The excitement – and the challenges – of photographing military events

A brief introduction

Since I first became involved with the Defence Reserves Provincial Office Western Cape in July 2010, I’ve had the opportunity to attend a range of military events and functions (wreath laying ceremonies, medal parades, concerts, and a formal dinner).

I’ve gone for a spin on a Rooikat – a truly formidable armoured vehicle – as part of a special Women’s Day event organised by the DRPOWC. I’ve even joined the office on a trip to Potchefstroom for Artillery Open Day. I went behind the scenes at the Cape Town Military Tattoo 2010 at the Castle of Good Hope. And I have learned about the community work done by the Defence Reserves (their support of Chrysalis Academy and Vaatjie Moravian Primary School).

Looking back on the last year, I am amazed at how my world has opened up. I have been to new places, made new friends, acquired new skills, gained confidence in my abilities, and learned a great deal about our wonderful country.

We go for a spin on the awesome Rooikat – that’s me in the purple shirt

My reason for attending all these events was to write articles for the DRPOWC. And as part of this new intrepid reporter role, I was allowed to take photographs!

As I’ve always been interested in photography, this exposure to an entirely unfamiliar and at times intimidating military environment (though no longer as male-dominated as it has once been) has been fantastic.

It has also been challenging.

I soon realised that it is easy to take quick pics, or “kiekies” (snapshots) as a photography teacher called them, but it’s downright hard to get those “Oh wow!” shots. Well, unless you are remarkably lucky. Even getting okay shots requires considerable thought.

I wanted to share with you some of the photographic challenges I’ve encountered.

Compact digital camera versus digital single lens reflex

When you have a compact digital camera, you’re pretty much set: most compacts have amazing zooms, sometimes even up to 30x optical. This wide range allows you to take wide-angle pictures, as well as close-ups of people’s faces in the faaar distance. Compact digicams also create pictures of impressive size and resolution, with 10 Megapixels being quite normal. And you can tuck them away into your pocket when you don’t need them (or when you’re not allowed to use them, like in museums, art galleries and military installations). And they even come in water-proof, dust-proof, shock-proof, ultra-light versions.

digital SLR, bluntly put, is none of those things.

It’s bulky. It’s heavy. Its lens does not retract. You cannot slide it into your pocket (or rather, you really shouldn’t). It is definitely not shock-proof, water-proof or dust-proof – don’t even try! Your greatest enemies will be waiting for you in Mother Nature (which is often the place you really want to be for the most awesome shots): wind, dust, sand, precipitation of all kinds… Never mind the muggers of Table Mountain, who will gladly take it from you.

Before you know it, you’ll have a bag of gear (including spare batteries, spare lens(es), spare memory card, additional flash, lens hood, filters…). So you’ll need a backpack of sorts, not only to house all the stuff, but almost more importantly, to keep it safe, dry, clean, and well-padded.

Backpack with telephoto lens, externally mounted flash, lens hood, spare batteries for the flash, spare battery for the camera, spare memory card and lens pens to clean the worst of the dust and smears off the camera

An SLR makes that satisfying click sound, which is actually the sound of the mechanical shutter. But it means that you cannot take inconspicuous photos. You’re definitely not an invisible observer with an SLR. In fact, may I introduce you to Mr or Mrs Performance Anxiety? The pressure will be on to take really good shots – because you have an excellent camera, after all! The Pressure!

For me, the greatest downside of compact digicams is definitely their speed, or rather, their lack of speed. It takes a couple of seconds to get ready when you switch it on; the lens takes a couple of seconds to zoom in on the target and to readjust, and then it takes a while to persuade it to focus on what you want it to focus; and the flash takes a couple of seconds to recharge after it’s fired. Sometimes, I just don’t have those spare seconds. During the high-energy act of the drum majorettes from Curro School at last year’s tattoo, for instance, the girls only ‘paused’ for an instant during their act, such as when they had successfully caught a twirling banner:

One of the drummies from Curro School during the Cape Town Military Tattoo 2010

A digital SLR is on-and-ready as soon as you flick the switch; the manual zoom is right on target as fast as your fingers can turn it, so shots can be composed in a split-second; and you can take a series of photos in quick succession, without waiting for the camera to think-and-process-the-images.

