Joe McNally always wanted to do a photo shoot in Preservation Hall in New Orleans. A call from Nikon let him shoot his dream assignment.
The best thing about assignments is that you are prompted to get your eye into a camera. Even better, you are paid to do something you love to do and would happily do (and, quite frequently do) for nothing. Even those assignments where you are told what to shoot, and how to shoot it, are good days, really. Remember, a bad day in the field trumps a good day in the office.
Nirvana is achieved when you are given an open-ended assignment, and effectively told, here’s some dough, go shoot something interesting. Pinch me, I’m dreamin’! Those are the days, the days of, as Jack Nicholson memorably said in the movie “As Good As It Gets,” “Good times and noodle salad.” It doesn’t get any better than getting to paid to shoot something you always wanted to shoot anyway.
Such a salad day occurred for me not too long ago when the Nikon Corp. assigned me to shoot the marketing campaign for the Nikon D4 camera. They had this hot new camera, and they called me up. Did I have any ideas? Uh, yeah!
I had always wanted to shoot, with control, in the legendary jazz joint, Preservation Hall, down in New Orleans. At night, during performances, the light has been historically, notoriously absent. Virtually un-shootable darkness rules in there. (Except for now, with cameras such as D4 that deliver extraordinary results at astronomical ISOs.) Cool enough. But what about some portraiture? I wanted to get in there during the day, and create a portrait environment for some of the legendary musicians of the hall, who generally are creatures of the night.
Took about three weeks of persistence on the part of my amazing studio manager, Lynn DelMastro, but we got in. We only had a couple hours, but we got in. There are basically two windows in the whole joint, both facing the street. These were my main sources of light. They had to be amplified and pumped up, but still look like soft north light coming through a dirty window. (Part of the charm of the hall is that it looks like nobody’s taken a mop or a dust rag to it in many, many years.)
So, first step was to cover the windows with large swatches of diffusion. Think of a really big bed sheet, and you got it, basically. We pinned them up on the street side, and put small flash (SB900 units) out there on the sidewalk. Into the far window, I put only one flash, but into the near window to camera, where I would put my subject, I used a Lastolite Joe McNally Rotate Tri-Flash, which will hold up to three hot shoe flash guns, as the English say. The fillip of difference with this newly designed flash holder is the cold shoes all ratchet 360 degrees, which allows you to maneuver the light sensor panels on the SB units all in one coherent direction. If you’re trying to pull something off with line-of-sight TTL, this move is pretty essential, especially if your commander flash is inside the building, firing through all the diffusion, trying to reach all those sensors out there on the sidewalk.
It’s even more important when you also incorporate interior flashes into the mix. That means the off camera commander (linked to the camera hot shoe via three SC-29 cables) has to be angled just so, in order to command and direct the power ratings of these interior/exterior flashes all placed at differing angles to each other. That’s a lot of heavy lifting for a line of sight commander unit.
But, it worked. From the master flash inside the hall, near the camera, I was able to command and ratio all the flashes we used for this shot, which totaled seven. (Three inside, four outside.)
And yes, you could easily do this with big flash. In fact I did, with the follow on portrait of Charlie Gabriel, who plays sax in the band. But, I wanted to challenge myself and the system, and, after all, my client was Nikon, so I used their stuff.
The flashes placed inside Preservation Hall all had full cuts of CTO conversion gel on them, so their color was warm and matched the existing tungsten bulb lighting in the room. They were simply bounced into the ceiling without too much power. Nothing fancy. I just needed to bring up the light level of the interior just a little bit. By contrast, the flashes on the sidewalk were white light, with no gels at all. Those outdoor flashes were working hard. They are all about max power, manual setting, 1/1 power setting. In other words, I’m asking them for all they’ve got.
Enter the most important piece of the puzzle, my subject, the eminently talented Little Joe Lassiter, the legendary drummer of the Preservation Hall Band. Gregarious and expressive, working with Joe was a dream. He was funny, but also had a quiet contemplative side. His form and face meshed well with the (constructed) soft window light. I had to keep him and his body angled into the window, but other than that, I was able to just set him down at his drums, a seat he’s very comfortable with, and talk him through one of the cooler portrait sessions I’ve ever had the privilege of orchestrating. I got my shot in Preservation Hall.
Another check off the bucket list!