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Archive for February, 2012

Farewell to An Adventurer

Feb 29

In Memories at 8:49am

Memorial services were held recently for Micron Chairman Steve Appleton, killed in airplane accident earlier in the year. A stunt pilot, scuba diver, surfer, off road racing enthusiast, and a black belt in Taekwondo, he pushed the limits on a pretty continuous basis. “The older you get, the more risk you should take,” he evidently told a reporter once during an interview.

I met him, briefly, in Mexico. I was hired by Micron (who makes Lexar digital media cards, which have been a staple in my bag since I picked up a digital camera) to shoot (briefly) the Baja 1000 back in 2006. I have to suspect that it was Steve’s enthusiasms and urgings that got Micron involved in this crazed ritual of off road driving prowess held every year in very rough country. It was a massive undertaking involving dozens of crew, multiple cars, mechanics, tractor trailers, helicopters, and of course, teams of drivers. I had exactly one day to shoot the race, which meant I riccocheted around the dusty back roads of northern Mexico, shooting what and when I could. I think I intersected with the race three times, and shot the Micron cars as they zipped past me in seconds and vanished in the flying dirt. For my part in the actual race coverage, I saw the Micron vehicles for less than a minute. Steve, of course, piloting one of the cars, won his division.

Pretty amazing accomplishment given how nutty the race actually is. As you can see below, the cars get air quite frequently, and there are no guard rails or crowd controls. Lots of spectators are drunk by, say, 9am. I made the below while dodging beer bottles filled with pebbles that were being thrown at the photog guy who was standing in front of everyone.

I abandoned my fruitless quest for the Micron cars at a pit stop lit with torches in the interior of Mexico, around midnight.

Also managed to squeeze a camera inside one of the Micron cars, and it made the 1000 mile trip.

Given the dearth of race coverage I could provide, the impromptu portrait session Steve graciously agreed to loomed large in my coverage. We went driving together, and when he was rocking that car over hills and rocks and through the blinding sands of Mexico, I saw his face come alive. Not the typical CEO portrait session. Not the typical CEO. Godspeed.

More tk….

Happy 50th Anniversary, Senator

Feb 27

In history, In The Field at 5:09am

On February 20th, 1962, Friendship 7 blasted into space powered by an Atlas rocket, destined to orbit the earth three times before it splashed back into the Atlantic. I was ten years old, and my particular, very small world revolved around another type of orb called a basketball. But even I knew, at that innocent age, that something momentous was going on. The hopes, and fears, of a nation rode the on the smoke trail of that rocket, shot skyward out of the Florida haze, from a place then called Cape Canaveral.

I didn’t spend much time thinking about the Cold War, except during the drills at school when we got under our desks or marched in semi-orderly fashion to the basement gym so we could survive a Russian nuke attack. But it was a real deal, regularly dished up on the front pages of newspapers everywhere.  We were locked in a duel with the Soviets that extended from the Olympic playing fields to the numbers of nukes each of us had pointed at each other to the race to space. Which we were determined to win. As then Vice-President Lyndon Johnson is said to have drawled, “I do not want to go to sleep by the light of a Communist moon.”

Given the benefit of hindsight, a lot of the twitching and posturing, thankfully, was just so much nationalistic johnson measuring. Nobody pushed the big red button, and, now, all these years later, the former Soviet Union goes by the name of Russia, and, while our two countries still have bones of contention, no one (apparently, anyway) has an actively itchy trigger finger.  And our two space programs collaborate, share rockets, space stations and technology. If we had gotten into the swing together all those years ago and combined efforts, Lord knows we might even have those lunar colonies Newt Gingrich dreams about. (And I’m sure we’d all have our own private list of folks we’d like to send to them, too:-)

But, hey, it was 1962, and tensions were high. We were, quite honestly, getting our ass kicked in the whole space deal. It was, as Sean Connery famously gargled in The Hunt for Red October, “the heady days of Yuri Gargarin, when the world trembled at the sound of our rockets.” The Sovs had scored a number of firsts, and our Mercury program was a determined, all-out effort to regain the lead, and our national pride.

Enter a quiet Ohioan named John Glenn, a Marine pilot who did not cuss and married his high school sweetheart. By all accounts, he was cool under fire, having earned the moniker “magnet ass” for drawing so much enemy flak on combat missions in Korea. He was chosen as the first American to orbit the earth.

Thirty six years later, he once again donned astronaut’s garb, and went flying, this time aboard STS-95. I had the good fortune to be inserted in the loop as the official STS-95 photographer of record for NASA, courtesy of the National Geographic. I spent quite a number of weeks with Senator Glenn and the crew, feeling my way through the labyrinthine bureaucracy known as NASA. I entered a world of regulations and acronyms, not to mention a time lined world of dedicated, hard working folks whose lives are dedicated to pushing back the frontier of space.

