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On Assignment: Photographing the Pope in Italy

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Read Time: 19 min
This post is part of a series called Photojournalism.
Understanding and Appreciating the Basics of Photojournalism
Jake May, Photojournalist: Covering Breaking News Takes Empathy and Care

Photographing the pope as a photojournalist is similar to covering other major diplomats - like presidents and royalty. However, each assignment is different and brings individual challenges, customs, and red tape. In this article, I'll explain my experiences with photographing Pope Benedict XVI in Rome, Italy.

Republished Tutorial

Every few weeks, we revisit some of our reader's favorite posts from throughout the history of the site. This tutorial was first published in August of 2010.

Tools of the Trade

Photojournalism doesn't require the flagship lines of the DSLR market like the Canon 1D Mark IV or Nikon D3S. However, if you're on such an important assignment, it is vital to use at least a reputable "prosumer" DSLR that rivals their more expensive and durable bretheren. I have used cropped-sensor bodies with pro lenses such as the Canon EOS 40D and recently the Canon EOS 7D to photograph major diplomats such as Tony Blair, George W. Bush, and Pope Benedict XVI.

I like the cropped sensors because they give a little more reach to the lens line-up I typically take to assignments. I do lose a little on wide-angle lenses, but the Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8 USM II gives me a wide enough view without the major distortions. Additionally, the cameras in the 40D and 7D class (Nikon D200 and D700) give a good balance of resolution, image quality, reliability, and speed for their price. For a little more than a single 1D Mark IV, I can have two EOS 7D's.

Here is my equipment list:

  • Two Canon EOS 7D with BG-E7 grips
  • 16-35mm f/2.8L IS USM II with hood
  • 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM with hood
  • 300mm f/2.8L IS USM with hood
  • 1.4x Canon EF Extender II
  • Two Canon Speedlite 580EX II

If the f/2.8 version of the 300mm is out of you or your editor's budget, the f/4 version works well. I don't like the 2x Extender too much because I lose 2-stops in exchange for the reach. Also, renting is an easy way to save money while still getting the job done.

For either indoor or outdoor use, get a monopod for your big lenses like the 300mm. You can hold it for a brief time, but for long periods, it is suicide for your arms. Again, the most expensive Manfrotto isn't required, just one that can handle the weight and isn't going to slide on you. Also, when you're at the venue, take a smaller photobag or a modular belt-system with you to hold anything that isn't directly attached to your camera, such as the extra lens, batteries, notepad, or whatever. The Canon 200DG bag holds a surprising amount of equipment and is pretty weather resistant.

Each piece of equipment is for a specific purpose and helps me do a wide variety of work and get the quality of photography expected from such assignments: professional. However, the most important piece of equipment is the 10-inches behind the camera. Even though top-notch equipment is at your disposal, it is no excuse to get lazy or suspend your innovation.

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When traveling abroad, it isn't feasible to drag your desktop around - or even a gaming-quality laptop. However, your computer (a laptop) should be powerful enough to handle the workflow. The beauty of photojournalism is that because of the ethical restraints, only basic post-processing may be necessary (color-balancing, density, and slight sharpening).The key is to get it all right in-camera so when it gets onto the computer, it is ready to go.

In any case here is what I have on my portable photo lab:

  • Adobe CS5 Web Premium
  • Photo Mechanic 4.6+
  • MS Office 2008

The key piece of software is the Photo Mechanic. Most of the time I don't even touch Photoshop because Photo Mechanic handles so much of my image management. I use it to download, rename, caption, keyword, credit, crop, resize, organize, and submit. And because it is so powerful, yet sips on system resources, I like it much better than Bridge or Lightroom. Once you have it, you'll use it for everything, even batching photos for Facebook, Flickr, etc.

For MS Office 2008, I use Excel for my invoicing and Word to write any articles. However, I save them in the older format, .doc, rather than the newer one, .docx, because I don't want to hear the response of an irritated editor saying, "I can't open the file."

Also, send your editors only the JPEGs unless they request otherwise. They upload faster and are ready to go in the format they're going to publish them anyways. This also eliminates the risk of your editor's version of Photoshop not supporting the newer 14-bit RAWs. Getting it right the first time continues to rack up brownie points with your bosses.

Travel & Protection

Domestic travel with photography equipment is challenging enough. Doing it internationally adds a few more problems. Unless you live in a major city with a major airport hub, there is a good chance that you will need to make a connecting flight or two. International travel also requires dealing with immigration and customs agents in both your originating and destination countries.

