Bill Nye's a legend. And no matter what side of his politics you stand on, he's a smart smart human doing his best to make the world a better place, emphasizing education, curiosity, and long-term thinking as keys to a happier human race. When The Booksmith offered me the opportunity to photograph him at the Castro Theater as part of his book tour, I was ecstatic.
I've been handling recent editorial assignments on some of my older film cameras when I have the option (turn-around time is the biggest limiter, with film requiring a couple extra days to process, scan, and edit), because as high-tech and fancy as my digital cameras are, they just don't have that certain je nes sais quoi of film. ALSO, when working with someone who's been in the public eye for so long, who has sat for so many photo ops, and who likely sees this sort of thing as a necessary but annoying chore, I thought bringing a different type of experience would allow for a better session and more dynamic interaction.
All that to say... I opted for my old Speed Graphic 4x5 camera. Cons: I'd only get a couple shots, and there'd be no immediate feedback from a digital screen to know that I'd captured what I wanted. Pros: the big negative would create mesmerizing depth; the clunky cumbersome slow shooting process would help calm and center Mr Nye quickly when I'd only have a couple minutes to shoot with him; and finally, the specific challenges of using this camera on such a significant shoot got my heart pumping.
The mezzanine at the Castro Theater had mixed light, mismatched furniture, and awesome carpet. It also happened to have, at the far end, Mr Nye signing books. I needed to be close by, ready for him as soon as his publicist sent him over to me. Scouting for a spot to set up I saw a large window with nice flanking curtains behind a big wooden table. A back-lit shot in front of the window would be epic, but the antique lens on my 4x5 would flare horribly. Then I saw this little curved alcove with a floorlamp in it. I moved the lamp, a potted plant, and a small table away from the alcove and plopped a folding chair into it. It had this great wallpaper with a shiny paisley motif that would really nicely reflect some of the light I'd be using, and the black-and-white Ilford HP-5 film would cancel the distracting turquoise.
My set-up included the camera on tripod, a bounce reflector, and a mosaic limelight Daylight/Tungsten LED panel. I went with the LED panel because (a) it's a great lighting option for the 4x5 as I don't need to rely on janky flash outputs on a ~70-year-old camera; and (b) I hate huge pupils in portraits and the continuous light right near his face would get those irises large and those pupils tight! One other thing I've always got on hand is the little Ion powerpack made by Photogenic, which came in handy when that wall socket you can see in the background turned out to be a complete dud.
I had Kishore Hari sit first, and took two frames of him. Mr Hari would be interviewing Bill Nye on stage. He was psyched about the old camera. Then it was Mr Nye's turn. He sat, and then squinted. "Sorry about the bright light," I said. "No no, I'm used to bright lights... I'm just letting my pupils constrict, hang on." Ha! I loved that he gave such a sciency apology! I shot two frames of Bill Nye, and then he was off.