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A Postcard for FDNY

May 29

In In The Field, Lighting, On Location at 7:51am

Ten House is located on Liberty St., spitting distance from the World Trade Center site. They just got two new rigs, and it fell to 10 Truck chauffeur, Aaron Burns, who doubles as the house photog, to shoot a postcard of these brand spanking new machines. A postcard, and maybe a shot to put on the wall, if things worked out.

He’s a good shooter, but staging and lighting two trucks on the streets of NY at dusk, well, he needed a hand. He’s a friend of Captain Cascone’s, who was a subject of the original Faces of Ground Zero Project. (Jayson Cascone’s first day of work as a probationary firefighter was 9/11. He is now, I believe, the youngest captain in the history of the department.) Aaron mentioned he had discussed doing the picture with Captain Cascone, and my name came up.

Happy to help. The Ten House is a good bunch of guys, and luckily, it was a bit of a slow night. It didn’t start off well, of course, because it’s, well, location work. When we showed up, they were paving the piece of street where we were gonna put the trucks. Hmmm. Okay, we grabbed a bite, and came back. Paving was done, so we placed the truck. But the engine had a run, so we waited some more. And it got later, and the sky got darker. Which meant when we the trucks got into position, we had to work fast, as always. (Is there such a thing as a leisurely location shoot?)

The most important lights in a deal like this are the ones you put behind the subjects. If you just throw frontal light at a scene like this, you flatten it, and make it recede. You want the light to skate and skip around the tarmac, backlighting everything, creating highlights, and some drama. Color’s important, too. We used red, of course, and some we gelled to a tungsten balance, via a CTO.

And then we started spraying light around. There’s no real science to it. Put a light behind the truck, and bang it into the pavement. If it looks good, cool. If it don’t, move it till it does. It’s basically real rough kind of rim lighting. You ramp up the drama of course, by spraying down the street, which is easy when you’re working with FDNY. These guys generally have access to water.

Of course, once you establish a light level, there are things that will drop into black holes real quick. Like the cabs of the trucks. Two SB-910 units per cab, gelled warm, brought them to life. Again, nothing fancy. They are just sitting on the seats, pointed at the ceiling.

Radios! Here’s the snag when lighting emergency vehicles. You gotta have their emergency lights on, and once those gumball machines start spinning and flashing all over the place, guess what they trigger? All your lights, if you are on slave eyes. Hence, radios play big. Gotta hand it to Pocket Wizards. This area of Manhattan is laden with all sorts of RF and that can play havoc with sub standard radio triggers. We used every radio we had on this, from Multi-Max’s, to PW3’s, to Plus X units. They kicked butt. We hardly had any misfires, which is crucial when the light is dropping like a stone down a well and you’re half listening for the bells in the house to signal a run.

The front of the trucks was rough to light. Big windshields, right? We tried lots of places where the light looked decent, but the hit off the glass looked like a shotgun blast through my sensor, so opted to put up a raw light high and far away, roughly akin to a street light, and it played over the grilles of both trucks. Not pretty, not fancy, but it worked. We also experimented with bouncing a strong light source off the pavement, which also had some success, and produced a low glow on the front of the trucks. 

Then—you look for dead spots. And if there’s time, you engage in some accent lighting. These things to me are luxury items. If you have the time, do it. It evolves the picture in a positive way, and makes it a bit more three-dimensional. But honestly, there’s been lots of times on location all I could do is get the big bones of a picture in place, and then I just gritted my teeth and shot it as best I could. At the end of the day, the shot is more important than that curlycue of light on the bumper that would have been nice.

But here, we went for it. We hung a couple more SB units in the back cab of the truck, and then clamped another to the engine, firing at the “10” painted on the truck door. Caused a minor hit, but it brought the logo out of the exposure basement. Dropped another flash in the middle back of the trucks as well. Sheesh….I think we had eleven lights out there all over the street. Sketch below.

And of course, we did a group shot of the guys. Same lights in back, with a big, hand held Octa up front. A good bunch, as I said up top.

Production pix courtesy of Annie Cahill.

Equipment Used: Nikon D4S14-24mm f2.8Elinchrom RangerElinchrom QuadraNikon SB 910Pocket Wizard Radio TriggersAvenger C-standsManfrotto Stacker StandsJustin Clamps……Water Hose:-)))






Bill Bogle, Jr. says:

on May 29, 2014 at 10:15 am

Absolutely wonderful. I love the lighting steps and diagram. Annie captures the feeling of all that you had to do. I sent it on to my FDNY buddies who were there, now retired. Thanks Joe.