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To protect your equipment, which can be somewhere in the realm of $30,000.00 (cameras, lenses, computer, software, etc.) you need a photo bag that can fit it all and stay within international carry-on standards. The stuff I mentioned earlier, except for the 300mm f/2.8, all fits into my Tenba Shootout Backpack (Medium Size). The pack, stuffed with cameras, laptop, cords and cables, lenses, memory cards, etc. fits into the overhead storage bin. I've also managed to squeeze it underneath the seat in front of me, but that is a really snug fit.

If backpacks aren't your thing, then I recommend the ThinkTank Photo International Roller 2.0. That baby can hold a lot of equipment as well as accessories. Both these packs/cases have been approved and tested to fit on international flights and I have yet to be forced to check-in my photobag.

That being said, I always bring a second, smaller bag which can hold everything that the Tenba can. This one is for emergency use only because it isn't padded and can squish down. Practice packing your stuff into the emergency pack so you can do it quickly and be able to fit it under the seat in front of you.


Because you never, never, never, never want to check-in your photography equipment or computer. If it is delayed, lost, damaged, or stolen it not only prevents you from doing the assignment, but it is also excluded from the airline's insurance policy. That's right - airlines stopped covering photography equipment, computers, their data, and the loss of income resulting from such events. In the fine print you agree to the exclusions once you board the plane.

Make sure that whatever equipment you own or rent is properly insured.

An easy way to circumvent the worry is to get a seat in the rear of the plane and find out the make/model of the plane you're using. Those who sit in the rear board immediately after first-class and business-class, almost guaranteeing overhead compartment space. Also, finding out what kind of plane you'll be on gives you an indication of leg-room and overhead size.

It's OK to check-in stuff that can get banged-up - like your clothes, tripod, monopod, or whatever simply doesn't fit into your carry-on luggage and isn't mission-critical.

Another form of protecting your equipment is to bring along installation disks for any software that is part of your workflow, including the OS. Even if you're running a Mac, bring them. Also, take an external harddisk as well as some blank DVDs. That way your work can be saved to multiple locations. I now use a 500GB Lacie Rugged hard disk as my back-up.

In addition to backing up your photographs, back up your cords and cables. I bring three USB 2.0 cables, a USB hub, two CF card readers, two Firewire 800 cables, extra camera and AA batteries, and 5-ft of CAT-5 cable just in case the wireless isn't working. For power, I have three universal adapters which allow me to recharge batteries anywhere in Europe. Check to make sure your electrical products have a 100-240V~1.5A range at 50-60Hz - this means it is safe for both North American and European use.

Last but not least, insurance. Make sure that whatever equipment you own or rent is properly insured. No reason to get stuck with thousands of dollars in replacement/repair fees when a quick call to your insurer can put you at some ease. This not only saves your bank/credit account from sudden bulimia, but also takes stress off your mind and increases your professionalism.

The Assignment

Whenever you get any assignment, it is vital to do some research to get familiar with the subject, venue, and context. During this phase, answer the 5-W's and get the correct titles, designations, and most-importantly: spelling, of the VIPs. It is also good to get some background on the venues and the VIPs. When covering religious events, including papal events, it good form to investigate the significance of the event, or even why a particular color is being used.

On my most recent papal assignment, I was tasked with photographing Pope Benedict XVI bestowing the pallium, a special stole, to 31 archbishops from around the world in St. Peter's Basilica. In addition to that specific event, I was to cover related events such as Vespers at St. Paul Outside the Wall, and a General Papal Audience in St. Peter's Square.

So, my editor provides me with events, locations, times, dates, deliverables, and deadlines. It is up to me to obtain and facilitate the rest of the process and do good research and preparation. Without good preparation, you'll struggle at crunch time.

So, I jumped onto the Internet and read up on the venues, the VIPs, and jotted down important details. I then got myself a map of Rome and highlighted the venue locations. I also wrote-down the Italian versions of the places I needed to go so that if I needed a taxi, he could get me there without anything being lost in translation. I also printed out photos of the venues to confirm they were the correct place.

I strongly suggest using official websites for any online research and shying away from Wikipedia for anything you're going to officially publish. Wikipedia isn't a bad place to get some quick reference stuff, but could harm your credibility or get you lost if the article isn't accurate or is biased. A bad caption, misspelling, or something like that could be an embarrassment and short stint with your publisher.

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After I research the events and venues, start arranging my flights, transportation, food, wireless internet cafes, and hotels. I try to stay in a place near the events - in this case I stayed near St. Peter's Square because the main event was to be there. And by "near" I mean I could see the dome and pillars of the collonades. I also check out the public transportation system and find out which train and bus stations are nearest to the venues.

