New York City is one of the great performance capitals of the world, so when Natalie Wilmshurst came to Gotham this summer, Nikon Ambassador Joe McNally started filling out his own dance card. McNally’s vision was to create a dynamic set of location photos of a beautiful and accessible subject.
“Natalie represents any young dancer who is trying to make it in the big city,” says McNally. “Building a photo shoot around her offered a perfect way to showcase how two of Nikon’s latest products—the D500 and SB-5000 AF Speedlights—are both accessible and easy to use.”
Precision Partners in Perfect Focus
“I met Natalie while working in Edinburgh, Scotland, and thought it would be a hit to pair together top performers,” adds McNally. That other ‘performer’ he’s talking about is the flagship Nikon D500, a DX-format camera that is en pointe when it comes to versatility. “The camera is light and responsive—perfect to use when fashioning this about-town profile series. I was moving constantly, so I had to travel light and be ready to frame in an instant.” While he predominantly used the kit lens AF-S DX NIKKOR 16-80mm f/2.8-4E ED VR, the AF-S NIKKOR 200mm f/2G ED VR II, AF-S NIKKOR 35mm f/1.8G ED and AF-S NIKKOR 85mm f/1.8G were also on hand for specific situations.
“There are benefits to working with a smaller sensor,” he asserts. “One of which is that the DX sensor, since it’s smaller, allows for broader focus point coverage area. When I was looking through the viewfinder to check what I was framing (with Dynamic AF set to ON), I could observe red focus point cursors tracking through a majority of the frame—easily following my subject’s movement. This is great for candid shots, and ideal when photographing erratic subjects such as athletes or pets.”
“The Nikon autofocus system continues to evolve, and I also found it helpful to employ one of the breakthrough autofocus modes, Group-area AF,” McNally explains. “The camera constantly tracks a moving subject (you have to be aware of your Lock-On custom settings as well), but the Group-area AF mode further assists me in defining an area to follow; it allows me to assign priority to an active cluster of focus points. I could keep her face, neck and shoulder area in sharp focus, even if her feet or torso were in constant motion.” McNally relied on Group-area AF mode for a variety of the shots with Natalie in motion in the studio, and also dancing on stage in the theatre.
Need a Light?
To present her more contemplative and still side, McNally positioned the dancer within a corner window of a west-facing building in Manhattan and set the camera to AF-S (Single Point), positioning the cursor over her face. While the image appears to be natural and spontaneous, it in fact took a bit of lighting and staging. Had he merely stepped into position to shoot, his subject would have been lost in the shadows, rendering only a silhouette, with brightness from the outside sun overpowering her.
“I drifted a little light onto her, using flash to subtly open up the look. I wanted to mimic the look of natural light, while keeping overall softness.” He positioned a 6 x 6 Skylite Rapid Diffuser Panel to camera left, placing three Nikon SB-5000 Speedlights through it. To keep her face from falling into shadow, another SB-5000 was placed on the floor. Its light cast was softly bounced up by a silver Lastolite TriFlip reflector placed on the floor.
The Nikon D500 was set to ISO 100 at f/8 and the shutter speed was 1/30 of a second. “I used the 16-80mm. This lens is a compact, really sharp lens. I love that I have access to f/2.8 at the wide angle settings.”
Additional environmental portraiture was created. “New York City subway shots were captured relying on purely available light and the 16-80mm,” he says. The D500 is regarded for its simplicity. “It permitted me to shoot in a wide range of situations—from hard sunlight, to high ISO inside the subway; from flash on the street at night to flash in a studio setting. Minimal gear, maximum results.”
Into Darkness with High ISO
Photographers say that newer DSLR cameras permit them to shoot in more and more locations—particularly dark locales. “For the subway images I dialed ISO to 1000,” he shares. “The fear is gone. Technology enhancements permit us to work in upper ISO ranges and obtain clean files. It used to be that when photographing in dark venues the resulting photo would lack vibrancy and showed noise.”
While it was McNally’s technical objective to demonstrate that a basic camera set-up can handily work through a variety of environments, it was his primary goal to produce a collection of images that captured the essence of this young dancer. He discovered that, despite her classical ballet training, his dancer favored the moves of Bob Fosse. Insight noted—McNally and team shuttled off to the Ridgefield Playhouse in Connecticut.
Time for the big moment on stage, so a Viennese coffee chair was brought in—plus a selection of lighting gear. For authenticity McNally started with house lights turned on. His team placed three blue-gelled SB-5000 Speedlights in the balcony, then four additional SB-5000s set at ground level. “She (Natalie) is center stage. I am recreating a live performance look, so I’ve added a hard light (SB-910 Speedlight) to camera right. This radiates at her, imitating a look you get when lights are on in the wings.” McNally tapped Nikon’s wireless flash system that now operates via radio. Capture specs include ISO 400, f/8 aperture at 1/250. The AF-S DX NIKKOR 16-80mm f/2.8-4E ED VR was employed.
A straight-on portrait was also desired, so the photographer styled this by placing the camera on a tripod, then dialing to ISO 200, f/5.6 at 1/250 shutter speed. “I used a ‘traditional’ clam shell style of lighting, over and under, and skipped a light off the floor. A softbox was angled camera-right for the ‘over’ light.”
Studio and Stage Excellence
“A dynamic subject requires a dynamic photography system,” closes McNally. “The Nikon D500 is a great camera that’s perfectly suited for a project such as this. That camera paired with the 16-80mm was ideal; so versatile, so sharp. The gear allowed me to move fast.”
- AF-S DX NIKKOR 16-80mm f/2.8-4E ED
- AF-S NIKKOR 35mm f/1.8G ED
- AF-S NIKKOR 85mm f/1.8G
- AF-S NIKKOR 200mm f/2G ED VR II
- SB-5000 Speedlight
- SD-9 High Performance Battery Pack
- WR-A10 Wireless Remote Adapter
- WR-R10 Wireless Remote Controller