Shooting Long for Candid Moments

I enjoy photographing war reenactments and I'm fortunate enough to have opportunities to do this several times a year in my area. The people who put these on are dedicated living historians. The attention to detail enables one to step back in time and wander around, say a battlefield in France in the midst of the second World War. My goal at these events is to capture images that look like they could have been taken 70 years ago. I don't attempt to create aged looking photos, although I do shoot in black and white and adjust the contrast and tones to be similar to photos of era. It is more important to me to capture the reenactors in character with their "war faces" on. I find that the best way to do that is to keep as much distance as possible and shoot with longish focal lengths.

Take this shot of a couple of German reenactors at a recent event.

The image above works for me because they are lost in their conversation, unaware of my presence. It's a plausible enough scene that could enable a suspension of disbelief for a willing viewer in order to imagine a conversation before a battle many decades ago. 

Contrast this shot with what happens when my camera is spotted.

The plausible historical scene is lost and now we just have a couple of modern folks dressed in the uniforms of German soldiers. I don't think an American war photo journalist would have gotten a smile from the enemy in 1944!  A smile or an uncharacteristic pose is what I typically get when reenactors see me pointing a lens at them. For this reason, I've found it best to use a longer focal length, typically in the range of 100-200mm. This isn't to say that good shots can't had with something shorter. I've just personally found that it's more difficult.

When I shoot with a shorter focal length, I find that I need to kind of hang out and blend in a little while. I'll keep the camera down until people are accustomed to my presence and I'll quickly bring the camera up and down again as inconspicuously as possible. When I'm really working to get a shot and the camera is noticed, resulting in an undesirable pose, I'll often come back with a quip such as, "As you were, soldier." Sometimes that is enough to get someone to snap back into character. By and large though, I believe my best shots come when I can stay as far removed as possible and let the reenactors fall into their character roles with as little disruption as possible.

Here are a few of my favorites from events I've covered over the years. These were all taken from a distance with a telephoto lens, mostly around the 200mm focal length.

It is unlikely that I would have gotten the same in-character expressions had I been just a few feet away. While there are some images where a reenactor's eyes meet with my lens, he is not necessarily aware of me. In cases where I'm spotted from a distance there is usually a delayed reaction since I am not encroaching personal space and by the time acknowledgement of the camera is made, I've typically already fired off a frame or two.

Why do I bring up something that probably sounds obvious to a lot of photographers? It's something that I was considering as I've encountered a number of street photographers advocating the use of wider focal lengths and getting in close. That approach does have merit in a street setting where it is easier to blend in with the general public. At events such as WWII reenactments however, I'm finding that the longer focal lengths are getting me the images I'm after more readily than close-up shooting. That said, there's no right or wrong way to go about it and I have gotten some nice shots with normal or wide lenses. The longer focal lengths just seem to work best for me in capturing those pure moments of living history. Perhaps if I were to dress in a period uniform I'd be as successful with a 28mm or 35mm focal length. That is something I'll have to ponder before the next event.