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Behind the scenes of Joe McNally's 'High Fashion Heist'


Joe McNally created this shot in the Museum of Ethnography in Budapest, Hungary using the Nikon D850, a 14-24mm F2.8 zoom lens, and strobes. A lot of strobes.

Nikon D850 | AF-S Nikkor 14-24mm F2.8 @ 14mm | ISO 160 | 1/20 sec | F5.6

Joe McNally is one of the most recognizable names in photography. As one of the foremost fashion and portrait photographers in the world, his work has been published internationally in books, magazines and newspapers for decades.

In his role as a Nikon Ambassador, McNally had early access to the new Nikon D850. We spoke to him recently to talk through the process of creating one of the most arresting images of Nikon’s D850 launch campaign.

How did the idea for this image come together?

I think the bottom line here is that I’ve seen way too many James Bond movies! I wrote up three separate potential treatments, and this one I titled ‘The High Fashion Heist’. So imagine an elegant lady sweeping down a grand staircase, gown flowing behind her, clutching stolen gems, racing past the sleeping security guard. And the wrinkle is her gown inadvertently is toppling a priceless statue. It’s a heist gone wrong, that type of thing. I also wanted to include the feeling of motion or speed.

The museum was willing to work with us, it was affordable, and it’s Budapest, which is an amazing place

Did the concept evolve during the process of putting the shoot together?

The original treatment did not include the toppling statue. I was driving the sense of motion from the flowing gown, and we wanted to emphasize a little more tension, so when I re-wrote the concept I threw in the idea that she’s knocking over a statue.

Where did you shoot?

We had to work outside the U.S., and we came up with a number of locations – one of which was in Edinburgh, Scotland, and one was in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. And one was the Museum of Ethnography in Budapest, Hungary. They sent me scouting photographs of it, and it had that feel. The old elegance. The big staircase.

The museum was willing to work with us, it was affordable, and it’s Budapest, which is just an amazing place. So after the idea was approved, we moved forward on the location pretty quickly.

The bust tipping over in the foreground – was that manipulated in post?

The column and the head are supported by metal braces. We couldn’t buy a bunch of busts and have them smash on the floor, so we took the column and put a brace against it, and the head, and then touched out the braces in post.

I’d say there were probably about 20 large power packs and heads, and about 10-15 Speedlights

How did you light this shot? Was it all strobes?

It’s virtually all strobes. We were allowed to come into the museum at around 6 o’clock at night when it was closed, and we worked until 6 o’clock in the morning. So there was no natural light. So if you look at the windows up top, camera left, those are strobes on a crane truck outside. I’d say there were probably about 20 large power packs and heads, and about 10-15 SB-5000 Speedlights.

Were you shooting in TTL mode, or was it all manual flash exposure?

I shot all manual for this. The D850’s touchscreen is fantastic, because now, if I’m doing something complex with six groups of Speedlights for example, I can just tap on the screen and alter their values.

How did the D850’s particular feature set help you in putting this shoot together?

First off, there’s the resolution. When you shoot in an ornate place like this, you really want to be able to capture all of the detail, and the camera handled that really well. The D850’s sensor has great dynamic range, so I didn’t have to over-light. In the cavernous spaces, I could hint at lighting, and I knew that the shadow detail would be alright. The autofocus is hyper-accurate, which is essential, because you don’t want to get THE expression and THE particular arrangement of the gown absolutely perfect and have any sort of focus issues afterwards.

I was able to effectively control two fields of flash, with the Speedlights being controlled from the camera

I was shooting the flashes in manual exposure mode, but I was controlling all of the Speedlights using the WR-10 radio trigger from the camera. So I had a big strobe system on a different radio system, but I also had the Nikon Speedlight system. I was able to effectively control two fields of flash, with the Speedlights being controlled from the camera.

We had a big crew, plus a video crew, the clients were there, we had a props person, hair, makeup, fashion, styling, and a very elegant wonderful model. I had a crew of five assistants! So the convenience of the new technology really helped.

Are there other features of the camera that you’re excited to try out?

So far, I’ve used the D850 strictly as a stills camera. I’ve been using it a lot just for simple portraiture and for beauty portraiture, but I’m very much looking forward to going into video mode with this camera. Again, the detail is really pretty luscious and pretty wonderful. I have a small stills and video project I’m going to be shooting in February, and I’m looking forward to it.

I shot the Rio Olympics with my D5, because it’s tough and it’s fast, and I’ve always used my D810’s when I needed resolution. But the D810 doesn’t have the radio controls that I’ve come to be so fond of with the SB-5000 flashes. And the D810 didn’t have things like the tilting LCD from the D500, which I’ve found to be very convenient. With the D850, I can have all of that in one camera. Speed, resolution and convenience.

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