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7 Tips for Photographing a Conference

A Guest post on conference photography by Paul von Schwarzenfeld.

I love conferences. There’s always a lot of people mingling and networking, some interesting speakers and everything goes according to a fixed agenda — even the coffee breaks! There are no surprises and the stress levels are low, so long as you’ve done a good job preparing yourself for the event.

All the rules of photography apply to conferences as well. Assuming you already have some knowledge about them, I’d like to add some hopefully helpful but certainly not complete tips.

1. Define the job

If you’re photographing the conference as a professional photographer, both yourself and the client should sign a contract that clarifies the way pictures are delivered, delineates the copyright situation, and last but not least, limits your liability as a photographer.

Keep in mind that the copyright demands on this kind of job might be different from those on other jobs because the conference organizer likely needs to publish the pictures online, and if they’re unable to do that, the shots may be worthless to them.

Also, forget about any price model including prints. They will never, ever need prints. The only prints that will be made out of your conference pictures will be found in the next year’s program, or other marketing material that will be printed by them or their designer. So shape your pricing model around a DVD delivery.

Don’t rely on your client reading the fine print of your contract. Even if your contract allows you to, discuss with them whether you can publish the conference pictures on your website or not. Sometimes the client won’t have a problem with that—they would probably even appreciate it because you’re doing additional marketing for their project. But they may want to limit the distribution of the images, so be careful to talk to your client beforehand about publishing the pictures you’re about to take.

Also, get ready for guests and speakers approaching you with the question: “Where can I see the pictures later? Do you have a business card?” Again, a clarification with your client will help you give a confident answer—or any answer at all.

2. Bring a fast lens

Nothing is certain but death, taxes, and bad lighting at conference venues. I don’t want to discourage anybody who’s planning to work with a point-and-shoot camera, but if you want to have some quality shots at the end of the day, bring a SLR which can produce acceptable photos at ISO 1600, and an 85mm f1.8 lens. I wouldn’t dare to set a period at the end of this statement, but you can photograph a whole conference with two lenses: an 18-(…)mm f2.8 to capture some wide-angle frames of the venue, mingling crowds, and group shots, and the 85mm for the rest. A pricy but ideal combination would be a full frame SLR that can work with ISO 3200, and a 70-200mm f2.8 plus a wide-angle lens.

Bring your flash with you, but most likely you won’t use it. Ceilings are high, direct flash is a bad idea, and the speaker and audience may easy be bothered by you strobe-lighting the keynote.

I stopped using shoulder bags in favor of a lens-belt system that’s based on a simple waist bag (that accommodates batteries, memory, business cards, and one lens) with one or two belt lens cases. ?

It’s a $25 combination that doesn’t drag me down or hook me up with armrests.

A tripod is great for group shots, but it’s not a must-have, and a monopod can be helpful. Maybe you can leave some gear in the car or at the conference registration table. Go light-weight, since you’ll probably be stuck with that gear for a very long time.

3. Know the agenda

conference-photography-2As soon as I’m booked for a conference, the website goes to my browser favorites. At the night before, I sneak over the agenda to check for changes and to prepare myself for the day. How many panels do they have? How many keynotes? How long is the job and how long do my batteries/memory cards have to last? I count on at least 50 pictures per panel and keynote. What’s the parking situation and how long does it take me to get there? When there is parking close by I can leave some stuff like my tripod in the car when it’s accessible within five minutes’ walk from the venue. Valet parking is a problem for that.

Arrive on time and grab an agenda or program from the registration table. It’s much more relaxed when you’re aware of the agenda and have a watch on hand. You don’t need to stay in the conference room all the time, but don’t miss any program points, and be back for the Q&A sessions.

Take a look at the program, specifically at the faces of the speakers and panelists. You don’t want to miss a picture of the CEO meeting another VIP at the coffee table because you don’t know what he looks like. Also, having some idea of what the conference is about could be helpful.

4. Don’t bother the guests

It’s a thin line: they conference-holders want you to take great pictures of the speaker, but they don’t want you to block the guests’ views or machine-gun people with your camera.

Some people talk and move themselves in a way that ensures every shot you take of them is great. Unfortunately these people are rare. Most of the speakers will have weird expressions on their faces, mouths that look bizarre when they’re snapped mid-sentence, and will make fast movements that blur in every single one of your shots. Some of the worst ones will constantly stare at their notes and only look up to the audience (and your camera) for half a second at the most!
?My only recipe for not machine-gun-shooting the speaker, but still getting some great shots, is to instinctively wait for the right moment (observe how the speaker moves – they’ll behave and move repetitively), make a single click, and check the display before making another shot. If you make a click every 10-15 seconds, people will not perceive this as too disturbing.