Finally, I find out where the U.S. Embassy/Consolate is located, just in case I lose my passport or something happens where I need them. All this info as well as my hotel confirmation, airline tickets, and identification goes with me on the plane with my equipment.

Credentialing Process

You get credentials from two different places in Rome, depending on what kind of coverage you will be providing. The Holy See Press Office (Salla Stampa della Stanta Sede) is for journalists. For photographers, videographers, and radio journalists, the Pontifical Council for Social Communications (Pontificio Consiglio delle Comunicazioni Sociali) is the place. Both offices are located very close to St. Peter's Square on Via della Conciliazione. However, you can apply for either type of accreditation, or both, online.

I applied for the temporary credentials as I don't live in Rome. However, a temporary credential is not a blanket press pass to venues, the Vatican, or papal events. In there you must specify the dates, locations, and event for which you would like credentials. The Swiss Guard is very particular and will not permit access to events for which you do not have clearance. So, be sure your press card has the correct information such as your name, photo, event, location, and dates before you leave the office to your assignment.

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As with anything this important, communicate clearly and concisely on the forms, send with ample time, and confirm that all the necessary documents have been received. Take copies of your transmissions with you in case of any problems when you arrive to retrieve your passes.


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Security is pretty tight. There are several levels of security personnel surrounding the pope, both visible and undercover. The first line is local police (Polizia) who usually wear blue. The second line is the Swiss Guard, easily spotted by their colorful uniforms and midieval weapons. The third line are the body guards which are physically closest to the pope. The final line is the military police (Carabinieri) who are like the special response and usually have a small motorcade nearby.

Comparing my experience with photographing the President of the United States, papal security appears to be more lax. However, if you're a photographer, you're confined to a pre-designated area . If your name is not on the list of credentialed persons, you're not getting inside.

Real estate on photography platforms sometimes leaves much to be desired.

To avoid problems with security personnel, find out from the credentialing offices which entrances are reserved for the media. Sometimes the perimeter security, usually Polizia, aren't used to the special media access and will turn you away. Don't get discouraged but ask to speak to a Swiss Guard (or find one). Even with your media access card, you may be required to stand in line with the general public to clear security. This is sometimes done if the pope is appearing outside the Vatican City-State.

In any case it is a good idea to arrive at the venue at least an hour early, but 30 minutes is fine too. The later you show-up, the greater the chance of security problems as well as not getting a good angle for your photographs. Real estate on photography platforms sometimes leaves much to be desired. They can be bleachers, a riser, or just a narrow scaffolding.

For big assignments like this, I'm constantly reminded of the old saying that journalism is, "Hurry up and wait."

Challenges of Papal Photography

Photographing the pope has three main challenges:

  • High Contrast
  • Low Light
  • Busy Backgrounds
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The first high contrast challenge that photographing the pope presents is in his attire and that of those surrounding him. The pope usually wears a white cossack and his aides wear black cossacks. This can drive your camera's light meter a little crazy. Best thing to do is run a few test shots of white cloth and dial the exposure in until you don't blow it out. You probably don't want to expose for the specular highlights because you'll lose all the shadow and most of your midtone detail. I usually +2/3 his cossack. That gives me a good histogram and doesn't blow-out the highlight edges of his attire.

The second high contrast situation, aside from his attire, is the General Papal Audience outdoors in St. Peter's Square. You have his white cossack virtually glowing in the sun, the bright ediface of the basilica, and the dark gray cobblestones of the square. If your light meter is set on evaluative, it will most likely misread the scene as too bright due to the light tones and under expose. Again, run a couple test shots so as not to blow-out your white cloth, but barely so. Because the lighting of an outdoor papal audience can be so contrasty, you're going to have small specular highlights on the pope's cossack. If you're camera has highlight tone priority, use it. This will allow you to over-expose a little more than usual while retaining highlight detail.

...if you use good composition, even a crowd can become a readable photograph.

The low light challenges come in the church or indoor settings where you could be hovering around ISO 1600 if you have lenses slower than f/2.8. They usually light up the church to where you can shoot at ISO 640 to 800 if you want shutter speeds in the 1/80 to 1/160sec range. However, in St. Paul Outside the Wall, I was at ISO 1250 @ f/2.8 with 1/60sec. Each venue, including churches, will have a different lighting intensity. Because St. Peter's Basilica is the main venue for the pope, it is perhaps the most well-lit allowing for ISO 400 if you drop your shutter low enough.

The final main photographic challenge of papal photography are busy backgrounds - particularly when the pope goes to greet the congregation. People from all over the world can create a busy, color explosion whenever they're around the pope. This is usually because they're part of a tour group which requires them to wear tacky colors. This can be awfully distracting for compositional purposes, and can present a challenge to your camera's AI Servo (focus tracking) mode. That said, if you use good composition, even a crowd can become a readable photograph.

