Making the Shot: Election Night in Berkeley, Part 3

So the last and final installment here is all about my third and last trip out to cover the election story, which finally resulted in the little image that ended up gracing the cover of the next day’s special Elections issue:

Cover - Daily Cal Elections special issue

Cover - Daily Cal Elections special issue

As the clock struck midnight and November 5th dawned, I was just headed out of the office after dropping off the rest of my photos from the massive crowd that had gathered down on the streets outside at Bancroft & Telegraph.  The photo editors Anna and Victoria were still in the office (and would be through to the morning) sorting through photos and compiling the photospread (.pdf, 7.2mb, pg 7-8)  that would appear in the next day’s paper, for which the Daily Cal photo staff had already collectively compiled a few hundred photos.

At this point I would say I was pretty content but not particularly happy with the photos I had come back with.  The shots from the viewing party were good – slideshow or photospread worthy – but I wasn’t particularly fond of any of the crowd photos from the celebration on the streets.  Sure they covered the event, but photos like this or this aren’t really going to rock anyone’s socks.

So on my way out I decided to check out the crowd once again.  By now they had vacated the Bancroft & Telegraph intersection (or perhaps moved… a contingent of police officers was now situated at the intersection) and had moved a block down to the Telegraph & Durant intersection.  The crowd wasn’t the raging horde of celebration it was, but there were still plenty of people, shouting or running about, climbing up streetlights and buildings, setting off fireworks, and the general stuff celebratory crowds do.

It happened to be that the very first subject I happened upon was this girl carrying an American flag, riding on someone’s shoulders above the crowd.  I snapped a quick shot, and here’s the straight-out-of-box result:

The original of the eventual front cover image

The original of the eventual front cover image

It proved to be one of the nicer images from the scene – at this point there wasn’t too much going on besides general celebration, and while those subjects can provide usable images:

A man sets off fireworks in the middle of the crowd celebrating President-elect Barack Obama's election night victory

A man sets off fireworks in the middle of the crowd celebrating President-elect Barack Obama

Members of the crowd climbed atop the Noah's Bagels at Telegraph & Durant

Members of the crowd climbed atop the Noah

Both images told the story of the scene perhaps as well as the first image, but the issue with these photos (as with many photos photojournalists take, in general) is that they are completely generic.  The photo of the man with fireworks could be from the Fourth of July.  Are the men above Noah’s Bagels some eco-protestors demanding the company only use free-range bagel trees?  Or what’s to even denote photos like this, from the earlier crowd, as celebratory, rather than the start of some massive and destructive race riot?

The girl with the flag was far from the ideal subject, but it was better than nothing.  At least we can tell she is celebrating, and the presence of the flag clues us in that the nature of the celebration is perhaps something related to nationalism or politics.  Given an appropriate publication time context (day after the U.S. election), a typical viewer can extrapolate the information given in the photo into the full story, which isn’t so clear-cut with either of the other photos.

So eventually we decided to run with that first photo I took, which was really a simple snapshot (literally the first shot I had from when I arrived on the scene).  I was long gone from the office by then, so I can’t elaborate on the exact decision process and rationale, but the thing with these special issue, featurey-type cover images is that you want them to be somewhat monolithic.  Their point is not to cover or tell the story, but to simply give the viewer some visual element that, in a very abstract sense, summarizes the story. Now, whether you want to interpret that cover image as some wishy-washy Lady Liberty looking forward to new hope/taking a sigh of relief, I’ll leave up to the individual viewer; it’s a fuzzy thing and as a photographer who doesn’t deal with the realm of art I will say for certain I had no thoughts of conveying any particular emotion or symbolism with the image.

A brief aside to the technical aspect – the lighting situation in this particular scene was garish.  As you can no doubt tell from the original photo, the white balance is off by a lot, with the image taking on an extremely strong orange cast.  Normally, you’d want to make sure to correct your white balance before shooting, by taking out some grey card or just applying a custom white balance based off the street lamp itself.  The alternative, of course, is simply taking your photos in some RAW format, which allows you to apply the exact same white balance correction in post-processing.  In this photo, the white stripes on the U.S. flag provided a perfect neutral reference, so I used the dropper/sampler tool on that area and voila, perfect white balance!



This looks a bit dull and lacking in contrast (note especially the lack of any true black), so I restored the black point and made a few other minor curve adjustments, and here’s the final image:

Final Processed Image

Final Processed Image

Interestingly enough, the above shot wasn’t the one I had tabbed to be “the image” for inclusion in whatever slideshow or photospread we would be doing (I had no idea we would be doing a full-page cover; I probably would have spent some more time on this shot and others if I did).  For the last series of shots I took before I left, I had a slightly more abstract vision in mind, taking the same girl and her flag (which was by far the most prominent symbol of “American politics” on display by this time of the celebration) but focusing much more on the flag in the midst of the celebration in general.  I thought these photos might work out as a better general symbol, where as the above photo hones in a lot more on this particular woman, who aside from being one of the participants in the celebration had nothing to do with the event or the story.  Of course, if you as the viewer choose to interpret this graceful-looking caucasian woman as perhaps some allusion to Lady Liberty or something similar, I suppose the symbolism still holds and the photo is abstract enough. But in my view this is somewhat of a risky proposition, as a very plausible scenario could involve some uninformed reader stumbling upon the paper, seeing a huge full-page spread of some woman in the front, and wondering what story there is concerning this particular person.  Of course, this could very well be the unwarranted paranoia of the fuzzy coming from this engineer’s worldview of photographic meaning.

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