Speaking of disturbing: never stand in front of the guests or a video camera. If there is a camera, the videographer will love you for that, and the guests will feel more comfortable.

Remember: you’re not capturing a golden memory, you’re just another service person delivering … lunch … coffee … no: pictures. The guests or their companies paid a lot of money to attend the conference and to listen to whatever the person on the stage has to say. Keep that in mind. They are paying you to take pictures but they expect you to be as unobtrusive as possible.

The good news is: there’s no need to hurry. You have a lot of time to take the shots, since the speaker will be up there for at least 15 or 30 minutes.

5. Change your point of view

conference-photography-3The speaker won’t run away. But you can move around and get some great shots from different perspectives.

Sit down on the floor in front of the stage, take a seat in the front row, take pictures from the back including some guests, take the same with a wide-angle lens including a lot of guests, walk around and make pictures from the side.

You are shooting marketing material so stop thinking exclusively like a photographer, and start thinking like a designer. How would you like to crop this guy into the next year’s website? Or into the conference report? Take a full-body picture from the front, the side, and maybe from behind. Take a landscape and a portrait picture, a close-up, and one from very far away. Include the conference logo if possible and make one with an interesting bullet point on the presentation screen in the background. Don’t leave out any possible perspective.

Try to make every image look full. Nobody wants pictures of empty seats.

6. Take the must-have shots

At the end of the day, you want to go home with a story on your memory card. Shooting all the different angles of the keynote speaker alone is not going to cut it.

Make sure you talk to your client before the event, though. If they just want to have pictures of the one VIP speaker, forget about this part and save your shutter some actuations.

Assuming the client wants more than this, you have some serious work to do. Your photographic story starts at the registration table: guests getting the program and their nametags. They’re reading the program and getting coffee at the breakfast bar. Then the first speaker is talking. Take pictures of the guests listening, and wait for them to clap – that’s a great picture.

When it’s time for the Q&A session, get shots of the guests with the microphone asking questions, and of the speaker answering them. At the coffee break, take pictures of people mingling. Use your 85mm to get in close without being noticed. Then, in a panel, don’t forget to shoot a single panelist — capture them all, and get shots while they’re talking. What’s going on in the audience? Are there any crazy laptop stickers, fancy devices, or people making notes? Is the VIP keynote speaker already sitting in the audience? Try to capture everything that you would observe as a guest sitting in this room for a couple of hours.

Also, look at what’s going on outside: is there anything that needs to be documented? Did you take a picture of the programs being lined up on a table and that display the main sponsor put up in the foyer??At lunch, don’t take pictures of people chewing, but do try to make some shots of the food.

The rest of the day will continue in the same vein, but try to squeeze out new aspects of every network coffee break of the day, and don’t forget a single speaker.

Later, there may probably be time for group pictures of the conference organization team. Maybe you should address that, but sometimes the client isn’t interested, or they simply forget about it. I try to remind them that a group picture would be a great memory, but I don’t push it that hard, because at that point, they usually have other things in mind than pictures.

7. Process fast

Remember, you’re producing marketing material. And that gets old very fast. So be faster and try to get the selection ready within 48 hours. These guys are not a wedding couple waiting for their lifetime memories — they want to post the shots on their website now! Taking fewer pictures and deleting some of the bad ones from your camera might help to speed things up afterwards.

Forget about black and white pictures, HDR, crazy colors, or any artistic experiments. You’re not producing art, you’re producing marketing material.

Sort out the pictures. A happy couple might be excited to sneak through hundreds of their pictures on a DVD, but a marketing rep from the company that held the conference is definitely not. I find a good practice is to hand out a master collection with not more than 300 pictures (for an eight-hour conference), plus a selection of the best 125, plus the very best 75 pictures. Each image is provided in low, medium, and high resolutions.

Be a service person. It’s hard to get into the conference business because every organizer will probably be thinking of hiring last year’s photographer again. But not always.

From my experience—I once organized a conference—I can give you a pretty bad example. I was creating the website for a conference, and we’d Iost the photo DVD. So I asked the last year’s photographer if he could send me a copy of the pictures again. He responded more than a week later, and charged $125 for burning and shipping the DVD to me. Guess what? He got the $125 but was never ever hired again.

Paul von Schwarzenfeld is a wedding and conference photographer based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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