As to the quality of the images – well, now that I’ve seen what the dSLR can do, I don’t want to go back to a compact. Although those definitely do have advantages!

However, back to all that gear that you will no doubt accumulate once you are the proud owner of a dSLR.

Lenses

Or: Wait! Stop the show, I need to change lenses!”

You will need at least two lenses – a wide-angle and a telephoto. I have a 18-55mm wide-angle lens and a 55-250mm telephoto lens.

When I go to an event, I usually arrive with the wide-angle lens mounted, and take some general shots of the location, the actual venue and the surroundings, as well as some close-ups of people whom I can get close to physically, and who don’t mind posing for a piccie.

A wide-angle shot taken from a roof inside the Castle of Good Hope during the closing act of the Cape Town Military Tattoo, showing part of the city skyline in the background

Once the formal part of the event starts, though, I tend to swap to the telephoto, which allows me to get close-up shots of people’s faces, their uniforms or other interesting details, without getting in the way of the official proceedings.

The telephoto lens allows me to capture a shot of Alderman Dan Plato, Executive Mayor of Cape Town, during his address – without getting in the way

But some actions are definitely wide-angle moments, which I just cannot capture with the telephoto, so I usually end up swapping lenses a couple of times during an event. Everytime you swap lenses, though, you risk getting dust inside the lens or the camera body, and it’s not always feasible to find a perfectly wind-still and clean spot to prevent this. For instance, I took the photo below during a visit to Touwsrivier training area, where a group of Young Lions (learners from various high schools in the Western Cape) was on a week-long camp before Christmas last year.

Wind, dust and sand everywhere – not the best conditions for a digital SLR – or any camera for that matter!

I try to swap lenses virtually inside the camera rucksack, which is seriously fiddly – and it means finding a relatively clean and level surface to put down my rucksack. It’s also time-consuming, which means you might miss some of the action while you’re messing about with the lenses.

I wish Canon made an affordable 18mm to 500mm lens, so that I’d never need more than one lens, but alas, I don’t think they do yet.

Tripod

Or: “Argh! Can you fire those guns again, please? I blurred the shot…”

For me, the most thrilling part of many of these military events is the firing of the guns. The ceremonial guns of Cape Field Artillery are frequently used on these occasions.

And I don’t mean ‘guns’ like those little black things that bad guys in the movies slip into their back pockets.

Nope. I mean 25 pounder guns that fire artillery shells and that weigh about 1600 kg so they have to be towed behind a large powerful vehicle called a gun tractor. Also known as G1 field guns, these chaps were used extensively by the South African Defence Force during the Border War on the border between Namibia and Angola in the 1970s and 1980s.

These are 25-pounder G1 guns – they mean business!

I have yet to get a good, clear, focussed shot of the guns when they fire. Quite simply, that’s because the ear-splitting bang always makes me leap out of my skin. I try, I really try, to anticipate the bang, and to stay calm, centred and grounded, with my mouth open so the kerPOW! doesn’t hurt my ears… but when that blast hits you in the chest, your instinctive reflex is to skrik and duck for cover. Which blurs the shot. I take my hat off to the gun crews – they don’t so much as flinch.

The solution is to use a tripod. But these are bulky and unwieldy to shlep around, particularly if you are already weighed down with a full backpack. They also take a couple of minutes to set up – remove from carry-bag, unclip the legs, slide the legs out, re-clip the legs, find a level surface, connect the camera to the head, prepare the shot…. Unless you have a helpful parent, spouse or friend to act as your happy assistant sherpa, it’s just not worthwhile – and all that faffing about will most likely make you miss the shot anyway.

There are these little three-legged ‘gorillas‘ with articulate-able legs that you can wrap around branches and balance on window ledges or benches, but that doesn’t always work either – and an SLR with a long lens is usually too heavy for those in any case.

