Photo Tip of the Week: How to Shoot Major Events (Part One)
At a gala dinner for Cultural Diversity these dancers were a highlight. I moved in close to catch the action with a wide angle lens, so I could include some of the busy background. A short burst of flash froze the action, whilst a high ISO setting allowed me to capture lots of warm ambient light. Canon EOS 1D Mk IV, 16-35mm lens @ 16mm, 1/160s @ f/3.2, ISO 2500, flash.
In part one of this
feature Robert Keeley outlines how to prepare thoroughly for
photographing any major event, be it a wedding, party or anything!
Photographing any major event can be a real challenge, and it should never be undertaken without sound preparation and some experience. Your own level of shooting experience is the very first element you need to consider. Quite simply, if somebody has asked you to photograph a local fair or conference, some major announcement involving dignitaries and officials, or even a friend’s wedding, don’t even think about doing it unless you’re confident you have a minimum level of experience! Novices, or even photographers who have shot the odd family barbeque, can be lulled into thinking they have plenty of experience in shooting significant gatherings. But the pressure winds up exponentially once you formally take on the duties of the key photographer. Too late, you may realise that being the sole recorder of proceedings is beyond your technical (and emotional) reserves. That can create more stress than it’s worth!
LEARN BY WATCHING
That’s not to say you
shouldn’t take such a task on. Successfully shooting a big event is
one of the more satisfying photographic jobs you can undertake. Just
be sure you have a reasonable level of experience first.
Photographing events is all about playing percentages and preparing
for all eventualities. It’s about considering every contingency (no
matter how unlikely) beforehand, and trying to prepare for it. Before
you become the key photographer for any major event you should spend
a lot of time taking pictures of both people and gatherings on your
own initiative. If you want to photograph weddings take your own
shots when you attend them, but then check out the professionals,
watching closely what type of set ups they create, where they
position groups, and who they actually photograph. Never get in the
way of the pro (who has a hard enough job as it is), but absorb all
the relevant information you can.
At a gala dinner for Cultural Diversity these dancers were a highlight. I moved in close to catch the action with a wide angle lens, so I could include some of the busy background. A short burst of flash froze the action, whilst a high ISO setting allowed me to capture lots of ambient light. Canon EOS 1D Mk IV, 16-35mm lens @ 16mm, 1/160s @ f/3.2, ISO 2500, flash.
Try the same approach if you attend a local fair, or some media announcement for an event in your neighbourhood. Watch the professionals, because they’re taking photos for a living, and they have to get it right. Then practice what you’ve learned at your own gatherings of family and friends. Shoot at barbeques during the day, or more formal family dinners in restaurants at night. Take your camera to any bigger events you might attend. A large part of the results professional photographers achieve when shooting events is because they’re comfortable working with - and directing - people. These photographers have to get the ‘look’ they want in a minimum period of time, while at the same time keeping their subjects relaxed, and interested. You need to be almost as confident in guiding people as the pros are before you can tackle photographing any major event. One useful tip is to use the flat palm of your hand to direct people. Move it left, move it right, move it up or move it down and people will “follow the hand”. If you’re photographing individuals and you shoot from a slightly elevated angle, people will raise their head (and thus avoid any double chins!), and if you angle people’s bodies at around 45 degrees to the camera they will look at you over their shoulder, which is another pleasing composition.
Only after you’ve spent a sufficient amount of time learning by following the experts, and then practicing on groups and individuals you know, will you be in a position to answer ‘yes’ if somebody asks you to cover a major event for them. The next step is to carefully organise your camera kit and accessories.
PREPARE YOUR PHOTO LIST
Once you’ve accepted
an assignment, whether its local press conference, a festival, a
conference, a sports competition, or a friend’s wedding, careful
preparation becomes the key to success. Work out exactly what you’ll
need to get all the picture types you’ll need. Regardless of the
specific nature of the event, there are certain styles of pictures
which you will most likely have to shoot. These will probably include
scenes which are overviews of a location, and then group shots of
varying sizes (any more than three or four people becomes
problematic, simply because someone will inevitably be distracted and
look away or blink at the wrong time!). If trophies or presentations
are involved you may have to photograph the handing over of a medal
or trophy. (Make sure any plaques or cups are angled appropriately so
they won’t reflect too much glare.) You also probably need to shoot
at least one or two people making a speech.
At a local school I was asked to photograph a group of students involved in a leadership program. Time was limited so I gathered them around a classroom bench, with a school teacher and the program director. Make sure you can see every face in this situation! Canon EOS 1D Mk IV, 16-35mm lens @ 20mm, 1/300s @ f/2.8, -1EV, ISO 200, flash -1 EV.
