Improvised and Ambient Light

A portrait of Nicki Minaj on location inside a makeshift fire escape studio in the Met Breuer

In 2017, T: The New York Times Style Magazine asked me to cover the T Greats party at the Met Breuer in New York City. They wanted a war photographer to do reportage of the event—cross-assigning they call it. In retrospect, I have no idea why I said yes to the assignment. I did not have the visual language to articulate anything interesting about the cocktail party and dinner, and looking back at my coverage I am embarrassed by it, except for one portrait sitting I chanced upon.

As the night neared, I learned that Nicki Minaj, one of the T Magazine greats, would be in attendance. Her story fascinated me; she was born in the Caribbean, grew up in Queens, and became a super-rich self-made rap darling. Her rise felt like something tangible and powerful that intrigued me.

Nicki arrived a few hours late to the party. She descended the stairs to people already seated at long tables strewn with oysters and wine. Her entourage fanned around her, negotiating her interactions and securing her world. I had already chatted to the Times public relations staff about photographing Nicki, and they were on board with helping me secure a portrait. 

Over the next hour or so, I continued to photograph the party while my fixers were trying to wrangle Nicki. I had set up a makeshift studio in an alcove leading to the fire exit; the Met’s security kept trying to get me to pack it up because I was obstructing a fire exit. I promised I would, but kept delaying. There was really no other available space to photograph her in.

After stalling security, I noticed the Times people looked concerned. It was in all of our interests to make a portrait of Nicki; she was the most famous person in the room. The negotiation with Nicki’s handler was breaking down and I was asked to go and personally plead my case. He was a typical gatekeeper with no valid reason to obstruct the photograph; he was adamant about protecting Nicki. I can't remember what I said at that moment, but I know I resorted to being as personable, self-deprecating, and as charming as possible—these are the only tactics to use in situations like this. He leaned close to Nicki and spoke in a tone I couldn't understand, then she started moving in the direction of the fire exit. The portrait was on.

I scrambled after her nervously. I knew I wasn't going to get long. The success of the portrait counted on many people: Nicki and her willingness to pose, her handler and his sense that I was creating something flattering, and most of all my lighting assistant, Adhat Campos. It’s important to have a team that is good technically, but I also value the right people as much as the right skills. I liked working with Adhat because he always brought a calm energy to any portrait sitting. He is intuitive, humble, and never takes anything too seriously. Situations come down to so much more than precise lighting and photography. It’s the chemistry of who is in the room as much as it is the craft. 

Nicki stood in front of my black background and started responding to the camera with a superficial pout. I started to worry I was going to fail. Her handler paused the shoot and asked to see the photos. “No, they are too dark,” he said. Nicki’s stylists swarmed to adjust her hair and makeup, and I saw a beautiful moment. As I lifted my camera her handler jumped in front of me and objected to the scene. I still think Nicki being attended to by three sets of hands would have been the best photo I made that night. 

Adhat and I pretended to increase the power of the flash to appease Nicki’s handler and started working again. She gave me a few more similar posts, so I paused, lifted my head from behind the camera, and looked at Nicki straight in the eyes to the point it was almost uncomfortable. It was only a few seconds, but it felt like much longer. This is something I do when I feel like I am not getting an authentic emotion from a subject. It's like a neutralizer, a reset, an engagement that lets a subject know I am serious, that I am human behind this piece of equipment not just an operator.

Nicki’s body language started to change. She put her hands on her hips and I started to see images. This is the moment when the feeling of terror turns to excited relief. Nicki gave me six minutes of shooting, a hug, and it was a wrap.

Equipment and Specs

  • 1/60-1/80 shutter speed

  • 85 mm lens at F 5.6

  • ISO 800

  • Octabank, 2 ft. with a cloth grid

  • Collapsible background, black

These portraits were made with a DSLR and an 85mm F1.4 lens. I used the lens at F 5.6 to get enough depth of field to keep Nicki sharp throughout. My key light was a 2 ft. octabank handheld by my assistant at approximately 45 degrees to the right of Nicki.

The photo looks like there is much more lighting than one gridded octabank, and this is why: There was a white wall in the alcove that acted as a fill light; it bounced the light from the octabank back as a fill. The light also feels softer than a small octabox. This is because the octabank was deliberately aimed to miss Nicki. The central intensity of the light source was pointed just in front of her face. This meant the light hitting the white wall was more direct and produced a stronger fill light, and the light illuminating Nicki from the octabank was softer and less intense. This is often referred to as spill light, the peripheral light created by a light modifier. There was also ambient light from the room and a bright red fire exit sign. I owe these layers of the light to my assistant Adhat; when we tested the light earlier in the evening he suggested we reduce the shutter speed from 1/200 to 1/60 to see how much of the ambient light of the red exit sign we could pick up.

This is a one light set-up that improvises with ambient light sources and the attributes of the location. We ultimately end up with four light sources: the key light of my strobe with the octabank, the white alcove wall (fill/bounce light), warm ambient room light (second fill light), and a gelled hair light (the red fire exit sign).