Left-Brain vs. Right Brain: Photographing the Democratic National Convention
By Peter Sills
For the last three election cycles, I have had the privilege to photograph the Democratic National Convention. It has been a wonderful experience, meeting interesting people, celebrities and politicians alike. Unlike the vast array of photojournalists at the event, I was hired directly by the Democratic National Convention. My job has been to document the event for the archives. This has allowed me to shoot alongside photographers from the UP, Reuters, etc. as well as venture backstage and capture the infrastructure of the event itself.
I have always used my trusty Canon gear when embarking on such a rigorous assignment. This time, through the efforts of Mark Abraham of the Washington Press Corp., and Scott Andrews of Canon, I was able to borrow a new Canon 5D MkIII and a bevy of lenses, including the amazing 400mm f/2.8 L IS.
I also brought with me my new Leica M9-P and the triumvirate of lenses: 35mm Summilux, 50mm Summilux and 90mm Summicron (the entire kit weighs less than half of the Canon 400mm alone). Unlike the gear which was on loan from Canon, this was MY camera, and I was very anxious to use it to shoot something different from the standard convention photos.
Having used the Leica for only a few months, I knew it would be impossible to photograph the convention in my usual manner. Distances were too long for a meager 90mm, and things moved too quickly for manual focus. However, there was a lot for which the standard Canon kit was inappropriate and the Leica ideal; those close-in moments, those more contemplative moments, the more subjective moments. These were the shots I had never really tried to get at a convention before.
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However, before continuing, let me step back in time a bit.
I turned 50 this year. I have been a photographer since I was 16 years old. My professional life was outside of photography, so I had put it aside for a number of years, only to pick it up again once the digital age of photography began. I have always used Canon gear, only once “dabbling” with Nikon before returning to the fold.
Well, this year I began to become bored with photography. It was not that great images didn’t excite me any more – they did. I still bought plenty of photo books and I loved going through each new issue of LensWork and American Photography. What was wrong?
As I examined it, photography was becoming more and more “Left Brain”. It was all about High-ISO noise, Image Stabilization, Frames per Second, Megapixels, etc. The camera was becoming more and more of a computer. Newer cameras now have the ability to “re-crop” your images into more pleasing compositions, scene modes detect how the entire camera should behave with little to no user interaction, face detection chooses the focus, in camera HDR provides for the “artistic-look”, etc.
I started looking through my images over the last twenty or so years. Back in the days of film, I would take one image of a subject and move on. I would think about the image, compose it, consider it carefully, and press the shutter. The more I went on, up until today, I noticed that the time spent on an image decreased while the number of images increased. With digital, I could just press the button and worry about it later. It was less and less about taking an image, and more about choosing one later from the 15, 20, or 30 that had been shot.
It was becoming almost impossible to take a “bad” shot. The last straw came when I began to see DSLRs everywhere. I saw an older woman taking photos of what I can only assume were her grandchildren in a park. She was toting a Nikon DSLR and a couple of lenses. What was I doing?
After a lot of soul-searching and reading on the net, I came across Steve’s site. While I had always heard of Leica, I had never used one. Perhaps this was it? I ordered one, along with a 50mm lens and felt my “Right Brain” re-engage. I was hooked.
With the Leica, I was once again studying my subject as opposed to simply trying to “get the shot.” I thought about aperture and exposure, instead of letting the camera do the thinking for me. I pre-focused and waited patiently for the moment I knew was coming, rather than simply grabbing a long sequence of shots and choosing the right one later. I even chose my lens based on what I was shooting and the look I wanted, where previously I simply bolted on a zoom lens and just had at it.
I use the analogy of the Portrait Painter and the House Painter. Both are called “painters” and both are capable of producing tremendous work. However, one relies on the technical nature of the tools they are using (such as rollers and sprayers) as well as the objective means by which their work is judged. The other requires more refined tools for their work, which is judged on a far more subjective basis. One lasts through the ages, the other until another coat is needed.
Enough philosophizing, back to the convention.
Now, when your job/life depends upon “getting the shot” there is nothing wrong with a camera and setup which makes absolutely certain that this will happen. For this task, the Canon 5D MkIII is the best camera I have ever used. Its focus and metering is spot on. It’s extremely fast, only bested by the Canon 1Dx. If you need the shot, aim it in the general direction of what you want to capture, set the camera to “P” and press and hold the shutter until the buffer is full. Trust me, the shot is in there.
For those shots I “had to get” this is what I used; as did all of the other professional photographers from the New York Times, Washington Post and the other news services. We all got the same shots. Side-by-side, same equipment, firing like mad when there was a gesture or look we thought our employers would appreciate. With few exceptions, if you took all of the photographs taken by everyone and mixed them up, no one could claim their own.
