Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Shooting the Secretary: TLPs, RIMSRCIS, and PCCs/PCIs

So, now that I had my marching orders, I needed to figure out how to execute them. My biggest immediate challenge was to determine what gear I would use to shoot the event – in this I would be guided by my (limited) previous experience, the desires of the Embassy, and the Secretary’s schedule. It’s worth mentioning that the latter interested me far more than the former since it would allow for far more creativity, but it was the former that got me the job in the first place – and would be of far more interest to the folks in the embassy, as we shall see.

For my previous experience, I relied on what and how I had shot during my opportunities to play photojournalist in Iraq (and more importantly, how I was able to observe professional photojournalists work the same scenes). This led me to a standard, two-camera body setup. As it happened, the timing of the Secretary’s visit was fortuitous as I had just upgraded to a Canon 5D MK III (from the MK II) but had not yet sold the old body, giving me a spare SLR that I normally would not have had. The lens selections were almost automatic to go along with this, but the Secretary’s schedule did add in an additional wrinkle. For my base setup though, I was planning on going with a 16-35mm/f2.8 for my wide angle and a 70-200/f2.8 for my zoom.

It got better, however. The Secretary would be giving a speech at a local university, and I wasn’t sure how far back in the audience I would be, meaning I would need more reach – so I’d need to throw in my 100-400mm/f4.5-5.6. Since the speech would be indoors, light would suck so handholding the 100-400mm was out of the question – better bring the monopod. Finally, the Secretary would have a brief meeting with embassy personnel at a local hotel to round out the day, including – and here was the most important shot of the day – a group photo with the children of the embassy community. This would be less than fun – I had only recently started learning how to use off camera flash and wasn’t fully comfortable with it, but I knew I’d need the light, so out came the flashes. Add in my usual gear, and my camera bag would consist of this:

1. Canon 5D MK III
2. Canon 5D MK II
3. Spare CF Flash Cards in Pelican 0940 Case
4. AA Battery Magazines
5. Canon 16-35mm/f2.8
6. Canon 70-200mm/f2.8 IS
7. Canon 100-400mm/f4.5-5.6
8. Misc Gear Bag: Battery covers (all of my LP-E6 batteries were actually in use - the AA magazines were my only backups), USB Cable, Lens Pen
9. Lens Cloth
10. Manuals for camera bodies and flashes
11. Canon 580 EX II Speedlights
12. PocketWizard Remote Flash Triggers. The two larger ones are Flex TT5s for the flashes. The smaller one is a mini TT1 and would be the control unit attached to the camera.
13. Monopod

(Not Pictured: Billingham shoulder bag - a medium sized khaki canvas and leather bag)

Total Weight: approximately 25 lbs.

I won’t lie, this was a fair amount of gear, but I wasn’t too concerned with weight as it would be a fairly short day, and I’d carried similar weights before. While it turned out that I did have some issues handling all this gear, it wasn’t due to weight (to be discussed in part 7). Still, I was satisfied (and remain so) with my proposed loadout. Now to formulate a plan of attack.

My initial thoughts were that I would put the 70-200mm on the MK III and the 16-35mm on the Mk II. The reason for this is that the Mk III has an improved autofocus system and a much better auto ISO function than the MK II. The combination of those features should give me more stability for the longer lenses, whereas the the 16-35mm - shot wide open if need be - would be fine on the Mk II. I'd put the longer (and heavier) lens on my left shoulder - if I shoot with one body, it's always on my left, so I'm used to this. Normally I would have my camera bag slung across my chest to the right (with the strap on the left shoulder) to balance out the weight, but with two bodies, I'd just have to juggle the bag (and in fact wound up usually leaving it in the press van or stashing it at a venue).

I’ll walk through my site-specific plans in those respective sections, but for now I’ll touch on some overall planning and coordination. Based on conversations with the Embassy PAO folks and site officers for the various visits, the Secretary’s schedule looked like this: her plane would arrive on a Tuesday evening. There may or may not be a press availability when she deplaned (turned out, there wasn’t – I never even went to the airport that night) and she would then go to her hotel for the evening. The next day was the big one: meet at the hotel in the morning and follow her to a local health clinic (a USAID sponsored event), then to the presidency, next to the university (for her aforementioned speech), and finally back to the hotel where she’d meet the embassy folks, pose for a few photos, and then call it a day. The third day would see her flying out early.

With that in mind, I had two final concerns related to coordination and access. For the first part, the embassy PAOs were extremely helpful – they would have one officer traveling with the press at all times and if I just hung out by her, I’d be in the right place at the right time (to include knowing which van to get into). Once on site, I’d have the freedom (they insisted, despite my skepticism) to move around as needed (generally speaking) to get my shots. Which led to my second concern – access. Even though I worked at the embassy, I wasn’t sure how the Secretary’s security detail would react to an unknown photographer working these events. Fortunately though, I was able to talk to one of the senior officers who answered these concerns pretty succinctly: don’t worry about it. He would let the other members of the detail know that I’d be around and that should be that. Having had previous run-ins with overzealous security while photographing before, however, I was concerned that they still wouldn’t know me on sight and that some sort of misunderstanding was bound to come up, but none ever did.

There was one final issue that did come up with almost perfect timing however. The night before the Secretary’s arrival, I was cooking dinner when I suffered a kitchen mishap that resulted in a pretty deep cut to one of my knuckles. In fact, to one of my index fingers. My right index finger. My trigger finger.

Way to go, Tom Berringer

All right Sports Fans; sorry for the long setup, but this is the necessary background for what led up to the big event. From here on out, I’ll actually be breaking down the sites and the shots I got at each. It’s about to get good. Well, better anyway.

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