That’s what the 54 house calls themselves. They are unquestionably the most popular and photographed firehouse in NYC. Literally millions of tourists are spread around the world, at home, with pictures of this house and “the guys.” In terms of runs, they are the busiest fire company in all of NY.
The guys are incredibly patient and easygoing about the constant stream of pedestrian traffic that flows in front of their doors, and the resultant, endless requests for photos and a smile. They are a great bunch. I got to know a few of them right after 911. One of my friends is Rich Kane, the driver of 4 truck. Rich is a veteran firefighter, good guy, terrific photog, and resident firehouse sex symbol. Mike Corrado of Nikon is also his good friend (they shoot a lot of sports together). So a few weeks ago, Mike, Rich, Brad and I got 4 truck together with a D700.
Strategy wise, it’s good to do this with a ladder truck and not an engine, cause as you will see, the up top ladder gives you a base of operations and a sturdy, extended platform to hang your rig off of. The gear needed to do this:
4 Bogen Magic Arms, each with 2 Bogen Super Clamps; 1 heavy duty Gitzo monopod; 1 SC-29 cord; 1 D700, 1 14-24mm f2.8; SU-800 trigger; 3 SB800 flashes; Justin Clamps; gaffer tape; gels; ball head; metal cable lanyards; zip ties; Pocket Wizards. (Couple notes later about ball head and PWs.)
Okay. Get what you figure will be the main light positioned first. That pretty much is standard placement, something on the dashboard, affixed with a Justin Clamp, and a warming gel. The flash from here, muted and adjusted properly, simulates instrument panel glow, at least in theory, though these shots have been done so often, everybody knows a strobe is down there. Okay, first result.
Would you let this man drive a fire truck? Hmmm….
Okay, one light is not enough. The cab of the that truck is large, and black. More punch is called for, or the driver will look like Dracula on a high speed run to the blood bank.
Had the notion I could maybe hide a light behind and somewhat obstructing the rear view (which is okay, given the way Richie drives:-). This light got a heavy red gel, and then some gaffer tape treatment, and a series of zip ties to make sure it didn’t go missing during a run.
First few tests showed we had to bury a third light in the cab, filling the passenger side just a touch. Again, trying to avoid the big black hole in the photo type of deal. But, the system is running CLS/TTL so the 3 receivers have to see the impulse from the SU800. We hot shoed it–no go. This is where the SC29 is invaluable. Pop the SU trigger onto the 29 cable and hook it to the camera, then run that puppy out along the monopod, lock it into place with another Bogen Super Clamp, and boom, the strobes see the signal and you still have full wireless TTL. I could have locked the strobes into SU-4 mode and popped ‘em with PWs, but then I’ve got 3 units to ratio manually, and I’m crawling all over the truck, sometimes in the street off a run. Rather play with the values from one source, the SU800, and program strobe punch from there. It’s talking to the camera, and vice versa, so there will be a natural variation to the feel of the light as the truck zooms from light to dark areas of the street.
The camera’s out there, right? I’m pretty nervous, cause NYC streets ain’t exactly the autobahn. More like a donkey cart trail. Lots of bumps. But then I relax. It’s Corrado’s camera! I use the Manfrotto Hydrostatic Ball heads pretty religiously, but opted here for the Really Right Stuff system, cause I was unsure of whether I would go horizontal or vertical, and the RRS L bracket seemed to make sense. Mistake. (It’s the little things you don’t think of , ya know?) The L bracket I had for my D3 didn’t configure to the bottom of the D700. Man I had to give that set screw a pretty good, well, screwing, to get it to lock and then it was still kinda fragile looking and cattywampus. That’s where more zip ties and cable lanyards came in. I didn’t want the camera disappearing under the wheels of the rig, or, worse, flying through Richie’s windshield. (In the interests of safety and given the fact this was a live fire vehicle, Mike, Richie and I rehearsed getting the clamps and the monopod off the ladders. We got it down to about 30 seconds, within limits in case of a call.)
I tell ya something that saved me. The big LCD in the back of the D700. I had to check angle and exposure periodically, out in the street, and looking at a small, dark monitor whilst standing on the bumper and arching backwards hanging onto the wiper blade of the truck would have made for a long night. Also, perfect type of shot for full frame. Nuff said.
