Behind the Scenes of a Spooky Bedtime Story Photo Shoot

Have you ever wanted to be in the mind of one of National Geographic‘s most prolific and imaginative photographers? In this seven-minute video, Joe McNally and his assistants walk you through the process of bringing one of McNally’s visions from the drawing board to the frame:

The premise of the shoot sounded simple enough: a girl is reading a scary Halloween story in her bedroom late at night. The photograph will show the fantasy of the story coming alive, with a live model coming out of a mural on the wall.

Setting Up the Scene

body painting a model for a photo shoot

The model was body painted to blend in with the wall mural.

McNally and his team set out to create the scene, using a Nikon D810 and a mix of lighting equipment to combine the warm safety of a little girl’s bedroom with the eerie image of an evil tree fairy coming out of the wall.

Each specialist, from the mural artist to the prop specialist, details the challenges they face in turning the vision into a reality. For the makeup artist, it is the intricacy of the body painting to make the model really look like a tree come to life. For the prop stylist, it’s finding the right items to set the correct mood. The lighting assistants have one of the toughest jobs—implementing the sophisticated lighting McNally needs to bring the vision to life.


In particular, McNally explains the complex lighting that is required to replicate both the moonlight and the interior lights in a bedroom.

light source for joe mcnally photo shoot

The main light source was set up outside the window.

While the major source of light is coming from outside the bedroom window, he has set up five different accent lights in the room to mimic the overhead light in most bedrooms, plus a reading light and other accents to pull out details from the shadows and make the image pop.

light balance

McNally used gels to replicate natural-looking light.

“You are trying to make the room look plausibly lit even though you are in fact lighting it.”

color correcting for blue

Color correcting is vital in order to achieve a natural- looking image.

McNally is meticulous. He explains how he tackles particular problems, like using lights inside to balance the predominately blue light coming from outside.


After many hours, the final photo was ready.

It can take hours to prepare for the shoot and, at the end, it is always last minute details that can make or break an image. Taking the time to check everything—from hair to lights to props—can make the difference between a photo that pulls the viewer into the fantasy and one that falls short.

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