Portraits of the Artists: Joe McNally and Jerry Ghionis Capture the Cool Factors

Portrait of a Photographer: Joe McNally and Jerry Ghionis – What happens when two internationally acclaimed photographers and Nikon Ambassadors go on assignment to create portraits of each other? Watch the video to see what transpires.

Not long ago, one of Nikon's squad of imaginative staffers dreamed up a dream assignment to showcase the performance of the Z camera line's NIKKOR Z 85mm f/1.8 S lens. "Imaginative" is the key word, as the assignment sent two Nikon Ambassadors, Joe McNally and Jerry Ghionis, to Malibu, California, to take each other's portrait.

Joe and Jerry are portrait masters, and the challenge for each was to use his style to capture the other's.

What the easygoing rapport between the two might obscure is that a portrait is an interpretation of a person, and how a photographer lights, poses, directs and dresses a subject are all factors in that reading of the subject's personality. What Joe and Jerry had going for them in addition to their skills and experience is the fact that a cool portrait can depend on a cool subject.

Here's what each photographer had to say after the wrap party.

Joe McNally on photographing Jerry Ghionis: "He's very stylish, very L.A.- and Vegas-centric, and he shoots a lot of high-end work at high-end places...and this is how it all came together for me."

Joe's Story

"Tuxedo?" we ask.

"I wanted to photograph Jerry in an elegant way 'cause he's an elegant guy, and his work is elegantly beautiful," Joe says. "and I knew that in his photography and personal life he's very stylish, very clothes conscious; he knows fashion."

So Joe started out by fitting the styling of the portrait to the style of the subject.

"And the surfboard?"

"I thought, okay, how can I somehow add another layer to that elegance? We were going to a Malibu location, with a pool, and I thought about the nice light we'd have, and then about the color palette: tuxedo, all black and white, so I need a strong color palette.

So I think, The blue water in the pool would resonate with a yellow surfboard."

So play off the subject's elegance with an unexpected element to create—elegantly—a color scheme.

That's Joe as the photographer—how was he as the subject of Jerry's photographs?

"I tend to put people in front of the camera, and I rock and roll," Joe says. "Even if it doesn't look great at first, I'm like, Do this, that's great...okay, fine. I let the subject run away with it and I see where the body language takes me. Jerry is wonderfully more precise. He specifically oriented me and specifically directed my eye, my gaze, my attitude, my shifts, everything. He was posing me by degrees in very careful fashion, which I greatly appreciated. That was something interesting and new for me."

And something Joe might use in the future?

"Absolutely," he says. "You always pick up bits and pieces of information that stay with you, and eight months from now I might be with someone who's maybe not great in front of the camera, and I'll remember some of the things Jerry used for me."

Joe, of course, was pretty great in front of the camera. With complete trust, he gave Jerry what he needed to achieve his vision for the portrait.

Jerry Ghionis on photographing Joe McNally: "He's a cool dude, and there's character in his face. I posed and lit to bring out that character.'"

Jerry's Story

As the subject of Joe's photographs, Jerry picks up Joe's cues and becomes a Hollywood cool guy in a tux on a surfboard in his pool.

As the photographer, Jerry starts by considering the light, which is the first step in a very specific process Jerry uses. "Light, location, pose, technique, emotion. That's served me well over the years."

Each step requires creativity and resourcefulness; it's no mere checklist. "My background is mainly as a wedding photographer," Jerry says, "and that demands thinking on the fly, working under time constraints and weather constraints and maximizing locations. When I was younger I was obsessed with the TV show MacGyver. You'd wonder how he'd get locked in a tool shed and drive out with a bus.  I'd think, if MacGyver were a photographer, what would he do? And that makes you think differently."

Joe's achievements and his role as director when Jerry was the subject drive Jerry's portrait ideas. "We're directors when we shoot," Jerry says. "We don't wait for the moment—we create the moment. I thought it would be fun to introduce Hollywood-type lighting, and even dress him in a way that looks contemporary and also in a way he could have looked decades ago."

At the end of the shoot the road took an unexpected turn. "Joe had to travel to Las Vegas for a conference," Jerry says. "He had all his gear, and I know what a pain it is to get everything to an airport, and I live in Vegas, so it was, 'Hey, I'm driving back, I've got a big Suburban, I'll drive you there.' So it was four hours on the drive, and the conversations we had were fantastic."

We're directors when we shoot. We don't wait for the moment—we create the moment.

Our Story

The video was designed to be an entertaining showcase for the portrait capabilities and qualities of the NIKKOR Z 85mm f/1.8 S lens, given that 85mm is a classic focal length for portraits. So how'd that work out for the photographers?

"To me, it focused closer than a traditional 85mm, and it grabbed focus quicker," Jerry says. "I've used the lens for a wedding and several fashion shoots, and combined with the efficiency of a mirrorless camera, it's a breeze to use—small, light, fast and sharp." Joe's judgment was similar: "Really fast and really sharp—that's a given—and considerably smaller than my old 85mm f/1.4 and the 105mm f/1.4 DSLR  portrait lenses I use now. My style now for the mirrorless system is evolving around using the S lenses—smaller, lighter, they just feel complementary to the form factor of the Z camera."

And there's a little bit more: Joe and Jerry are not only photographers, they're teachers. If you're looking to sharpen your portrait skills, there are clues in the video.

Jerry Ghionis's website,, offers a collection of outstanding images across a range of styles. Joe McNally's website,, includes a blog that's a treasure chest of ideas, techniques and behind-the-scenes stories.

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