Think carefully about what will be involved in the week before your event, and if necessary talk to your contact (who may be a PR officer or a friend or associate) about what images they will absolutely require. Write a list, if necessary, and take it with you, as under the pressure of proceedings you might not remember something important. While you’re talking to your contact, try to arrange to ‘scope out’ the venue. Find out beforehand if there is somebody you can safely leave your gear with (or somewhere you can store it), and try to visit the location so you can see the potential challenges you might face in moving around, and what the lighting (both external and internal) may throw up.
Now get your kit ready. Charge all your batteries the night before, and take spares. If possible, take a spare camera body. Nothing is worse than suffering camera failure without a back up. It’s unlikely to happen, but the most unlikely event can happen at the most unlikely time! If you’re the key photographer, you need to cover every possibility.
FLASH AND LENS OPTIONS
Take a dedicated flash
unit (made for your brand of camera and capable of reading its
technical settings automatically) if you have one, and understand the
basics of how to use it, then take spare batteries for it as well. If
you don’t have a separate dedicated flash unit you probably
shouldn’t accept the assignment. Pop-up flash units are handy for
close subjects, but if you need to photograph groups in dark halls or
restaurants, or even outside on gloomy days, a separate dedicated
flash (which fits into a hotshoe socket on the top of your camera) is
really essential. Flash power dissipates rapidly the further you move
away from a subject (see the section below). Photographing a group
bigger than three or four people will mean you are moving too far
away from them to use an underpowered pop-up flash effectively.
At night, during a formal signing ceremony for a sporting competition, I forgot to bring a flash! Fortunately a TV crew was present, and they had large lights! I was keen to include some of the dramatic background building. Canon 1D Mk IV, 16-35mm lens @ 20mm, 1/100s @ f/2.8, ISO 1000.
Next, consider which lenses you’ll need. Take only the minimum kit, because if you are moving around a big event with a lot of gear you’ll be more worried about where to keep your valuable equipment than about what your next picture is going to be. It’s a good idea to take a zoom lens which has a 100mm focal length in it. This is a good focal length for portraiture as it will flatten prominent features. But if you have to photograph a bigger group a wide-angle lens can be very useful – maybe around 16-35mm or 28-70mm. So-called ‘travel zooms’ which can cover ranges from 18-135mm (or more) can be handy, but their smaller maximum apertures won’t cope as well with dark rooms or dark days. It becomes even more important to have a dedicated flash unit if you’re using one of these lenses.
Take a lens cleaning cloth, a flash diffuser if you have one (to kill harsh shadows if you’re photographing people up against walls), and think about taking a laptop (with the appropriate cables) so you can immediately download images if necessary. Only take this if the need for pictures is urgent (as media-related events may be), otherwise avoid it. Keep it simple! You need to be nimble enough to move around big events photographing different people. Finally, it’s probably a good idea to leave a tripod behind, for much the same reason. Rely more on relatively high ISO settings if you are in darker settings. Though less expensive cameras, when set to high ISOs, will likely present some noise in your images, newer cameras are much better in this area, and the need for flexibility is paramount.
At this gathering for an informal party at a restaurant the gloomy interior needed flash, but I used a slower shutter speed to include the warm ambient light. That required holding the camera very steady. I used a very high ISO to increase the effective reach of my flash. Canon EOS 1D Mk IV, 16-25mm lens @ 23mm, 1/60s @ f/4.5, -2/3EV, ISO 12800.
GUIDE NUMBERS AND FLASH POWER
The Guide Number for
your flash unit (stated in your unit’s specifications) is the
system for describing its maximum output in terms of aperture and
distance. The guide number is a product of the aperture (f/number)
and the distance from the flash-to-subject combination which will
offer enough light for a satisfactory exposure.
It works as follows:
GN (guide number) = Aperture x Distance
Aperture = GN/Distance
Distance = GN/Aperture
Higher guide numbers indicate more flash power. A guide number must provide a distance unit (feet or metres) and an ISO rating. Most guide numbers are in metres at ISO 100, but you should check this out. Note that the guide number changes as the flash head zooms (flash distance reduces as a wider angle is set). The guide number also increases as the ISO increases, but doubling the ISO increases the guide number by a factor of 1.4 times. Changing from ISO 100 to ISO 400 doubles the guide number. This is related to the Inverse Square Law, which states that every time you double the distance between a light source and a subject, the amount of light on the subject drops to one quarter of its previous intensity.
Next week: Part Two – How to Shoot Events.