How to Photograph a Conference
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?
I'll be honest that it usually takes me an hour or so on the first day before I feel comfortable walking through the crowd and photographing the people around me. This is partly from my self-conscious-I-don't-want-to-intrude-and-be-rude personality, but it's also because the participants are getting used to me as well. I need them to forget that I'm there, so that I can do my work by capturing them at their most genuine moments.
(5) Be Patient.
People don't look good with their eyes in a half-blink while giving a speech. So when photographing speakers, I like to frame the shot and spend a while observing their patterns of speech and gestures before clicking the shutter. You'll be surprised at how much you can learn about someone from just observing them through a viewfinder. The best kinds of shots are those when they're laughing really hard, gesturing (fist pumps and high-fives) or reacting to the audience. WAIT for those moments to present themselves, then click.
(6) The real photograph happens after (or before) the "money shot".
My modus operandi is to capture people at their most candid, but for those occasions when a group shot is called for, I like to photograph multiple frames: Before, During and After. I especially like the "After" phase, when members of the group think the shot is done and relax, or start joking with someone else off-camera. Now THAT is the money shot.
(7) Get enough rest.
You will be moving around a lot, to get images from different perspectives, as well as walking from one event location to the next. You need to be in tip-top shape, mentally and physically, so the preparation for the event begins even before you get there. Get enough sleep in the days leading up to the event, and during the event itself, make self-care a priority (as much as possible), by taking baths, having massages, naps, etc. You can't pay attention to your surroundings if you're not 100 percent present, so the quality of work totally depends on how much you take care of yourself. Happy photographer, happy client. Simple as that.
(8) Get Fit.
Run, walk, swim, do pilates, yoga, taichi, lift weights -- whatever it takes to build stamina and strength because it's tough to carry around a heavy camera body (or two) and set of lenses for about 12 hours a day. The fitter you are to start with, the easier it will be.
(9) Wear Good Shoes.
Flat, thick soles in black. You want sensible shoes so that your feet stay happy. Leave the three-inch heels at home.
(10) Have Fun.
All events have an element of surprise, so a degree of openness is required. It's hard to think of having fun when it's the end of two long days and you still have 2,218 images to process in Lightroom by the next morning, but it's imperative that you take time out to breathe, observe and smile. Because that will influence what you see, and what you capture, and what images you produce. So, work hard, but don't take it too seriously, and have fun. Let the magic happen.