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|| News Item: Posted 2012-04-19

Packing for the Circus: Covering the Campaign Trail

By Brian Blanco

Photo by Brian Blanco

Photo by Brian Blanco

From, left, Charles Dharapak, Emmanuel Dunand and Brian Snyder slide into the same sliver of real estate to get a shot during a Mitt Romney round table event in Tampa, Fla.
If anybody ever attempts to tell you that the worst part of covering a state's political primary is the travel, or even the fast food, then just walk away, because you're talking to a crazy person. Everybody knows that the real worst part of covering these things is the emails.... the hundreds of emails from the various campaigns that vibrate your butt everyday, all day, and become the background noise of your not-so-slow transformation to insanity.

You can't unsubscribe from them because somewhere, hidden in the scrolling pages of "look who just endorsed me" and "this is why the other guy sucks" messages is a half-assed schedule that you need; a schedule "for planning purposes only" that shows you where you're going for the next two days... until, of course, it changes at the last minute in-flight... but there'll be an email for that.

When deciding what gear to take on this type of coverage it is important to know if you're going to:
1) Stick to one single candidate and attach yourself to their series of buses and airplanes as an embed (no Kevlar required).
2) Attempt, as I recently did here in Florida, to crisscross the state and hit several candidates' campaign schedules by rental car.

Clearly, if you opt to "embed" with a candidate you're going to want to travel as light as possible and if you have your own wheels you can load the trunk with whatever goodies you think you'll need, but in the end, when it's time to walk into the various venues and actually shoot (I mean take pictures) you're going to want to pare down what you carry in.

Because, while covering the eight days of the recent Florida Primary, I had the luxury of having my own wheels, I was able to take a full-size Think Tank Airport Security roller with me and just cherry pick from it what I anticipated I may need.

Photo by Brian Blanco

Photo by Brian Blanco

Blanco had the luxury of fully stocking his Think Tank Airport Security roller during his recent campaign coverage.
Here's what I took in the roller:

2 Nikon D700 bodies (without grips)
1 Nikon D3 body
1 Nikon 200-400mm f/4
1 Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8
1 Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8
1 Nikon 18mm f/2.8
1 Nikon 85mm f/1.4
1 Nikon 50mm f/1.4
2 Nikon SB-600 strobes

I opted for two D700 bodies over my D3 bodies as I prefer to shoot news with smaller, lighter bodies without grips in an effort to save the weight and space. There's a lot of hurry-up-and-wait in political coverage and standing there in the buffer (the roped-off area in front of the stage) as you wait for the candidate to arrive and be introduced by the third longwinded local politician or community leader, you may appreciate the lighter-weight bodies hanging on your shoulder. Because of this, ungripped Canon 5d and Nikon D700 bodies tend to be fairly popular among the shooters who cover politics regularly and I can see why they choose them. I mean, let's face it, you generally don't need to motor off at 10 fps on a guy standing at a podium delivering the same speech over and over again.

Another reason to opt for smaller bodies is the close proximity you'll be working in with the other shooters. You'll often find yourself smashed up against each other when herded into the same 4' space between TV. tripods, huddled into a single booth at a diner or all trying to shoot the same sliver of cool light. I did take one D3 body as I tend to prefer using larger bodies when shooting long glass but 99% of the time it stayed in the roller.

Long glass- There are going to be certain venues where there is no buffer to shoot from and you have to shoot from a riser above the crowd and so having a 300mm or 400mm can come in very handy. These things generally have some nice lighting if they're indoors or at night and so, in an effort to save weight and space, you can get generally get away with a 300mm f/4.

Because I'm a Nikon shooter I have the luxury of being able to use my 200-400mm f/4 and this lens is just utterly genius for political events. (Canon is apparently coming out with one soon, steal one from CPS as I have a feeling you'll fall in love.) While it is a bit on the heavy side, it is not much larger that a 300mm f/2.8 and you can still have a fairly small footprint with it if you lose the hood and monopod, throw it on your shoulder with a strap, and just handhold it. You generally don't have a lot of advanced notice on the throw, at campaign stops and debates, from the risers to the stage so the range between 200-400mm is a nice little sweet spot and often allows you to shoot isolated shots and shots with people in the foreground with the same lens.

***Note: If have long glass be sure to offer it to the traveling shooters once you've made your frames and are ready to move around, as many of them, understandably, don't travel with anything longer than a 300mm and some even only bring a 70-200mm.

Shorter glass- Clearly you'll often want a 70-200mm but you'd be surprised how often you can get away with something even smaller and lighter like an 85mm as your long glass. Try to anticipate what the venue will look like. If it's a stop at an ice cream parlor then you likely won't need a big heavy 70-200mm banging into the hips of all of the other shooters so leave it in the car. Also, if you know ahead of time that there is a buffer then you're golden with just an 85mm.

Photo by Brian Blanco

Photo by Brian Blanco

During the FL GOP Primary I used an 85mm f/1.4 on one D700 and an 18mm f/2.8 on another. This smaller set up allowed me to have a lighter load throughout the day so I'd be less bitchy at the end of the night... but only slightly less.
Wide and Wide-ish glass- Another useful lens for me is the 24-70mm as it tends to be what I shoot 75% of my frames with. The range is just about perfect for this kind of coverage but we all already know why this lens is important so I'll shut up now. There are times however when I want something a little wider than 24mm so rather than carrying a 17-35mm I just throw a small 18mm f/2.8 in a pouch. It's not a lens I use often on a campaign trail so I don't want to commit to the weight of a wide zoom but sometimes being a little wider than 24mm is good when you're in a very tight scrum and you're almost on top of the candidate. This is also a good focal length when you're in a restaurant booth and everyone is trying to look oh so casual and candid with 9 photographers shooting 5 feet away.

Random other glass I carry- Every now and then, when these events are starting to feel like Groundhog Day and I need to force myself to think, and shoot, differently I grab the 50mm out of my bag and shoot at f/1.4 and play around a little. Also, I keep a 28mm f/2.8 in my bag as a backup to my 24-70mm or when I really want to travel light. Between the 28mm and the 50mm, if for some reason I drop and kill, or otherwise lose my 24-70mm, I can keep shooting.

Strobes- I carry two strobes in my roller but I never take them out. I didn't end up taking a single strobed frame during the our GOP Primary... strobes are of the devil.

Bags- Aside from a Think Tank Photo roller, which you absolutely must have for bringing your gear into your Hampton Inn room at night (I love lobby cookies), you may want a belt pack of sorts. Keep it small and don't carry a lot of crap in it. Nothing will annoy the other shooters around you (particularly the D.C. shooters) than showing up with the gi-nor-mous waist pack you use for football that protrudes 14" in front of you and then you try to squeeze around and through everyone. You don't need all that junk. Do yourself a favor and by a modular belt system with two small crushable pouches. I have a Newswear one that is just 'ok', but Think Tank makes a far better one (their "Skin" series) that I used until I left it an event and I just keep meaning to get online and replace it but I'm too scatter-brained. It is genius because it has Velcro silencers and packs into the space of almost nothing.

Anyway, these are the trinkets, you've got the tools. Political events can actually be great to shoot and if you travel light, and smart, you'll make far better frames than if you're bogged down with a bunch of junk. Now go make some pretty rectangles.

Brian Blanco is a freelance photographer based in Florida. You can see his work on his Sports Shooter member page: and at his personal website site: .)

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