Acclaimed Photographer Joe McNally Chats DSLR Video Production

You’ve probably already heard of acclaimed photographer, Joe McNally. If you haven’t, Joe’s work has been featured in world reknown publications like TIME, Newsweek, Fortune, The New York Times, Sports Illustrated and National Geographic (to name a few). You may also be familiar with, “Faces of Ground Zero“, a unique exhibit consisting of giant polaroids (9′ x 4′) shot shortly after the tragedy of 9/11. Joe’s project helped raise $2 million for the relief efforts. You can check out the Faces of Ground Zero site for more information.

According to an Austin Video Production expert, all levels of professional photographers, whether they’re just starting out or are as established as someone like Joe, have basically been forced into learning the video aspect of their once stills-only camera. The hybrid photo/video capability of DSLRs is no secret to clients these days either and so the demand for a mix of the two formats is a reoccurring request. Because of this, Joe, like all photographers, has added a whole new skill set (along with a ton of new gear) into his repertoire. We hooked up with Joe back in February to set him up with some filmmaking gadgets (in the form of sliders, Atlas 10 + Atlas 30, and rails system/viewfinder) to help add some movement into his video. More recently, we had a chat and talked about the key differences between photo and video shoots and what newly transitioning photographers can expect.

Joe McNally frames a Slider Shot with his Atlas 30

Interview with Joe McNally

Q\ Besides the change in gear and some key principles, video shoots are different from photo shoots because of the team dynamic. I think a lot of new shooters, sometimes based on budget but often inexperience, might try to be the jack-of-all-trades on set not realizing that handling camera, lighting, audio and direction effectively on their own is an impossible task. How has your role on video shoots changed from photography shoots? Do you find you’re falling into more of a Director role, or a Director of Photography, or both?

A\ Definitely at this point more of a director. I do choose some shots, and general environments, but the specifics and mechanics of the shots I leave to people who are more experienced at actual video shooting than I am. I am often on camera, directing an interview, or teaching lessons directly to the camera.

Q\ From speaking with your camera assistant, Drew, I know he’s the go-to for product knowledge, especially given how fast the tech is advancing. Camera assistants are vital for a lot of reasons, assuming some of our readers haven’t worked with an AC yet, what duties do they have and what can they expect from their AC?

A\ Really, Drew has been our “go to” on the set as well as providing an overview of the evolving technology. He is really the lead shooter on most if not all the video efforts we have made, and is enjoying taking his first steps into the video world. When I have run a camera, it has generally been a backup, or static camera. I initiate the questioning, or direction of interview. Drew is often juggling the lead camera as well as the audio.

The crew grabs some subtle Atlas 10 slider shots

Q\  When it comes to recording audio do you find the need for a dedicated sound person? In either scenario, can you speak to either your audio setup or how a sound person works into the team?

A\ We have very little experience with a sound person on set, except in a few instances that are larger productions. We’re generally a fly by the seat of our pants type of an operation. The D4 and D800, with in camera audio monitoring, has been really helpful with our audio efforts, which while working well, are still pretty basic.

Q\ Since the video shoot team dynamic might be fairly new for some readers, what can new video shooters expect of their team/crew?

A\ You need to be aware of the division of labor, and the fact that you can’t do everything. You also have to have the confidence that if you have good shooters with you, they will find shots, and you need to give them the leeway to pursue them.

I’m in the occasionally difficult position of being assigned a job because of my history as a still photographer, but now also being asked to shoot video on top of that.

If it’s a video that involves an interview, I find myself formulating questions, doing the research that feeds those questions, shooting a high level still assignment, and also shooting, hopefully good video. To do video shooting and audio and extensive grip work and shot planning on top of the other roles I have is just not possible. It has to be a team effort.

Q\ We’ve talked about the difference between photo and video shoots but the reality is that the division between the two has blurred (especially from the client’s perspective). Is this the case for you as well, capturing both in a shoot? How do you find a balance between the two so that one format isn’t neglected?

