The Main Event: How to organize and shoot events like a pro.
If you own a camera and are known in your circle of friends as an enthusiast or a pro, there’s a really good chance you’ve been asked to photograph an event.
An event is basically any time a group of three or more people gather together to celebrate a milestone. This could be your best friend’s wedding, Uncle Dave’s 50th birthday, your next-door neighbor’s bar mitzvah, your cousin Maria’s engagement, a product or corporate event, or an awards ceremony. They’re all defined as events.
I’ve been shooting events for the last 25 years. In that time, I’ve been the official event photographer for the Australian Grand Prix, the Melbourne Cup, the Dalai Lama, Bvlgari, WWE Wrestling, the Logies (Australia’s Emmys), press conferences with rock stars, product launches for big brands, Uncle Dave’s 50th (great party!) and my cousin’s engagement.
The protocol I use to photograph events is the same for Uncle Dave’s 50th as it is for an A-list function. I’m going to share all the pre-event and event protocols, tips and techniques I’ve developed over the last 25 years – so you can photograph events like a pro too.
The “no more tears” gear check list
Always ensure you have fresh batteries for your event. If you are shooting a lot of events and working with flash on-camera you may want to consider investing in rechargeable AA and AAA batteries for your flashes and other devices. They are a bit of an investment at the start, but eventually pay for themselves and are far more environmentally friendly.
“To be prepared is half the victory.” – Miguel de Cervantes
I always organize my gear the day before I shoot a big event. This is an extensive list based on all the items I’ve managed to forget over the years – and yes, there have sometimes been tears and yes, they did cause me stress.
- Test all flashes, sync cables and radio slaves. (I once broke someone’s wedding! If you haven’t heard this story, you can relive my heartbreak here.)
- Pack fresh batteries and spares.
- Charge all camera batteries.
In one of my early Melbourne Cup shoots, I was sent to the finish line to cover the presentation of the Melbourne Cup for its sponsor, Emirates. It had been a long day and I was still a bit green to this event caper. I completely overestimated my flash and camera’s battery lives and had to endure a stressful 30 minutes waiting to photograph “the money shot” with my camera blinking, “I’m about to die! Now feed me!”
My spare battery and charger were safely tucked away in my camera bag about 20-minute walk away. (Doh!) I managed to squeeze out five frames by turning the camera on and off. I got the shot, but it wasn’t fun.
- Clean your lenses. Always check for dust, mould, scratches and smears. There’s nothing worse than having to retouch 300 shots because of gunk in the corner of the frame, or worse still, a large gooby that completely ruins a shot.
- Fully charge your laptop, phone, and booster for remote locations.
- Ensure you have all your cables, accessories and chargers for laptops, etc.
- Pack two card readers and spare cables.
- Carry extra memory cards and spare cards.
I once shot a wedding at a very remote Australian location. It was at the end of a long, hard week and I realized when I arrived that I had forgotten the USB cable for my card reader. I knew it was going to be a big wedding — the magazine wanted full coverage, from start to finish — and I only had enough memory cards to cover about half of it.
I sent my assistant out to the tiny country town’s shopping district in search of a cable or a card reader while I continued the pre-wedding shots. She rang every camera store within 20km (12.5 miles), but no luck. I ended up having to shoot with the limited number of memory cards I had, and treat it as if I was shooting with film.
I got there in the end, but that little oversight could’ve been very costly. Now I carry two memory card readers and put spare cables in my glove box camera bag, handbag and laptop bag.
- Put together a survival kit (water, tissues, deodorant, mints, snacks, protein bars, nuts, umbrella, blankets, spare warm clothes, and comfy shoes for the drive home). Events can go on for hours and often run over meal times. There’s nothing worse than being cold, tired, hungry or stinky at an event. Always pack an emergency kit to keep you going between meals and showers.
- Read the run sheet, look up all shoot locations and work out the best travel routes. I always work out the best way to get to my gig the night before. Events can be stressful enough without having to worry about getting lost on the way.
- Wash your car and fill the tank. Again, it’s all about minimizing stress. Events are usually dressy affairs, so it’s nice to turn up in a clean car. It feels better, too.
- Pre-pack and recheck all lighting, tripods, stands, and accessories.
- Ensure your gear is portable, lightweight and quickly and easily accessible. Here’s my personal event location kit: Roller bag, laptop, monopod or tripod, two camera bodies, 24mm-105mm f/4 lens, 70mm-200mm f/2.8 lens, 85mm lens, two speedlights, rechargeable AA batteries.
- Have a safe spot to store the memory cards you use at the event. Mark them clearly so you don’t accidentally overwrite them.
