Saturday, November 3, 2012

Shooting the Secretary: The Hotel

And here’s where it all came apart.

Up until the Secretary’s last stop, things had been going generally well, photographically speaking. As I’ve detailed in the previous posts, while a lack of photojournalism experience and prior planning stopped me from maximizing my opportunities, I had generally made decent enough shots. But here, when the Secretary came back to her hotel to meet members of the embassy community, my lack of PJ experience, combined with the ever fluid nature of a VIP visit of this stature, combined to almost undermine the entire day.

There was a reason.

With regards to this assignment as the Embassy’s photographer, my job had always been twofold. Yes, I was to capture the events of the day - photos of the Secretary performing diplomacy as it were. And yes, the folks in the Embassy did care about these photos to some extent...but...there was one photo which was clearly more important than the others, one which - quite frankly - was the only one pretty much anyone in the building really cared about:

Secretary Clinton was going to take a photo with the children of the Embassy’s staff.

Now, if you’ve seen the kind of stuff I normally shoot (if you haven’t, go look. I’ll wait), you know that shooting a group photo of a bunch of crumb snatchers is about as far from what I normally shoot as possible. But this photo was the price to pay for a day of playing photojournalist, so it had to be done.

This created several problems which permeated this last event. First, I’m not used to having to produce a shot on demand. If I screw up one of my shots, well who cares? This certainly created some self-inflicted pressure, but also externally inflicted. As in, I was reminded repeatedly: “don’t screw this shot up”. The second problem, and somewhat related to the first, was that this is where my relative lack of experience with artificial lighting came to the fore. I mean, I had been starting to go through my strobist drills, but this was all relatively recent, and I had nothing resembling either experience or confidence when it came to artificial lighting. I had been taking my camera and a flash to every Embassy event I could in the weeks leading up to the visit, but I still wasn’t fully comfortable with the strobes. Hopefully, I’d be able to get through this part of the trip with minimal issues though.

Her Plan. Well, there we were in sort of a grey area. It was never definitely established what her exact schedule would be. Initially it was that she would return her room at the hotel, rest/work/whatever for a few hours and then meet the Embassy folks. Then, it changed to: head directly to the embassy meeting. Along the way, all sorts of detours were added on: swear in Peace Corps Volunteers, photos with the Marine Security Guards; photos with this person, photos with that person - you get the idea.

My Plan. Very quickly I got the idea that any serious pre-planning on my part was useless and that I’d be lucky to keep up with the Secretary let alone get a step or two ahead of her. Still, I had a few ideas in mind - most of which had to be abandoned. I was particularly concerned with lighting the group photo of the Embassy kids so my initial thought (when it looked like there would be a pause between the secretary’s arrival and her speech/meeting) was to set up lights and umbrellas in true Strobist fashion. Based on her rapidly changing schedule, that plan quickly fell apart. My next thought was to pack my pocket wizards and have a couple of people hold the flashes as voice activated light stands, but as the plan continued to evolve, I realized that I’d just have to go with the flashes on camera and hope for the best.

Despite having to dedicate a disproportionate number of brain cells to dealing with that issue, I was still thinking about trying to make an interesting photo or two as well. The big shot that I wanted to get was something capturing the energy of the crowd and their excitement about hearing Hillary speak. The setup I had in mind was to work the back of the crowd and either capture silhouettes of the backs of peoples heads with the Secretary in focus, or get photos of people holding up their cameras taking their own photos. Perhaps a bit cliched, but one that I felt would illustrate how the crowd felt about the guest. Equally important, they would be relatively safe shots of the sort that I felt I could get.

What actually happened. Well, like I said starting out, this is where it almost fell apart. It didn’t of course, and while I came out of this event extremely frustrated with what I produced, it was still minimally successful.

Overall, it’s hard to really describe a narrative for the event. By the time we arrived back at the hotel, the skies had begun to open up with the first rains of the season, so in addition to trying to stay a step ahead of the Secretary - despite having no idea where she was going - I was constantly flipping my cameras down to keep water off the lens. The first stop was to visit the new group of Peace Corps Volunteers for the swearing in, and it was here that my problems started - flashes wouldn’t cycle fast enough or (despite being set in TTL) wouldn’t sync properly. In desperation, I tried opening up my lenses and shooting available light, but that just led to blurry photos. And every time I tried to take a moment to troubleshoot, the call went out again to get another photo of Secretary with this or that person. I had a already fallen into ‘react’ mode and I wasn’t making anything original or even really interesting.