I also, quite wonderfully, got to know John Glenn, and his wife Annie, who was with him every step of the way. He took the sting out of the natural tendency we all have as shooters to feel like an intruder, or worse, a stalker. He actively wanted to be photographed, as he felt documenting the mission was an important piece of the puzzle. I always teased him that he had been trained well, having gone to “The Ralph Morse School of Being a Photo Subject.” Ralph, of course, was the original prime recorder of the Merc Seven bunch, back in the heyday of LIFE. (Another one of the joys of the assignment was to watch Ralph work, all those years later, to recreate the Glenn cover of LIFE he had shot back in ’62.)

To be in John’s company was to be in the company of a quintessentially decent man. The worst word I ever heard him say was “Shoot!” when we encountered a locked set of doors that impeded our fast paced walk around the Senate.

On one particular day, he had promised me he would do his exercise program after a day in chambers. (His physical fitness was part of the story of his role as the oldest person to go into space.) He didn’t want to do it. He was tired, and things had been hectic, and once again, I was confronted with that eternal question of how much to push the ticket. Can I get this another time, or do I have to once again be the pesky photog, the speed bump in someone’s day?

MJ Veno, his legendary chief of staff, saw my hesitancy and slumped shoulders, wavering outside his office. She looked at me and said, “He promised you didn’t he?” I nodded. Then she said, “Well you just go in there and remind him!”

I walked in. He looked at me and sighed. “I did promise you.”

“Yes sir, you did.”

He donned shorts, and went to exercise. It worked out even better than I could have hoped, as he bumped into a bunch of staffers playing softball, and was soon roped in, which, truth be told, he thoroughly enjoyed.

The gift of time is a rare one to receive as a journalist, but, courtesy of the lengthy history Nat Geo enjoys with NASA, that’s what I had on this story. I got to know the Senator, the crew, and many of the people who surrounded and supported the mission. It allowed me to take things a step at a time, to let things develop in their own way, and not force the moment. It also let me work the bureaucracy to gain permissions, such as mounting cameras inside a T-38.

It also let me get the last picture of the Senator as before he went to space. I was friendly with the crew, and the technicians who made sure their LES (launch-entry suits) were rigged up properly. I gave Scott Parazynski, one of the flyers with Glenn, one of my F5 cameras, loaded with color neg. He was the astronaut walking across the gangway to the shuttle vehicle just ahead of the Senator. I told him, just turn, point and shoot. (Being a civilian, I was allowed nowhere near the fully loaded rocket. On assignment for a mag, the picture’s important, not who shoots it. If you can’t be there yourself, find a way to give a camera to someone who will be. I learned this from Heinz Klutmeier at Sports Illustrated.)

He shot some frames, then dished the camera to one of the suit techs I knew pretty well, and when they finished their duties, they drove back to a prearranged spot along the cyclone fence that marked off the launch area, and pitched the camera over the fence to me. Inside were the last pictures of Senator Glenn before he blasted off.

The magazine elected not to publish those images, but they did run a worthwhile select of the Senator’s return to space.

The lasting thing for me was not so much the pictures, but the respect I accumulated for a decent, easygoing man who, many years ago, shouldered the hopes of an entire nation in an unassuming, matter a fact way, and blasted into the heavens with them. And then was willing to do it again.

More tk….

The Green Glow on the Strip

Feb 22

In Rambling at 9:37am

Was just at the WPPI convention in Vegas. I had no official duties or anything, I was just there basically stalking Annie:-) Been on the road a lot with this Geographic job (in Colorado now) so I just went to the show to hang out, see some friends and drop by the Adorama booth and stare at her occasionally. The fortuitous placement of the Ado counters facing directly into the Nikon stage makes it easy to see the whole gang, so it was a fun couple of days.

I had never stayed at MGM before, and sleeping there is kind of wild, with this green glow seeping in around the curtains. I’ve done a lot of chopper work in Vegas, it made me recall this shot I made a couple years ago. That emerald color is really the brightest thing on the Strip, which as we all know is a monument to understated taste and elegance. Reason for the flight was that I was doing a story on the electrical grid of the US, and I had to come up with a pic that addressed the issue of consumption. Vegas here we come! Nat Geo didn’t use it, going with a frame I made of the NY skyline.

But I do remember working this building, kind of an illuminated, architectural version of the Hulk, sitting there on the strip. Shot with a D3, lens at 19mm, ISO 1000, 1/80th at 2.8, Aperture Priority, minus one EV.

