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How do you photograph a conference? Today Tris Hussey shares some great tips on the topic.
There are two things that are pretty common at almost every conference I attend: laptops and cameras. However the quality of pictures captured and posted from a given conference vary wildly. Very wildly. To help you out I’ve compiled my top 10 tips for better conference pictures (and a few other words of wisdom too).
As simple as this may seem, I know lots of people who get half way through the day and find themselves begging-borrowing for extra batteriesÃ¢â‚¬â€especially before a party. So bring at least one set of extras. If you have a DSLR, chances are you can’t just swing by the local corner store and snag one, so don’t forget your charger (or better invest in a spare battery). Memory cards are a toss up. I don’t know too many “regular” folks who fill up a card during a conference, much less a single day, but it doesn’t hurt to have extras. As for cables, pretty much every conference I go to I’m loaning out my USB cable or card reader (I carry SD and CF readers). Why? People just leave the cables at home.
I carry spare batteries for my camera and speed light, plus chargers, plus cables in my gear bag. These never leave my bag so I know they are always there. My spare memory card is on my camera strap so again it’s right there.
One of the best pieces of advice I got about using my point-n-shoot was to get out of auto mode and into P or program mode. Why? Because you have more control. You can adjust the flash (on, off, sometimes even intensity), white balance, ISO, even sometimes the aperture and shutter speed. In auto mode your pictures will almost always have that vacation snap shot look. Bright flash, broad focus, grainy. Unless you have a DSLR (or really want to play with settings on a point-n-shoot) switching to aperture (A) or shutter (S) priority mode isn’t really worth it.
For most point and shoots P isn’t scary and you can probably tweak the settings with a jump to menu.
“Be the wall.” When I have a conference photography gig (therefore not there to attend the conference, but to just take pictures) my goal is not to be noticed or seen. I want to record how people look in rapt attention or naturally smiling or just being there at a conference. I don’t want people to pose for me. Why? Because 90% of the time people love the informal shots of themselves more than when they pose. They are natural, relaxed, and real. All good. Those pictures tell a story.
This does not mean be a stalker or paparazzi. It just means don’t get in people’s faces. Watch the scene and capture it as it unfolds. Catching a moment is about being there, not making it.
Trees and light posts sprouting out of people’s heads are mistakes you don’t need to make. Before you click, just take a quick look at the background. Is there something strange coming from the person? Something that might be embarrassing or distracting? Yeah, stop and recompose.
Taking pics at a conference isn’t easy. Most of the time the lighting sucks and most folks just turn on the flash to make the shot come out. That’s not always the best idea. A flash can take away the texture and depth of your pic, but turning it off won’t that make my pics be blurry and dark? Maybe.
Since you’re in P mode, you should be able to bump up the ISO. you’re probably going to have to go with 800 or higher to get the shutter speed fast enough to reduce blur. Try moving closer, using the light around you, and bracing yourself a bit.
Natural light often looks awesome and can make a shot a keeper
Obviously this is tied to #5, while you’re trying not to use the flash don’t forget to pay attention to the lighting around you. Is there a lot of sun coming in from a window behind the person? Is the light bright in one area and dark in another? All of these things make for tough shots, but what you should do is try to make the best of it. Backlit shots of people and scenes have a special quality and using the light-dark areas give you a range of styles to shoot. For the dark areas (especially parties) I scout places I can brace myself so I don’t have to turn on the flash.
Sometimes though you just have to turn on the flash, when you do turn it down a couple notches if you can and try to diffuse it (a piece of tape or paper napkin over the flash is an old photographer’s trick).
Another benefit of being in P mode is being able to set the white balance on your pictures. Frankly, I leave mine on auto most of the time, but edit when I bring my files in as RAW images, but … if you’re paying attention to the lighting setting the WB to sun or flash or florescent will make the pictures look a heck of a lot better. Essentially you’re telling the camera’s sensor what the colour temperature “white” is. The end result is that the colours you see are true to life.
