Two of the photographers Nikon chose to take beauty shots for the recently introduced D4 and D800 cameras were, respectively, Joe McNally and Rob Van Petten. Their assignment: take ‘em to the limit to prove out the potential. Joe and Rob had checklists of specific situations and setups as well as general guidelines that left plenty of room for their creativity and artistry. Me, I was riding shotgun.

As a member of the support team for the two shooters, my images would amount to evidence for Nikon’s engineers, who need to know if what works to perfection in the lab will shine in the real world of photography. So while I’m naturally interested in end results, my main concern is how the cameras handle as I work toward those end results; that’s information the engineers can use for the future.

Joe shot on location in Sarasota, Florida, and in New Orleans, Louisiana; Rob worked the studio side in New York City. Both were great gigs, but I have to admit that with Joe I got to…well, run off and join the circus.

Joe’s concept was the varieties of performance and so, in Sarasota, he set up a circus tent and hired groups of performers. Where do you find circus performers in Sarasota? You gotta be Joe McNally to make that happen. Actually, you gotta have a studio manager with the abilities and uncanny connections of Lynn DelMastro, Joe’s gifted, patient majordomo. Joe had the vision of a circus, Lynn made it happen and I got to shoot the same setups and performers. After Sarasota, I went with Joe to New Orleans where he photographed jazz and blues artists, and where I shot his portrait for the D4 brochure.

Rob’s shoot was much more controlled, his shot list a lot more specific and defined than Joe’s. Rob’s setups were closely tied to particular functions of the D800. As I like to say, Rob shoots a hero image every time.

Photographers like Joe and Rob, when they’re given a new Nikon HD-SLR with which to create end-result photographs, are really dealing in challenges to their imagination, creativity and skill as well as challenges to the gear. I’m there to back it all up: to prove the capability of the cameras in all the details of the image-making process; to see how the tech specs translate into results; and, sometimes, to handle tech questions and even set up the cameras the way the shooters want them to work. I also suggest ideas. Because I know the specs of the D4, I might suggest to Joe that he try a tracking series so we can see how the camera does when it’s set for ten frames per second and focus tracking. Or that we find out how scene recognition works with face recognition. And I’ll be shooting right along with him, only with a different lens on my D4 for a different look to the images. Because it’s my job to have all the tech specs and capabilities in my head, making suggestions isn’t difficult.

When I’m on a support staff gig, I’m also going to school. I’m learning techniques, methods and tricks of the trade. I’m seeing how these pros set things up and think things through. I’m gathering all this up not only for myself, but to share with others. At photo shows and product demos I’ll be speaking to groups and talking one-to-one with pro shooters, and time spent with Joe at the circus and Rob in the studio is time spent in a classroom. Believe me, there’s a lot of me saying to myself, “Oh, I can do this now, can I?”

The one thing I can’t do is stand next to the photographers and shoot exactly what they’re shooting. I have to have my imagination working, creating variations and sidetrips for the setups—unless, of course, the Nikon engineers on the scene want an image backed up by a camera with a different setting so they can check the differences. They might want to see, for instance, how an ISO 12,800 exposure will look in a situation that Joe is shooting with Nikon Speedlights.

Finally, one last thing about how great these gigs are: they’re history for Nikon. Every time there’s a new camera and a new setup and situation to shoot for end-result images, we’re at the start of that camera’s run in the Nikon family. When we’re on the scene with the photographer who’s taking us down that path for the first photos, we’re documenting a part of our imaging history.

The coolest part for me is I’m building a library of images that prove the performance that all Nikon cameras have to deliver.