- Bring a hard drive for backup. If you have time and a safe place to do it, download your memory cards onto your computer and back them up at the same time. I have an in/out system that I use. Check out: Photography Workflow Tips – From Memory Card to Computer and Beyond for more info.
- Keep drunken guests away from your table. Food and drinks don’t mix with and laptops. One spilled drink and it’s all over.
- Don’t forget a pen and notebook to jot down important information.
Your next clients may be among the guests at the event you’re shooting. You only have one chance to make a good impression, so make sure it’s a good one.
I’d love to wear my favorite torn jeans and boots to every shoot I do, but I know that wouldn’t make a very good impression. I don’t want to embarrass clients by turning up in inappropriate attire, so I always check the dress code first.
I believe a good photographer should blend in with the guests. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting you turn up dressed like Paris Hilton. Rock out your own style, but maybe tone down the diamond tiara, nine-inch gold-plated heels and leopard skin jumpsuit.
Here are a few suggestions you may want to take on board:
- Buy a great pair of really comfortable dress shoes. There’s nothing worse than wearing uncomfortable shoes on a long shoot.
- The best color to blend in at an event is black.
- Always carry a lint roller, safety pins, shoe polish and a sewing kit in your bag for those just in case moments. I once tore my pants just before an event.
- Never be seen eating or drinking at the event.
- Food and drink should always be consumed away from guests (eat before you go).
- Ask for the best place to store your gear (I often call the venue in advance to ask to have a space set up for me).
- Don’t annoy guests and corner them and bang on with boring stories.
- Only give out your card if somebody specifically asks for it.
- Keep notes on a pad or your Smartphone so you can remember the names of key people.
- Always ask guests if they mind you taking their photo. If people are deep in conversation, try and wait for a break before cutting in. This is tricky, especially for new photographers. Try, “Hello. Sorry for interrupting. Do you mind if I take a photo?” Tone is really important. Never be pushy and always have a huge smile on your face. Compliment guests on their hat, bag, shoes, or eyes, but do it sincerely.
- If you’re working with other photographers, try and help them set up shots and work together. This is a small industry; chances are you will work together again and it’s always great to develop friendships with other photographers. This can be a lonely industry sometimes.
- Never stand around looking bored. If you’ve run out of guests, shoot the food, band or signage.
- Email shots of the band, flowers and food to the suppliers. This is a great way to value add for your client, a nice thing to do for the suppliers, and a great way to meet potential new clients.
Day of the event
Try and arrive 30 minutes, to an hour before the event. This will give you plenty of time to unpack your gear and compose yourself before the event starts. There’s nothing worse than arriving late and having to set up under pressure.
Do a quick reconnaissance of the location, take note of the lighting and try to pre-plan good locations for group shots and portraits. Set up your gear. Test and retest everything to make sure it’s working. Check that your memory cards are in your camera, the ISO is set to the correct setting, and your flashes are firing properly.
Read the shot list and check and double check you’re getting all your key shots. Continually refer back to this on the day. Cover every detail possible on the day: signage, food, gift bags, drinks, flowers, and table settings. This is a great opportunity to introduce your skills to other businesses, so make sure you forward these images to caterers, florists and designers.
Try and keep group shots to a maximum of five people. I often shoot people in groups of two, three and five. Take three to five frames when shooting groups of people because someone will always blink or pull a funny face. Tell the group you’ll take a few shots so they don’t look, or walk away, after the first frame. Keep talking while you’re photographing the group so you command their attention. Otherwise they’ll look the wrong way, start talking or eating, and ruin your shot.
Don’t be afraid to tidy people up (fix their jackets, ask them to stand in a more flattering way). Not every shot needs to be posed. Try and get a mix of candid images of people talking, laughing and enjoying the day. I find these shots are best done using a long lens when people don’t know you’re taking them. It’s very difficult to look discreet when you’re five inches away using a 28mm lens.
Try and shoot speeches with a long lens, no flash. This means you can be in a discreet position and take several shots of the speaker without annoying them with your flashes. I like to wait until the speaker looks up from their notes or smiles to acknowledge applause.
Avoid taking shots of people eating. I’ve yet to see someone who looks glamorous with a mouth full of food.
After the event
- Carefully back up ALL your files (Then back them up again when you get back to your office/base).
- Do a final double check for random gear you might have left behind (I’ve lost two monopods).
- Rehydrate and eat something before you process your files.
- Send off any extra shots to caterers, florists or guests who may have approached you during the event.
Do you have any pre-event rituals that you use to help your day run smoothly? Is there anything I may have missed? I’d love to hear your suggestions.