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McNally Goes into the Red with Delta Bluesmen

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Nikon Ambassador Joe McNally’s admiration for blues musician legends can be seen in his recent series “Delta Bluesmen.” It is within this body of profiles that the photographer reveals each performer’s personality and charisma as framed within a signature environment. Shares McNally, “I strive to provide a sense of context within each portrait otherwise the viewer is robbed of a full experience. Context for storytelling can be greatly enhanced by choice of lens and lighting.”

Fresh from a session at Rockwood Music Hall in New York City with blues great Leo “Bud” Welch, McNally runs through how choice of lens influenced his lighting set-up, and how using predominantly Nikon Speedlights kept things ‘in the red.’ Images were produced using the Nikon D7200, which boasts an ISO range of up to 51,200 for color work.

When composing, always pay close attention to the details, color palette and environment. In using contrasting colors and lighting to add richness to the environment, McNally was able to construct a scene that ties the character of the subject to its surroundings in a compelling way. 24-70mm f/2.8  lens, 1/4 second, f/11. ISO 400, on manual. Photo © Joe McNally

When composing, always pay close attention to the details, color palette and environment. In using contrasting colors and lighting to add richness to the environment, McNally was able to construct a scene that ties the character of the subject to its surroundings in a compelling way. 24-70mm f2.8 lens, 1/4 second, f/11. ISO 400, on manual. Photo © Joe McNally

Choice of Lens and Aperture Affect Your Light Scheme

To create Welch’s story McNally heeded one of his mantras, “entire to detail,” which is a framework whereby he looks over an entire scene, then drills down on details. That said, his photo narratives give homage to everything—from small details such as wardrobe, color and palette, to broad elements such as charisma, personality and environment.

Nikon - At the heart of the image

In photograph one, the AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8E ED VR set to f/11 frames a broad, but intimate, look that expertly showcases everything from red alligator shoes, to the brilliant sheen of a blue suit, to compliment the red stage lighting. “I chose to play up wild wardrobe colors and make the most out of a really, really dark space,” notes McNally. “First I got control of my environment. I asked the stage manager to run through all the lighting settings so I could see what I had to work with. When he turned on the red spotlights, I liked how they mixed in. It’s important that photographers observe the quality of ambient lighting–then assess if that light will be useful or not.”

When setting exposure, he metered for ambient light to preserve the stage reds. Using an Avenger C-stand at camera-left, three Nikon SB-910 AF Speedlights were mounted onto a tri-flash cold shoe. Lights, directed at the subject, fired simultaneously through a large Lastolite umbrella.

This shot required precise placement of Speedlights. Note the extent to which light curls round each finger—carving and shaping while separating elements from the background. When your light source is big and placed to the side its pattern of fall can lend drama to an image. AF-S NIKKOR 35mm f/1.4G, at 1/13 second, f/5.6, ISO 400, on manual. Photo © Joe McNally

This shot required precise placement of Speedlights. Note the extent to which light curls round each finger—carving and shaping while separating elements from the background. When your light source is big and placed to the side its pattern of fall can lend drama to an image. AF-S NIKKOR 35mm f/1.4G at 1/13 second, f/5.6, ISO 400, on manual. Photo © Joe McNally

Lighting Precision for Wide Aperture Photographs

Having framed the full subject, next came a close-up image. “I wanted to showcase detail and texture of the 80-plus year old’s hands through a shallow depth of field.” Working at a 1.4 f/stop on the AF-S NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4G, McNally put critical focus at his chosen point, and allowed surrounding objects to softly melt away.

Three Nikon SB-910 AF Speedlights, again paired with the lightshaper, were placed camera-left. A very closely placed light source not only tightened where light fell, but brought luster and softness. “This shot required precise placement of Speedlights. Note the extent to which light curls round each finger–carving and shaping while separating elements from the background. When your light source is big and placed to the side its pattern of fall-off can lend drama to an image.” He continues, “Since I added light and was working at f/1.4, I had to “speed up” the shutter in order to take down the increase in ambient light level reaching the sensor.”

Detect the hint of warmth at the musician’s wrist? McNally used a Lastolite TriGrip reflector to bounce in a golden tone.

The brightness of the light on one side of Welch comes as a result of framing a wide scene in a confined space; I was not able to place my main source of light close to my subject.  AF-S NIKKOR 35mm f/1.4G, at 1/13 second, f/6.3, ISO 250, on manual. Photo © Joe McNally

The brightness of the light on one side of Welch comes as a result of framing a wide scene in a confined space; I was not able to place my main source of light close to my subject. AF-S NIKKOR 35mm f/1.4G, at 1/13 second, f/6.3, ISO 250, on manual. Photo © Joe McNally

The Full Picture

This next image, acquired using a smaller aperture, shows more environment. The 35mm f/1.4 lens set at f/6.3 yields a wider field of view. “There is more depth in this perspective. Since I pulled back, I wanted to retain sharpness so the viewer feels the atmosphere.”

Nikon - At the heart of the image

Here, McNally keeps the red hint on the back walls strong by using three SB-910 AF units and a 3’ x 6’ Lastolite Skylite panel. Commenting about working from within a confined space, he explains, “The brightness of the light on one side of Welch comes as a result of framing a wide scene in a confined space; I was not able to place my main light source close to my subject.” The photographer goes on to remind us that when light is far away, ramping up its size is one way to preserve diffusion and quality.

A hint of red on Welch’s head and neck comes from a single SB-910 AF unit fitted with a red gel and placed roughly 25-feet away—this was the only addition of coloration over McNally’s lighting set-up. Additionally, full length window curtains to camera-left were pushed back and contribute a bit more ambient light.

Telling Stories

Musicians tell stories through songs and instruments. Photographers share stories through images, and their instruments include camera, lens and light. Says McNally, “Choice of lens and light bring charisma and perspective to your story.”

For more NIKKOR lens and Speedlight tips and tricks, also see McNally’s recent post
http://blog.joemcnally.com/2016/03/08/parsing-scene-lenses/

Recommended Gear:

D7200
AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8E ED VR
AF-S NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4G
AF-S NIKKOR 35mm f/1.4G
SB-910
SB-5000

About The Contributor

joe-bio

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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  • Faraz

    Why is Joe McNally writing in third person context?

  • neilhunt

    The likely simple & understandable answer is avoiding the too frequent use of ‘I’ & ‘my’ all the time! Not a problem for me. Great shots Joe!

  • Joseph Abi Rached

    Thanks for you I spent more than hour observing the musician photos, I nearly got fired from work, it was a great shots, never seen like them before “shooting with low light”.