A\ Very, very tough. Some clients are in the “Oh by the way, shoot some video, too,” mode. Others make it clear the video is actually more important than the stills and they are expecting a full blown, excellent video effort. Finding the balance is hard, and you have to make sure the client knows this is now two separate products, two distinct areas of expertise, and each require time on location to do professionally.

The longer Atlas 30 slider in play for a more dramatic slider shot

Q\ Although the video camera and still camera can be one in the same, it might still be easy to underestimate the difference in tools and gear needed on video shoots. What are some of the essential tools you’ve added into your video bag that may not have been in your photo bag?

A\ Steady light sources, video tripods and heads, sliders, shoulder rigs, wireless lavaliers, boom mics, monitors, external audio goes on and on. Point blank, to produce a professional video, even on the basic end of things, it can quickly get a lot more complex than most people would think.

Q\ I can’t forget our ‘gear head’ readers who will be wondering what your actual camera, lenses and rig are composed of. Could you also discuss why you chose what you have as well?

A\ Cameras: Nikon D4, D800 (both have incredible still and video quality, plus much more control over microphone input levels, and an audio out for headphone monitoring)
Lenses: The same gear pack we’d use for stills, sometimes with a bit more emphasis on fast glass (all Nikon)..
14-24 f/2.8, 24-70 f/2.8, 70-200 f/2.8, 24 f/1.4, 35 f/1.4, 85 f/1.4, 105 f/2.8 Macro

Filters: Singh-Ray Variable ND Filter.. gives us 8 stops of of control, allowing us to shoot fairly wide open, even in bright sun.

Tripods: Manfrotto 504HD fluid head w/546B tripod.. heavy duty tripod, and great head combo for smooth DSLR performance.

Sliders: Cinevate Atlas 10 and Atlas 30.. These guys have brought an entirely new level of production into our shoots, and allow us to do some really cool shots, we simply can’t do on a tripod. Though it’s larger to travel with, we’ve grown to love the versatility of the 30.

Handheld Rigs: Cinevate Simplis Pro w/Cyclops.. great for run/gun handheld shooting, allowing for really smooth camera control.

Audio Gear: Sennheiser G3 wireless lavs, Rode NTG-2 shotgun mic, Sennheiser MKE 400 compact lav, Zoom H4n external recorder.. we generally have at least two separate audio tracks running at any given time (sometimes three). Typically run the NTG-2 into the Zoom recorder, and run the lavaliers directly into the cameras.

Lighting: Westcott TD6 Spiderlites, w/ Westcott softboxes, Litepanel 1×1, and MicroPro LED’s.. We use to Spiderlites in static shooting situations, when we have access to power, and Litepanels, when we’re shooting a bit more loosely, on the street, etc.

Q\ Are there any shoots coming up that you can talk about and/or pose some unique challenges?

A\ We have the potential for a major, major shoot at a huge scientific institution, which, if it goes ahead, will vault our video expertise forward significantly. Fingers crossed! We’re also working on an ongoing personal project of mine, involving portraits, and sit-down interviews with a handful of photographers, I’ve known for years.

Huge thanks to Joe for taking the time to chat. If you want to check out some of Joe’s work of follow his frequently updated blog head over to

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3 Responses to Acclaimed Photographer Joe McNally Chats DSLR Video Production

  1. I heard about Mr.McNally, he changes the world of photography. Because of his works, many realizes the importance of life and also the value of it. Video recording/production is a little bit different from photography. This is recording the actions of an object, not just its current pose or position.

  2. Great article Luke! McNally has been an inspiration for many years, not only for his impeccable images, but as this article demonstrates, because he constantly evolves with technology and follows the industry’s needs. Something he didn’t mention is the preproduction work required for video. If you are interested we have shared our “Field Notes” here

  3. I two shoot with the D800 have been a Nikon shooter for many years so for so good with good glass. I am also a big fan of Joe