In the end, these are three reasons why I advocate so strongly in using the best lenses available for your camera and using f/2.8 or faster apertures. They allow you to work in low-light situations and get cleaner photos as well as blur out the background if it gets too distracting.

The Shot List

Editors almost always have a preconceived "shot" in their heads that you must get. This isn't a material request, but it is important to them because they need to be able to visualize how it will look on the layout. What is even more important that getting their preconceived "shot" is that the photograph(s) you present tell the story. Don't only submit one kind of photo, but a variety of story-telling photos and only your best. Never forget you're a photojournalist. So, tell the story.

For this assignment of the pope bestowing the pallium upon 31 archbishops, "the shot" was the pope physically putting the pallium on. This part is a no-brainer. Capture it. It is kinda like photographing an Olympican on the podium with their gold medal, or a bride and groom kissing, or routine wave the U.S. President does when exiting Air Force One. There is no reason not to photograph it, especially if it something your editor has requested.

Here is a general shot list you'd like to bag on almost any assignment dealing with the pope:

  • Close-up
  • Full-length
  • Contextual Medium
  • Overall
  • Action
  • Reaction
  • Different

Regardless of one's opinion of the pope or the Catholic Church, everyone knows a visit from the pontiff elicits a lot of emotion from the throng. As a photojournalist, I would be remiss if I did not capture someone's reaction to being around the pope. I also would not be doing a thorough job if I did not take photos with context. Many times the tight shot with the telephoto isn't going to be most interesting or story-telling photo of the bunch. So, send in a mixed bag of your best photographs each time.

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Back at the Hotel or Press Office

Now it is time to get your photos off your cards, and into the computer to submit to your editor. Although Rome is a modern city, don't expect wireless Internet access to be as standard, wide-spread, or affordable as it is in the United States. Additionally, access to the Holy See Press Office's computers and wireless network is only available during their open hours, usually 9:00am to 3:00pm. Check to see if your hotel has Internet access, nearby Internet cafes, and look into purchasing a USB wireless internet fob with a local provider (approx. 60€).

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I boot up the laptop and put all my batteries to charge. I use Photo Mechanic to download my pictures. The great thing about Photo Mechanic is that I can download multiple cards to multiple locations and apply baseline metadata simultaneously. I use Firewire 800 connections and with my SanDisk Extreme UDMA cards, cutting down on the time. I pack USB cables as back-ups.

Once the multi-location download is complete, I review my images along with any notes I've taken such as people's names. Photo Mechanic's JPEG previewing is lightning fast and I can move through thousands of images smoothy - even the full-screening is quick and detailed. Once I scroll through them all, I pick out my best and get down to renaming, captioning, keywording, and crediting them.

The file naming convention is important. Be sure to stick to the standards established by your editors. I use the following naming template for my photographs: yyyymmdd_newsedition_event_imagenumber.jpg

Once my selections are chosen and captioned, I review them to see if any basic post-processing needs to be done. Because of ethical and time constraints, I only adjust the ones that need it most and stick to basic adjustments. I correct for density, color, and contrast. I rarely do any sharpening as I set that up in-camera and shoot in JPEG which usually applies its own sharpening. You should only do these adjustments if your monitor is calibrated and your photo editor has given you the "OK". Otherwise, send in the untouched images.

Now, I'm ready to upload to my editor's server. Before I left, I saved all that information and ran a test to make sure the connection works and the files are going where they should. Photo Mechanic has a built-in FTP client which allows me to connect to the server, choose several parameters, and upload. I click "Send" and its done.

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It is always good form to shoot a quick email, text message, or call to your editor to notify them the photographs are posted onto the server.

Once the upload is completed and confirmed and my photographs are safely backed-up into a primary and secondary drive. I clear my used cards to be ready for the next day or event. At the end of the assignment, I burn to DVD the photographs I submitted to my editor. That way, if something bad happens to my hard drives, I at least have my best work in a third location. When I get back home I back up all the photos again for a total of four locations containing photographs from the assignment.

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Hopefully this article helps you understand some of the important aspects of doing a papal assignment in Rome. Aside from having professional photographic skills, it is quintessential to have good preparation.

Another important element to have in photojournalism is respect for the subject. Respect it enough to learn about it, and respect it enough to photograph it as best you can. It will not only improve your photograph, but also the captions which accompany it.

A lot of work goes into getting there and getting ready for "the decisive moment" — hopefully this helps.

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