My 30 Second Photoshoot with Leon Panetta

Originally Published on July 4, 2012

I was going to wait until next week to share this story, but it seems fitting with today being the Fourth of July. Basically, this was my most amazing moment as a photographer thus far. The funny thing is, the moment only lasted for roughly 30 seconds, and I came away from those few tics on the clock with a photograph of U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.

Planning for this shoot started in late May and didn’t take place until mid June. Logistics and time were both extremely tight. I was to photograph an event where the Secretary of Defense was going to be honored. I was able to obtain a ten minute slot of time where I would be able to photograph him.

I had a mental picture of the exact photograph I wanted to create with Secretary Panetta. I knew I wanted the shot to be well lit and to include the U.S. flag. I also knew that I wanted to use my new Canon 50mm f/1.4 to achieve the smallest depth of field window as possible. I wanted the shot to stand out and be different than any other photographs that may exist of him. I searched on Google to find what types of portraits are out there of him. Surprisingly, the only portraits I could find were of his official portraits while working as a member of Congress, heading the CIA, and now leading the U.S. Department of Defense. All the other photographs I found were more of a journalistic style. Realizing this, I knew I had a good chance of creating something different, and I had ten minutes to make it happen.

When working with high-profile individuals, you’ll quickly realize that schedules very rarely stay on track. A day before the event, Panetta had traveled to Saudi Arabia to give his condolences for the death of Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. His 14 hour return flight would arrive in the U.S. only hours before the event. Instantly, my time with Panetta was all but taken off the schedule. His team wasn’t sure that he would be up for a photoshoot after his 14 hour flight. I knew that if it was going to happen, I would have just moments to nail the shot. I made sure that my setup was simple, dialed in, and waited for his arrival.

Secretary Panetta arrived at the event, and I anxiously waited to see if I’d get a few moments with him. After such a long flight, he seemed in great spirits like he always is. After greeting a few people, he saw I was all set up for him and willfully stepped into place. What happened next was simply amazing. I snapped two frames and checked the exposure. The lighting looked great. Naturally though, Panetta is a rather cheerful guy and was smiling from ear to ear. I kindly asked if I could get a more serious shot. That last frame was the winner. In the end, I got only three frames of him with the last being exactly what I had imagined. I couldn’t believe I had gotten the shot and was ecstatic for the rest of the night.

If I learned anything from this experience, it was to be ready for anything. Be ready for your time to be cut short. Have a plan ‘B’. If your time is cut short, work with a simple setup if possible. The more simple, the less hiccups. Be on your toes and triple check your gear. Plan ahead. Like I said, I had almost a whole month to plan for this shot.

All in all, it was an exciting experience. It was a huge honor to get to photograph the man who is largely responsible for putting an end to the most wanted terrorist in U.S. history. Panetta is a true gentleman and incredibly easy to work with. It was wonderful meeting and working with him, even if it was only for a few seconds.

Here’s how it was shot:

Using Format