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|| News Item: Posted 2009-01-25

Changing 'Groundhog Day'
George Bridges tells how Chuck Kennedy remoted the swearing in of Barack Obama.

By George Bridges, Managing Editor, MCT Photo Service

Photo by Chuck Kennedy / McClatchy Tribune

Photo by Chuck Kennedy / McClatchy Tribune

Barack Obama is sworn in as President on Tuesday, January 20, 2009, as his wife, Michelle holds the Lincoln Bible and children Malia and Sasha look on.
Shooting in Washington, DC, can seem a lot like the movie "Groundhog Day." After a while you feel like you're taking the same photo over and over again.

Many times this is literally the case as many events are highly scripted and photographers are limited in their access. The faces may change but eventually every State of the Union Address, head of state arrival and Congressional hearing all look like the previous one.

Because of this photographers are constantly trying to find new ways to shoot these events.

The biggest event in Washington is the Presidential Inauguration every four years. This is another event that changes only a little each time. The platform is built the same, the photo positions are the same (with a shift in the main riser this year) and only the participants change.

That is the challenge that Chuck Kennedy, staff photographer for McClatchy-Tribune Photo Service and a long-time Washington veteran, faced this year and set out to find a new way to shoot an old event.

"I've covered a number of inaugurations and it always bothered me that you never got that view to know where you are - looking at it with a 600mm it could be pretty much anywhere," Kennedy said.

Chuck's idea was the put a remote camera by the podium to get a wide-angle shot of the president being sworn in with the Capitol dome rising above him and his family.

Right after Obama was elected Chuck came to me and said he had looked at photos of previous inaugurations and saw that there is a lot of equipment in the area such as speakers and teleprompters meaning that a camera could easily be hidden among them.

The next step was convincing those in charge that this camera would produce a remarkable image while not being a distraction to the incoming president and other dignitaries on the platform.

Convincing these folks can be difficult because it is their job to put the event in the best light, so it is in their interest for a unique photo to come out of it, but at the same time, if the camera causes a problem they get the blame.

He started with the Senate Press Photographers' Gallery director and then took it to a representative of the Joint Congressional Inaugural Committee.

Chuck says the contact for the JCIC "saw the beauty and wisdom - pretty quickly and was very into seeing it happen. There were a couple bumps, but we got past them."

Photo by Robert Deutsch / USA TODAY

Photo by Robert Deutsch / USA TODAY

Chuck Kennedy sets up his remote by the podium early in the morning on January 20, 2009.
Chuck was able to anticipate many of the questions that would be raised and armed himself with evidence to show he could keep the camera out of the way and did test images from the angle he wanted as the platform was under construction. He also was able to make a strong argument that because the Obama daughters are younger, it may be hard to see them from the main press riser. A low, wide-angle would let the whole family be seen clearly with the Capitol dome rising dramatically behind them.

For capturing the image Kennedy opted to use one of his new EOS 5D Mark II cameras for the file size and quality it offered and the full frame chip would take full advantage of the wide-angle lens. Canon's WFT-E4a transmitter takes the place of the vertical grip attachment and offers wireless or wired connection to a computer or the Internet. This would allow images to be sent directly from the camera to editors so they could be transmitted to newspapers around the world before the ceremony ended. He borrowed my 16-35 EFII lens so he could use his wide zoom for other shots during the day.

One of the biggest concerns for Chuck was the noise from camera clicks being picked up by two large microphones aimed at capturing the oath of office being spoken. So he began constructing a blimp-type enclosure from a Pelican case. Scott Andrews of Canon loaned a WFT-E4a transmitter for the sizing, as Chuck's transmitter had not yet arrived. The size factor of the 5D Mark II with transmitter also contributed to using that combination over another camera because it fit in a smaller case.

The blimp case was attached to an OverXposed plate with a Bogen arm so the aiming could be fine-tuned once a spot for the camera was decided upon. The plate was screwed into the platform to keep it from moving.

With most of the obstacles out of the way it came down to waiting for everything else to be placed - the podium, Teleprompters and microphones - and then the camera could be installed and aimed.

"The day of the final rehearsal I felt like I was driving the golden spike when I screwed the plate in place," Kennedy said.

Despite all the testing during rehearsals, the alignment of the camera had to be changed on the morning of Inauguration Day.

"I ended up having to reach the camera farther to the right, as one of the shotgun microphones on the podium -- the one to record Obama speaking the oath -- was moved into frame easily 6-inches more than agreed in the earlier rehearsal." Chuck said. "Had the camera stayed tucked in, on the plate - the mic would have intersected Obama's elbow. As it was I barely cleared it. Any further to the right - I had Chief Justice Roberts' robe and knees. Obama hit his mark and it JUST cleared. I'd hoped to get Bush clean in frame -- but I think enough is there."

Photo by Chuck Kennedy / McClatchy Tribune

Photo by Chuck Kennedy / McClatchy Tribune

A Canon EOS 5D Mark II with 16-36 EF II lens is housed in a Pelican case and mounted to an OverXposed plate and placed next to the speaker’s podium to capture the swearing in from a low angle.
To avoid any radio interference the decision was made to hard wire the shutter release and transmitter. This meant that almost 250 feet of zip line and Ethernet had to be run through an access hole in front of the podium, under the platform and then up the back wall to Chuck's position. So a week before Inauguration Day, Chuck and I spent a morning crawling on the marble steps and landings underneath the platform fishing the lines through small holes. Scott Andrews helped with the difficult run up the final wall.

The night before Inauguration day Chuck slept in one of the Senate office buildings and made it through security just after 4 a.m. to install the camera and had final access to make adjustments just before 9 a.m.

After that it was wait for Obama to take the oath of office when Chuck hit the foot pedal to trigger the camera while making frames with his hand-held cameras as well. The images were transmitted via a DSL line to the MCT office where I was editing the frames. It was frustrating waiting for the large JPEG files to come in, but once they landed I was very excited at the results.

When the ceremony was over Chuck sent a text asking if there was anything on the remote, which I responded to with an enthusiastic "YES!!" But that wasn't good enough for Chuck as he checked the photo report online using his iPhone as he rode a shuttle from the Capitol to the end of the parade route.

The resulting photo was worth the effort and newspapers around the world seemed to think so as well as it made more than 100 front pages as well as numerous double-trucks and full pages and wrap-arounds. The file also held up to some extreme crops on the part of some publications.

"I'm pretty amazed at the ride the photo has gotten -- it far exceeded my expectations," Chuck said "I'm also stunned that the amount of cropping that survived on those full length pages" he said noting that some papers cropped it to a vertical of only President and Mrs. Obama -- meaning they were using about one-third of the frame. But the files held up to running that crop a full newspaper page.

Shortly after the picture was transmitted Chuck started getting calls and e-mails congratulating him, even getting one from Amsterdam, that made him think "I guess it worked out OK."

(George Bridges is Managing Editor of Tribune Photo Service and is a frequent contributor to the Sports Shooter Newsletter.)

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