FIRE! (This is a screen-capture from the movie)

My current solution, therefore, in the absence of a solid surface to act as a tripod, is to use the ‘Movie‘ mode on the camera. As it takes Full HD movie clips, I can then use Picasa to extract ‘snapshots’ or ‘screenshots’ of the actual moment when the guns fire. Okay, it’s definitely not ideal, and I suppose it is cheating, but it does create a fair-sized image (1920 x 1080 pixels). Also, I discovered that there is a tiny delay between the actual flash of the guns and the appearance of the smoke, and the sound of the bang reaching my ears and making me leap.

A split-second later, the soundwave from the blast hits me and I jump out of my skin…

Flash

Or: “Please could you shake hands again? My flash hadn’t finished re-charging.”

Getting good photos of people, especially in uneven lighting or indoors, is not easy. The little flash of the SLR does its best, but the subjects often look like deer caught in the headlights – white faces, red or bright eyes, harsh shadows behind them. When you have to capture split-second handshakes, when people greet each other, or when gifts are handed out, or when someone is giving a speech, it can be downright tricky.

Also, the flash takes a moment to re-charge, which can mean the difference between getting a nice shot with the relevant people in focus and properly lit, and getting a blurry, shadowy shot with people already looking away or returning to their seats – or even no shot at all, because the camera is still waiting for the flash to re-charge. Siiigh…

A handshake moment captured with the external flash

It’s not always possible to get right up close to where you need to be for a good photograph. Often there are other people in the way, or distractions in the background, or furniture that stops you getting the optimal angle. Or, as was the case at last year’s Military Tattoo at the Castle, it often isn’t possible to use the flash at all, because you are too far away from the action for the flash to make any difference. Also, use of the flash had to be minimised because there were paying customers on the seats.

Quite apart from that, you don’t want to be annoying anyone who has been trained to use a gun!

In this case, my pop-up flash was hopelessly inadequate, so I amped up the ISO to 3200…

 

… and then lightened up the image even further in post-processing (Taken during the 2010 Tattoo)

So, as my little Canon 550D has a ‘hot shoe’, I have just last week bought myself an external flash that can be mounted ontop. It comes with its own cryptic manual, which surely says something about its high-tech nature. Actually, 90% of the English section of the manual makes absolutely no sense to me whatsoever – even though it isn’t in incomprehensible Chinglish. I will need an instructor to talk me through its multitude of settings.

But I have figured out how to turn it on, and how to tilt the top section so that the flash bounces off the ceiling or the walls, which creates a wonderfully soft light that is very complimentary to natural skin-colour. That’s if the roof isn’t half a mile up… If it is, it’s best to use the flash straight-on, hoping that your subjects won’t get blinded – or that they won’t mind too much. :-)

Of course, there are times when not using a flash, but amping the ISO instead, actually creates a far nicer photo. For instance, compare this outdoor photograph taken at Fort iKapa, where the Savannah Annual Dinner 2011 was held:

With flash

with this one:

Without flash

Personally, I prefer the mood created by the lighting in the second one. And you?

Timing and Placement

Or: “Oh no! I missed the VIP laying the wreath!”

I quickly learned that the formal events, such as medal parades and memorial services, have a set structure or sequence. Usually, there is an announcer, who informs guests of the protocol and the procedure to be followed during the event – such as when to stand, when to sit, when to stand at attention, when to salute, when to remove caps and when to put them back on again.

The sequence is important for me insofar as it influences where I need to be in order to capture the significant moments from the best angle. I also like to look out for unusual angles, like in the next photo.

A band’s eye view of the proceedings

Even though it’s quite a cluttered photo, what I like about it is that it is a collage of all the important elements – the Artillerymen’s Memorial, the sentry soldier, the dignitaries and guests, the address by Alderman Plato, and the Army Band.

So when I get to a location – such as the Company’s Garden on Sunday – I need to figure out the general lay of the land. I also need to find out where the invited guests will be sitting, from where the VIPs or dignitaries will be arriving, where the soldiers will be standing at attention, where the podium for the speaker is, and where the wreaths will be handed over and laid.