During the week I was in Charlotte for the convention, I shot more than 6,000 images. Of the images I shot, only about 400 or so were shot using the Leica. These were my images. These were the ones inside the convention, outside the convention, at the Bill Clinton party, the protest rally, or just heading home at the end of the day. These were for me.
The Leica makes me think. It makes me plan. It makes me create rather than capture.
Given its size, the Leica is with me most of the time. Given its simplicity, it has become the tool of choice when photographing for myself. I am far from being as proficient with it as I am with my Canon gear (after all I’ve been using Canon for decades), but the Leica is the camera I now prefer to use. Is it for everything? Obviously not.
Can the Leica compete in the “land of the giants,” the 400mm, 500mm and greater lenses? In a word, no. When the shot has to be in perfect focus, clear in almost no light, and of that microsecond moment that disappears in an instant – the Leica would not be my first choice – we have computers for that; computers made by Canon, Nikon and now Sony.
At the end of the day, I have edited most of my 6,000 images, handed them in to the convention, and posted some to my stock agency. Those that I printed, those that will go on my walls, those that I am the most proud of, came from my Leica.
My Right-Brain is engaged once again, creating images which will hopefully last.
I’m off to go find some abandoned Steel Mills! (and thinking of a Leica MP!)
Thanks Steve for letting me ramble on so. Shooting with the Leica has been a joy. Keep up the great work.
(Thank YOU Peter!!!)
Now the images:
90mm, ISO 160, f/6.7, 1/250 sec.
The police were brought in from around the state to deal with the protest march. I focused on the lines which this image sets up, as well as the banner with the word “Allies” on it. Note the name of the street is West Trade, though everyone mistakes it for World Trade. An interesting juxtaposition.
Castles in the Sand
50mm, ISO 1250, f/8, 1/90 sec.
Designed to promote tourism to Myrtle Beach, this enourmous sculpture of Barak Obama was built leading up to the convention. Situated so all of the delegates would have to pass by, it presents an interesting portrait of the president, both massive in scale, yet ephemeral in composition.
50mm, ISO 1600, f/2, 1/25 sec. EV -.7
Walking out of the convention late one night, looking up to see this brilliantly lit building dwarfed by two adjacent and boring office complexes.
Chris Matthews, MSNBC
50mm, ISO 500, f/2.8, 1/60 sec.
One of my favorite images from the convention. MSNBC had set up their own pavillion in an outside mall. Climbing to the top floor and looking down on to the Chris Matthews show. The two separate worlds, one on stage – calm, back to the audience, to the camera – the other in the audience, all jumbled together, no single focus, almost without purpose, drawn to the spectacle.
90mm, ISO 160, f/5.7, 1/180 sec.
Taken during the protest march. Many, many messages in the crowd. Almost too many to grasp any continuity in the meaning. Spotted this girl being held aloft. Always wonder if she has any idea regarding the meaning of the sign she carries.
National Guard Rail
90mm, ISO 160, f/2.4, 1/180 sec.
North Carolina police officer (more than likely brought in from a surrounding district) awaits the protesters.
On the Big Screen
50mm, ISO 400, f/2.8, 1/60 sec., EV -.3
Obama speaks to the convention. While not as effective in “getting the shot” as a 500mm from the same location, the Leica does a much better job of getting the feel of the event. The house was packed. Walking around with the M9 allowed me to move more freely through the crowd.
50mm, ISO 500, f/2.8, 1/90 sec.
These are three of the Pool Feed cameras, cameras which supply video to all of the networks of the main event. During rehearsal, when the stage is blank, the operators are still there. There is often even time to catch up on one’s reading, as seen here.
Step Right Up
50mm, ISO 400, f/1.7, 1/90 sec., EV -1
Managed to wrangle an invite to the private Bill Clinton party for the State of Arkansas. As usual, Bill was quite late in making an appearance. His speech was more of a talk, preparation for his speech on the floor the next day. I waited to see that Clinton “sparkle” which he is well known for. Standing at the platform, he seemed almost the consumate carnival barker, the reason for the toning of the photo as shown.
Waiting for the Shot
35mm, ISO 500, f/2.4, 1/60 sec.
I was standing in front of the opening to the floor a few days before the convention began and this photographer strode up, he was shooting everything (though there was really nothing to shoot yet). Suddenly he dropped to the floor and started shooting the entrance as if the King of Siam was coming through it. He took so many shots that I had plenty of time to take out my Leica, bolt on the 35mm and shoot him. I took two shots. I think he must have had thirty or more.
Wherever You Hand Your Hat
50mm, ISO 800, f/4, 1/60 sec., EV +.3
One of my favorites. The last day of the convention, heading back to my hotel. On the transit sign, the local police officer who was assigned to guard this entrance, had hung his hat and bag. He was no where to be seen. It was over.