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The Nikon D500 and a Dancer: Street Scenes, Studio and the Stage with Joe McNally

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.”

Nikon D500 with AF-S DX NIKKOR 16-80mm f/2.8-4E ED VR and SB-5000 Speedlight, ISO 200, f/7.1 aperture and 1/250 of a second. Photo © Joe McNally.

Nikon D500 with AF-S DX NIKKOR 16-80mm f/2.8-4E ED VR and SB-5000 Speedlight, ISO 200, f/7.1 aperture and 1/250 of a second. Photo © Joe McNally.

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.

Nikon D500 with AF-S DX NIKKOR 16-80mm f/2.8-4E ED VR and SB-5000 Speedlight, ISO 400, f/5.6 aperture and 1/80 of a second. Photo © Joe McNally.

Nikon D500 with AF-S DX NIKKOR 16-80mm f/2.8-4E ED VR and SB-5000 Speedlight, ISO 400, f/5.6 aperture and 1/80 of a second. Photo © Joe McNally.

“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.

Shot on the Nikon D500 at ISO 100, f/8 and a shutter duration 1/30 of a second was paired with an AF-S DX NIKKOR 16-80mm f/2.8-4E ED VR and SB-5000 Speedlight. Photo © Joe McNally.

Shot on the Nikon D500 at ISO 100, f/8 and a shutter duration 1/30 of a second was paired with an AF-S DX NIKKOR 16-80mm f/2.8-4E ED VR and SB-5000 Speedlight. Photo © Joe McNally.

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.

Nikon - At the heart of the image

“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.

Nikon D500 with AF-S DX NIKKOR 16-80mm f/2.8-4E ED VR, ISO 400, f/8 aperture and 1/250 of a second. Photo © Joe McNally.

Nikon D500 with AF-S DX NIKKOR 16-80mm f/2.8-4E ED VR, ISO 400, f/8 aperture and 1/250 of a second. Photo © Joe McNally.

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.”

Nikon D500 with AF-S NIKKOR 85mm f/1.8G, ISO 200, f/5.6 at 1/250. Photo © Joe McNally.

Nikon D500 with AF-S NIKKOR 85mm f/1.8G, ISO 200, f/5.6 at 1/250. Photo © Joe McNally.

Nikon D500 with AF-S DX NIKKOR 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR II, ISO 200, f/8 and 1/15, Auto WB. Photo © Joe McNally.

Nikon D500 with AF-S DX NIKKOR 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR II, ISO 200, f/8 and 1/15, Auto WB. Photo © Joe McNally.

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.”

Interested in reading more Joe McNally articles? Click here to find more articles by Joe.

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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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