Nikon Ambassador Joe McNally’s admiration for blues musician legends can be seen in his recent series “Delta Bluesmen.” It is within this body of profiles that the photographer reveals each performer’s personality and charisma as framed within a signature environment. Shares McNally, “I strive to provide a sense of context within each portrait otherwise the viewer is robbed of a full experience. Context for storytelling can be greatly enhanced by choice of lens and lighting.”
Fresh from a session at Rockwood Music Hall in New York City with blues great Leo “Bud” Welch, McNally runs through how choice of lens influenced his lighting set-up, and how using predominantly Nikon Speedlights kept things ‘in the red.’ Images were produced using the Nikon D7200, which boasts an ISO range of up to 51,200 for color work.
Choice of Lens and Aperture Affect Your Light Scheme
To create Welch’s story McNally heeded one of his mantras, “entire to detail,” which is a framework whereby he looks over an entire scene, then drills down on details. That said, his photo narratives give homage to everything—from small details such as wardrobe, color and palette, to broad elements such as charisma, personality and environment.
In photograph one, the AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8E ED VR set to f/11 frames a broad, but intimate, look that expertly showcases everything from red alligator shoes, to the brilliant sheen of a blue suit, to compliment the red stage lighting. “I chose to play up wild wardrobe colors and make the most out of a really, really dark space,” notes McNally. “First I got control of my environment. I asked the stage manager to run through all the lighting settings so I could see what I had to work with. When he turned on the red spotlights, I liked how they mixed in. It’s important that photographers observe the quality of ambient lighting–then assess if that light will be useful or not.”
When setting exposure, he metered for ambient light to preserve the stage reds. Using an Avenger C-stand at camera-left, three Nikon SB-910 AF Speedlights were mounted onto a tri-flash cold shoe. Lights, directed at the subject, fired simultaneously through a large Lastolite umbrella.
Lighting Precision for Wide Aperture Photographs
Having framed the full subject, next came a close-up image. “I wanted to showcase detail and texture of the 80-plus year old’s hands through a shallow depth of field.” Working at a 1.4 f/stop on the AF-S NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4G, McNally put critical focus at his chosen point, and allowed surrounding objects to softly melt away.
Three Nikon SB-910 AF Speedlights, again paired with the lightshaper, were placed camera-left. A very closely placed light source not only tightened where light fell, but brought luster and softness. “This shot required precise placement of Speedlights. Note the extent to which light curls round each finger–carving and shaping while separating elements from the background. When your light source is big and placed to the side its pattern of fall-off can lend drama to an image.” He continues, “Since I added light and was working at f/1.4, I had to “speed up” the shutter in order to take down the increase in ambient light level reaching the sensor.”
Detect the hint of warmth at the musician’s wrist? McNally used a Lastolite TriGrip reflector to bounce in a golden tone.
The Full Picture
This next image, acquired using a smaller aperture, shows more environment. The 35mm f/1.4 lens set at f/6.3 yields a wider field of view. “There is more depth in this perspective. Since I pulled back, I wanted to retain sharpness so the viewer feels the atmosphere.”
Here, McNally keeps the red hint on the back walls strong by using three SB-910 AF units and a 3’ x 6’ Lastolite Skylite panel. Commenting about working from within a confined space, he explains, “The brightness of the light on one side of Welch comes as a result of framing a wide scene in a confined space; I was not able to place my main light source close to my subject.” The photographer goes on to remind us that when light is far away, ramping up its size is one way to preserve diffusion and quality.
A hint of red on Welch’s head and neck comes from a single SB-910 AF unit fitted with a red gel and placed roughly 25-feet away—this was the only addition of coloration over McNally’s lighting set-up. Additionally, full length window curtains to camera-left were pushed back and contribute a bit more ambient light.
Musicians tell stories through songs and instruments. Photographers share stories through images, and their instruments include camera, lens and light. Says McNally, “Choice of lens and light bring charisma and perspective to your story.”
For more NIKKOR lens and Speedlight tips and tricks, also see McNally’s recent post