In the summer of 2002, Joe McNally was waging a campaign. He wanted two things - his tenth assignment from National Geographic magazine and permission to shoot it digitally - and he had a good story to help him make his case.
Back in the mid-1980s, he told the Geographic's editors, he was assigned by Sports Illustrated to do a story about the athleticism of fighter pilots. He was shooting from the back seat of an F-16 flown by the Thunderbirds, the U.S. Air Force's aerobatics team, when he dropped a film cartridge while changing rolls, and it fell beyond his reach. To the Air Force his film cartridge was now "FOD" - foreign object debris - and because debris can interfere with cockpit controls, it scrubs the mission. But McNally's pilot thought he'd try a trick. He rolled the F-16 inverted, and the cartridge fell onto the canopy above McNally's head where he could grab it, simultaneously ending the FOD condition and saving McNally's butt.
No fumbling with film in the back seat of a speeding fighter plane -- another good reason, McNally argued, to shoot the Geographic's upcoming story on the future of flight with digital cameras.
McNally sprinkled his FOD anecdote into several meetings that summer as the Geographic began discussing an article that would become the cover story of this month's (December 2003) issue, commemorating the centennial of the Wright brothers first flight at Kitty Hawk. Although the magazine had published plenty of digital photos, it had never assigned a major story to be covered entirely with digital photography before. McNally and his long-time picture editor at the magazine, Bill Douthitt, wanted to give it a try.
"One of the selling points that we made is that the story is a future looking story," McNally says, "so doing it with this 'future technology' would be a good match. And also the plain and simple reality is that the digital future is here. It's at your doorstep.” McNally's list of talking points also included the benefits of instant image review when shooting complex, multi-light setups, as well as for military security reviews.
And there was the simple advantage of not needing to ship film. McNally clinched his argument with the high quality of some 16 x 20 and 20 x 30-inch inkjet prints. He'd had them made from Nikon D1X photos, which he'd shot earlier that year on the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman. The prints impressed several key figures at the magazine, McNally says.
In the end, the Geographic decided that the aviation story would make a good test bed for a systematic approach to future digital coverages, according to McNally. "They gave us a green light - said go ahead and do it." With an ironic chuckle, he adds, "And that's when [Bill and I said], 'Oh shit, I guess we better not screw this up.'"
McNally was not actually very worried about failing, but he had little experience shooting digital then. His first real exposure to a digital camera came when Nikon hired him to shoot an ad for the Coolpix 990 in the summer of 2000. Early in 2002, Nikon loaned him two D1X digital SLR bodies. He used them on two self-assigned projects, including his stint on the USS Truman, but he had not shot a paid magazine assignment with a digital camera before he got the go-ahead from the Geographic.
Still, armed with his two D1X bodies and an Apple Powerbook G4/667 laptop with 1GB of RAM, McNally jumped into the future of flight story in the fall of 2002. One of his first tasks was shooting air-to-air images of the Air Force's next-generation fighter, the Lockheed Martin F/A-22, which was undergoing flight testing at Edwards Air Force Base in California. It had taken four months of letter-writing, string-pulling, and conference-calling before the Air Force agreed to divert the plane from its regular testing cycle and give McNally half-an-hour with it. "There's so much pressure associated with [air-to-air shots of tactical aircraft] because those minutes are so difficult to come by," McNally says. "You've got half-an-hour to make good."
He shot from the back seat of an F-16 with one D1X in his hand and the other wedged between his legs. Each camera was loaded with a Lexar 1GB 16X CompactFlash card, which can hold about 125 of Nikon's .NEF format RAW images from the D1X. Between the two cameras, McNally shot just over 200 frames in his precious half-hour -- the equivalent of about six rolls of film -- without needing to change cards and without triggering another FOD brouhaha. One of those shots, printed full-page, became the closing image of the story.