Hands On: Color and the Nikon D4

Joe McNally pushes the Nikon flagship DSLR to the edge

Special guest author Joe McNally shows how the new Nikon D4 handled a real color challenge—and how he lit and photographed a colorful couple of characters.

One of the things you do when given a prototype camera is push it. What can it do? Where are the improvements? It’s a bit like being in high school and being given the keys to road test a fancy new car, one that leaves your existing clunker in the dust. Your first instinct is to bring the hammer down, right?

I’ve had a long and somewhat disturbing relationship with prototypes. I’ve broken them, dunked them (in the Miami Bay, no less); smashed them into light poles (that was the pilot’s fault, not mine); watched as a brand new lens was run over by a pickup truck, and just generally created location mayhem, all in the name of giving this new kid on the block a real run for its money.

What I did to the Nikon D4 was no different, really. (We did manage to break one, slightly.) But we did push it. I took it to dank swamps, into dusty circus tents, had horses charging it at full speed, and brought it into the dimly lit clubs and corridors of the New Orleans music scene.

One thing I wanted to explore with D4 was color response. And, inside the circus world we created, temporarily, we certainly had color galore. And character(s).


Photo © 2012 by Joe McNally


Meet Luciano, and Chancho, the bulldog. They are an amazing, gregarious pair, not to mention colorful. I shot this with multiple speed lights, running once again with the CLS TTL system. It was, as you can probably tell, one of the more fun shoots I’ve been on in recent memory. Beyond the obvious showmanship of both of these actors, there was a real bond of love between dog and owner that came through in their amiable natures, and the wonderfully goofy way they abandoned themselves in front of the camera. They made my job easy, that is, after I had it lit.

One things about the D4 is that they improved the meter, as they always do, with every new generation of camera. This is important to me, as I do a lot of speed light work, and a more sophisticated camera meter in turn makes my hot shoe flashes work better and give me more consistent exposures.

Photo © 2012 by Joe McNally

I built this lighting grid from the main light, up front, to the back lights in the rear of the shot.

First things first. Get the main light done. In this instance the main light is a Lastolite 3x6 Skylite panel, arrayed horizontally over my subjects. I have multiple speed lights into this diffuser sheet, which gives me a broad, smooth beautiful light right out of the gate. It’s big for two subjects, but remember, I can’t specifically direct Chancho, and he might look anywhere he wants to look, and I have to have that gesture covered.

Second….the fill light. The fill light is a rich, creamy light source that I helped Lastolite design. Oddly enough, it’s called the Joe McNally Ezybox, so named because I suggested they make one with a white interior, and not just in silver. It works here, because the smooth nature of the all white Ezybox matches the also smooth, soft nature of the big main light. Also, as you can see in the production shot (below) by my bud Mike Corrado, these two sources are jammed in as close to my subjects as possible, so much so, I have to corkscrew myself around them, and just slide both me and the camera into shooting position.


Photo © 2012 by Mike Corrado


Lastly, but very importantly…the background. This was, again, multiple speed lights. Two up into the red, firing from the floor behind my subjects, and then two on stands, right and left sides of the picture, just pushing some light into the dark blue areas of the tent. These lights have no fancy modifiers on them, they are really just for brightening the background and bringing out the colors. (See my lighting diagram above for additional lighting info.)

Photo © 2012 by Joe McNally


So, I just mentioned the word “colors.” Historically, digital cameras have had trouble faithfully reproducing certain kinds of colors and the trueness thereof. My wife, Annie Cahill, Professional Markets Director now at Adorama, talked to me specifically about the color range of this picture. You see, she was a Professional Markets Technical Rep for Nikon for twelve years, which means she knows more about how digital cameras work than I ever will. She felt that the wide range of both splashy primary color in this frame coupled with the more subtle tonalities in the pooch’s skin and costume, constituted a real challenge for the camera. I was like, cool! At the moment of making the picture, I was going for expression, and trying to make sure Chancho didn’t lick the camera lens. I let the camera worry about the color, which it did quite well.


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