Beginner’s Guide to Shooting Events

Event Photography can be very lucrative for you as long as you keep getting gigs. But to keep getting those gigs, you need to improve your photography skills. Photographing events isn’t really all that easy as it requires you to constantly be aware of what’s going on around you, meter effectively, and get good shots. Ideally, you want to do this without disturbing the guests and people. Essentially it combines elements of photojournalism and street photography. You need to move amongst the crowd without being noticed very much and you also need to document what’s going on while not interfering.

What is Event Photography?

There are things to look for when doing event photography. What I stick to is the elements of photojournalism: the newsworthy, the unusual, the emotional and the intimate. In between all that there are loads of filler images. Shooting each event is like telling a story. In fact you need to tell a story. You need to get:

– Cover Shots (the image that sums up the entire story and makes people want to view it.)
– Establishing Shots (Where are we?)
– Detail Shots (Perhaps glow sticks, alcoholic beverages, parts of a costume if the event is themed, etc.)
– Closing shots (A final ending shot that tells us good bye in some way.)
– Filler

It’s the art of capturing a story. There are other things to keep in mind as well. For example, why are we having this event? What’s so special about it? Is there someone in particular I should be trying to photograph? Who amongst the crowd is the most photogenic and loves the camera? How can I get around making that person not look into the camera when I shoot? These are just some of the things you should consider.

In between all this, there is a lot of portraiture tied into it. You are shooting people afterall. My particular style is usually to try not to interrupt or disturb anyone, but a big DSLR with large lens attached doesn’t always accomplish that. Further, there is a strong presence to my personality. Because of this, I tend to stick to the telephoto approach but I will get in very close with primes as well.

Gear

Shooting events is best done with a DSLR of some sort because you can shoot in Aperture and Manual modes. You don’t necessarily need an extremely high end one. I’ve done events before with an Olympus E-510 and the two kit lenses that come with it.

Reasons for this:

– Aperture mode allows you to control the F stop only; which will allow you to control how much is in focus (depth of field) and how much light comes into the lens and hits the sensor. The camera will set the shutter speed for you.
– Manual mode allows you to control both the shutter speed (how long the shutter remains open for) and aperture as well as other controls.

The Pentax K-x is currently the best bang for your buck entry level DSLR can you get your beginner’s hands on. The ISO (light sensitivity) performance is better than its bigger brother: the K-7. And you really want that. You’ll need to crank your ISO up high and rely on your camera to not deliver very grainy images. Just keep in mind that the higher your ISO, the grainier your images will be. You’ll need to find the balance depending on the lighting.

Coupled with good lenses, it can deliver some stunning photos. Be wary though, because if you have shaky hands the Image Stabilization may not be able to always help you out enough.

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Good lenses can really help you take better photos. Canon offers some really nice and affordable one in the form of the 50mm f/1.8 for starters. Eventually you’ll want to move up to the 50mm f/1.4. I recommend sticking with lenses that have a constant aperture so that when you zoom in or out you won’t have to adjust your settings to compensate.

As a current Canon user, I also use the 85mm f/1.8 for portraits and medium telephoto length shooting. It’s great for not disturbing people. Additionally, you also want to use something along the lines of a 24-70mm f/2.8L lens. Although the 24-105mm f/4L IS also does exceptionally.

Olympus has a 14-35mm F2.0 zoom lens that offers the user wonderful photos at fast shutter speeds. Nikon, Sigma, Tamron and others also offer great choices.

Essentially you’ll want to get at least two of the following:

  • Medium Zoom lens (Canon 24-70mm f/2.8, Canon 24-105mm f/4 L IS)
  • Standard Prime (Canon 50mm f/1.4. Primes are also known as non-zoom lenses. They are a fixed focal length.)
  • Medium Telephoto (Canon 85mm f/1.4 and there is quite a bit of portraiture involved in shooting events.)
  • Wide (Canon 35mm f/2)
  • Telephoto (70-200mm f/2.8 L IS) (The latter won’t always be used but in many occasions they can be invaluable.)

As far as DSLR specs go:

  • Try to get a camera with at least 8MP
  • More than 3 points of auto-focus
  • 3 frames per second (fps)
  • Fast CF or SD card
  • Fast buffer speed
  • Capable of delivering usable images at ISO 1600. The images should look great on the web.
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Techniques

There are lots of techniques that you can incorporate to suit your shooting style when photographing events. Some of them are by use of your camera, some of them are by the way you function as a photographer, etc. Either way, keep in mind that you and your camera are working together to get this job done.