I’m often asked “wow how did you get that shot!?!”. I have a simple answer: luck and taking lots of shots. Really. One of the best pieces of advice I was given when I got a DSLR was to shoot at least three pictures per shot. Why? Because people blink, glance away, etc. By shooting more and shooting rapidly you significantly increase the chances you’ll get “the shot”. I know that shooting lots of shots is harder with a point and shoot but trying is good.
Related to this I’m also asked how many pictures I discard from a given batch. Generally 1/2-1/3 and sometimes more.
They say that zoom lenses have made photographers lazy. I don’t know about that, but if you move around, get closer, bend, twist (it’s only your body, come on) you often find you get a better shot. Personally I shoot with an 85 mm f/1.8 prime lens. That is, no zoom. If I want more of something in the frame, I have to move closer. And in moving, sometimes I notice something else that makes the picture better.
I’m not saying don’t zoom at all, I have a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens especially for conferences (it has great low-light performance) to be able to zoom in on speakers when I can’t get closer, but as you zoom you also increase the amount of light needed or longer shutter as well, increasing the chance of blur.
Even when I’m getting paid to shoot I try to keep it fun. I try to find funny shots or also take the artistic pics that I like as well. Make the time. When you start feeling like you’re obligated to take pics instead of having funÃ¢â‚¬â€unless you’re getting paid of courseÃ¢â‚¬â€it’s time to put the camera down and enjoy yourself.
Yes, I have professional level gear and I’ve spent money to be able to have gear that lets me take the kinds of pictures I like, but you know my point-n-shoot isn’t gathering dust. I still use it. And if you look at my pre-Sept 2007 pictures (essentially when you don’t see D80 as the camera), those were taken with a point and shoot.
You can have thousands of dollars worth of gear and not be able to take a good shot to save your life (contrary to what Aston Kutcher might like you to believe). You can also use a cheap, plastic toy camera and do some amazing things. Cameras are tools. Just tools. Don’t think that just because the guy next to you has a lens bigger than a small child, than his shots will be better than yours. Just shoot, have fun, and always keep experimenting.
Tris Hussey is a photographer and writer based in Vancouver, BC. He writes about tech, social media, and photography at www.trishussey.com and his photography portfolio can be found at photos.trishussey.com
August 15, 2013 03:59 am
Such a refreshing article, finally, someone discusses photography simply. Your tips for convention photography was very helpful. I've been asked to photograph a convention and have never done so. You have relieved all the stress I may have had.
But, most pleasantly you echo the words I tell all photographers and clients. It's not the camera it's the photographer. If you have an eye, patience and curiosity about the world you'll always find something to photograph and photograph well.
July 12, 2013 05:02 am
You know this is one of the first ACTUALLY informative articles that I've been able to find about event and conference photography. Most don't actually list any advice or tips, they are just an overview of what to expect and I'm like THAT DOESN"T HELP ME! ha ha!
Anyway, great photos and thank you so much for the advice! Keep blogging!
September 14, 2011 04:54 am
It's always good if you have some time to check out the place before the event to have an idea of good spots and the lighting of the rooms. Also hard to choose which lens to carry with you as you have to be light in gear for mobility.
June 17, 2011 02:04 pm
I want to buy a nikon d5100 and need a len(s) I am going to my national conference with 10,000 guests so I expect some distance b/w me and the stage but I also want closeup pictures with friends. If I can only afford 1 lens now what do I get?
June 13, 2011 06:05 pm
Very helpful article. Thank you.
March 18, 2009 04:36 am
This is the way things should be, get off what we are on now
February 7, 2009 02:40 pm
a few of us know it all; most of need/wish to know (more); thanks very much for taking the time to post your tips! my first (paid) gig is coming up; your essay is encouraging
January 7, 2009 08:45 am
these are good shots, but what is this? These people look so frumpy! Is this FrumpCon V?
