Tips for Photographing on the Mall
Honor Flight ChicagoMid afternoon, it gets hot on the Mall so line 'em up and get that photo in ten minutes or less.
Every group photo on the Mall requires planning. When you are trying to line up 100 to 200 people in front of you and move all the bystanders out of the way, it's no time to be using a new camera. Practice...I use the local baseball field. I'll share a few locations with you and some of the difficulties working on the Mall. For groups like Honor Flight, I have preached bringing your local photogapher along. When you arrive home, you'd be surprised how many people, and the circle of distribution and reach your local photographer probably has. My standard camera is a Canon GX7, recently a Canon M6 and when I'm feeling athletic a Nikon D850. The camera is for the most part irrelevant as long as its over 24 megs. You also want extra charged batteries.
You need to decide before you arrive in DC where you are going to take the group photograph and an alternative location. I also advocate wide angle photos with instantly recognizable backgrounds. You will be raising funds and you don't want potential donors guessing what you are doing.
You will want to be passing these images along to the next group of volunteers so use a stable storage platform (I use Zenfolio for online storage and distribution). Images are extraordinarily valuable fund raising tools. If you see me, I am photographing history and revising my books. If I happen to photograph your group and give you permission to use the image, it's because I believe that Honor Flight will have a long historical life as the care shown for our elderly through this program transcends any political belief. I do expect us to transact in writing your usage. I copyright everything. You should too. You can do a group registration electronically for about forty bucks.
You need to plan your photograph and ask the guardians to get the veterans to the restroom and on site at a specific time. This photo and the one above only took fifteen minutes from setup to completion. It was successful because I had a week to plan and worked with hubs leaders and guardians to POLITELY move the pedestrians and onlookers out of the way so that EVERYONE taking the photo got the photo and every one of the veterans was in the photo. I had a brief 30 seconds to move in and take this photograph.
There are fifty to three hundred and fifty people in the these photographs. Fortune favors the prepared! Fortune also favors the photographer and group that get this important photo done quickly as leaving the elderly in the DC sun or rain while you adjust the balance of the picture should be a crime. And if there's a straggler, photoshop him or her in later.
Honor Flight “hubs” visit the Memorial when conditions are difficult for photography. The sun is high and casts a shadow in the eye sockets making everyone look a bit like a panda. To remedy this “panda syndrome,” I adjust my camera so the small flash always fires. While that tiny flash on your camera won’t light up the mall, it will fill in the shadows caused by a baseball cap. Read the camera manual and learn how to set your flash so it fires each time.
It’s called “forced flash.” Practice standing about six feet away from your subjects so the flash fills in the facial area but doesn’t look unnatural or overpower the scene. “Forcing the flash” requires an extra battery and a bit of patience as the flash has to recycle between photos. You should expect the delay and keep your subjects distracted while the flash is recycling. In the photograph below, even though Colin Powell and I were throwing shadows on the veterans he’s shaking hands with, the small flash filled in the areas and opened up the shadows caused by their baseball caps. It’s such a small burst of light that it’s not noticeable…. unless it isn’t there!
These sample images might help you decide in advance where you want to take your group photographs. The location is often decided by the size of your group. Some groups try to form up by their state column but the group has to be small. Most of the state column areas are narrow and you need some room for group photos. The state columns are best left I think for photos of individuals. The more room you have, the faster you can get it done.
My favorite location for group photography is in the center of the Memorial just in front of the Memorial. It gives you a great choice of the Lincoln, the Atlantic or Pacific arches for background and room to spread out. Honor Flight Chicago travels with one hundred veterans plus guardians. Professional photographer John Bonk does all their individual and group photographs and edits some 5000 images per trip.
I made some images which shows the many elements (buglers, singers, honor guard, floral arrangements, etc…) which go into Chicago’s ceremonies. As you can see in the picture below, Chicago is not short on cameras! The morning of departure, John also takes portrait photographs of the veterans for identification while on the road and as a gift to the elderly veterans who usually don’t have a good professional photograph. Chicago now travels with at least one professional and four or five guardians who wear the blue shirt for photographers.
Panoramas…You don’t need a specialized camera
To accomplish the photo below, I took six frames by walking in front of the veterans and photographing at equidistant points. I then stripped the images together in a program called Arcsoft Panorama. The result is an enormously big image which can be blown up to show each veteran clearly. I then went back to my studio and uploaded it to Costco in the Chicago area where it was brought to the airport and distributed to the veterans when they arrived. Neat trick! As I understand it, one of Honor Flight Chicago’s volunteers runs a taxi service which dispatches a cab to Costco and to the airport where it is dropped into the Veterans “goody bags.”
In the contact sheet (below), you can see that I separate the sequences of pan images by photographing my hand just before I take each sequence. This allows me to see where the pans start when I am putting them together in Photoshop or Arcsoft software programs. Arcsoft is inexpensive and very capable. Adobe is also very capable but “expensive”! These software programs turn any camera into an incredibly versatile machine capable of competing with the most expensive DSLR cameras.
The photographs below of Canton Akron’s 2011 flight were used by Smuckers Corporation (their corporate sponsor) for an annual report. I had originally planned on making the image with the Lincoln in the background but because of an unplanned marching band, had to quickly relocate to the Atlantic side of the Plaza. From the side of the Memorial, it took a few minutes to pose the hundred veterans and get them all in the picture but it worked. Using the Atlantic ramp for height gave me a better view of the veterans. I managed (just barely) to get everyone in one frame. Obviously, the composition isn’t everything I hope for but it went to press! As it was all going on, I also took a series of panoramic frames that were ready to be stripped together in a panorama if we couldn’t squeeze everyone in.
When I make these group photographs, I always take one photograph of the veterans alone and then another with all of the volunteers. While we are assembling the group photo, I ask the volunteers to take close up pictures of the vets with their cameras and then ask everyone to step back. This is where everyone has to cooperate. It is a critical time as the veterans are out in the sun (or rain) so make sure that the guardians are ready to get behind the principal photographer. As wonderful as capturing these moments are, they are not worth discomfiting the veterans.
The Wall of Stars is another particularly good place for small groups as is illustrated by this photo of Rhode Island’s first trip. As always, I used the small flash on my camera to throw some light into the shadows caused by the visors of the Vets ball caps. If the group is too big, you will end up backing into the fountains to accomodate them. And if this occurs, go for the panoramic mode. My Canon camera even has a “stitch assist” mode. Some of the Sony cameras only need to swept across the scene and they put the pans together. It's an amazing world.
Homeland Drive is the most difficult place to make group images. If you have more than twenty vets, they won’t comfortably fit into the area with the Pacific Arch as a background. When Senators Dole (I feel he's still there actually) and others are there, you’ll be hard pressed to find any room to make an image. I have been forced to used the benches right along Homeland Drive to photograph but it’s always proves difficult to get a clear photograph. If you get caught having to make a group shot in this area, you might want to consider making a three shot panorama. Again, I start left to right and photograph my hand before I begin the sequence. You should overlap by 40 percent in each panoramic frame. You will be amazed as you watch the software make a seamless image out of several single files!
****I use a Canon S100 which is a sophisticated “point and shoot” camera with very wide angle capabilities (24mm to 120mm). Any camera similar to this with 24 or more megapixels is sufficient for any photography you need to accomplish.
If you like panoramas and you have some spare time, you’ll find the WWII Memorial is wonderful place to practice your photography. Notice that the curves of the Memorial mimic the distortion of the panorama so it’s particularly appropriate for the subject matter. Here are some more samples! See you on the Mall!