This is a tutorial on how to be a good conference photographer and by that I don’t just mean how to take good conference photographs! So, before I get into the nuts and bolts of how to do it, I think it’s important to say something about what sort of person you need to be in order to consider marketing yourself at this niche.
Like most photographers, a conference photographer must have a good eye for composition. Like any corporate event photographer, a conference photographer must be able to predict when will be the best moment to press the shutter.
There are however, a few more subtle skills and personality traits that are necessary if you truly want to become a great conference photographer.
The first of these is curiosity and a taste for knowledge; I love photographing conferences because I always come away having learned something new:
- At the Datacenter Dynamnics conference, I learned all about how server clusters are cooled and the challenges such an industry faces to become carbon neutral.
- At the IABSE-IASS symposium, I learned all about the difficulty maintaining the Forth Road Bridge and I learned about the life and work of Heinz Isler – a pioneer of organic shapes and shell structures in architecture and engineering.
- When I photographed the UK Space conference, I learned how much of a role British industry plays in space technology and I learned how robust the industry is even in the face of a recession – because space-tech is the future (I also saw some cool concept ideas for space tourism planes and met Tim Peake – an astronaut who is currently spending 6 months on the International Space Station!).
My point is; I take more than just a wage from each assignment. If I wasn’t the sort of person who loved learning new things – even things completely unrelated to my profession – then I would spend more time struggling to stay awake than focusing on getting the shot! After all, you usually find yourself in a warm, darkened room, more often than not with a less-than-engaging speaker, whose voice inevitably has a disturbingly soporific effect.
I often travel from Newcastle in the evening or early morning to a conference center in London or Birmingham and have to shoot all day having had little sleep and less to eat, so I rely on my natural inquisitiveness to keep me awake and interested. You must at all times be respectful – and snoring away in the front row won’t cut it!
You also have to be a patient person. This is a common trait amongst photographers in general but less so amongst event photographers. On a lot of shoots, the photographer is the most important person, even at weddings a good photographer often fills the role of master of ceremonies; directing the pace and setting the tone. This is never the case when it comes to conference photography.
Typically, there are a number of rooms where audiences gather to hear a speaker; and more often than not there are a number of speakers presenting on each topic. Your job as photographer is to capture a couple of good shots of each speaker in each room. This means you’ll be constantly nipping in and out and you’ll be acutely aware that any time spent photographing one speaker in one room, is time taken away from another speaker in one of the other rooms.
Because of this you need to be organized (hopefully you’ll have been given a good brief) and you also need to be patient. The reason I say this is because I find, in most cases, that when you enter the room with your conspicuous looking telephoto lens and hustle your way to a front row, the speaker will become nervous and will start to pay more attention to their cue-cards/laptop – or worse, the slideshow behind them – than to their audience.
This is anathema for you because it means you can only get shots of the speaker looking like they’re asleep at the podium or photographs of the back of their head.
So, you have to learn to put your camera down and listen to the speaker. Let your curiosity have the forefront, take some time to show interest – as a human being – in what’s being said and wait patiently for the speaker to get comfortable with your presence and relax before you pick up your camera.
This is hard to do when you know there are currently x-amount of speakers holding sessions in other rooms – and you’re supposed to get round them all in time – but it’s necessary if you want to maximize the amount of useable shots you get. As a bonus, shooting less means you’re distracting the audience less too.
This brings me to my final personality trait, which I’ve touched on already: respect. When photographing a conference, you have to bear in mind that no one is there to see you. Your role is important but it’s far more important that the handover between speakers is timely and efficient, that the delegates in the audience can see and hear without being distracted and that nobody feels your presence is a burden.
This means you have to try to blend into the background and stay out of people’s way – which is difficult to do when you’re sat at the front with a geet big camera and a bright flash! It means that you have to enter a room quietly during a natural lull in the speech and that you have to exit in the same manner.
It also means you don’t get to show frustration if it’s taking longer than you hoped to get a good shot of a certain speaker and that, if asked, you will leave immediately whether you got the shot or not (it does sometimes happen that a speaker will ask you not to photograph them. They tend to do it in a way that implies that you are vermin – but you just have to move on. Don’t take it personal). There’s no room for a photographer’s ego when it comes to photographing conferences.
Okay, now onto the nuts and bolts. I bet you thought we’d never make it here! In truth, this is the easy part but it’s no good knowing this if you haven’t got that other stuff down.
