How Newsweek Did its 2008 Convention Covers
by Eric M. Appleman/Democracy in Action

The prototypical cover for the convention issue of a newsmagazine is a photograph of the presidential candidate and his (or her) running mate.  Newsweek was able to achieve that in 2008, producing a symmetrical pair of covers shot by Nigel Parry.  By contrast Time, which has an earlier deadline (Thursday compared to Newsweek which can update some files until very early on Sunday morning), featured solo shots of the presidential candidates, albeit distinctive extreme close ups done by Platon.

The Newsweek cover images are medium close up shots.  The presidential candidate is on the left, slightly in front of and about four inches above the running mate.  The candidates are rather dramatically lit, with shadows on the left side of their faces.

The key people involved in putting these covers together are Newsweek's director of covers Bruce Ramsay, Newsweek director of photography Simon Barnett, and the New York-based photographer Nigel Parry.  Ramsay joined Newsweek as director of covers in June 1997, while Barnett became director of photography around the time of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.  Parry has worked in New York since 1994, after starting his career in London.  Ramsay said Parry was "our immediate pick," describing him as "go-to guy" who is very fast and a good director.  Barnett stated:

Nigel Parry has a distinct realness and grit in his portraiture.  His style has been a signature for us that works perfectly for the magazine's tone.  I brought him to our fold some years ago and he never lets me down.  In fact he constantly exceeds my high expectations.  He is a skilled lighting technician who can achive great portraits without the aid of manipulation in Photoshop.  In this regard, he's a throwback.  So many younger generation portrait photographers today just can't do it in-camera.  Most resort to the computer to manipulate and "better" there results later.  We pride ourselves in being a breed apart in making covers without the crutch of Photoshop manipulation.  The reality of our photographs, be they portraits or photojournalism, is very important, and gives us a unique authenticity among today's magazines.

Parry responded that, "To be able to work for such a respected Magazine, and along side two of the most professional and accomplished men in the business is any photographer's dream.  Working with Newsweek, Ramsay and Barnett affords "the opportunity to photograph the most important personalities in world history."  At the same time, Parry noted, such shoots are often "super-rushed and super-high pressure."  He stated:

You only get one chance, and it has to be successful.  In consequence, I turn to the high reliability of the Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III, and its accompanying high quality 'red-line' series of lenses.  I used for both shoots 2, 85mm f1.2, lenses, and 2, Mark III Camera bodies, and the same lighting set up (Chimera soft boxes with Profoto lighting).

It was very important that the quality of the light, the angle of shot, and subject positions remained the same on each shoot to maintain the very un-biased view of the magazine.

The Obama-Biden announcement event took place around noon on Saturday, August 23 in Springfield, Ill.  Parry photographed the two before they went out, shooting about 60 frames.  "We had ten minutes from start to finish--I think we used nine," said Barnett.  Barnett then did a quick edit and transmitted six images, including shots for use inside the magazine, to Ramsay in New York.  Ramsay finished his work and sent the files off around 7:30 or 8:00 p.m..  The magazine's four printing plants went to work and the magazines were on newsstands on Monday as usual.

Sen. McCain announced his selection of Gov. Palin on Friday, August 29 in Dayton, Ohio.  "Up until a day before we shot McCain and Palin it was touch and go," said Ramsay.  The day before the event the campaign told Newsweek the shoot was off.  Eventually they relented, however.  Parry and Barnett set up for the shoot early in the morning of the announcement in the basement of the arena where the rally was held.  Barnett said, "At the time we had no idea who the VP would be, and we found out just like everyone else, by watching MSNBC."  He added, "I did a quick Google search on Sarah Palin and brought up some pictures for reference, and then we made some lighting adjustments to allow for her very reflective glasses (again no retouching)."

Bruce Ramsay interviewed by phone on Nov. 28, 2008.  Simon Barrett responded to questions in a Dec. 2, 2008 e-mail.  Nigel Parry responded to questions in a Dec. 2, 2008 e-mail.

Copyright © 2008  Eric M. Appleman/Democracy in Action