Post processing your photos to get the Joe McNally look

By Amruta Mohod

It takes a certain type of intuitive perception and skills to reach the level Joe McNally has. From his works for the National Geographic Society to his famous Faces of Ground Zero portraits, there’s a distinctive idiosyncrasy in all his work.

And if you wish to follow in his footsteps, if you like the look and feel of his work, you’d have to study his techniques and understand his perspective.

Joe McNally has produced some brilliant ‘clicks’ to date, but not all of these were fresh out of a camera. Although, his perspicacity shows with every capture, there is a layered post-processing stage involved too. And for which he has a full-time team of 4 at his studio.

He states, “I understand my shortcoming. I’m good at clicking pictures, I’d be put in a box with a camera but I leave what I’m not good at (post-processing) to my team.”

Post-processing is an integral part of the procedure, and one that photographers need to pay due attention to.
From minor edits to revamping the color range of the photo, the digital darkroom is your playground even if you end up with a click you fall in love with.

We rounded up some common-but-imperative post-processing techniques you must pay attention to:


1. Color balance

Datacolor Spyderblog get the Joe McNally look


Probably the main reason why post-processing might have come into the picture at all. Adjusting color balance is important because cameras aren’t equipped to capture the diverse range of colors that nature so beautifully portrays.

Plus the natural lighting and weather plays spoilsport too. This necessitates including color balance as a compulsory step in post-processing.

You can manually adjust the color scheme to replicate what your eyes see, or you can go the smart way and choose a tool like the Datacolor Spyder5ELITE that will provide the highest level of control to ensure the most accurate and true monitor color you can achieve.


2. Sharpness


Datacolor Spyderblog get the Joe McNally look


One thing to understand is that while you can nail focus in the processing stage, the path to crisp clear pictures starts with your camera. Depending upon the camera you use, you need to accordingly adjust shutter speed and aperture to get superior quality images.

And use a tripod to reduce shakiness and prevent blurred images as this is the first step for tack sharp images.

Most amateur photographers shoot in single point, but if you need to be different than the herd, you’d have to up your game.

And this is done during the post-processing stage. Tack sharpness isn’t easy because it involves a series of detailed steps. But get all the basic and advanced info in this James Brandon guide that besides comprising a sizeable amount of relevant knowledge also provides practical examples using Brandon’s own images.


3. Learn branch-specific techniques


Datacolor Spyderblog get the Joe McNally look


Every branch of photography differs from its counterpart. The techniques you employ to process street photography would differ from the ones you use for portraiture.

While the essence of street photography isn’t fixed, so you have the leeway to bend the rules to get the most out of your click, for portraiture the expressions take center stage. You have to enhance contrast, erase flaws and overall improve the quality.

Or take landscape photography for instance, these are the hardest to work with simply because of the raw uncut procedure involved. You can’t have lighting and props for landscape shots, you see a landscape, you like it, perceive it, and click it. But far too often what you see and what you click isn’t the same thing.

Therefore, when it comes to landscape photography, you need to go a little deeper and gain holistic knowledge of post-processing.



4. Don’t overdo retouching


Datacolor Spyderblog get the Joe McNally look


Image retouching is a common post-processing technique, so much so that even the non-photographer populace often retouch their pictures for social media. But the difference between them and you is the quality of it, and how natural your pictures come out.

You obviously don’t want to give images – especially portraits – a ghastly porcelain doll look, which unfortunately most people do. The idea is to even out flaws and enhance an image to the extent it can be enhanced.

For example, you can achieve perfect skin structure by correctly manipulating Low and High pass filtering or through noise reduction.

Check out this detailed tutorial from on how to retouch a face concentrating on smoothening and softening primarily.



5. Be organized


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Editing isn’t mainly a gut thing, you need to know where you want to go and the way to it. Most photographers make the mistake of going with the flow, which, if it works, good for them, but mostly it won’t.

Just like you follow a routine set of steps while clicking a picture – setting up the gear, adjusting, setting the tripod – you need to know what steps to take to go through the entire editing process.

A workflow, as it is called, will save you both time and effort, and give you a realistic picture of the journey. It’s akin to boarding a train, you know the stations in between show how far you have left to go and what to expect.

If you’re tuned to post-processing and have your routine basic steps that you follow, you can stick to it. But that won’t work for all images, in fact you’d have to keep adding other steps to it subject to the type of image you have and the vision of the final version.

Read up on how your mentors and idols go about it, how did someone like Ansel Adams do post-processing or what workflow does Steve McCurry adopt for editing his images.

We found this wildflower photography guide really helpful to get you organized when it comes to post-processing. The workflow mentioned is detailed and practical. If you don’t want to do the work and read up on what other photographers do, just reading up on this would be equally helpful if not more.

Post-processing isn’t easy territory. If the likes of Joe McNally can hire professionals to do his editing, you could consider too. But if you’re low on moolah but still want your pictures to be in the big leagues (we hear you!) don’t forget to check out the resources we mentioned in this post.