More tk…

New PocketWizard Plus III

Feb 20

In Equipment, In The Field, News at 2:32am

When we were out on the road last year, doing the Flashbus tour, our intrepid driver Phil spun tall tales of the turnpikes for us—wild man drivers, white line nightmares, going fast, and staying ahead of Smokey the Bear. I asked him if he ever participated in the cat and mouse games out there on the highway. He resolutely shook his head. “Nope, I drive by the law,” he said. “You can’t outrun ‘em. Nothin’s faster than the radio.”

Thank goodness, ‘cause just the other week we attached the new Pocket Wizard Plus Three’s to a vehicle that certainly looked like it could give radio waves a run for their money. Driven by the high speed legend Ed Fenn, his current dragster (he’s built over 60 cars) is capable of going about 280 flat out. We took some of these new radio puppies out there, slung them on the car with zip ties, and told Ed to bring the hammer down. #notsmart????

The units, and my cameras, survived. We experimented in particular with the Repeater Mode, or RP, which is capable of extending the signal with additional units used as relays. You transmit from your position, and the signal then gets picked up by another unit downstream and so forth. Handy when you want to get a good run of frames and your subject goes past you like a dust spewing gun shot.

I’ll be direct here. I’ve got a mixed history, along with everybody else, with radio transmission. All sorts of stuff can get in the way–concrete walls, rebar, water, orientation of the antenna. A bazillion years ago, I used a Hawk radio, a boxy thing that was just a step above a garage door opener. (It might have been a garage door opener, actually.) The uncertainty of that system led me to have an emergency sync cord–a hard wire connect–to my flashes hanging on the nearest light stand if (or should I say when) the moment came when the radio failed. PocketWizard came to the fore, and I’ve used them for easily over twenty years. There have been times they’ve saved my ass so thoroughly I basically put them on small altar, lit up some incense and started chanting. And there’s been times, when, like all radios, they didn’t work.

So when something happens in the world of radios that makes them better and more reliable in a very practical, usable way, I pay attention.The big thing I noticed about these units is the enclosed antenna. The rubbery, stand up antennas of the presently available units are often a first casualty because I travel so much, and everything gets jostled on the planes. Now, they’re enclosed in plastic— much safer, and according to specs, more omni-directional. Thank you, thank you. Life on the road is just as hard on gear as it is on the shooter.

The PW IIIs I had performed like a champ, even though they are not production line units, and they all were short of final firmware, which might have affected their working distance. We paced things off, and I was about 350-400 feet up the track from the first repeat. The second one was another 350-400 plus feet down from that one. So, when I started the signal, I could see flashes in the cab starting a couple hundred feet up from me, and then the car would scream past me, and get picked up by the next repeater, and so forth. We generally got 20 plus frames per run, which was good, ‘cause sunlight moves fast in the desert, and we only got a few runs done before dusk hit hard and fast. I was limited, too, by recycle on the flashes. Because they were pointed backwards into the dark recesses of the driver’s cockpit, a lot of light got lost back there, and just bits and pieces of it radiated around the Ed’s helmet to be seen by the lens. They were generally at half power or so, with red gelling on them for the late afternoon attempts.

(I was also shooting D3X cameras, not the fastest of cameras. I had both of my X’s hanging on this car. What was I thinking?)

Other stuff: The PW3’s are light, small and side facing. You know how the current Multi-Max’s and Plus II’s have the controls on the back, or broadside of  unit? All the controls here are now on the side when the unit is hot shoed. In other works, you’re holding the camera grip in your right hand, and instead of pulling it straightaway from your face, you just turn the camera and the buttons and dials are there, and they are backlit.

Here’s the thing. They seem very durable, user friendly, and simple, as opposed to the Multi Max, which nearly requires a Ph.D to operate at its most complex modes. I mean, it’s wonderful technology, and if you’re Bill Frakes, running 40 cameras at the finish of the Kentucky Derby, then it’s Multi Max all the way. But, seriously, how often do the rest of us need all that? The III’s will get you covered, I would think, for most of the work I can imagine. And, from what I hear, they’ll be about $30 cheaper than the II’s. When was the last time you heard about new, updated gear with more features, durability and potential getting cheaper?

David Hobby’s got the real rundown on these guys, by the way. He has really looked under the hood and figured them out. So check out Strobist today.

For me, I was thankful to get the assignment. It’s not often you get called up and get paid to use some new gear and do literally anything you want. They sent me the units and told me to mess around with them and see what I could come up with, and then, of course, send the units back, and do some reporting. The field report is excellent. They’re solid, tough to break (I tried), and at the price point, they’re a no brainer compared to the PWIIs.

FYI….. Drew did a terrific job on the video as a one man band, and Cali shot the production pix. Definitely a team effort out there.

More tk….