If you notice the background to some of these production pix, you’ll see it is a memorial. Engine 54/Ladder 4/Battalion 9 lost 15 men on 911. It was a rough time. Firehouses are resilient places, though. They bounce back. Lots of banter. They hang together and love each other like brothers, and just like brothers, cut no slack and take no prisoners when it comes to dishing out grief. If you are short, or bald, or have a big nose, and maybe are packing a few extra pounds, it’s well, noted. The operative phrase here is, “Don’t limp.”
Especially true for probie firefighters, who join the house and have to jump to for everything during the course of their probation. One of the things I did that night for the house was shoot new head shots for a bunch of the guys. We had a recent addition to the house in front of my lens, and see the shadowy figure in the background, high on the truck, bucket in hand? It is called, no mystery here, “bucketing.”
He smelled the prank and stayed dry. But a firehouse is not for the faint of heart, or the easily damaged. Guys will be guys. A veteran of the department I know pretty well used to go fishing to pass the time. To do this he would affix a dollar bill to a well worn wallet and attach the wallet to fishing line, crack the firehouse door, slip it out on the sidewalk and see what he could reel in. Most folks got a laugh and appreciated the joke, though he did say there were some interesting reactions when he did this at a house right next door to a methadone clinic.
Probie’s get lots of attention. Witness the power sit up. At some houses I’ve heard about, the competitive and eager to please new guy is told it is a strict house workout routine to push out sit ups while being restrained via a towel over the forehead, held by another guy. Invariably, the towels slips momentarily over the fnugys eyes, while he continues to try to power through the situp. While blinded by the towel, another firefighter, usually the biggest guy in the house (one house had a guy so big they called him “double date”) strategically locates himself in a squatting position over the hapless probie. He of course is buck naked. The towel intentionally slips and the new guy does an accelerated face plant into a butt crack. This is called fun.
Back to the streets. Had lots of misses, but a couple of real good hits. The other reason to work with 54 house photographically is that their zone includes Times Square. Talk about Friday night lights! The streets are almost daylight bright, except it’s neon.
I’m in the cab behind Richie, driving the camera with a Pocket Wizard. Lots of frames, cause you never know. You’re making what is hopefully a series of educated guesses. And depending on lots of variables to hopefully tip your way.
I can’t comment all that intelligently on the D700 (Pipe down right now, Mike. Corrado will read this and shrug and say, what else is new?) because I had it in my hands for only a few minutes until I put it at the end of a pole and hoped for the best. But, strategically, it was a great solution because you have the bright LCD, 12.1 megapixel FX (full frame) CMOS sensor, terrific metering system…in short, a package that gets most of the way to D3 in a smaller, lighter body. That played huge in my head as I watched the camera dropped into space on the end of a boom pole that was waving around like a swizzle stick.
We’ve made big prints of these shots for the house, though, as one of the guys riding in the truck commented, “Oh, yeah, that ‘s my wife has been asking me for, big prints of Richie Kane driving the truck. She’ll be so pleased.”
They’re a good bunch, and I certainly represented myself better that Friday night than I had in our most recent encounter. I had gotten one of those contracts, you know the ones, that tell you they are not going to pay you any money, but they are taking from you all rights to your intellectual property, in perpetuity, in the known and yet to be discovered universe (I tell ya, the reprints rights on the moons of Jupiter are going to be a gold mine, hang onto those.), for all time, yet again, and furthermore, and by the way, we own your house, too. Instead of fire bombing that particular publication, I went to Times Square and stripped down to my u-trou with a couple of pithy things written on sandwich boards.
Just when I’m at my most undignified (a not infrequent condition) 4 Truck rolls through Times Square. “Hey Joe–what the f^%%$#(*&^%%k are you doin’?” Oh well….
Hey there’s links like crazy to the D700 and SB900 out there. Those links will give you more technical skinny than I can. I just feel lucky we have tools like this. I mean, I started with a Nikkormat, and then my first motor driven camera was an F. As Marty Forscher used to say, “you can hammer a nail with that camera.” True enough, but that wasn’t what it was for, was it?
Availability is always an issue in the early days of stuff. Got a call yesterday from Jeff Snyder, who I mentioned in my blog yesterday. Jeff is one of us. He is in the trenches, shooting and experiencing all the ups and downs of shooting that we do, so he is, IMHO, the real deal. He is just about single handedly responsible for taking his (relatively) new posting at Adorama and using it to catapult that operation more into the forefront of our industry. Witness the Sportsshooter site. More on Jeff and Adorama in a day or so. But he advises contacting him direct via his email—firstname.lastname@example.org. He’s like the man behind the curtain, pulling levers, making connections and working his butt off to get gear to people.