A good thing to do is usually going around from area to area to capture emotions on people’s face. For example, maybe there is a beautiful girl that is chuckling at a joke with her girlfriends. The person paying you to shoot the event would love to see photos like that because they’re candid. And candids make for excellent photographs as opposed to constantly gathering everyone together and posing them.

Other things may be happening as well. Let’s say you’re shooting a birthday party for example: there are bound to be people all over the venue, house, bar etc. You should be moving around and reading your subject’s body language to see who can provide for great fodder for your camera. Maybe a game of beer pong is going on: at things like this, players tend to show off emotions of excitement.

Or perhaps there are people dancing on a dance floor and they’ve got glow sticks. Some yummy long exposures can be made from this.

Additionally, keep in mind that there are always the people that love to pose for the camera and will be crazy and zany things as soon as they see you. In this case, interact with your subjects make it all really fun. It will translate over in the photos.

People are also always playing with the dog, cat or other pets. Maybe the animals can do something worth capturing?

Whatever you do though, be sure to get up close and personal in terms of composition. Your viewers want to feel like they’re right there in the photos. If your client is going to put them on Facebook or another photo sharing site, the photos will really elicit lots of great comments and smiles from people.

As far as technicalities go they have to do with auto-focusing, manually focusing, shooting in manual or shooting in aperture as well as dealing with your ISO settings. Parties usually have terrible lighting. One might think the lighting is ideal for shooting but it really usually isn’t. If shooting in Aperture will help you get your photos faster vs taking the time to change your settings in manual, figure out what you value more. Do you want to get the photo now (aperture) or do you want to possibly spend less time in Photoshop or Lightroom fixing them (manual.) It’s up to you and how impatient and slow moving your subjects are.

Similarly, your auto-focus can be terrible as opposed to your manual focusing. As a general rule of thumb, spot focusing is best. This is where you select a specific point on your auto-focus points to get the results you are aiming for. If that doesn’t always work or if you find that too time consuming, you may be best off manually focusing your lens. In this case, try to ensure that you get sharp images all the time.

Spot focusing becomes even more critical in low light photography where your auto-focus isn’t always as reliable as you’d like it to be. If there is party lighting, it can even ruin your focusing more. For reference, party lighting is like what you would find at a local venue for an underground show: lots of different color lighting being flashed over and over again. This also messes with your cameras white balance settings and you will have to change them in post production.

For this reason, shoot in RAW. ALWAYS SHOOT IN RAW.

What could help though is using a flash, if the client doesn’t mind you using it. Try to get one with a tiltable head like a Canon 430 EX II. Also, I’d recommend using the Gary Fong Lightsphere as it tends to soften the already harsh flash.

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For best results, turn down your flash’s output using your DSLR.

As a Blind Photographer, I tend to have trouble with this. Even when using the big, bright viewfinder of my Canon 5D Mk II it can be problematic. In this case, an electronic viewfinder like those on some Micro Four Thirds cameras can suit the photographer well.

Staying Focused

Part of being a professional is being polite, efficient and focused. This can mean anything from trying to get your images right in one or two shots to making sure that the Terrier jumping on you doesn’t mess up your shot to monitoring your technical parameters to stay efficient.

It’s very easy to get caught up in the party and not want to work. That isn’t to say not to talk to people. There are always going to be people that will want to see your images and talk to you about it all. The client will most likely want to do this.

In my experience, that’s never hurt me too much. It has helped for me to build relations with people and get more gigs as well as have more people view my blog. It’s especially useful for when you’re near the end of the gig and things are starting to slow down. These are when you are more likely to get repeat images, things that look the same or are from the same viewpoint over and over again.

If you’re shooting something high profile like a wedding though, stay focused on basically nothing else but taking images.

Follow these techniques and pointers and you should end up with great work to show off to future clients.

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Chris Gampat is a photographer, videographer, tech journalist, and gamer. He runs and publishes the Phoblographer.Wordpress.com. He’s also worked for Photography Bay, Blind Photographers, 2D-X, PCMag, Geek.com, Magnum Photos, and Spotlight Press, amongst others. He’s had photos in the NYTimes and all across the web and publishing world.

Original text and images ©2010 Chris Gampat.

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