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How to Photograph a Conference – 10 Tips

conference-photography.jpgHow 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).

1. Bring extra batteries, memory cards, your cables, and chargers

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 batteries—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.

2. Get out of auto mode.

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.

3. Be unobtrusive. Casual shots are better.

“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.

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4. Pay attention to the background

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.

5. Try not to use the flash

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

6. Pay attention to the lighting

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).

7. Set the white balance

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.

8. More is better

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.

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9. Zoom less, walk 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.

10. Have fun

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 fun—unless you’re getting paid of course—it’s time to put the camera down and enjoy yourself.

Bonus 11. It isn’t the camera or the lens, it’s the photographer that counts.

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

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Darren Rowse
Darren Rowse

is the editor and founder of Digital Photography School and SnapnDeals.

He lives in Melbourne Australia and is also the editor of the ProBlogger Blog Tips. Follow him on Instagram, on Twitter at @digitalPS or on Google+.

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