Unleashing “The Beast”
Its 0600 am Place de la Concorde, Paris and still four hours to go before the annual Bastille Day parade begins. Jean-Paul Pelissier and I negotiate our way past the sleepy all-night security guards surrounding the giant presidential review stand especially erected for the occasion and struggle up the back stairs with some 100 kilos of equipment.
There is one specific image I am after today. The challenge is to bag a clean, tight frame of Frances president Sarkozy surrounded by the mounted Republican guard as he waves from a command car driving down the Champs Elysee. This year we have a new president so it becomes more important not to screw up. Unfortunately this president is a tad shorter than Chirac so the challenge is even greater.
Working against us:
1: A mere 15 second window of time to make the picture during which the president comes into view (some half mile away) until his accompanying riders are no longer seen in the background. We really are talking about a very, very long throw here!
2: The heat waves at such a distance render everything soft (Sarkozy riding in a jeep amongst 150 steamy horses does not help either). So we prayed for overcast weather. But this was not to be and the temperature at 0600 was already over 30 degrees, rising rapidly. The same image in years past had been made with a 600mm and 2x doubler or 800mm f5.6 but had always required a large pull and plenty of sharpening because of the heat distortion.
….right around here should do the trick
Working in our favour:
1: A thermos full of strong expresso.
2: The Beast! A 1200-1700mm f5.6 IF-ED Nikon zoom converted to Canon. The tripod a gigantic Manfroto with a video head.
The photo position on the review stand is very narrow and photogrpahers are usually packed in like sardines, which is why we are there real early. Even those using regular long lenses and monopods are frowned on by the military press attaché. Our lens instantly grabbed his attention as we proceeded to occupy a good part of the 3 meter wide press box. Ooh la la, it is too BIG Monsieur, it will
not FIT !!!But it did.
Mal readies “The Beast”
The two of us set up The Beast, using, with abandon, many meters of Reuters tape to secure the position.
For those wondering, the 1200-1700 is manual focus (remember that?), but it is in
fact easier to shoot this picture manually than with an autofocus, which has trouble locking onto a tiny figure amongst hundreds of riders bobbing up and down.
Jean Paul took his 300-800mm to another nearby podium to shoot from the opposing
By the time the parade started at 10am it was over 35 degrees. President Sarkozy climbed abord the open command car at the top of the Champs Elysee some 2 miles away and I watched through 1700 millemeters of glass as the shimmering mirage-like image slowly descended Paris massive avenue. After about 15 minutes, Sarkozys vehicle, surrounded by the riders, was almost within range.
The Canon Mk IIn was set up with two cards, one recording high quality JPGs the other (SD) recording RAW. With only manual settings possible between the Nikon lens and Canon body, the excellent light allowed a healthy 2000thth at f.11 at 800 asa, more than enough to compensate for the considerable lens shake.
But then things started to go pear-shaped. President Sarkozy, known for his exuberant U.S style politics, ordered the entire parade stopped as he jumped from the command car half-way down the Champs Elysees and plunged into the crowd to greet the astounded bystanders and tourists. Luckily, Paris staffer Philippe Wojazer who had been standing by at the Elysee Palace press room had caught wind of Sarkozys plan and had ran the short distance from the palace to be there just in time. Chirac would never have dared such a break from tradition.
…..he’s in there somewhere!!
Sarkozy returned to the command car and continued the descent of the Avenue, but it took him a few moments to regain his composure and start waving to the crowd again.
This was right in my target area. With only seconds left to go until the riders moved out of frame, I focussed in on Sarkozy, a nice large image in the viewfinder, but he was waving only to one side of the avenue, his hand mostly blocking his face. Then it was over.
Indeed a lot of time and effort for a less-than-perfect frame. But we did push the limits a lot further than the opposition, who were there with their standard 600mms and monopods.
Whether it be intelligent use of remotes, trying unusual lenses, using new untested technology or simply taking the risk on a totally unorthodox shooting position, daring to be different is what distinguishes Reuters photographers from the rest. After more than 30 years in this business the biggest kick is still from taking a measured risk and pulling it off.
Who knows, if it’s overcast, perhaps well try our parade again next year with The Beast and maybe add a doubler! Lets say 3400mm and be there!
Mal Langsdon is Reuters Head of Pictures Operations for France, BENELUX, Italy, Iberia and Greece, based in Paris