Shooting video with the Nikon D4

Feb 13

In Equipment, Videos at 6:41am

Hey guys, Drew here to go over a bit of the tech/production side of the  Little Freddie and D4 BTS videos, the gear we used, and hopefully clear up a few questions.

First and foremost, this was definitely an amazing assignment for all of us at the studio to have been a part of.  Having started working for Joe after the D3 campaign, I was excited at even the thought of being involved with a project like the D4 campaign.

Faces of Ground Zero was our first serious video effort at the studio.  Though the setups were fairly basic, it was a proving ground of sorts for ourselves.  We essentially had no clue what we were getting into, but came out with a final product that was effective, and we were happy with…

When Nikon Japan approached us about shooting a chunk of the D4 campaign, producing a multimedia piece, and shooting BTS video, we definitely had a few drinks. Initially, and right up until the last day on location, we were 50/50 stoked and nervous.  As the “tech guy” in the studio, it often comes down to me to figure out the video side of things, and this was most definitely something we needed to hit out of the park.

A huge thanks goes out to Manfrotto, and specifically to Marco Tortato for introducing us to, and supplying us with a whole new realm of video supports we used on this shoot.

We also turned to Victor Ha and Brian Hynes at Cinevate for insight and inspiration.  After a few hour-long phone calls, and a bunch of tutorial videos later, we more or less knew what gear we needed to pull this off.  Cinevate was cool enough to send us a bunch of amazing gear to play with.

I can’t begin to emphasize the importance of pre-production- finding a location, building a story-line, storyboarding, etc.  Lynn came across a plantation home just outside of New Orleans, which sounded amazing- but being that our timeline was extremely tight, we didn’t actually see the location, or even meet Little Freddie til the day before we started shooting. *Luckily*, things came together as we had hoped- the location was simply beautiful, and we couldn’t have asked for a more perfect subject.

To build the general storyline, we did a 30-45 min. interview with Little Freddie, just before the primary video shoot- which we shot with three cameras (see above).  The remaining video was shot entirety within the next 5-7 hours.  We had him play 3 songs on the porch, which Grippi and I shot with two cameras, and then worked on tons of environmental shots and B-roll.

Throughout the whole process, we strived to keep as simple of a gear pack and setup as possible.  Here’s a basic rundown of the essential gear we used for the videos, and timeline examples of how/where we used them in the Little Freddie video:

Tripods/Sliders/Shoulder Rigs

Manfrotto 504HD Fluid Video Head w/546B Aluminum Tripod (heavy duty tripod with an amazing head…incredibly smooth horizontal and vertical pans.  i.e. 0:27)

Manfrotto 561BHDV Video Monopod w/ Fluid Head (great for small spaces, quick repositioning of shots, and fairly simple tilts and zoome. i.e. 2:00, 2:14)

- Cinevate Simplis Pro Shoulder Rig (ideal for smooth, run & gun shooting, and can easily pop on and off a tripod. i.e. 0:40, 0:51)

- Cinevate Atlas 10 35″ Camera Slider (fairly compact slider that was the perfect choice when there wasn’t much room or time to set up. i.e. 0:18)

- Cinevate Atlas 30 58″ Camera Slider (much longer, incredibly smooth slider, which we used the majority of the time.  i.e. 0:37, 1:42- raised on stands about 8 feet, 2:04)

Audio Gear

Sennheiser EW100 G3 Wireless Lavalier Microphone System (for the interview, we double-lavved Freddie, each on a different channel)

Rode NTG-2 Condenser Shotgun Microphone (for the interviews, the Rode played the roll of a 3rd mic, and for Freddie playing, this was the only mic used)

Zoom H4n Mobile 4-Track Recorder (we recorded all songs using the Rode mic, plugged into the Zoom, and as backup audio during the interview)

Video Lighting

Westcott Spiderlite TD6 Continuous Output Halogen/Fluorescent Light (used for sit-down interview footage shot of Joe)

Westcott 24″x32″ Softbox for Continuous Light

Westcott 36″x48″ Softbox for Continuous Light

Litepanels MicroPro LED Dimmable 5600K Video Light (used on, or just off-camera during BTS shooting at the circus and snake shoots)

External Monitors

- Manhattan LCD 8.9″ HD Pro Monitor (this played an essential roll in composing shots, especially when doing very high or low slides or pans)

Overall, it was a fairly basic gear pack, and being that this is a new world for us, was perfect for a few reasons.  It allowed us to work quickly and efficiently, and it meant that we could put our energy into shooting, and not lugging out tons of grip for every shot.

We’re pretty happy with the outcome, and are looking forward to playing a lot more with the D4 and D800 in the very near future. And many thanks to Mike Corrado at Nikon for shooting the behind the scenes pix above, and being our tech advisor for this whole new adventure.