Capturing the moment of laying the wreath

I need to figure out where the gaps and the open spaces are, and where I am allowed to stand or move around, as inconspicuously as possible, without getting in the way, annoying anyone, or disrupting the solemnity of the occasion. But at the same time, I also want to capture certain important moments from the optimal angle, such as the dignitaries and invited guests taking their seats, the flags being raised, the formal address by the dignitary, the firing of the guns with the two minute silence, the laying of the wreaths, and the singing of the national anthem.

It’s a minefield.

Obstacles and Distractions

Or: “Man! Those bloomin’ green bollards are in every shot!”

When you take a photograph, you not only have to pay attention to the main subject and make sure that it is in focus and nicely lit.

You also have to pay attention to what is happening in the background, in the foreground, and on the sides of your central subject. This is something I hadn’t realised when I first started taking photographs. Our eyes and minds are so used to filtering out the things we don’t want to see or that aren’t the central focus of the shot. But when we look more closely at a photograph, we’ll most likely notice detail we hadn’t seen while we were composing the shot.

The Company’s Garden was playing host to the Cape Town Festival last weekend, which was also a celebration of South Africa’s Human Rights Day on Monday, 21 March 2011. (As an aside: This public holiday was previously known as Sharpeville Day, to honour the people who were killed by the police in 1960 during a protest in Sharpeville against the pass laws. After the change from apartheid to democracy, the day became renamed ‘Human Rights Day’, in order to make South Africans aware of their human rights and to ensure that abuses of such rights did not occur again.)

Can you see the large stage with the flickering screen in the background? And note the green bollards!

For these festivities, a large stage had been erected near the Artillerymen’s Memorial. This meant that there was not only a large stage with a flickering video screen in the background, but sound and lighting equipment, as well as cables running everywhere, between lamp posts and trees. This was in addition to the trees, statues, park benches and bins that were already dotted about the place. Oh – and those ubiquitous green bollards. Talk about the need for creative framing and cropping!

During the memorial service, the place became even more ‘cluttered‘, with military vehicles, tables, chairs and tents, flagpoles… and people of course.

Bollards everywhere…

As a result, I constantly have to think about where I am, whether I am potentially in the way of the action, what angles are best, whether I need to get up to higher ground, or crouch down for a lower angle, and how people are going to be moving in and out of my shots. Once I’m framing a shot, I have to consider not only the central subject, but also any distractions or obstacles in the foreground and the background, which means zooming in and out, reframing, changing perspectives, taking a step to the left or the right…

So often, I’d come home, quite content with my haul of images, only to discover that there were cables ‘bisecting’ someone’s head, or scaffolding and poles emerging from parts of their anatomy, or other people’s heads (belonging to people who’d walked past in the background) sticking out of their shoulders! It sounds bizarre – but you’d be surprised how often that happens!

Or people’s eyes were closed, or I’d accidentally chopped off their feet, or the lens had focussed on something other than the main subject, or the shot that had looked perfect on the mini-LCD was actually too blurry to use.

Can you see the offending cable in the background, which threatens to bisect his head? And the bollard peering out in the front?

Then there’s lighting to consider – where’s the sun, where’s the shade, and where are people’s shadows? Unless you’re relatively close to your subject, it won’t help to fire the flash to eliminate shadows falling across their faces. I can’t always have the sun behind my back, because that would limit my range even more, so I have to watch out for lens flare on the photos when the sun comes in from the front or the sides.

Also, although I do try my best to blend into the background by moving around as slowly and surreptitiously as I can (where’s my camos?!), so that I am not an annoying distraction myself, I’m not exactly inconspicuous. Apart from that, there are other photographers to consider too – I don’t want to ruin their shots by moving across their background.

Most importantly, though, there’s the subject I am trying to photograph. Sometimes it takes a couple of shots in quick succession to capture the right facial expression. This too can be surprisingly difficult – unless you like capturing potentially embarrasing candid camera moments ;-).

I’ve learned the hard way that, when you have more than two people in the shot, or you’re taking a group photograph with everyone looking more or less at the camera, you have to take a series of shots: invariably, there’s somebody who has their eyes closed, or their mouth open, or who is looking off to the side, the floor or the ceiling, or who is distracted by something. Remember those old studio photographs where the whole family has to sit completely dead still for half a minute, smiling at the camera, because it takes soooo long to take the picture? Nowadays, nobody has that kind of patience anymore!

A group photo I took at the Savannah Dinner – I was so anxious of getting everyone into the shot and looking their best, that I clean forgot to switch on the flash! Thankfully, there was enough lighting from above..

Saluting and marching

Or: “Left, right, left right, left, right, CLICK!”

And, as if all that wasn’t a sufficiently complex configuration of possibilities and alternatives to contend with, I’ve discovered that taking pictures at military events has an added twist:

When people in uniform lay a wreath, they stand at attention and salute for a moment. They also salute during the singing of the National Anthem, which is the perfect time for some great close-up shots, as they aren’t allowed to move! ;-)

This is a nice angle (this was taken during the Remembrance Day Service last year)

BUT if you happen to be on the wrong side, they’ll have their right hand in front of their face, which just doesn’t look good – and no one can see who they are. During the wreath laying at the Gunners’ Memorial Service, for instance, the wreaths were being laid on both sides of the gun, with no discernible or predictable pattern, which meant that I was on the wrong side half the time… sooo frustrating.

A salute from the wrong side

Also, when you have a group of soldiers marching, they march pretty well in sync (well, usually ;-)) – and the pictures look most impressive when one arm is straight forward and the other straight back, and they’re in full stride. If, instead, you get them with their arms already on their way down and ‘swinging through’, with their feet close together, it just doesn’t look particularly powerful or imposing. It’s all about timing!

The troops look so impressive when they’re marching in sync like this (taken during the Remembrance Day Service last year)

All these challenges are excellent learning opportunities, though, and it is hugely rewarding, when you successfully capture some nice moments for posterity. For the rest, you can always try to rescue them with post-processing (cropping, lightening, darkening, tweaking the colour)!

And if not, um, well… there’s always next year? :-)

14 thoughts on “The excitement – and the challenges – of photographing military events

    • Aww, thanks for the vote of confidence, Lisa, and I am pleased you find the info useful. I am nowhere near professional standard though – when I’m under time pressure, I still use the various auto settings on my camera, instead of manual… Sies! ;-)

  1. Hi Reggie

    Very nicely written article. So many people think that once you have the big SLR, it is all so easy. You have worked through many of the pitfalls, timing and planning that goes into good photojournalism, with a very difficult subject. Great work!
    Regards
    Glynnis

  2. Some beautiful photos Reggie – as always!!!!!!

    I particularly love the drummie girl shot!

    Lots of interesting info re:taking that ideal photo too. I love photography – I’m only an amateur with a Canon Ixus – but I absolutely love it!!!

    I wish I could afford a real good top of the range job!

    I think a book is a FANTABULOUS idea!!

    Ax

    • Aw, thank you, Al. I too love that particular shot – the expression in her face says it all! From what I’ve seen on your blog, you have a very good idea for what will make a good image – I think it would be very worthwhile for you to save up for a digital SLR.

      As for the book idea… hm… I’m mulling that over… ;-)

      Hugs!

    • Chuckle… thank you for that vote of confidence, Monica! But until I have the courage to venture away from the various non-automatic settings, and onto full manual mode, I probably haven’t earned the right to write such a book!

  3. Oh, Reggie how I enjoyed this post! :D

    Don’t know how I missed it. Anyhow, I finally got the chance to test the zoom of my new PowerShot when I took pictures of the full moon a few days ago and I’m overjoyed with the result.

    I’m definitely NOT regretting this buy over a SLR. The tripod I bought is a little iffy – it’s not very sturdy so I took the photos just by holding the camera. Someone gave me the tip to use the timer for those telephoto shots so that I don’t jiggle the camera when I take the shot. I’ll try that next time. Movie mode doesn’t sound like a bad idea, but yeah, it does feel like cheating ;)

    I’m with you on the disadvantages of the more compact cameras as to the time it takes to focus and process – would be nice to have a retracting lens and still be able to do manual focus like with SLR lenses.

    Well, a girl can dream :)

  4. Pingback: Historic moment | Finding Frohsinn - Living Now

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