Florence Nightingale Service at Westminster Abbey

[two_third]To keep a client for more than 15 years and through a change of senior management and operating staff is quite an achievement in any business, but to do so in the fickle and fashion conscious world of photography is remarkable.[/two_third][one_third_last]Florence Nightingale Service at Westminster Abbey[/one_third_last]

[two_third]I’m very proud to say I have been associated with the Florence Nightingale Foundation for all that time not only covering their major event at Westminster Abbey every year but also covering their bursary awards and their dinners, galas and even the odd conference. The Westminster Abbey work is one of the most exciting events to cover, a backdrop so grand with history going back to the dark ages, kings and queens have been crowned here for hundreds of years and the venue is known throughout the world after the recent royal wedding.

When I started working there 15 years ago this was a challenging event, light levels were low and film cameras were not capable of capturing anywhere near the quality of images possible with today’s digital cameras. The method back then to make sure we got images usable for publication was to cover the rehearsal.

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The Ceremony

As the Nightingale lamp is paraded down the central aisle of this great Abbey I and often one other press coverage photographer from one of the Nursing Journals would walk very fast backwards in front of this unstoppable train of nurses, pausing to crouch and get the magnificent splendour of the stained glass windows in behind or running on again to get to the next best shot to be taken.

15 years of doing this same ceremony and I still find new shoots and angles every year. 15 years working with the same client and each year it’s important to portrait the main participants with both different styles and locations to keep the imagery fresh. Fresh images sell, new styles are a constant goal for any photographer.

[two_third]Recently for their Centenary, Florence Nightingale Foundation were able to attract a very special VIP to join them at their service, none other than Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the privilege was going to be mine to cover not only the service but also the social event before and after the ceremony. The time when both the nurses honoured that year to escort the lamp but also important dignitaries would be present to meet such a world famous character.

And character he most certainly is, larger than life, full of fun and radiating with the joy of his faith and love of people.[/two_third][one_third_last]

Florence Nightingale Service at Westminster Abbey[/one_third_last]

[two_third]The Nurses reception before the ceremony and after the practise was a time to get some group shots to camera and interact with the guests, they had already seen me hard at work during the practise not only doing the reportage style images of the parading of the lamp but also doing a posed group shot of all the nurses on the steps to the high alter and then individual portraits of the main lamp carriers.[/two_third][one_third_last]Florence Nightingale Service at Westminster Abbey[/one_third_last]

[two_third]For the service I had the advantage of being able to position myself on top of the choir screen, an amazing location half way down the main aisle that separates the general congregation from the choir and seated dignitaries. A fantastic view can be had both up to the entrance doors and alternatively towards the high alter. You also get the pleasure of seeing the organist playing up close and personal![/two_third][one_third_last]Florence Nightingale Service at Westminster Abbey[/one_third_last]

In the early years trying to cover this event with film cameras would have required the fastest film possible 1600asa 35mm film was extremely grainy and had very strict requirements for colour balance. Because of course no service can be interrupted by the use of flash photography, not that it would be much use trying to cover such a vast space. But today we have the advantage of cameras capable of capturing digital images at film speeds we could have only dreamed of 10 years ago and mixed lighting situations can be controlled in whatever way the photographer sees fit.

Indoor lighting and colour balance

Many today leave it purely to the camera to set the colour balance because they do not have the experience to read the colour temperature of the different lighting. But to me this is only doing half the job, they have no control if they fill the frame with a predominant colour in the subject what the camera is going to decide to do with it. Then when they do a longer shot the colour balance changes of the same subject so the set of images do not match!

[two_third]I prefer to understand my lighting and set a colour balance I want to work to. Then I have a consistent set of images that hang together as a group. I love what I do and it’s a privilege to work in such fantastic locations, the least I can do is be the best photographer I can and bring all my skills to bear.[/two_third][one_third_last]

Florence Nightingale Service at Westminster Abbey
Arch Bishop Desmond Tutu


[two_third]Having taken a mix of close ups and wide angle shots to show the grandeur of the location during the service I hurried down and to the back of the Cathedral where I knew Desmond Tutu would be joining the Dean of Westminster to say goodbye at the door to the guests as they were leaving.

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Sure enough the Arch Bishop drew a large crowd of people who just wanted to wish him well or shake his hand as well as the faithful who wanted a blessing. What struck me immediately was the joy on the faces of the crowd. The important shot was another camera over the Archbishops head with all the beaming faces to camera.

He could have been there for hours but he’s an elderly gentleman now and he obviously wanted a sit down and a cup of tea so he started backing up turning to shake hands with those all around him. As he nearly tripped over me I dropped one hand from the camera held aloft to catch him if he fell but instead he looked me in the face and high fived my out stretched hand – I’d just high fived Archbishop Desmond Tutu, truly a memorable day!

Drinks Reception after service

The private drinks reception in the Jerusalem chamber, a very special inner sanctum that has seen the writing of the King James Bible and the death of King Henry IV in 1413, led to some interesting pictures. First The Dean of Westminster had a relaxing chat with his counterpart and then further photo opportunities as first The Minister for health Andrew Lansley was introduced and then finally the Mayor of Westminster presented Archbishop Tutu with a framed picture of himself standing next to Archbishop Tutu’s waxwork at Madame Tussauds, this caused much amusement.

From a photographic point of view this sort of event is a very intense experience, just like any royal attended event everybody present wants to end up with a picture of themselves with the member of the royal family or celebrity. This means the photographer has to be continually circling the group the main character is in to get an angle that catches the face not only of the guest but also the VIP.

Having spent more than 20 years now covering Royal attended events at venues ranging from Kensington Palace and The Tower of London to The Dorchester and many other of the major venues in central London I’m well used to what is required in these situations and am proud of my record of achievement and satisfied clients.

Ideally in this situation, especially when a royal is present I ask the event organiser to brief the host so that after introducing the member of the royal family to the group he or she steps back to let me have an open group shot – it can work really well if they remember but often the hosts get so excited they forget and you have to work doubly hard to achieve the desired results.


Copyright Brian Russell BRD Associates