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Bedtime Stories and Spooky Tales Fashioned with a Nikon D810 and Nikon Speedlights

Photo © Adam Woodworth McNally used a Nikon D810 with an AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8G ED lens and five SB-910 Speedlights to sculpt the light and create beautifully contrasting colors. Photo by Joe McNally.

Take a look at Nikon Ambassador Joe McNally’s two spooky photos and you might be inclined to think that Halloween is his favorite holiday. Or is it just his desire to let a little dark side humor come out to play? We asked him to describe how he builds his lighting trickery.

Up Past Bedtime

As you can see in the first photo, our innocent little girl is up past bedtime. Strange things happen at night, and McNally reveals all. For “The Bedroom,” he and crew relied on a combination of five Nikon SB-910 Speedlights mixed in as accents, plus various selectively placed studio lights. The Nikon D810 was set to Incandescent White Balance (to give an overall blue cast); this blue tone is most evident where the fairy lurks.

To create an effect of azure moonlight reflecting off of outdoor waters, McNally placed three studio lights on the ground outside, bouncing the light into a 6×6 silver reflector that was angled upward to point into the second floor window. To punctuate, “We spot-lit the fairy’s face using an SB-910 tucked behind the toys. This key light pops her face by at least one f/stop, helping draw the eye there.”

“Every detail is important and it’s the role of each Speedlight to ensure that crucial accents are visible.”

Studio lighting, some gelled to warm tones, provide broad sweeps of illumination and ensures that nothing fades into shadows. Additional Speedlights were positioned to stream into the bedside lamp and pop details along the front of the bed. “This was an elaborate set with a variety of light sources,” says McNally. “Every detail is important and it’s the role of each Speedlight to ensure that crucial accents are visible. Each light had a specific job to do in a specific area.”

When it comes to getting things dialed in, McNally says it takes a methodical approach. “We work slowly and make adjustments. We’ll place a light and check the results. We modify or ratio it up or down. What needs more attention? What needs less? We’re looking for balance, and to control the light so that it doesn’t overpower any aspect of the scene.”

McNally used a Nikon D810 with an AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm f/2.8G ED lens and two SB-910 Speedlights to help achieve his vision for spooky lighting in the forest. Photo by Joe McNally.

McNally used a Nikon D810 with an AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm f/2.8G ED lens and two SB-910 Speedlights to help achieve his vision for spooky lighting in the forest. Photo by Joe McNally.

Screams in the Haunted Forest

For a second fantasy McNally went to the edge of a forest. The look says midnight, yet capture took place in late afternoon. Despite the significant amount of studio light (12,000 watts) used predominantly to pull texture out of the wooded background, highlight low-clinging fog and permit proper exposure, McNally notes it was the positioning of each Speedlight that really adds a signature. Two Nikon SB-910s were used: one was placed inside the pumpkin to add an orange glow, while a second was positioned in the lower right hand side. “We bounced that second light off of a silver board, aiming to have it pull texture out of the evil tree’s trunk.”

Showing and Telling a Big Story

It took a Nikon D810 and the AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8G ED (bedroom) and the AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm f/2.8G ED (forest) to create these images. “High resolution capture was called for—and that’s what I get with 36 Megapixels. There are many detail points and regions to explore in each frame. That camera, combined with any NIKKOR lens, is so precise that I can zoom-in and see each eyelash.”

Nikon - At the heart of the image

Will McNally be telling any more Nikon bedtime stories this Halloween? You can find out by visiting the PhotoPlus International Conference + Expo this October.

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About The Contributor


Joe McNally

Joe McNally is an internationally acclaimed photographer whose career has spanned more than 30 years and included assignments in 60 countries. McNally is often described as a generalist because of his ability to execute a wide range of assignment work. His expansive career has included being an ongoing contributor to National Geographic—shooting numerous cover stories and highly complex, technical features for the past 25 years; a contract photographer for Sports Illustrated; as well as shooting cover stories for TIME, Newsweek, Fortune, New York, and The New York Times Sunday Magazine.

McNally regularly writes a popular, occasionally irreverent blog (joemcnally.com/blog) about the travails, tribulations and high moments of being a photographer, and has authored several noteworthy books on photography. While his work notably springs from the time-honored traditions of magazine journalism, McNally has also adapted to the Internet driven media world, and was recently named as one of the “Top 5 Most Socially Influential Photographers” by Eye-Fi. McNally was also named the 2015 Photographer of the Year by PMDA. His work and his blog are regularly cited in social media surveys as sources of inspiration and industry leadership. He is also among the rare breed of photographer who has bridged the world between photojournalism and advertising, amassing an impressive commercial and advertising client list including FedEx, Nikon, Epson, Sony, Land’s End, General Electric, MetLife, USAA, Adidas, ESPN, the Beijing Cultural Commission, and American Ballet Theater.

A sought-after workshop instructor and lecturer, he has taught at the Santa Fe Photographic Workshop, the Eddie Adams Workshop, the National Geographic Society, Smithsonian Institution, and the Annenberg Space for Photography, Rochester Institute of Technology, the Disney Institute, and the U.S. Department of Defense. He received his bachelor’s and graduate degrees from Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, and returns there to lecture on a regular basis. He is proud to be named a Nikon Ambassador [United States], an honor that has a special significance for him, as he bought his first Nikon camera in 1973, and for forty years, from the deserts of Africa to the snows of Siberia, he has seen the world through those cameras.

See more of Joe's work at www.joemcnally.com.

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  • Tom Wiencko

    The Bedroom – awesome piece of work here. What is that little magic device glued to the back of the book the child is holding? I love the effect on her torso and face you got with it.