On that flight, McNally carried Nikon 17-35mm f/2.8 and 28-70mm f/2.8 AF-S lenses, but by far his most indispensable optic throughout the assignment was a prototype DX 12-24mm f/4 that Nikon had loaned to him. Despite the 1.5X field of view multiplier of the D1X body, McNally says the 12-24mm "was definitely wide enough. Maybe there was a hair of an instance, in a cockpit situation, where I wished I could've gone a little wider, but it was a workhorse."
McNally used the D1X bodies for nearly every photo in the story, but a Nikon D100, with its dark-frame-subtraction noise reduction feature, came in handy for a few long exposures.
Joe McNally (on platform) prepares to photograph twin X-45s (Photo by Anne Cahill/Nikon USA)
On the ground, McNally followed a workflow that he would maintain throughout the assignment. CompactFlash cards filled with captured NEFs -- he carried eight Lexar 1GB cards and shot the entire story in RAW format -- were popped into a Lexar FireWire CompactFlash card reader and copied immediately to his laptop's hard drive where the images were renamed. As soon as there was time, McNally or his assistant, Alicia Hansen, used a LaCie FireWire CD writer to burn each picture to a pair of CDs. One CD was sent to Bill Douthitt at the Geographic's offices in Washington, D.C. and the other to McNally's studio in Dobbs Ferry, NY. An original of each frame therefore existed in three locations.
To McNally, this was a huge relief compared to shipping exposed film to the magazine. "I remember specifically I shipped a whole bunch of my India take out of Mumbai on a story a number of years ago, and I was an absolute mess until I knew that it had shown up at the Geographic. With digital you don't face that. You ship CDs. If they disappear, it's not a good thing, but it's not a disaster." McNally wasn't shooting for very long before his laptop's 30GB hard drive was nearly filled, so he supplemented its capacity with two 40GB SmartDisk FireLite FireWire external drives.
McNally used Nikon View 6.0 software to browse his images and Nikon Capture 3.5 to convert them to JPEGs to see what he had, but he sent every image he shot to the magazine, and he sent them in their original NEF format. "I did not edit a single thing," he says. "I wanted our efforts to be as pristine as possible. I didn't want anything coming back to us like 'What did you do to that?' My answer is 'I did nothing to it.'"
When the CDs of his images began arriving in Washington in those first days of the assignment, McNally ran into a minor snag. Douthitt thought some converted JPEGs on the CD looked underexposed, but McNally thought they looked fine. The two men had to do a little work to synchronize the brightness of McNally's Powerbook screen with Douthitt's office monitor. In general, McNally found his G4's display to be trustworthy. "If it looked good on the laptop, I felt confident that it would look good to everyone," he says.
In January of 2003, McNally began to shoot the story in earnest, and he worked on it essentially full-time through the end of April. A National Geographic story, he says, "is different from most coverages. I came out of a New York school where a lengthy assignment was five or six days. When I first started shooting for the Geographic I was given fifteen or sixteen weeks, and I barely knew what to do with it.” In all, McNally made sixteen trips to a total of thirteen separate locations in the U.S. and one short visit to Bahrain to take pictures aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln.
Though his shooting plan included several more air-to-air sessions, McNally also spent much of his four months in the field making large production shots of subjects such as the F/A-22 and Boeing 777 assembly lines, a 277-speaker acoustic test chamber, and the gaping cargo hold of a hangared C-5 Galaxy transport plane, to name a few. He shot these subjects with the camera tethered to the laptop. Lighting techniques varied with the location, of course, but McNally frequently uses many small flashes to light a set, and he travels with a case containing 22 Nikon shoe-mount flashes, including twelve Speedlight SB-80DX units.
Joe McNally (on knees) uses his D1X tethered to a Powerbook G4/667 (Photo by Anne Cahill/Nikon USA)
Early in January, McNally made one such production image in Marietta, GA at Lockheed's Radar Control System Room (RCSR), a chamber half the size of a football field where the F/A-22's stealth characteristics are tested. "That was a hard shot to do," McNally remembers. "We had to light it selectively, so that you couldn't see some of the instrument arrays because they were classified." He used five or six hot lights and about a dozen Profoto 2400 W/S studio flash heads, and the instant review that digital makes possible thrilled him. "I vastly prefer the digital because with the laptop display I could really get minute about what was going on. It's better than any Polaroid could ever hope to be."
Instant review and tethered shooting let McNally execute the big production shots more quickly and efficiently, without the need for endless frames at every possible exposure and lighting iteration. His case of shooter's angst stayed relatively mild, and he exposed only about 7500 images during the course of the story -- equal to about 200 rolls of film. "Prior to this, your average Geographic story for me, shooting on film, would encompass anywhere from 500 to 1000 rolls," McNally says.
The ability to show his pictures, both on the laptop and on the camera's LCD, also made it easy to satisfy security inspectors that the photos would indeed reveal no secrets. With film, he would have been forced to leave his exposed rolls with the military for processing and examination.
The RCSR session in Marietta was also the one time when digital forced McNally to abandon an idea for an image. The room holds machinery that slowly spins a suspended airplane, exposing it to radar signals from every angle. McNally originally envisioned a multiple exposure of an F/A-22 going through this rotation, an easy shot on film but impossible with his D1X cameras.