November 10, 2008 06:40 am
Thanks for these tips. I have been shooting conferences for the past six years now, and I concur with most of your tips. A good zoom is only needed in the main tent presentations when you want to capture the expression on the presenters face. A good tip is also to make some shots (if it is there) of the main screens. Especially if there are awards being handed out. A shot in between of the company/person who is receiving the award is really helpful if you have to hand out quickly the presspictures after the conference.
November 9, 2008 12:25 pm
@Daniel true, but shooting another fashion show last night I switched from my 70-200 to my 85. Maybe I didn't get to zoom, but I know that lens and was really happy with the results.
@Sahul actually I prefer Aperture priority mode more than P, but sometimes P is fun too.
November 8, 2008 11:30 pm
Great article that was. Getting closer is the thing and the suggestion to use program mode is good. I normaly would shoot in Aperture mode and put WB in auto mode.
November 8, 2008 06:56 pm
Conferences as so much similar to church photography. Actually I bought the 85 1.8, that you are also talking about, just for this... to be able to capture the moments on people faces. But again the tools in not everything as you mentioned.
November 7, 2008 04:36 pm
@Richard again it isn't the gear...
@Greg Yes. That is one of the things I've really started to pay attention to. Uber Vancouver photographer and friend of mine Kris Krug has been coaching me. That's one of the things I knew, but didn't really grok. Now I'm using my HUD in my viewfinder better to adjust on the fly.
I'm not going to claim for a moment that I'm an expert at anything except knowing that I'm not one.
I love photography and have been encouraged by a lot of people to work on it more and more. So I'll tell you that hey I know I can always learn and listen.
So I do.
November 7, 2008 03:24 pm
@Robin Thanks very much. I really liked the pics in your post, sometimes those happy accidents, well .. they can just blow you away.
November 7, 2008 03:17 pm
I like your point about the gear not being important. I've taken some good, and bad, conference photos on a cheap little Canon IXUS. Yes it's limiting but sticking in manual and playing with the settings can yield surprising results
I'm missing a conference this year so linked to this post in the hope people who are there will get some great pics for me to view! (see the link on this comment) :-)
November 7, 2008 02:43 pm
@AM Brown: fair enough, the client wanted to keep the good photos. So why show your 'ugly' work at all then? I'd rather show no images than poorly shot ones..especially if you are a working pro?
One tip I'd like to give using telephoto lenses that I deduced from Tris' photos is the "minimum shutter speed rule" which is to select a shutter speed of at least the reciprocal of the lensâ€™ focal length to avoid blurring due to camera shake. For example, with a "normal" 50mm lens, the shutter speed should be no slower than 1/50th of a second.
Tris was shooting some shots at 1/50 sec with a 150-200mm focal length. That's not going to cut it handheld..especially without image stabilizing.
November 7, 2008 10:19 am
Hey those cameras you've been using are really great!!
You know what? I've been shooting conferences for almost 3 years now. And most of them are pharma conferences. They always use dim lights inside most of the time because of presentations. And all these tips, I've been with it all the years. Hang on to it, these are really really useful.
Did I mentioned that my camera is only a D70, 18-70mm DX lens? Imagine....?
November 7, 2008 09:54 am
@Robert good luck with the concert! Those are very tough ones too shoot.
@A.M. I agree. Renting before buying is awesome so is trying your friends' lenses.
@Greg, you're right some of them suck. I'm always learning, upgrading my gear, and experimenting. It was after that conference that I made a real effort to improve all my techniques, gear, and use to use Lightroom better.
November 7, 2008 07:38 am
@Greg A lot of reasons can contribute to this. The last corporate conference I shot, only the photos they didn't want still belonged to me, so there were only a few that I could use for my portfolio (and any article I choose to write). These weren't the best ones by any means.
Color can be incredibly hard. That conference I shot? They had a big orange sign backlighting the main stage. Looked great from the audience, but really hard to work with.
November 7, 2008 05:29 am
Watch for the microphone - just a warning :D
November 7, 2008 05:20 am
@Pete I know I've done the same thing. Doh! I used my 85 and 50 last night at the opening gala for Vancouver Fashion Week. It was quite fun, but wished I had my 70-200 too.
