Reaching New Heights

By Rachel Hulin

The Singapore Flyer, part of a Singapore feature shot by McLain for the January 2010 issue of National Geographic.

National Geographic photographer David McLain on his adventures in video and 3D.

It’s an understatement to say that David McLain likes to keep it interesting. The Maine-based photographer chases pictorial adventures across the globe, shooting travel, lifestyle, editorial, and commercial imagery, as well as spreads for National Geographic. And he recently moved into video with his production company MERGE and is even starting to experiment with 3D.

“In the past year, I’ve had a feature story on Singapore in the January issue of National Geographic and shot a five-projector digital installation for a store in Soho,” McLain says. (When we caught up with him, he was on the road, driving north to New Hampshire.) “I did lifestyle shoots for Horny Toad, the California clothing company, and just did this video project in Chile, so I’m kind of all over the map, and I like it that way.”

McLain knows his career defies the prevailing wisdom that photographers should specialize, to be good at one thing, to make a niche. But his willingness to be a generalist has allowed him to access experiences that might otherwise have been off limits. “I got into photography because it was a passport into all these different worlds—an excuse to hang out with different people you might not otherwise hang out with, or see a place you might not otherwise go, or learn about a topic you didn’t know anything about,” said McLain. “For me, that’s what’s interesting about photography—its ability to inform and educate you.”

A place McLain recently went where he might not otherwise have gone: Chile, which he explored recently with MERGE and a team from Sony. McLain is a Sony Artisan of Imagery, so he’s collaborated with the company before, but this project was a new partnership with the fast-and-light production capabilities of MERGE. The purpose of the trip was to shoot footage using Sony’s Alpha NEX-5 camera and show off its wide range of features, including remarkable low-light settings and in-camera sweep panorama mode.

From planning to the delivery of the videos, it took less than a month, which many would argue is impossible. That’s the way McLain likes to work—he’s not interested in a monstrous crew or a labored shoot process, which suited Sony just fine.

“It was a sweet spot for Sony and the perfect MERGE job, as this Alpha NEX-5 camera shoots both stills and video. The idea was for a pro photographer to go to a place and shoot content that was both educational and aspirational,” McLain says. “So it wasn’t like ‘Just go shoot eye candy’—it was ‘Go take this camera and go shoot certain circumstances in which you would need certain features in the camera.’ This camera has this unbelievabe sweep panoramic mode. So we went and shot some panoramas. It is so cool—I mean, honestly, I want that in my professional cameras. It works really, really well. And it has this amazing low-light mode.”

McLain became interested in the mix of stills and videos about 10 years ago, when he worked on “The Quest,” an innovative online educational project where an eclectic group of professionals—say, a Harvard PhD, a writer for Outside magazine, a photographer, a videographer and an expedition leader—would go to a different part of the world and try to solve a mystery. For example: Why did the Mayan civilization collapse? Did Christopher Columbus discover America? Did Marco Polo really cross the Silk Road?

McLain was the photographer on these expeditions, and Jerome Thelia, his future partner at MERGE, was the videographer. This was right at the beginnning of digital, and because they were uploading the content via satellite to schoolchildren nightly, it was essential. McLain describes the gear he used as “a $12,000 camera that weighed 10 pounds and it was 1.2 megapixels—digital was in its infancy.”

The confluence of chasing adventure, promoting education and pushing technological boundaries is still very much what interests McLain. In Chile, his goal was to create educational content without being “boring or pedantic or talking down to people. We want to do content that was aspirational, because so much about photography is aspiring to shoot better pictures and having fun doing it.”

It was in the Australian Outback that McLain and Thelia first put together stills and videos, using techniques like animations and dissolves and camera moves on still photos, coupled with voiceovers. That work evolved into his practice today. “MERGE was built on this idea of bringing together production and post-production skills,” he says, “kind of taking the eye of the National Geographic photographer and marrying it to someone who is really adept at video and post-production, and working together in the field to think about innovative ways to use either software or hardware to tell stories.”

That innovation, years later, has led, perhaps inevitably, to 3D imagery. The content, however, is complicated to create. MERGE once made 3D with two still cameras mounted in a beam-splitter rig—and the process drew crowds.

“Even in New York City, where we shot it, people were like, what IS that? 3D is just two cameras slightly offset side by side, and pretty soon, some different camera manufacturers are going to come out with a single camera with two lenses in it,” McLain says. “Right now, the gear is heavy and there’s a lot of it.”

Though he’s on the forefront of his craft and awfully busy these days, McLain remembers the years when he struggled to find work. He got bitten by the photography bug in high school and slowly built his career. “All through school, I was the photo editor for the school paper, traveled with all the sports teams and then was a stringer with the AP in college,” he says. “Then I went and worked for a really crappy newspaper, then I went and worked for a slightly less crappy newspaper, then I went freelance and barely had any work… The curve is really slow. I mean, it’s a slow, steady upward curve over a lifetime. And it’s hard—it’s harder that way—but it’s a long-term investment.”

Often, young photographers ask him how to become a National Geographic photographer. And while his response may sound blunt, he means it as a reality check. “You know, it’s not on Craig’s List,” he says. “It makes me feel so old to say this, but I think younger people think they can fly before they can walk. And it’s just not the way life works. At least, it’s not the way it worked for me. “

One other piece of advice? Be a nice person. McLain is quick to remind photographers that human relationships still matter, a lot. “People still want to do business with people they like and know and trust,” he says. “Honestly, so much work comes from word of mouth—and also from working really hard.”



PDN August 2016: The Fine-Art Photography Issue



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