Covering the USAFA commencement with a lens that isn't long enough 

  • © Sean Cayton / All Rights Reserved
This year was the first time I photographed a commencement at the Air Force Academy in 15 years. It’s been a long while, but some things haven’t changed.

The pomp and circumstance of military commencement is inspiring. The graduating cadets in their parade dress marching into the stadium is awesome. Thousands of friends and family filling the stadium supporting the graduates is super impressive. And, of course, the amazing Thunderbirds flying over head. It’s a target rich environment for any photographer.

However, there are always going to be limitations for a press photographer. This year access was even more limiting because of the president’s attendance.

Security was tight. Before I even showed up, I had a background check, and when I arrived, my bags were searched.

Upon entering, I was escorted to an area where I had to remain for the duration of the commencement. There was a little riser and a few yards of grass on the field. I gathered there with a few dozen other journalists, photographers and videographers. 

Watching from behind the graduates, there was roughly 150 yards between us and center stage. I could get a clean shot of the action but it was still very far away.

I knew this was going to be the case and I brought my long lens - a 70-200mm that most times does the job just fine. But in this instance? I could have used just a little more lens. Because I didn’t have it, I had to get creative.

I used foreground elements to frame the stage and the graduates receiving their diplomas. This is an old photograph trick but it is still quite effective.

By arranging the elements in the photograph to lead the eye to your subject, you can create a powerful composition even when you’re not close enough. A viewer of your pictures may never know differently.

Another especially great thing about this commencement is the celebration by cadets after they receive their diploma and come off the stage.

I love this part of the day and I really make an extra effort to capture as much emotion as I can. Graduating from a military academy is truly an achievement and the expressions on the cadets faces are so great because of how hard they worked to get there.

Here are some images to illustrate how I tackled the challenge with a lens that wasn’t quite long enough.
Sean Cayton is a wedding photojournalist of 19 years and operates a successful, award-winning wedding photography studio in Colorado Springs. He's also an award-winning photojournalist. Sean is happily married to the love of his life (also his business partner) and is father to three beautiful children. When he’s not working, Sean can be found outside flying kites with his kids, hitting golf balls or casting a fly rod to hungry trout.


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