Framing: – Most conferences have branding somewhere or other. It’s usually on the front of the podium but sometimes it’s on a back board or a TV/banner in the background as well. It should go without saying that you need to get that in the shot: the events or PR company that hired you, want images that show the speaker was talking at their event. By all means get some close-ups of the speaker if they’re well known in their industry or are particularly interesting to watch but make sure you also have plenty good shots with the branding in.
This is okay occasionally:
But this is better:
Sometimes the speaker will move away from the podium and spend more time at the front of the stage. In cases like this, you can wait until one of their slides (hopefully being shown in the background) accurately communicates what they’re talk is about and use that to substitute for the branding. Alternatively, you can experiment with some more dynamic framing angles (it’s always nice to give your client a broad choice of images, so this kind of experimenting is useful anyway).
Eye Contact: – You’ll notice in all of these shots that you can see the speakers’ eyes: I’ve waited for them to look out at the audience before taking the shot. This is essential in order to make an engaging image but it’s easier said than done!
As I’ve already alluded to, most speakers are not performers and often they’re simply not used to presenting a conference. This can mean they spend an awful lot of time with their eyes pointed downward or turned toward their slide projections. For you, the photographer, this means you have to set your focus and your framing, then hold the camera in position (for what will feel like forever) and hit the shutter just as your target raises their eyes toward the audience.
Yes, you will find that your arms ache. Yes, you will find that even with the best preparation, the look is so fleeting that you get another blink shot or an unattractive expression. Yes, it’s tempting to switch the camera into continuous mode and machine-gun the speaker until you get a good shot. No, that’s really not a good idea – hence the patience I mentioned earlier!
The problem is compounded when you’re shooting speakers on a panel. You may be focused on eye contact from the person speaking but what about others at the table? You have to keep an eye on the whole scene in order to get a shot with no-one blinking and with appropriate branding.
Sometimes you’re cornered into shots like these because the room sets are never laid out with the photographer in mind and because your subject(s) simply aren’t camera trained. However, it’s best to try to work around it and avoid clicking the shutter/setting the flash off until you have a good shot in the viewfinder.
Glasses: – The more observant amongst you will have noticed that a lot of these speakers wear glasses. That’s something to consider because you don’t want your flash to flare off their glasses and ruin all chance of eye contact. It’s all about angles; remember your GCSE physics? Angle of incidence equals angle of reflection? I must admit, I’ve never had any trouble with this because I use the Demb Flash Diffuser, which allows me to control the angle at which the light is bounced.
In fairness, it’s usually only a problem when you’re shooting smaller conferences and you don’t have much room to change your position. It’s simply a case of trial and error regarding the angle and power of your flash in order to fix the problem – needless to say, you should rarely ever need to point a naked flash directly at your subject.
Typically, you’ll be using a mid/long range zoom to get the desired framing. I find that my Canon L-series 24-105mm IS f/4 lens is suitable for most occasions and the L-series 70-200mm IS f/2.8 comes out for the bigger (or darker) events, where there is more of a space between the stage set and the audience. Image stabilization lenses are important here, it’s definitely worth spending the extra money to get that extra few stops.
In most cases, you’ll be in a dimly lit room and, whilst the speaker is well lit by comparison, in reality, there’s not a lot of light to play with.
Because you’re using a telephoto, you need to keep the shutter speed reasonably high. This depends entirely on how steady you are (assisted, hopefully, by a good quality image stabilized lens). I find I need to shoot between 1/50th and 1/80th of a second to ensure decent sharpness at maximum zoom (depending on the lens).
Also, because the branding is usually on a different plain than the speaker; you need to choose the right aperture to get enough depth of field. Higher is better: f/8 would be ideal on my (full frame) camera but you can get away with f/5.6 on smaller sensor cameras. In fact, I often have to open up to as wide as f/5.0 to make best use of the available light (which is fine as long as the branding is still readable).
Sometimes the speaker is lit adequately enough to be able to avoid using flash (although, in these cases, you’ll need to choose a faster shutter speed to freeze the action) and if that is the case, then go with it – the flash is a distraction best avoided when possible. Most of the time, however, you will need to ping in a little bit of flash, even if it’s just to help the camera with the white balance (I usually leave it on auto white balance unless there is a really strong colour cast to the light).
