Montana native and professional photographer Lynn Donaldson was recently on assignment for Nat Geo Travel, road-tripping to capture Montana through her lens. Lynn shares a glimpse into a local fixture, the Sip ‘N Dip, which surprisingly features swimming mermaids and Piano Pat, an 80-year-old lounge singer.
I was delighted to see the Sip ‘N Dip Lounge—an authentic tiki bar in the depths of the O’Haire Motor Inn—on my shot list. I have a long history with the place and have often found myself ensconced in its massive booths, resting my elbows on a kidney-shaped table while swilling a mouthwash-colored cocktail from a fish bowl as mermaids swim by and octogenarian lounge singer “Piano Pat” Spoonheim belts out classic songs like “Tiny Bubbles” from behind her three-tiered, wraparound organ.
The Sip ‘N Dip might be a great place to hang out, but its sea cave–like ambience is challenging to photograph. The windows looking into the pool reflect everything, so you have to stand at just the right angle to avoid flash glare. The mermaids move constantly, so it’s a good idea to walk behind the bar and tape a $1, $5, $10, or $20 bill to the glass; they’ll pose for a shot with you or try to help you get the image you’re after.
As alluring as the decor and the mermaids are, the real draw is Piano Pat. She’s tickled the keys at the Sip ‘N Dip for over 50 years and has been featured in newspapers, magazines, and documentary films. I’ve gotten to photograph her many times over the years, and I swear she’s somehow getting younger. She begins her set at around 9:30 p.m. and plays until midnight every Wednesday through Friday. Pat plays Peggy Lee, Frank Sinatra, Cole Porter, Johnny Cash, and all the standards, but she’ll also give Katie Perry and Toby Keith a whirl.
In order to bounce more light on Piano Pat’s face than my Nikon SB-800 flash was throwing, I had to use a trick I learned 18 years ago using an impromptu bounce card. First, I removed my flash from the top of my Nikon D700 and attached my nine-foot Nikon SC-28 TTL coiled remote cord. Then I walked down to the hotel’s restaurant and asked for a Styrofoam to-go box. Next, I made an approximately five-by-seven rectangle and secured it to the flash using a spare ponytail tie from my pocket. The card was flimsier than white foam core, but it worked great. I pointed my flash up to the ceiling, and the white card kicked much more light onto Pat. With the flash connected to cord, I was able to hold it much higher than where it would have sat on my camera. Otherwise, this trick would have thrown too much light on the piano in the foreground and the shot would be missed.
Photographed with a Nikon D700 with a Nikon 17-35mm lens. Camera settings: 1/13; f/5; ISO 1250.
See more photos by Lynn Donaldson on Instagram @lynn_donaldson.