Within seconds of finishing with the Peace Corps we were on our way to the ballroom for the Secretary’s address to the Embassy staff. Organization of the media had seemed to come apart and i found myself entering from the rear of the room. I grounded my bag in what seemed like a safe spot along one wall and pushed myself to the front of crowd. Upon making it to the front, I noticed that the kids were already assembled for the photo. I had intended to work the front of the crowd for a while, then go to the back to get my aforementioned reaction shots. However the crowd was bigger than I had thought, calling into question how easy it would be for me to push through a couple more times. Moreover, with the subjects for the main event photo already assembled, it seemed more prudent to stay close. I shot several photos of the Secretary speaking, but even as I was doing so, I felt like they were bland (they weren’t just bland as it turned out - they were also unusable). I was feeling the perfect storm of photographic suck: my equipment wasn’t working the way I wanted, I felt like I was out of position, and most importantly, I felt completely uncreative at the decisive moment.

But you don’t get long to dwell on that and after some very short remarks, it was gametime. But the unorganized nature of the day continued to plague me – the Secretary didn’t move directly to the kids, instead talking with some people first and working part of the crowd. At this point, my mind was racing: “should I move to get a shot of her where she is now? Should I stay where I am and be ready for the kid shot?” “are my flashes going to work?” “everything set up?” “f/stop, sync, white balance?” When she finally did move into position behind the kids, it didn’t help matters much: “is that the position she’s going to hold?” “is she going to move around the crowd of them” “should I take the picture now?” “now?” “how do I get all these kids all looking at the camera at the same time” “wait, why is there one kid rolling around on the ground in front of the rest of them” (and there really, really was) “should that kid get corralled up?” “who’s going to do that?” “do I crop that kid out of the photo?” “leaver her in?” and on, and on, and on…

You get the idea. I won’t lie though, on top of all of the other technical issues I’d been dealing with, the unsupervised kid really threw off what was left of my inner zen. Still, I did a short count, and blasted off about five or six shots. The flash didn’t really sync, certainly didn’t refresh fast enough for the rest of the sequence, and was completely unbalanced with a nice, harsh, on-camera effect that I had hoped so much to avoid. I don’t think there’s a single frame that has all of the kids looking the same way.

Naturally, the parents loved it.*

From there, the Secretary proceeded work the front of the crowd, shaking hands and the like. Here I was finally able to regain some creativity and get some crowd reaction shots which, if not exactly what I had hoped or planned for before the event, at least captured the emotion of the moment.

The embassy crowd was compelled to remain within the ballroom but the Secretary’s business was not done and neither was mine. Back out into the hallway it was a flurry of photos with this group or that person. Every time I thought I was done and could take 30 seconds to figure out these stupid flashes and get them working like I wanted them to, I was called up yet again to make an image. Most of these photos were terrible.

Finally, she broke off with the Ambassador for a moment to tour a small art store within the hotel (my photos of that were bad too). They came back out, said their goodbyes, and she went back to her room to start prepping for the next stop on her journey.

I went back to the ballroom, retrieved my camera bag, and went up to the lobby to wait for a bus ride back to the embassy like the rest of the staff.

Photo Critique.

Um, Yeah.

Well, first of all, despite me talking about it so much, no group kid/Secretary of State photo for you. I don’t know how comfortable parents would be me with me plastering their little darlings up on this blog and did I mention those photos were terrible? Let’s move on.

So here we have basically the opposite of the crowd shot that I was going for, both in the relationship of the crowd and of it being, you know, good. My first ever photo editor used to preach "hands and eyes!" "hands and eyes!" "I want to see hands and eyes" and while that's a great rule that I've followed ever since, I hope he would still find this one acceptable as the subject here really is the crowd and thier reaction.

Far less forgivable is the lighting on the Secretary (the flash decided to fire) and overall unbalanced naure of the light in the scene. Did I mention the flashes were killing me here?

Well, this is better. Really like the reaction on the girl's face, but I like less the fact that her face is partially obscured. The lesson learned here was to continue to work the scene, but since I had to keep up with the Secretary, that wasn't an option. Once again however, while there is some emotion captured here (and I think done fairly well), this suffers from the same problem that my Health Clinic photos suffered from - absent a caption, this doesn't tell enough of a story. Far better if I had zoomed out and had the Secretary exiting frame left.

All right Sports Fans, that's all for this one. One more of these to go where I'll write about the Secretary's departure and then sum up lessons learned about the whole experience. Till then.

*the parents might have loved it, but the other professional photographer in the embassy called me out on it. She specializes in family (and children’s(!)) photos and would have been perfect on the day, but she was out of town. She hilariously ripped that photo apart and a good laugh (with me) at my expense. I was glad to hear it.

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