I try to keep the flash power as low as possible – usually 1/8 +/- a few EV increments – and use the Demb attachment to bounce the light toward the subject. I know many photographers who use a Stofen diffuser, angle the flash at about 45 degrees and leave it on E-TTL (automatic) mode, using the EV sliders when necessary. Me, I’m a control freak and I like to know how the shot is going to turn out before I press the shutter – but it’s not really a requirement, especially if you have a good digital LCD screen on your camera, like the one on the 5D MkII, so just play around and find out what works best for you.
I don’t like to recommend using high ISO but in this case, the aperture and shutter speeds you’re likely to be using, combined with the lighting, usually means you have no choice. My Canon 5D MKII has great high ISO performance and I tend to shoot between ISO 800-1000.
Obviously, these settings are subject to your tastes – and the available light – but as a good starting point, you’re looking at an aperture of f/5.6, shutter at 1/80th, flash at 1/8th and ISO at 800.
Daylight: – Sometimes you’ll find yourself shooting a smaller conference or a break-out session in a room with large windows and lots of natural light. This is great because you can bring your ISO down and turn off your flash but often a side effect is that the speakers’ slide projections are bleached out in your shot. It doesn’t matter so much if your speaker is standing near some good branding but if you have a ‘wanderer’, then try upping your shutter speed to capture the slides and adding a ping of flash, carefully directed at your subject, to even the exposure.
Getting the whole room: – If the room is busy, i.e. the seats are full, then your client will want pictures to that effect. A good opportunity to do this is to wait for the end of a speech and get a shot of everyone clapping and smiling. These are always appreciated but the downside is, there’s usually no branding at the back of the room, so when you shoot into the crowd it could be any crowd anywhere!
For this reason, it’s always a good idea to get some shots from the back of the room as well. Switch to a wide lens (I use the Canon L 17-40mm f/4), find a spare chair to stand on so you can get a good overview, remove any diffusers from your flash and crank the power up to 1/2 (or higher if it’s a particularly big/dark room) and angle it at around 45 degrees, aiming to bounce it off the ceiling and down over the crowd.
This takes a bit of practice. You’re basically using the ceiling as a diffuser but you don’t want to get a bright ceiling in the shot as it will distract attention away from everything else. So you need to get up high, angle the flash to the ceiling and the camera down toward the room. Remember to get the stage and the branding in shot and preferably in focus too!
Your next challenge is avoiding hotspots; where the light hasn’t diffused evenly and is brighter at the front of the shot, or where the light is bouncing off bald heads in the audience and attracting attention to the wrong area of the image.
It’s largely a matter of playing with the angle and strength of your flash, although I do find that the Demb flip-it helps because I can fit it to the front of the flash and use it to flag the light, making sure I don’t cast any harsh shadows or create any hotspots.
What should I charge?
I generally advocate charging by the image or by the project when it comes to photography. Charging by the hour turns you into a wage slave and simply doesn’t accurately reflect the value of the image to the client, nor take into account what sort of usage license you want to permit.
Corporate event photography, however, is a little different. You’re not creating art, the images are virtually useless to anyone other than the client and conference organisers have enough stress on their plate without having to deal with an anally retentive photographer; so make it easy for them to hire you by giving them day rates, half-day rates and standard travel/accomodation charges.
I won’t go into what your day rate etc should be for this type of work but bear in mind that you’ll often be expected to be there for more than 8hrs a day and that you will have a ton of editing to do afterwards (even if your technique is spot on, there’s still hundreds, perhaps thousands, of images to sort through, crop and colour correct when you get home), so don’t undervalue yourself and don’t be afraid to ask for what you’re worth.
So, that covers the basics of conference photography. In summary, it’s a fairly simple task of choosing the right framing to include branding and then waiting for the speaker to raise their eyes toward the audience. However, you will be expected to shoot a bunch of different rooms and different speakers simultaneously, you’ll find yourself photographing in mixed lighting conditions, there’ll be informal ‘breakout sessions’ in smaller rooms that you’ll need to cover too and you need to provide a range of different angles and viewpoints, so that your client has a choice of images for different uses.
You’ll need to do all of this while remaining discreet, patient and alert, so it takes a certain personality type to really enjoy and excel at conference photography.
If you have any questions or comments, feel free to use the comment box below. I realise I’ve used more bad example photographs than good ones, so I’ll leave you with a few more good shots to check your results against. And remember, if you know someone who is looking for a professional conference photographer, then please mention me or have them contact me, especially if it’s an event located in Newcastle or the North East where I’m based (although I do frequently travel to London, Manchester and Birmingham too).
If you found this tutorial helpful, please🙂