And on tip #1 ... last night another pro was having trouble with his flash because his batteries were low. Because his main and backups were both low or dead.
So it's always good to do a check before you go.
Two more tips: When you're at a part or conference scout out the shots and people. There are some people you know will make great subjects and make sure you capture them.
Another thing I figured out was that while my main camera battery was low it wasn't low enough to change (same with my speed light), so instead of having to go back and dig through my bag (and probably when the most exciting stuff was going on) I slipped those batteries in my jacket pocket. And yes, I had to switch out my camera battery during the evening and during the fashion show portion.
November 7, 2008 03:08 am
@Stephen ... you don't have to read every article ... step back from the computer ... take a deep breath. We're not all at your advanced level.
For me, I've been taking digital pictures for a long time ... just as a semi-casual point-and-shooter at our church ... stuck in Auto Mode.
I greatly appreciate the point-and-shoot articles, especially this one. It is obviously time to try P mode, and play with the ISO.
Thanks Tris for the encouragement!!!
November 7, 2008 01:17 am
Some great tips here in this article. Thanks. I am rather new to photography but have been realizing some decent shots (thanks in part to DPS!). I have already abandoned flash whenever possible...
I will be shooting a concert tomorrow night so this article was timely and provided a few good tips that I will be putting into use.
Thanks for the ideas!
November 7, 2008 12:23 am
An alternative to owning the lens is to rent one. Get a nice fast zoom lens for a conference shoot is also a good way of trying before buying.
November 7, 2008 12:06 am
This is a great article. Thanks for posting. Not everyone is a seasoned pro and even though I've been shooting for a while I still sometimes forget to change the ISO when going from indoors to out.
I recently shot a Black Belt Graduation with mainly my 50 f/1.8D lens and for closeups I would use the 85 f/1.8D. I only went wide on a few shots.
November 6, 2008 11:01 pm
While I agree with the above tips, after looking at the writer's recent Affiliate Summit East photos, I must say they are pretty poorly shot. Where do I begin? Many photos are underexposed, some overexposed, some are poorly composed, shadows against walls, colour temperatures are all off, was editing even done or did these photos come straight out of the camera? These photos are no better than snapshots that the other guests take...
November 6, 2008 08:01 pm
@Chris yes I have had people complain, but only in close quarters when I've been the photographer for a performance. Irony is the one time I was asked to not take so many shots at a performance (I was there to photograph the performance and wasn't using a flash) the woman asking had a large speed light attached to a little point and shoot and was blasting at full intensity.
You just have to play in by ear and use your best judgement on the noise level.
November 6, 2008 04:42 pm
Do you never get people annoyed about the shutter sound? It's my greatest fear when photographing audiences, because my shutter's really loud :/ Is it your right as a photographer to make noise, even when you 'try to be the wall'?
November 6, 2008 01:03 pm
" Donâ€™t think that just because the guy next to you has a lens bigger than a small child... " LOL :)
Very interesting and informative article. Thank you.
November 6, 2008 01:01 pm
Uh...been here over a year and I'm just used to more in depth/higher quality posts than this one.
November 6, 2008 10:19 am
@Joaquin I know what you mean. When I'm out in public I have strict rules that I apply to my shots. My biggest one, and the one I taught my daughter when she started taking pictures, is to never ever intentionally take pictures of children without their parents' permission. At a conference, I just shoot, it's expected now that you will be photographed at most tech conferences.
I guess I lost my shyness when I first started with a camera when I was 9. My grandmother's birthday. I think I burned through three packs of Polaroid film that day and 30 years later I haven't looked back.
@anagr thank you! It was a great exercise in consolidating what I know writing this article, I'm glad you enjoyed it.
@Kristi I love the remote camera trick! That is awesome! Your point about flashes is bang on. I try to avoid doing it as much as I can. In fact this week I'm making my first foray into fashion photography at Vancouver Fashion Week and the first question I had was is using a flash allowed or not. At a recent event I shot the official photographer would STAND right in front of the speakers and shoot with the flash on full and pointed straight at them. Ouch!
