Donut shops wake up early, and Ralph’s, that legendary emporium of frosting and deep fried dough in Cookeville, Tennessee, is no exception. We got there one morning this past summer about 3am, which is roughly when the bakers get your sugar dusted apple fritters ready to roll. Oil bubbles, dough gets smoothed and swirled in big buckets, icing gets spread and lathered, and trays of delights make their way to the front counter to brighten the weary mid-week gait of the array of working folks who stop by for a red velvet and a coffee regular. After a pit stop at Ralph’s, they either hit the workplace with a glazed cruller fueled determination accompanied by a frenzied (but most likely brief) burst of efficiency, or they curl up on a packing blanket under their desk to sleep off a sugar coma, hoping no one else notices. (Or perhaps hoping everybody else in their shop also went to Ralph’s.)
Regardless, life at Ralph’s starts at in the wee hours. So, how do you light up something to convey a sense of darkness? One Speedlight in the street is a potential approach. Streetlights are nasty, right? Hard, edgy, off color. So, make your light look like that. There is one SB910 out in the street on a simple Manfrotto stacker stand. No shaper. Zoomed to 200mm. Hard light, designed to create shadows. Specifically, the shadow of the name of this legendary establishment, cast up on the wall. A hot shoed commander flash fires through a window and easily picks up the other small flash out there. Thank goodness there is no traffic in Cookeville at 3am, ’cause my stand was smack in the middle of the street. You want distance, as the further a light like this is away from your subject, the more it behaves like a real, distant street light.
This lighting thing is just a series of experiments, right? So, I did something I had never done, which was to place two gels, green and warm, vertically arrayed on the flash head. Streetlight colors are noxious, right? A nasty mix of warmish, puke greenish, and God knows what else. I literally tried to make my light look off color, along the lines of what was out in the street. Above, splattered with the uneven hardness of a single light beaming through windows, doors, placards, and signs, Thomas Rodriguez, one of the bakers, mops up the store, prior to the commuter onslaught. Shot with a D810, a 20mm Nikkor lens, at 1/250th @ f5. ISO 800. I left it on auto white balance, as the scene seemed just a touch warm and green, but not hugely so. The AWB is most likely trying to clean things up a bit.
But, later in the day, the whole store is inflected with the steamy, full, vaporous light of summertime Tennessee. So, chuck the hard light approach, and make the Speedlights not so much light the scene but blend with it in soft, virtually unnoticeable ways. This approach is not lighting, really. It’s just mixing in a couple of hot shoe flashes into the mix of what exists and letting them clean up the color and direct the action a little bit. Below, peerless fiddler Nathan Stoops serenades the obviously enchanted Kiren and Koby.
Using a Lastolite tri-flash below, but populating it with only two flashes. I figured I already had strong light coming from camera left, through the windows, right? So, again, experiment. Maybe don’t need that left side flash, and I’ll just have two of them push a little light towards the right and deeper into the shop. The shaper is a Lastolite 4 in 1 umbrella. Seemed to work okay. First exposure on TTL was the right mix, so I went with it. Kids perched on the counter, working fast.
Same angle on the same shop. Couple of Speedlights. Night’n day. Check out the short video on lighting the shop! Small Flash, Big Donuts! More tk….
Paulo Sacramento says
How did you trigger the flash? PW? Su 800?
Joe McNally says
Commander flash on the camera. Pivoted the head towards the street, and the unit in the street easily picked it up.
Wow – what a photo!! When the page downloaded and I clocked the pic, I literally gasped. One question: did you ask Thomas to stand still?
Joe McNally says
No, he is staying roughly in the same area, but he is mopping. I was shooting a fast shutter speed so motion was not a problem.
Anthony Procissi says
Gah! You make it look so easy. You had one assistant to abuse, yeah? 🙂 I find it hard to get flashes to trigger when their is a large modifier between you and it.. Is this why we see the sync cord stretching off camera when shooting the older gentleman?
Tyler Rickenbach says
Thank you so much for sharing… This is so awesome Joe! Reminds me of a shoot that you did at Nelson Ghost town, bringing back the light.
Joe McNally says
Yep, we used SC-29 cords to get my commander off camera at a better angle to pick up the light out in the street. Worked well!
Great post, the top image is fantastic
Joe, love the story! Just curious, any particular reason why you chose to use the d7100?
Richard Luse says
Saw the images and the story in the workshop yesterday, very interesting, informative and inspirational……despite the room! Thanks Joe.
Dre | Table Tripod says
I love the photos here! Thanks so much for sharing… Regardless of how cumbersome a setup may be, the end-product photos will always speak for themselves!
Tyler Brock says
Hello Mr. McNally,
My name is Tyler Brock and I am a photojournalism student at Randolph Community College in Asheboro North Carolina. My instructor gives a weekly assignment each week and this week was to replicate a photographer’s work. The catch was that the photographer had to give instructions on how they achieved the image. So I chose the very brilliant Joe McNally; and the image I chose to replicate was the one of Thomas Rodriguez. I loved the simplicity of it, yet, the drama that you managed to capture in this photograph. My question is would you mind if I put your photograph in my blog for comparison purposes? I am putting the link to this particular blog along with your website and I am giving you full credit for the idea I would just like to have your flawless image next to my not so flawless image for side by side comparison.
Thank you Mr. McNally for teaching us from your wealth of knowledge.
Joe McNally says
No worries, Tyler….sorry to be late here. I checked in on your blog, and apologies for not responding sooner.
Sebastian Benbenek says
The best in photographs of yours, are the stories. I admire that skill that allow You to tell the story by one shot.
Brilliant job Joe! Though your work has always been beautiful as I have been a fan since I studied photography 15+ years ago!