Ten Seconds to Photograph the President

(The following is excerpted from Photographs from the Edge of Reality, by Black Star photographer John Harrington.)

I’ve had the privilege of photographing presidents going back to the first George Bush, and if you count President Reagan’s visit to the White House and ceremonies at George Washington University Hospital, where he honored those who saved his life, Reagan too.

Almost every time it was a news event, although from time to time I was the exclusive photographer traveling with a foreign dignitary for a private meeting with whichever president was in office.

Once, when on assignment for National Geographic Television, I had behind-the-scenes access to the White House for a state dinner. Yet, I had never had the opportunity to have studio lighting and the undivided attention of the president before.

Grips and Grins

When I have photographed each president, the opportunities have ranged from a 20-second stint in the Oval Office with a collection of my colleagues, to 20 or so minutes during a ceremony in the Rose Garden, or even 45 minutes to an hour during a primetime press conference.

In this case, the valuable time I had was boiled down to about 10 seconds.

The initial assignment — grip and grins with the President — wasn’t all that. In the end, however, it’s not what something is, it’s what you make of it. It was my assignment to, in a private room, photograph the president in a receiving line with about two dozen VIP guests who had sponsored an event that the president was attending.

The entire time in the room was about 10 minutes or so, and because of the VIP nature of the guests, we brought in lights, both for recycle time and for a flattering quality of light. Beforehand, we tested the lights — two umbrellas, left and right, with the left light about half a stop brighter than the right.

At the appointed time the president came in, and the guests were queued up and waiting for the president to arrive, so I determined that my opportunity to photograph the president alone would likely come at the end.

With precision, the White House staff shuffled each guest pairing in, and each had a moment to chat with the president and first lady, and then the foursome would pose for the camera.

For each guest we would make two frames, just in case one of the four people in the image had his or her eyes closed. In fact, in one pairing the president had his eyes closed in the first image, and in the second image one of the guests had his eyes closed, so we had to “swap heads” in that image so that the VIP guest could have his picture suitable for framing.

Precision When It Counts

Typically, as the president wraps up a meet-and-greet, there is a brief moment or two while security mobilizes to advance the president, staff gets into position, and the president bids farewell to the organizers. When all of the pairings were done, just such a moment occurred, and there were no guests surrounding the president; it was just me and him.

I lifted the camera and said, “Mr. President, look this way for a moment,” and I made two frames of him — eyes to camera, all by himself. The strobes fired as desired, and the background was nondescript enough that I liked it. And with that, he was whisked away to his next engagement.

When I reviewed the two frames, I was quite pleased, and either would have served quite well.

All too often, clients will call with an assignment request and say that the shoot will only take about five minutes, suggesting that it should cost less because of the mistaken notion that we bill by time.

In point of fact, when you only have a few seconds to make a photo, and you’re able to accomplish the creation of a good image in that amount of time, you should be able to command a premium because of that ability. Almost anyone can make a great portrait if they have hours — the test is, can you make one in 10 seconds?

Photo © John Harrington

4 Responses to “Ten Seconds to Photograph the President”

  1. The same passed with me photographyng Barak Obama at Nato Summit 2010 in Lisbon.
    You can read here
    Translate in the top right of the blog.


    Miguel A. Lopes

  2. Very interesting article. You have to be on top of your game to photograph a president, it must of been a great experience.

  3. Great story. Must make you feel proud to be involved with recording important events like these, and be on top of your game. No time for mistakes, a real pro.

  4. interesting read, I appreciate you sharing your experiences photographing the President, an honor indeed and a moment that could quickly usher in insecurity but it seems like you were well prepared and ready to snap the shutter

    it reminded me of not too long ago when I had the chance to photograph then U.S. Barack Obama as he appeared in Pittsburgh, my only fear was me getting my 300mm Canon 2.8L lens into the scheduled event in Pittsburgh as well as a 100-400 zoom, I did not want to lose my place in line to take it to the car and I did not want a few thousand dollars worth of glass in my car

    but eventually I got in with all my gear, took a seat just far enough away from the podium and waited to hear and see the next President of the United States

    oddly enough I checked the images I posted of that day on Twitter and noticed that the President himself "favorited" one of the images I took of him that day, I just wish I knew how I could send him a print of that shot, perhaps for him to enjoy in the years to come (the first frame, b&w/vertical)

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