce an image that celebrates the person that you are trying to shoot. From sunset portraits to mountain bikers racing along the jungle - you learn how to run your gear to light an image.
My contribution to this? I was tasked to take the participants through the world of post processing as well as explore the world of HDR with them. I know. The concept of tying Joe McNally and HDR in the same sentence sounds like a complete shocker. HDR is often a polarizing topic, and many photographers have started big flamewars on its contribution to the photographic space.
Joe however, saw this situation differently. To him, this was a technique that merited a space to talk about. While it's not something that he himself works on, he appreciated the form enough to give it a platform. To that, he believed enough of my contribution to it to talk about it as one of the foremost experts on the topic (I assure you, his words.. not mine)
Knowing how the industry can sometimes be on HDR never really bothers me. I believe that for the most part, my work on it stands for itself - and I've prided myself in showing through example how you can totally work on it and have great results - not the typical "Elvis on Velvet" kind of look people cringe at. Having said that, this was one of those situations that did make me nervous about me doing it. Here's a person that I respected - asking me to teach and show my art. I would be lying if I didn't say I was determined on focusing on other types of shooting entirely - ignoring the use of HDR. I figured my technique would be something that I would keep to myself, for fear of not wanting to look too different - or look bad.
I guess I wanted to write about it because I believe that many of us as photographers struggle with that entire concept of voice all the time. In looking for a place for us to make a mark, we can often struggle with accepting the things that we like and surrendering to them. To giving in to what we love and in the process of it, finding a new style that we can call our own. We quickly comb through websites of other work and say to ourselves "Look at THAT. That image is great. If only I shot this. If Only I shot that.. " Perpetually looking at the grass on the other side just keeps us thinking that the grass we stand on isn't as good.. or cannot be cultivated as well as the one right in front of us.
At times like this, I remember a maxim that my good friend Pete Collins shared with me:
Comparison is the thief of Joy.
Rather than sit and compare myself to all of the other stuff around me, I found it better to just sit and think to myself "This is what I do. This is how I work. Let me dive into the scenarios and leverage how much practice I've done with this technique to see if I can bring about something completely new that these people have not seen." Eric Clapton was once asked about legendary guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughn. When asked about playing next to Stevie, Eric stated that he tried not to watch him play. To do so would have him lost in the greatness.. and not let him speak what he wanted to say musically. Arming myself with that, I just said "Let me be truthful to myself and contribute by shooting what I love"
The next few days, I spent them making pictures that I was immensely proud of. From gigantic panoramas of the environment to intimate portraits of my wife resting after a wonderful day, I was able to really show what it felt like to be in this magical place. Imagine my surprise when I found out that the principals at the restaurant really loved the images. The work really resonated with the students as well, and I was able to teach how I produced the images, giving me a chance to do what I love - share my experiences.
Rather than swim in comparisons, remember that doing what you really love can be the best way to express your photographic gift. It's the best way to leave your mark on this art . Its also the best way for you to find joy in what you do.
Im excited to say that I will be joining Joe again this August leading another workshop. This time around Joe is out there for two weeks. One week has students learning with the incomparable David Burnett. The next week, I go back with Joe and explore post processing, video production in Photoshop, HDR, and shooting techniques. If you want to join us on either week, you can find out more information at the link below: