Monthly Archives: September 2013

Wilson Kipsang crossing the finish line at the 2013 Berlin Marathon

Photography of the 40th Berlin Marathon 2013

How do you photograph the fastest people in the world?

That is exactly who the Berlin Marathon attracts: the last five world records have all been set there. About 10 world record holders – including Wilson Kipsang, who broke the marathon world record by 15 whole seconds yesterday – were either running or part of the ceremonials.

Previous world record holder Patrick Makau reaches down to greet a runner

Previous world record holder Patrick Makau reaches down from a viewing stand to greet a runner

Perfect Day for a Marathon
All that sports gear – fast cameras, long lenses – helps. But that just gives you a foundation to stand on. I often chose to go for details, the obvious one being feet. Or hands, as above. Shooting an event like this is a serious challenge, especially for someone like me who doesn’t even know the rules of most sports. I mean, my thighs are tired from just covering the marathon yesterday. 

The weather was perfect for a marathon. Pundits claimed beforehand that it was a little windy but might be good enough to set a new record.  And there was more than enough light to photograph but it was damn shadowy. In full sunlight it was perfect, like the above shot of Patrick, just have to shoot right and process accordingly. The shadow of the goal gates did not help, especially for darker skinned runners. Any black-and-white film would laugh at the challenge but most digital cameras have trouble here. Again, solid gear: check. Or: shoot one second before they cross, when the runner is still in the sun.

Suehiro Ishikaw crossing the finish line at the Berlin Marathon

Suehiro Ishikaw crossing the finish line to earn 7th place.

Photographing Wilson Kipsang at the Finish Line
The moment everyone was waiting for came 2:03:23 after the starting pistol: Wilson Kipsang crossing the finish line. 

Life is problem solving. Photography is problem solving. Sometimes you have to compromise anyway. Some jerk jumped over the fence and ran the last 10 meters with Kipsang, crossing the finish line in front of him. He’s on all the photos. So it goes.

Wilson Kipsang crossing  the finish line at the 2013 Berlin Marathon

Wilson Kipsang crossing the finish line at the 2013 Berlin Marathon.

Some newspapers are cropping tightly, so that only the left hand of this guy is in Kispang’s frame. Some are running the whole image, and making a thing out of it. At least most are blurring the website on his shirt that he was apparently advertising for. Pretty much all newspapers, though, are going to run a shot other than that one.

Photography is a game of skill, gear, access, luck, connections. Just like with most other things. In journalism, access is key. And sometimes, not all pigs are equal. The shot you’ll see in the papers is gonna be from AP, Reuters, DPA, maybe Getty (but I didn’t see them there). Sometimes, these guys are the best in the world – and the quickest. But yesterday, they got it because of access. Here’s the view from the photographer pit, for all of us unequal pigs, a few minutes before Wilson crossed:

Some pigs are more equal than others: the big agencies get privileged access

Some pigs are more equal than others: the big agencies get privileged access.

The guys lying on the ground snuggling are from the big agencies. And the rest of us were blocked off by a fence. At least this time they lay down so we could shoot the action instead of the back of the head of some hot-shot photographer.

Past the Finish Line: Glory and Pain
Shortly after the elite men crossed, the finish line goal was setup again for Florence Kiplagat, who finished with 2:21:13. These people are running faster than I bike. After catching her breath, Florence strolled by happy as could be.

Florence Kiplagat, Women's winner of the Berlin Marathon, after crossing the finish line

Florence Kiplagat, Women’s winner of the Berlin Marathon, after crossing the finish line

These are the great happy press shots. The finish line of a marathon is a gross place to stand. At least once I jumped out of the way of someone about to puke on me and my gear. Almost everyone who crossed was attended to by doctors.

I don’t mean to run an image of a woman having such difficulty while there is a successful man right next to her, but its the only shot I’ve got that captures the mix of tragedy and joy at the finish line. For what its worth, she was the 14th woman to cross the finish line.

Elation and pain at the finish line of the berlin marathon

Elation and pain at the finish line

Photographs of Inline Skating at the Berlin Marathon
Though Sunday’s race certainly got the limelight, Saturday’s inline skating marathon was no less impressive. About 7,000 racers participated in a race that gets some superlative, like being the biggest inline skating event integrated in a running event. Sports people love superlatives. 

Inline Skaters sprint to the finish line of the Berlin Marathon with the Brandenburg Gate behind them

Inline Skaters sprint to the finish line of the Berlin Marathon leaving the Brandenburg Gate behind

The light was better, too. The race started at 3:30 and ended an hour later, affording less harsh shadows on the racers. Their speed afforded better action shots, too. The winner of the race, Bart Swings, broke the one hour mark – thereby becoming a record-setter in his own right.

I was ready for action, and at the award ceremony, action I got. Erdinger, a beer company, was one of the major sponsors. There was all the alcohol-free hefeweizen we could dream of. They also gave the first place racers each an absurdly large beer glass with their other prizes. Neither the male nor female lead was interested after a few sips. Manon Kamminga, the female winner, had a few sips and passed it over the fence to some fans.

Bart had a different stroke of genius. He poured it all over the 2nd place racer, his teammate and older brother, Maarten.

Bart Swings, Winner of the Inline Skating Marathon, pours beer on the silver medalist, his brother.

Bart Swings, Winner of the Inline Skating Marathon, pours beer on the silver medalist, his brother.

Thanks for the sponsorship, Erdinger.

Marathons and Racers
Capturing the events and the people are different stories. Annie Liebovitz would do this right, lugging tons of lighting equipment to the right scenery and nail both character and action. I don’t have the resource, connections, or talent for that. My portrait of Manon Kamminga relaxing after the race goes straight to her feet. She took her skates off but kept them with her. Simple and to the point. 

Female inline skating champion Manon Kamminga

A portrait of female inline skating champion Manon Kamminga

And that’s it for the 2013 edition of the Berlin Marathon

Angela Merkel as she takes the stage at CDU headquarters after the first votes come in.

2013 German Election in Pictures

Germany’s federal election took place and Sunday, and I had the chance to spend the evening in the headquarter’s of the CDU, Merkel’s party, with my camera.

The Election Results: CDU, big time 
There are many ways to read Sunday’s results. The CDU has fallen a few seats short of having a majority without needing to form a coalition – a rare event in a parliamentary democracy. The CDU is center-right here, though I would describe their politics as generally similar to those of the U.S. Democrats.

The reaction on the floor of CDU headquarters when the party's victory is first predicted

The reaction on the floor of CDU headquarters as the party’s victory is first predicted

That being said, they have been ruling with the FDP, “The Liberals”. The FDP used to be the party of civil rights, defining their politics by a social liberalism. In recent years they have moved to being economically liberal (in the British, not American, sense of the word). So their party looks a bit like the liberal wing of the U.S. Republican party, the McCain-Bloomberg-Schwarzenegger types. The CDU-FDP coalition has ruled Germany for four years, and in those years the FDP managed to loose much of their base by letting their social liberalism drift to the back of their agenda. The result is that on Sunday, their share of votes went from 15% down to below 5%. Slam. 

Not only joy, but worry: the reaction to FDP's results

Not only pure joy, but also worry: the reaction to FDP’s results in CDU’s headquarters

The trick is that in the German system, a party with less than 5% of the votes doesn’t even make it into parliament. So the FDP has gone from a ruling party to having exactly 0 seats in the Bundestag. Null. Nada. Kaput. 

The Opposition: Everybody Else
This leaves three parties which did get seats: The Social Democrats (SPD), The Green Party (Grüne) and The Left (Die Linke). I don’t thing I need to explain that these parties are all to the left of the CDU. So while we can read the results of Sunday as a sweeping victory for the CDU, it could also be seen as a left-leaning victory: the majority of seats are held by parties to the left of the CDU. And as of writing on Thursday, none of these parties really want to play ball with Merkel.

Election posters from The Left (top), SPD (middle) and The Pirates (bottom) in Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin

Election posters from The Left (top), SPD (middle) and The Pirates (bottom) in Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin

The Pirates – a re-invention of direct democracy, this time internet based, did not get seats in parliament either. Nor did the “Alternative For Germany” who want to kill the euro and reinstate the estates of pre-Weimar nobility, nor did any of the extreme right parties (more on them in my next post).

CDU and SPD, a Grand Coalition? 

The SPD's 150th birthday party opened the election season for them in front of the Brandenburger Gate

The SPD’s 150th birthday party opened their election season in front of the Brandenburg Gate

The second largest block of seats – by a landslide – went to The Social Democrats, the SPD. Once in a while the SPD and CDU team up to create a “Grand Coalition”. This time they would have more than 2/3 of the seats together, meaning that to a great extent, whatever they agree on behind the scenes will become policy and could even (probably) change the constitution. For a variety of reasons, nobody really wants a Grand Coalition, but it may become a reality. Below, the SPD’s candidate for chancellor, Peer Steinbrück.

Peer Steinbrück, the SPD's candidate for chancellor, speaking in Berlin three days before the election

Peer Steinbrück, the SPD’s candidate for chancellor, speaking in Alexanderplatz, Berlin three days before the election

Die Linke? Pretty Unlikely.

The Left Party rounds up the camaign season on September 20th in Alexanderplatz

The Left Party rounds up the campaign season on September 20th in Alexanderplatz

If the Social Democrats are left-center, Die Linke are simply left. Reading their campaign slogans and hearing their leaders speak, their main points were often similar to one another. Introduce a minimum wage, allow dual citizenship, forbid the extremist NPD, a Neo-Nazi party. But underlying the SPD was a more conservative tone of democracy and underlying Die Linke was one that veered to the left. When The Left’s candidate, Gregor Gysi, spoke of not participating in any wars, it appeared to be grounded on protectionism, not pacifism.

Gregor Gysi, The Left's candidate for chancellor, speaks to supportors in Berlin

Gregor Gysi, The Left’s candidate for chancellor, speaks to supporters in Berlin

The Left and the Greens each came in with about 8.5% of the vote, making them each forces but neither powerful. Merkel is trying to find a partner with whom to rule. The politics of Die Linke are just too far from those of the CDU. The Green party could very well happen though – on some issues, like energy policy, the parties are rather similar.

To Be Continued…

Photojournalism as Art, or something like that

Every time I shoot a press event I come up with a new idea or two for photography, not for selling my shots but for art. Because the world of press, like the universe it is a part of, is nuts. And art is a great response to insanity.

Actress Jamila Saab getting shot on the Red Carpet

Actress Jamila Saab getting shot on the Red Carpet

Monday’s idea is to photograph the caterers and service workers at a star-studded event. Like these actresses in their own right:

Pan Am flight attendants handing out candy in a martini glass

Pan Am flight attendants handing out candy in a martini glass

The First Steps Awards are for youngins in German film. It felt like the younger sibling of Berlinale, Germany’s main film festival, which I’ll be covering in January. First Steps has major sponsorship and A-list guests, even if the nominees and winners are all up and coming. That meant that by the end of the night, most people who got prizes couldn’t walk in their shoes anymore. Not that I could in those heels, but as a photographer I get to wear hiking boots, black jeans and a t-shirt no matter how fancy everyone else looks. Dems da rules.

Actress Lea Mornar, looking over her shoulder on the red carpet

Actress Lea Mornar, looking over her shoulder on the red carpet

The red carpet was a pain in the ass. Shooting there is not much fun. Lots of shouting and elbowing. Worse than usual.
But the Stage Theatre am Potsdamer Platz offered four flights of balcony with a gorgeous staircase leading to each landing. And by gorgeous, I mean ugly but with low white ceilings. You know what that means: studio everywhere. Here are some prize winners. Note the light mod all around them known to most people as a ceiling. This was one on-camera flash, well balanced and bounced. Nice and Strobist-y.

Anna Zohra Berrached and Cosima Maria Degler, direcotr and producer of No Fear Award winner "Zwei Mütter", Two Mothers

Anna Zohra Berrached and Cosima Maria Degler, director and producer of No Fear Award winner “Zwei Mütter”, Two Mothers

The crowd being younger meant that a lot of the nominees and winners were more willing to take thirty seconds during the party afterwards for a shot. Also, did I mention the major sponsorship? There was really good food there. Like currywurst (a Berlin speciality that defies description), Dunkin Donuts and kimchi-filled asian fusion rice things.

The Rice-Thing Guy

The Rice-Thing Guy

As waiters came around and I was waiting for a familiar face to stroll by for a shot, I realized that the caterers were not only the unsung backbone of an event like this – which they always are – but this time they were mostly dressed up into roles, too. So I treated them like the stars I was supposed to photograph and asked they would lend me their likeness for thirty seconds. Basically all agreed.

One of the bartenders

One of the bartenders, slightly less bored by posing for me than by her job.

And there you have it: today’s installation of art responding to photojournalism. There is nothing quite like fighting fire with fire.


Photographing Salman Rushdie

I had the opportunity of a lifetime yesterday: to spend a few minutes talking with – and photographing – Salman Rushdie.

Rushdie is one of my favorite authors. I didn’t even like reading before I read Midnight’s Children. He is intelligent, relaxed, and, above all, hilarious. Really. It may not be his image, but he certainly is a funny man. Though humor isn’t the first thing that comes across on his face.

Salman Rushdie at the festival

Salman Rushdie at the festival

During a press conference with him at the Internationales Literaturfestival Berlin (International Literature Festival, if you got lost in the German there), he responded with humor to any question he didn’t like. I appreciate this. When someone asked him why he spends so much time writing about religion if he thinks “the idea of God is ridiculous” he responded by saying, “Oh, did I say that? Sometimes I can’t stop myself”.

Salman Rushdie, from head to toe

Salman Rushdie, from head to toe, inside the Haus der Berliner Festspiele

With the combination of persistence and gentleness that I try to approach photography with, I managed to snag him for five minutes afterwards. He was chatting with his translator and some festival sponsors. Afterwards, I walked out with him and one of the festival organizers. We spoke about the Wizard of Oz – one of his favorites, a tale which is little known in Germany. And the Berlin Wall and days of a divided Berlin (he spoke of having a coffee with Günther Grass on Unter den Linden, then in the east, before the wall came down). As we come out to the courtyard, before being mobbed by the other photographers, I pulled out the camera I had had around my neck all day but hadn’t yet used: a medium format Zeiss Ikon rangefinder from the 50’s that my wife’s family gifted on to me some time ago. Someone else had already asked him if he had a minute for some shots, a journalist who was sitting in the courtyard uploading her shots to her agency already.

Someone else buying me time to setup my camera

Someone else buying me time to set up my camera

She got her shots, another journalist jumped in to. By then, Rushdie was looking to see if he could escape. I pointed to the camera and asked if he had the patience for one more shot. He saw the camera, smiled, and agreed. I shot it. One frame. HP5, 1/300th of a second, f/5.6. I took the camera down, to his surprise. “That’s it?”. That’s it. He came over, ran his finger around the lens and told me what a beautiful camera it was. And then came the most outstanding compliment I have ever gotten or ever will get as a photographer: “Just like with Richard Avedon”.

That shot on film is nowhere to be found on my website – to see that, you’ll have to come check out my studio in Berlin for now.

Afterwards, I went back to the author’s tent with him and had the chance to sit across the table from him for a solid half hour. A professor and an actor who would later be on the stage with him, another photographer, and some of the festival organizers and staff were there, and we had the chance to speak about literature, films, festivals, and who knows what else.

Salman Rushdie relaxing in the tent before his talk

Salman Rushdie relaxing in the tent before his talk at the festival

The Strobist Award Ceremony: Ahzumjot

This post is dedicated to David Hobby, better known in these internets as The Strobist.

Like many photographers, I have been following David for a while and learning from his creativity and wisdom. I consider his following his blog as essential to my education as the courses I’ve taken at college or at ICP.

Wearing my hat as a press photographer, I spent Sunday at the New Music Award in Berlin. The setting is Admiralpalast, a hundred someting year old theater on Friedrichstrasse that has lived many lives, and is a rare old building in this city of reinvention.

With nine acts each getting a fifteen minute slot to show off three songs in the competition, there was as much down time for rearranging the stage as there was live time. One of the photographers from DPA (Deutsche Presse-Agentur, the big guys around here) used the downtime to edit shots and probably upload them already. Though it makes me a terrible photojournalist in this day and age, I wandered around the building looking for more shots instead of starting the uploads. Gasp.

Lucky me, I came across the first act, Ahzumjot, in the VIP area. He was more than happy to sit for me for a couple of minutes. Good that I asked him, great that he said yes, and even better that he had to chat someone else up first – giving me two or three minutes prep time.

This is the corner that I started in:

The Studio in Admiralpalast

The Studio in Admiralpalast

Where you can see just how the light is falling. I am going to be shooting a few steps closer, right next to that table, and Ahzumjot is going to sit for me on the left end of that bench, where the reclining guy with gray hair is here. Backdrop is the courtyard of Admiralpalast, giving some gentle diffuse late summer northern European window light.

Here is that backdrop at (almost) exposure settings, 1/3 stop brighter than what I settled on, but close enough. Remember that Ahzumjot is going to be framed by the open window on the left, so it’s the background that we care about. And the window frame it gonna be lit up anyway.

The backdrop at (roughly) exposure settings: 1/200th f/4 ISO 320

The backdrop at (roughly) exposure settings: 1/200th f/4 ISO 320

What I managed was pure Strobist love. The ceiling was not low and the walls were not white, but it would have to do. I stood pretty far back for the sake of the flash and used a longer lens that I otherwise would have – I shot the winner at the 70mm of Nikon’s mega-zoom, though I would normally be on my 50mm for this kinda shot. The flash (LP160) was pointed up towards the meeting of the wall and the ceiling, half power, widest setting for most diffusion. I even had my go-to 1/4 CTO gel on it. And of course, I had about two minutes so set the shot up and thirty seconds with the sitter.


Here’s the result, a portrait of Ahzumjot in Berlin’s Admiralpalast:

Musician Ahzumjot during the New Music Award 2013, in Admiralpalast, Berlin

Musician Ahzumjot during the New Music Award 2013, in Admiralpalast, Berlin

No touch-ups or fiddling needed, all I’ve done is cooled down the image a bit, which had auto-balanced for the outside world since I had forgotten to switch to flash WB.

So thanks, David. Here’s to you.

Towards Press: Film Premiere at Kino International

After a year living in Berlin, and two decades of dreams and struggles of photography, I’ve started freelancing for a press agency. This means a lot. It means excitement, access, speed. For years now I have practiced the art of press photography but generally to a different end. I have photographed protests as a demonstrator, from the anti-war demonstrations during the buildup to the Iraq War in 2003 in New York through protests against tearing up the East Side Gallery in Berlin in 2013. Now I’ll be doing it for the mainstream media.

My shooting style will be affected, too. I’ve often gone for available light, fast prime lenses. I’ve done this with black and white film that I could push or digital at high ISO. I need to be shooting with zooms now for speed in composition, where I loose a few critical stops. So I’m supposed to shoot flash, for more depth of field, for that “look”, and for those lenses.

I got access through patience. I waited until the press had gone off to send their pictures to their editors to approach the stars. Now I’ve got a press pass and I’m on the lists.

The thing is that I like my way of doing things. It isn’t just poor man’s press photography. It means talking to an important figure instead of just flashing them. It means spending hours at the event instead of minutes, to capture its spirit.

Moving forwards as a press photographer will mean growth, but not a loss of style. Learning from my colleagues, I’ll do what I can to meld the style I’ve built over a decade of press-like photography with a more classic look. It is going to be fun. A lot of my gigs are going to show up here. Below, a sneak preview.

Premiere of König von Deutschland at Kino International

Shooting the Premiere of König von Deutschland at Kino International is my first of hopefully many assignments with the agency. So here’s to my first attempt at the red carpet and chatting up German movie stars.

It begins with an actress on the guest list, Franziska Weisz. She tried to sneak by behind the red carpet, playing hard to get. Some colleagues at DPA called her over, and she was more than glad to pose. This is the kind of classic archive shot of a movie star that requires the right camera settings and being a bit annoying, but not so much in the way of, well, photographic skill.

I apologize in advance for the watermarks. The identical images are for sale across town, so to post images large enough to see I have to watermark them.

Franziska Weisz on the red carpet at the premiere of König Von Deutschland, Kino International

Franziska Weisz on the red carpet at the premiere of König Von Deutschland, Kino International

Things got more interesting as the night went on. The female lead, Katrin Bauerfeind, was tired of being flashed by the time the film had run, but was still happy to chat. Lucky me, I asked her if I could do a few shots with a flash, and she more than obliged. Available light, D800 on ISO 6400, Nikon’s 70-200 f/2.8 around 100mm and a smidgin of noise reduction. The result is almost a studio headshot. Happy photographer, happy film star.

Katrin Bauerfeind at the premiere of König Von Deutschland, Kino International

Katrin Bauerfeind at the premiere of König Von Deutschland, Kino International

Indeed, she was happy enough to grab together her co-leads in the film for the most natural of the group shots I managed that evening. Here I flashed a teency bit to kill some shadows and bring the machine down to ISO 3200. Questionable decision – the weird blue shadow on Katrin’s face is a result of the nearly impossible to control mixed lighting I had to deal with, with about 3 seconds of prep time.

Wanja Mues, Katrin Bauerfeind and Otto Dittrich at the premiere of König Von Deutschland, Kino International

Wanja Mues, Katrin Bauerfeind and Otto Dittrich at the premiere of König Von Deutschland, Kino International

The night ends back in front of Kino International with the film’s director, David Dietl. I managed a test shot at the right distance to balance the main light on David – this was a street at night, solidly three stops darker than the sign behind him. I’ve never been content with TTL flash, so I did the balancing manually. One overexposed test shot grabbed his attention, and then a well exposed shot of him, a bit looser as the night went on, pointing to the sign announcing his film’s premiere.

Director David Dietl pointing to Kino International

Director David Dietl pointing to Kino International

And that is where this first assignment ends. Stay tuned.