How to Photograph a Conference

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BlogHer 2012

In an interesting turn of events, my professional photography career has led me beyond the field of pretty pictures of food and down the path of events and conferences. I'm not complaining. It may be hard work, but it represents, to me, a chance to apply my photography skills to another field and to capture the dynamism of life in a conference setting.

On the surface, conference photography has a rather mundane and unglamorous quality about it. And, to a large extent, it is. There is a "shot list," a formula of what kinds of shots the client would like, capturing the sponsors, the speakers, the venue, the food, and such. Yet I've found that, if I tune in to what's going on around me, there are endless possibilities to exercise my creativity and make beautiful pictures. Pictures that tell a story.

I volunteer that events photography is boring only if one chooses to see it that way. It's the same with architecture photography. Or advertising/product photography. Or any kind of photography done for money, really. If you view the job as purely transactional, it's easy to burn out that way. But if you view each event as an opportunity for magic to happen, then the work stops becoming a drag and starts to become something else altogether. An adventure through the viewfinder.

After shooting four conferences for the ladies who know how to really throw a party, I thought I'd share some insights into how I approach the work, and what it's taught me about anticipating and observing human behavior.

(1) Get there early.

To both the venue and the city in which the event will be held (if it's not in your hometown). I like to get there at least a day in advance to give myself sufficient time to adjust to the timezone (if it's in the Midwest or the East Coast), and get a good night of sleep. This pre-conference time is also when I'll do a walk-through of the event space with the client, to assess the lighting conditions in various spaces and start formulating ideas for possible vantage points.

(2) Bring every single piece of gear you have, even if you don't think you'll need it.

Speedlight, lenses for every focal length (I shoot with three lenses: 24-70mm, 70-200mm and 16mm fisheye), tripod (if you have the space for it), memory cards, card readers, multiple hard drives, power cords, batteries, and the details of a local photo equipment rental company in your location, for any last minute emergencies.

On the event floor, you don't want to be running around with a big bag of gear, so what I do is carry my essentials with me in a comfy, sturdy shoulder bag with zip openings. There's nothing more annoying than the constant sound of velcro ripping while you're in a crowded conference room trying to learn about marketing your blog, so I'm all about discretion as much as possible. I'm particularly fond of the leather bags from Paris-based designers, Nat & Nin. Not only are they well-made, each bag is roomy enough for two lenses and my essentials, and they come in a wide choice of fun colors.

(3) Stash the flash.

Hotel meeting rooms are notorious for bad lighting, and, while there's not much you can do about it, you can prepare for it by using fast lenses and a good camera that ramps up its ISO without compromising quality. The ISO to noise-level ratio is a priority for me because I hardly ever shoot with a flash, unless I'm in the most adverse of lighting conditions. And even then, I think twice before propping the speedlight atop of the camera. A flash draws too much attention to the subject at the expense of the details of the scene. Take the two images above, for example, and imagine how differently they'd look if I had used a flash. I'm interested in capturing the moment, with all its flaws and details, and the perfection of the flash is too big a price to pay.

(4) Pay Attention.

Look for the story. Look for the details that will help tell your story. At every conference, I like to think about what the goal is for the event, what the organizers are trying to achieve, and to tell that story in pictures. This is a little abstract, I know -- sorry -- but there is no set formula I can share with you other than just paying attention to your surroundings. Look at the people attending the conference, what are they like? What are their common expressions? What is the demographic of the attendees? Who has the most interesting outfits? What sort of conversations are they having? What sort of networking is going on?


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