If you must you a flash try cranking the output down to -0.3 or -0.7, tilting it up and using something to diffuse the flash. At least then it won't be so bright and blinding.
Again, thanks to all of you for your comments and to Darren for inviting me to contribute to DPS.
November 6, 2008 07:40 am
While some of these seem like 'common sense' I see photographers not doing them all the time! There are just too many trying to get into photography.
I give you kudos on 'try not to use the flash!' I've been a wedding photographer for years and since I do all my adjustments (in camera) manually there are not many times I need to use a flash - and never during a ceremony. It irks me to see a photographer walk up to the front, stand in front of family and take a picture - flashing through the entire building! It's obtrusive! And not needed! We always have calls with couples wanting to book us because they've heard from another that we can do pictures WITHOUT standing in front of guests and WITHOUT using a flash during the ceremony. And. . . . there is no reason any wedding photographer should walk up behind the 'stage' to take a shot. Rig a camera (without flash) 'backstage' and use a remote to trigger it. We secure both a video and still camera in the background - and if needed we'll hide a mic in the flowers that are near the bride/groom.
November 6, 2008 07:22 am
Rosh you're bang on about the 70-200mm f/2.8. It is a beast. I love the lens for conference photography because I can be somewhat close to the stage, but be able to zoom in on the speaker, but yeah trying to wander around with it? Oy that's a royal pain.
My favourite lenses are my 50mm f/1.8 and 85mm f/1.8 . I usually keep the 85 on most of the time. It is light and easy to manage even on my D300.
November 6, 2008 07:16 am
Follow up 200 2.8 vs. 135 2.8
When shooting low light the 200mm can be to big and heavy.
Don't worry about looking cool with a big professional lens.
Take two steps closer and focusing on getting the great shoot. I also find it more flexible and easier to move around with a smaller lens. My two cents.
Remember don't judge a photographer by the size of their lens.
November 6, 2008 07:08 am
I travel the county shooting corporate events. The new ISO ranges have been and will continue to be very helpful. I still use a Canon 5D and even at 1600 I get great images.
But, my best secret weapon is the 135mm 2.8 lens. Long enough to get into crowds and groups with out being intrusive and too heavy for a slower shutter speed in lower light.
November 6, 2008 05:31 am
stephen, you must be new here! i wish i were kidding...
November 6, 2008 03:17 am
I am one of the rest of those "most people" That Stephen mentions.
These tips -they are- are useful, thanks for sharing. Conference shots are usually so boring, but yours are not, definitely!
November 6, 2008 03:04 am
@stephen: You know I'd think so too, but one of the reasons I make sure I carry extras is to loan them out. Auto mode is great for learning, but lots of people are afraid to leave it for fear of taking a bad picture. Really it isn't hard, people just need encouragement.
@Rick: Good! One note is that as you increase the ISO you increase the noise in the picture. It's always a trade off. Sometimes I flip my D300 into auto-ISO mode to get an idea of what ISO might be "good" and adjust from there.
November 6, 2008 02:45 am
I'm still in the process of loosing "shyness" when shooting people (photos of people, I mean). I'm never sure how people will react to some stranger taking a picture of them.
How do you (everyone) manage that?
November 6, 2008 02:35 am
I too shoot a lot of gatherings. usually social function at out local church but I am always trying to use my strobe. I think I'll try boosting the ISO next time and see how they come out.
November 6, 2008 02:33 am
im sorry, but this is just a list of 11 things most people would say "duh" to.
get out of auto mode?
Those aren't even tips!
November 6, 2008 02:05 am
Shivanand, You are exactly right. I have a fixed aperture 70-200mm lens, budget? Yeah the Nikon version was about $1800CAD. However the pictures are amazing. A Flickr photo set using that lens exclusively:
November 6, 2008 01:12 am
... about (not) zooming - while most of the zoom lenses minimize the aperture at the long end, you could use a zoom lens of constant aperture. Quite a few are available from Nikon and Canon but check your budget.
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