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Shooting the D1X for National Geographic - Continued

Later in January, McNally was in Seattle, WA where he had Boeing's entire assembly line for the 777 airliner shut down and the factory darkened while he was trying to illustrate how the plane's fuselage is aligned with a laser. But he couldn't get Boeing's laser to show up in the photos no matter what he tried, and each grotesquely expensive passing minute seemed like an hour in the idled factory. "This is where the tethered situation works for you and also, to a degree, against you," he says. "If you're screwing up, it's right there for everybody to see. There's no hiding the Polaroid in your armpit." A dimestore laser pointer, substituted for Boeing's industrial unit, eventually did the trick.

February found McNally at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio where instant review came in handy again. He was photographing a test sled used to subject mannequins to high G-force shocks and trying to capture the motion of the mannequin's head at the moment of impact. The sled technicians, seeing that his first attempts were slightly mistimed, adjusted the speed of the sled until McNally got the shot he wanted.

Throughout the busy months of January, February, and March, McNally would periodically snatch a day or two at his Dobbs Ferry studio to review images with Douthitt over the phone. Sony had loaned McNally three Artisan 21-inch monitors, one of which was set up in Douthitt's office in Washington. Using the Artisan's custom calibration and profiling system, photographer and editor could ensure that they were seeing the same thing on the screen.

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Joe McNally works in Nikon Capture at his studio in Dobbs Ferry, NY (Photo by Mark Adams)

This ongoing editing collaboration was a big change from McNally's old practice with film. Because he could rarely afford the time to travel to the Geographic's offices where he had sent his film, McNally had historically relied on Douthitt to edit the take. At the tail end of the assignment, McNally would make the trip to Washington himself and help with the final edit of Douthitt's small group of selects. Of the new digital procedure McNally says, "In a funny way, it made [the editing and culling process] more collaborative" even though he and Douthitt were separated by several hundred miles.

But, he adds, "I still prefer looking at film on a light table. I can go through twenty rolls of film really, really easily. The same number of frames on a computer -- it's time-consuming." McNally also mentions two features that his D1X bodies lack, which would have made for a much happier workflow: simultaneous RAW/JPEG capture, and automatic rotation of verticals.

By the end of April, McNally had the story almost completely put to bed, and on May 8th he and Douthitt presented a tightly edited selection of about sixty photographs to the upper tier of the Geographic's masthead, including Editor-in-Chief Bill Allen, Senior Editor for Photography Kent Kobersteen, and, for a portion of the meeting, National Geographic Society CEO John Fahey. Because of the large audience, such sessions at the Geographic are projected. McNally and Douthitt worked hard to tweak the combination of Powerbook and digital projector they used, trying to display the images with their punch intact, but this is one area where digital still falls far short of film, McNally says. "You can produce these really wonderful quality images [with digital cameras], and then you try to show them to a group and they look soft or contrastless. There were a couple of slides when they came up, you kind of cringe. But overall it worked out pretty well."

That meeting took place at 2:00pm in the Geographic's Washington offices. The previous afternoon, McNally had been in Missouri shooting a long-desired subject -- the bat-like B-2 "Stealth" bomber. The war in Iraq had prevented McNally from getting anywhere near one, but just a few days earlier he'd finally received word that he could have a few air-to-air minutes with the plane on May 7th, one day before his deadline.

He made his pictures late on the afternoon of the 7th, downloaded the NEFs to his laptop, woke up early the morning of the 8th, drove to the Kansas City airport, converted and edited the images on his Powerbook during the flight to Washington, burned a CD of his selects, walked in to the Geographic where he and Douthitt picked the two best images from the shoot, plugged them into the slide show, and made their 2:00pm meeting. One of those pictures, printed double truck, became the opening shot of the story.

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Joe McNally with large format prints of photos he shot for the Geographic story (Photo by Mark Adams)

"What we set out to do," McNally says, "was to do a good story, first and foremost, and secondarily to prove a point. And I think we did that. We brought home a story that showed the digital possibilities." That story, from the opening B-2 image to the closing F/A-22 shot, runs thirty pages in the magazine. It comprises 23 of McNally's images, including five double trucks and a four-page gatefold. That seems like pretty clear evidence that Joe McNally did not screw up the National Geographic's first digital assignment.

The December 2003 issue of National Geographic is on newsstands now. The National Geographic web site includes a selection of pictures from from the article, complete with basic technical information, as well as field notes by Joe McNally. McNally's own web site is at www.joemcnally.com.

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