Joe’s been in the industry for 35 years, and has been a contracted photographer for National Geographic for about 25.  For most of his career, he’s primarily been an editorial photographer, so a good chunk of time I’ve spent on the road with him has been working on NatGeo stories.

My first week of work in the studio, Brad, his former assistant, showed me the ropes for a few days, went over the basics of all the gear we’d be using in the field, and took off for Florida, for his new job, as photo assistant to Scott Kelby.

The second week, I was thrown into the deep end, as we were starting a new story for the magazine, roughly about telescopes, and how we map outer space.

 We headed to Monument Valley, Arizona for 4-5 days, and shot two setups.  Essentially, we were trying to demonstrate the three ways humans can see outer space (visible spectrum, infrared, and x-ray).  Interestingly, with an editorial story like this, unlike advertising/commercial jobs, Joe gets lots of freedom as to what he shoots, and how he shoots it.

Going to Monument Valley was Joe’s idea, as he liked the iconic/outer space-like look of the rock formations- and convinced his editor it would be successful.  This, of course, involved bringing a ton of gear with us into the middle of the desert– three screens (to show the three ways of mapping space), multiple laptops, projectors, generators, tons of sand bags, pop-up tents, etc.

This wasn’t long after we had started shooting the Nikon D3, and being that we were doing long time exposures (45-90 min.), had no idea how it would deal with noise.  As a precaution, we used an in-camera noise reduction feature, which doubled the exposure time for each exposure– so a 90-minute exposure quickly turned into three hours of sitting and waiting.

Being that we had absolutely no idea how much digital noise there would be, or exactly how bad it would be, we also made it a point to shoot film, as a backup.  All in all, we shot six camera bodies, all with time exposures, each running different brackets.  We had two Nikon D3’s, two Nikon F6’s, and two Fuji 6×17’s.  Sounds fun, right?

As if the shoot setup itself wasn’t crazy enough, we also had to deal with 3-4 nights of shooting in the Arizona desert– which was damn cold…Keep in mind this was my 2nd week on the job, and my first shoot in the field with Joe.

We also did this shot a few weeks later, for the same story…

This shoot involved a 90-minute drive up 181 switchback turns, to the top of a 12,500 ft. mountain at 3am.  We spent the day lighting the interior of the telescope (which is a 20 story building) with over 30,000 watt-seconds of big flash.  Joe went up in a 175 ft. boom crane (sketchy, considering the 30-40 mph winds), shot the above photo, packed up gear, and drove down the next morning at 2am.

So that’s most definitely some of the more crazy types of shoots I’ve experienced while working with Joe.

On the other side of the spectrum, we also do a good chunk of ad/commercial shooting, and recently shot a good chunk of the Nikon D4 campaign.  Nikon’s agency asked Joe for a bunch of ideas, and they ended up biting on four of them, which we spent a few weeks shooting around the country this past winter.

Though I did assist on several of the shoots, I actually had the opportunity to shoot BTS video for Nikon Japan on five of those days.  As a studio, we’re fairly new to the world of video, but I can at least speak for myself, in saying that I’m thoroughly enjoying the learning curve.

Joe McNally Photography- On location with the Nikon D4 from Joe McNally Photography on Vimeo.

One major lesson I’ve learned over the years from Joe is the art of versatility.  Two years ago, none of us at the studio had really shot any video in our lives.  Then with the birth of DSLR-video, we knew we had to get on-board and give it a shot.  We still don’t claim to be a full production house, by any means, but we’ve gotten to a point where we can produce a professional-looking product, and it’s an incredible process to be a part of.

I always tell any shooter starting out in the business, that they NEED to have at least a basic grasp on video (and audio).  Sure, it’s entirely separate from still photos, but the more you can wrap your head around it, the more marketable you are as a shooter.

Hope this was a useful glimpse into the world of assisting, and happy to answer any questions at all.  If there’s any other recent shoots you’ve seen of Joe’s, or any other shooting scenarios you’d like me to cover, just leave a comment.

Next up in this ongoing blog series is the topic of Personal Shooting/Career Building, so stay tuned!


If you missed the first two parts in this series, check them out here:

Part I

Part II 



First off, welcome to part two, of this blog series I’ve been working on.  If you’ve missed Part One: Starting Out In The Photo World, be sure to check it out HERE.

So why should you assist someone, and what does a photo assistant do??

I can never stress enough to a new photographer, young or old, how essential it is to work under another established shooter- whether it be an internship, mentorship, full-time assisting gig, or freelance assisting work.

I can confidently say that even in a 2-month internship I had with Joe, I learned far more practical knowledge than I learned in my entire BFA program.

If you’re trying to seriously get into the photo world, and call yourself a “professional”, it’s absolutely essential to educate yourself, in both a photographic and business sense.  If you don’t do this, I’d argue that you’re hurting the marketplace, and are actively making it harder for every true professional to make a living.  Sounds harsh, but it’s true.

With that said, a huge part of interning and assisting for me, has been to spend a great deal of time with Lynn, our studio manager/producer, learning about contracts, estimates, producing jobs, etc.  Though she’s been working with Joe for nearly 20 years, she originally came from the ad world, as an art buyer, and is an encyclopedia when it comes to running the business.  She recently did a phenomenal guest blog post for Joe on how she produced the recent Nikon D4 campaign we worked on, and is definitely worth a READ.

So what does a photo assistant do?  In short, everything.  I’ll start by saying that my own assisting experience is likely a bit different than most other assistants, for a few reasons.  I work as a full-time assistant, while far more assistants are freelancers, so my knowledge base may be somewhat limited, compared to someone who assists for 20 different shooters.  I also work for someone who travels a lot more than your average shooter, so that brings in a whole different set of experiences as well.

On-location, I’m typically setting up and changing lighting and grip, making sure cameras are set up properly, shooting BTS video, and sometimes digital teching.  Once we’re back at the hotel, I have to download and backup all shot cards (in three places), unpack large and small flashes that need recharging, clean sensors, repack for the next day, etc.

When we’re home in the studio (which is maybe 35-40% of the year), I’m doing any and all of the following (along with our two other assistants): Post-production, sending files off to clients, archiving and backing up new work, maintaining cameras and grip gear (i.e.- re-organizing, sending broken items out for repair, etc.), making fine art prints, helping to keep the website/blog updated, office/client meetings, charging batteries (lots, and lots of them), and repacking for the next job, amongst other things.

Since I started with Joe in September 2008, I’ve logged several hundred thousand frequent flier miles on Delta.  It’s most definitely a crazy lifestyle, but it’s a perfect match for where I am, both personally and professionally right now- and I’m incredibly fortunate to have had some amazing experiences over the past few years.

There’s still a few more posts to come in this series (the next being, “Opportunities I’ve had working with Joe/a BTS look at working on-assignment”), but again, if you missed “Part One: Starting out in the Photo World”, you can check it out HERE.

If you have any questions/comments/want me to dive in more about any particular assistant-related topic, please feel free to leave a comment!