Gitzo – A Tripod in the Desert

An interesting Q&A with one of the worlds most influencial photographers, Joe McNally.

Q: Joe, in the video you said you wanted to do a shot like this for years. Where did the idea come from? Watching performers in a show perhaps? A movie? 

I’ve always been fascinated by theater people, performers, acrobats and the like. They are generally speaking, marvelously talented and wonderful photo subjects. A gifted athlete, or dancer, can physicalize your imagination, because they are so adept and capable of turning their body into art.

Hence I had mulled over the idea of a gymnast on a tripod for a long while. Many circus artists base their acts on a single piece of say, aerial equipment, like a ring, or a pointed star. They use that as a base for a variety of physical expressions. I thought: Why not a tripod?

Q: Were you concerned about the weight of the athlete on the tripod at all? Approximately how much was each athlete?

Yes, it was a concern. Both the women who worked with me were in amazing shape and quite small, as is typical of a gymnast. Daria was a synchronized swimmer in her earlier life. Anna, who is a gymnast, is actually nicknamed, “Nano Anna” by her fellow performers because she is so tiny. At the same time, they are very strong. But we were very careful not to overload the tripod. Each performer is under 100 pounds.

Gitzo – A Tripod in the Desert

Q: Which Gitzo tripod did you use and why this particular tripod? Was any modification done to the tripod to accommodate the performer?

The tripod we used was the GT5532LS. For obvious reasons there is no ball head attached!  I also used Avenger C stands and Manfrotto stacker stands for my lights. The equipment to stage this was pretty basic. As you can see, in the final photos, it is just the tripod and the artist. I wanted it really stark looking and elemental. The performer, using the tripod to create startling shapes, out in the sparse desert.

What we did introduce for their comfort and safety (and this came from them) was a small cushion for their hands we simply attached to the base of the tripod with tape. That way they felt stable and comfortable as they did their moves.

Q: Were you concerned about the ruggedness or safety of the tripod itself?

No – not at all. We had experienced safety spotters in the wings at all times and of course my primary concern always is the athlete or performer’s safety. (One of the spotters was actually Daria’s husband, an experienced rigger at the Vegas shows. The other spotter was Timber Brown, a gymnast and performer himself, who is a bit of a legend in the Vegas performing community.) If at any time the women felt unsafe or uncomfortable we would not have continued. We did allow them plenty of time to practice and warm up on the tripod before shooting. The practice time was essential! Gitzo (Manfrotto) sent me the tripod early, so I in turn relayed it to the performers in Las Vegas. They had about a week of practice time to get used to it. When they started sending me pictures of themselves doing all sorts of creative things on the tripod, just for starters, I knew we were good to go. The performers involved were not just physically terrific, they were also very creative, and thought up beautiful shapes to make.

Q: How long did a shoot day like this last from start to finish?

A shoot like this is much longer in terms of thinking it through and preparing for it than it is in real time when you get out there to shoot. When working with athletes, you always have to remember that even though they look like action heroes with superpowers, they are people, and there is a time limit on their endurance and abilities to do stressful, physical things. I always ask any athlete up front, how many of these do you have in you? What can I expect? So, say the answer comes back, “I think I could do this five or six times.” Okay, that’s good information. I know then where the limits are, and I make the most of the opportunities.

So, once we got into the desert, arranging the set and the lighting probably took two hours. Then the shoot was perhaps another two hours. It wasn’t a lengthy extravaganza. As I mentioned, the far lengthier part was thinking about the idea, imagining my way into the shoot, and communicating my ideas well to my subjects.

Gitzo - A Tripod in the Desert
Gitzo – A Tripod in the Desert

Q: How did you find this very unusual looking “lunar” landscape of the flatbeds in Las Vegas? Did you need a permit?

I love to shoot in the southwest as you do get these stretches of arid, barren, lunar looking land. Las Vegas is fringed with such places. And yes, you do need a permit. This was not a day to do guerrilla filmmaking. We had gear, athletes, spotters, multiple cars, etc. We were not an “under the radar” operation. So, permits, insurance, and all that tedious but necessary prep work had to be done.

Q: Did you sketch out a lighting diagram and if so, how did you figure out your starting point in the barren landscape with no other elements? The strobe lighting and fading light were key to the success of the shot, no?

Yes, the use of flash was essential here, as we were looking into the sun and I needed to balance the light levels. It was a fairly simple setup. The main lights were Profoto B4’s, fitted with 1×6 strip softboxes. I was looking into the west, and when the sun was high in the sky, the photos had a wonderful drama with all the hard shadows, and the tripod resting on cracked earth. Then, as the sun went below the horizon, we got a different feel to the pictures as the deep blues of twilight took over the sky. I planned to be out there during that time in the late afternoon as the sun transitioned dramatically in the sky. It gives you a chance to achieve a different look for the pictures.

No sketch was needed here. I had a real experienced crew, and all I had to do was describe the lighting grid to them. The tripod obviously was the anchor for the whole deal. I chose a very sparse, simple horizon to place it against, and once the tripod was situated, the location of the lights was pretty simple.

Q: You often work with athletes and elite performers as was this case in this shoot. How much do you direct them on the exact moves and placement of a pose. Did you allow them to experiment and then you in as sense work around them since the platform didn’t literally allow many options!

I pretty much let them do what they do. I ask them to show me a variety of moves, and usually, as the photographer, I seize on a couple of them that have good graphic appeal, and we concentrate on those. You are right, with the tripod as the base for all the action, we couldn’t get too wildly expressive! But even though the platform was a limited one, I have to give the athletes credit. They offered me a variety of terrific, dynamic poses that were at once elegantly beautiful and also very strong and graphic. It was just great to watch them adapt their bodies to this strange new piece of “gym equipment” they had never used before.

Gitzo - A Tripod in the Desert
Gitzo – A Tripod in the Desert

Q: Since you were recently named a Gitzo Ambassador and have been using Gitzo for many, many years, is there a piece of equipment or tools that you are anxious to use or experiment with?  

I am actually – on the video front. I have always used the strongest, most durable tripods Gitzo makes because I often use heavy glass and find myself in precarious places. I have to use the best – simply. I also need the high level support Gitzo provides if I need my equipment serviced. It’s invaluable as a professional photographer for the field work I do.  Also the case with monopods. I do helicopter work and over the years I’ve dangled my camera and lens from a Gitzo monopod and I trust durability and craftsmanship of the gear completely.

I also am on the road a great deal. There’s a toll that takes on me, certainly, but also the gear. That’s why I always advocate to go for the most solid gear you can avail yourself of. When you throw all of your stuff on airplanes, and log over a quarter million miles a year, you want to know your gear can sustain that pace and come off the baggage belt in good shape. To the airlines, it’s just luggage and they throw it every which way. It’s what they do. But to you, what’s in that “luggage” is literally your livelihood. You depend on it working well when you get to location.

Nowadays I am called to do more and more video work so I am very excited to use the various video monopods,and tripods and heads that Gitzo and Manfrotto has in the lineup. I’m also going to use more of the larger LED panels for lighting. It’s a very different world but because of my long relationship with a brands I trust, I know I can make selections on the video front that will also not fail me on the job.

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