Dennis Whittam says:

on May 29, 2014 at 10:15 am

Enjoyed the article! Outstanding results, well done.

JerseyStyle Photography says:

on May 29, 2014 at 10:26 am

Thanks for the full-out description here, Joe. Very cool.

God bless the Ten House.

~ Mark

Graham Dargie says:

on May 29, 2014 at 10:28 am

Good job, as usual Joe! Do you need permits to shoot on the street like this in NYC?

Bill Henderson says:

on May 29, 2014 at 10:42 am

Very interesting blog. I loved “Faces of Ground Zero”, it was very strong. Thanks for posting

Joe McNally says:

on May 29, 2014 at 11:54 am

Not when you’re working with FDNY;-)

James says:

on May 29, 2014 at 1:38 pm

Excellent! Thanks, Joe!

Joel says:

on May 29, 2014 at 2:28 pm

From Uganda, I read this blog like I’m gonna sit for an exam. Thanks Joe.. An inspiration to many of us you’ll probably never meet!!

Aaron Chandler says:

on May 29, 2014 at 2:28 pm

I get so much more out of your posts like this than just about anything that I read and try to learn from.
Thanks for taking the time to do this kind of stuff.

Matt Connolly says:

on May 29, 2014 at 2:46 pm

Great post Joe. You’re a light master. Great images, and I love your willingness to use your talents to give back to the great people of NYC. Not sure if I ever told you, but my father was a firefighter and my cousin is an active firefighter in the city. Loved the post. Cheers, Matt C.

Mark Miller says:

on May 29, 2014 at 6:42 pm

Thanks again for sharing your work and set ups! You are and have been an inspiration to do many of us. Even if we rarely or never get these kind of gigs. Nice images, great work, and yes it is a lot of work! But the results are exemplary !

Alex says:

on May 29, 2014 at 9:30 pm

Terrific as usual! Thanks, Joe!

Patrick Downs says:

on May 29, 2014 at 11:40 pm

Well, there are times when only a big bag o’ speedlites (and the biggies) and PWs will do! Great job, thanks for sharing the for BTS.

Bharat Pania says:

on May 30, 2014 at 3:48 am

This is new vision to shoot,instead of just start from frontal
this is started from back, Excellent

Martin Hambleton says:

on May 30, 2014 at 5:39 am

Always inspirational; always fascinating. I love how you won’t leave a shot alone until you’ve squeezed every last drop out of it to make it as good as it possibly can be.

Simon Fleming says:

on May 30, 2014 at 7:23 pm

As always Joe, great results, and thanks for sharing the real life low-down on what goes into the mixing pot…

Greg Hartshorne says:

on May 31, 2014 at 7:11 pm

Awesome shot. Have bought and read several of your books, love the shots from Augusta, GA as that is where I work for the Fire Department. Wanting to use this info and try it with one of our units as soon as I get some more lights.
Thanks so much for sharing!

Dave says:

on June 1, 2014 at 12:02 am

Greg – A suggestion: Don’t worry about owning more gear, ask around, make contacts and develop access to more gear for situations like shooting fire trucks.

As many photographers seem to be like small kids at heart, you will probably find is easy to get the use of some lighting if you mention there are fire trucks involved….

Brian Duncan says:

on June 2, 2014 at 3:49 am

Broadway Joe – you’re the man!

Jeff Peterson says:

on June 3, 2014 at 9:01 pm

One of the reasons why I follow this blog. Great photo, commentary, instruction (sketch!), and final product. As a former first responder (sort of still am) and former pho-photog (in the film days) this sort of commitment to FDNY and the cause means a lot.



Jason Yu says:

on June 4, 2014 at 3:00 am

Excellent photos and blog, thanks!

Neil Kemp says:

on June 11, 2014 at 2:56 am

Thanks for the behind the scenes look. Love your work!

Todd L says:

on July 31, 2014 at 9:37 am

Quick question, if you’re still monitoring this. How do you deal with the reflective striping on the engines and turnout coats? I’m a firefighter and photo hobbyist, and struggle with the darn reflective tape blowing out all of my images. Any thoughts?

Ken Freeman says:

on March 7, 2015 at 3:01 pm

Great photo, perfect backdrop for the 10 & 10 and excellent story!

Tara says:

on July 9, 2015 at 11:25 pm

Absolutely stunning thank you for sharing your process as well!

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