Tips: Photographing an inauguration or other big event

Consumer Reports News: February 04, 2009 06:08 AM

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Whether it's a wedding, a commencement, or a historic national event, when photographing large groups of people, under challenging physical conditions, it pays to prepare, and to learn from the experience of others.

Here's what I learned—with sample shots—from shooting last month's presidential inauguration:

Choose the right equipment. I used a Nikon D300 SLR. (Click on image at right for a closer look.) In our Ratings of digital SLRs (available to subscribers), it was the only model that could maintain good image quality up to an ISO setting of 3200. That's because I planned to use the highest possible ISO to minimize camera shake when shooting with the telephoto zoom.

I brought three Nikon lenses: A wide 12-24mm zoom, a mid-range 24-120mm, and a 70-200mm (with a very fast f2.8 maximum aperture). The wide zoom was for panoramas or close-ups of monuments, the mid-range for compositional flexibility most of the time, and the telephoto was, I hoped, for a shot of the swearing-in, even from a great distance.

Teleconverter-lens Based on a suggestion by Consumer Reports blogger, Tightwad Tod, an accomplished photographer in his own right, I also brought a 1.7x teleconverter. (Click on image at right for a closer look.) Costing about $450, this secondary lens multiplies a lens's magnification. In my case, it transformed my 200mm telephoto into a 340mm, or the equivalent of a 510mm lens on a film camera. (Its effective maximum aperture slowed to f/4.8, not as fast as the original lens, but still fairly fast.)

I packed nearly every memory card I own, totaling roughly 30 GB of storage into one plastic bag and several fully-charged batteries for the D300 into another.

Get pointers online. The weekend before the inauguration, I found a discussion on the Web of how others were approaching photographing the event. You may find similar discussions online to help you prepare for an upcoming wedding or graduation; you might even find such tips, or ask for some, at our forum for camera techniques.

Also, following an online suggestion, I bought lightweight work gloves and cut off the fingertips for camera work requiring a fine touch.

Practice, but also improvise. Since I ended up more than a mile from the Capitol, I didn’t get any photos of Obama himself, taking the oath. Nor did I duplicate David Begman's feat of stitching together a 1,474 megapixel Gigapan panorama.

US-capitol-at-noon-inauguration But I did get the image at right (click on it for a closer look), using a maximum effective focal length of 510mm, f/4.8, 1/2500 of a second, and ISO 640. I arrived at those settings by taking numerous test shots during the three-hour morning vigil, varying ISO and shutter speed to make sure there would be no camera shake.

Happily, the sun shone brightly enough at noon that I was able to get a very fast shutter speed without having to crank up the ISO into triple digits. Although our tests of the Nikon D300 (available to subscribers only) show that it can shoot good quality images at ISO settings up to 3200, I assumed that quality would be even better at ISO 640.

I'm not tall, but I was able to shoot above even the tallest people's heads by standing on a folding step-stool, which I borrowed from someone in the crowd in exchange for promising to e-mail him some of my photos (a promise I have since kept). Unfortunately, my sight-line to President Obama and Chief Justice Roberts was blocked by a television scaffold, which appears in the above photo as a white blob. So much for planning for everything!

Wide-angle shots of part of the crowd of two million worked out better. This shot (Click on image at bottom right.) was taken at 21mm (film equivalent), f/4, 1/6400 second, ISO 640. In retrospect, I wish I had used a smaller aperture to increase the depth of field and sharpen the people in the foreground.

Crowd If you're planning to do some outdoor shooting yourself, check out our additional tips on winter photography.

If you're in the market for a camera, be sure to check out our engaging video buying guide to digital cameras, in which our camera testers explain what you need to know to be a smart shopper. Our free Digital Camera Buying Guide offers detailed expert advice.

For the best models on the market now, see our Digital Camera Ratings (available to subscribers) and use Consumer Reports Shop Online tool for real-time price comparisons of rated cameras at retail outlets.

—Jeff Fox

Jeffrey Fox

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