Corporate Event Photography
A Corporate Event Shot List
Corporate events can seem daunting. Unlike other events (say a wedding) their structure is much more varied. They usually don’t have the emotional content of personal events (e.g. a wedding), but that doesn’t mean they are devoid of emotion or great photo opportunities. We approach them by looking for 6 types of photos:
1. Grip and Grins
2. Step and Repeats
3. Candid Photos
4. The Presenter
6. Crowd Shot
These 6 types of photos provide a complete picture of most events whether it is a multi-day conference with 100,000 attendees or a 2 hours award ceremony at your local chamber of commerce. This type of shot list also allows you to systematically divide and conquer individually or as part of a team.
The Grip and Grin
The first is the basis of all event photography, “The Grip and Grin”, also known as the “Stop and Smile”. These are taken as you meander through the crowd. As a photographer, you will need to ask participants to get together for a photo or people may ask you for a photo together.
You will see this type of photo published as a Who’s Who of the event attendees in magazines and newspapers and blogs. Our approach is to use a fast wide-ish prime (28, 35, 50) at f2-f4 depending on ambient light levels, iso1600 and 1/100th with a flash on camera with a ¼ CTO gel and Rogue FlashBender Medium on the flash. Set the camera to approximately 4000K white balance. The flash should be on TTL (auto) mode in most cases.
This setup does a few things. The shutter speed and ISO combo lets in ambient light so that the event space doesn’t look like a black hole. Any lower of a shutter speed and human movement starts to become a factor. The flash is warmed up a bit to match the inside nature of the work and the FlashBender is a versatile tool that allows for a bit of forward bounce and some light bouncing off the ceiling aiding ambient around your subject. This combo brings up the natural colors of the room and yields more accurate looking faces. One more bonus of the FlashBender is that its a pliable fabric that is easily stowed in a pocket and travels well. Mastering this technique is the biggest foundational piece of event photography.
The Step and Repeat
Our second type of photo and cousin to the grip and grin is “The Step and Repeat”. Here, the guests come to you against an event backdrop where they pose for a few shots as they enter the event. Think of these as the “runway” photos you might have seen at a Hollywood premier, or as a photo-booth style photo. Sometimes we do these on a “natural” backdrop, i.e. against a wall or other existing background. Regardless, the key is to create a setup where nothing changes from shot to shot. Once a Step and Repeat is set up, the lighting and camera settings should not change from shot to shot.
We like to tackle these with a consistent approach using one off camera light if the space allows. Our camera settings are usually around f/5.6 or f/8.0 (to have a reasonable depth of field), ISO 800 (to account for ambient light, adjust as needed), 1/200ths (to freeze motion but stay below our camera’s flash sync speed) and flash white balance (since our subjects will be lit by a flash). Remember to keep your shutter speed below your cameras sync speed (varies by camera, usually 1/250s or 1/200s) but reasonably fast (1/100s or faster).
We us Paul C. Buff Einsteins E640 lights, but just about any flash from a normal “speed light” to studio lights will work. The less powerful the light you use, the less of a modifier you can attach. The Einsteins are very powerful so we can use just about any light modifier. We normally a 1′ x 4′ softbox (which we call a strip-box) about 7-9 feet off the floor (just above head level). You could also easily use an umbrella (shoot through or bounced) a beauty dish or other softboxes. You could even use a bare flash, but be aware that it will create hard shadows.
The required flash power will depend on the ambient, your camera settings, how powerful the flash is and the light modifier you use. We normally shoot at around 1/16 power with our setup (Einstein + Strip-box). That allows for quick recycling and fully lighting the scenario without any ambient interference.
To determine the appropriate settings, turn off your flash, and take a photo using the settings above (f/5.6, ISO 800, 1/200s) as a starting point. The photo should be 1 or more stops under exposed. If it isn’t, you may need to reduce your exposure (stop down to f/8.0 or slower, or drop your ISO). Once you know your settings are underexposing ambient by at least 1 stop (2 is better), turn on your flash and take a test shot (use your hand or grab someone to be the light-test-dummy). Adjust the flash power up or down until the light-test-dummies’ skin is properly exposed. Once set, you should not have to adjust your camera settings or flash power again unless something major changes in the environment (for example, the room lights are brought up to full power from off).
If you are working with a group of photographers in this setup, or near a stage with lights, remember to turn off optical triggering. Otherwise your flash will get fired by them draining your battery. I learned that one the hard way.
Our third type of photos is the one that is the most hit or miss in delivering happiness to your clients: The Candid. Once you can get the foundations of the top two checked off your list the Candid is what can set you apart from other working photographers. Great wedding photographers do this well and our goal for a corporate event is the same: show the emotion, and excitement of the event. Of course, a corporate event is a tougher setting to find that emotion and excitement than a wedding in most cases. I am going to spend a chunk of time on this one so buckle up.
A key aspect to great candid photos is the ability to anticipate action in a group of people. Once a moment has happened, you have already missed it. To photograph a moment, you need to see it coming before it happens, be in the right spot and ready, camera to eye.
Watch For the Moment
To do that, I’m on the lookout for 2 things. First, I am on the lookout for positive body language, groups of friends walking and talking. I’m searching for meetings between separated colleges and friends. I’m looking for clicks in the crowd. To anticipate a moment, I look to when the “Wave breaks.”
What does the “wave breaks” mean? Most interactions have a rhythm, rather like waves coming onto a beach. There is a build up (a swelling) when the wave is just a smooth bump. At some critical point, the top of the wave breaks over the top of the rest of the wave. After it is churning white water. But, right around the break, things are interesting. Social interactions tend to be the same. There is a build up and a breaking moment when everyone in the group is smiling, making eye contact with each other, maybe have interesting expressions or are laughing. Once the break happens, the moment passes. When I am on the hunt for great candids, I am listening to the crowd waiting to hear the approaching break of a laughter wave in a group. That point is where I get my smiling in the crowd photos.
The 2nd thing I am on the lookout for is a good visual environment, and in particular good directional light. Often, corporate events happen in dimmly lit hotel conference centers, but even there, there are good opportunities. Atriums and entry ways, with their large windows and high ceilings are good hunting grounds if the event includes activities in those ares. It rarely exists as you are often in a closed space with few windows or any daylight at all, but when it does exist find your composition and photograph a good set of action in the good light.
The Right Settings
The “right” settings for candid shots vary greatly depending on the situation. Generally we shoot wide open (or nearly so), f/2.8 or faster if your lens can. Set your ISO to match the ambient, and go as high as you need to get the shot with a reasonable shutter speed. If you choose to use Manual exposure mode, make sure your shutter speed is fast enough to prevent camera shake and freeze your subject’s motion. The more telephoto your lens, the higher that speed needs to be. The reciprocal rule is a good starting guess for a minimum shutter speed if you aren’t sure.
Because candid photos can happen in rapidly changing light (for example if one side of the room has windows and the other doesn’t), we sometimes use Aperture priority with spot metering and allow the camera to track changing light on our subjects. Remember to set your ISO (or use AutoISO) so that your shutter speed stays fast enough under any light conditions in the room. I do that by finding the darkest areas I’m likely to shoot in and checking my shutter speed at my desired aperture there. If it is to slow, I bump up the ISO.
Sometimes we use flash and sometimes we shoot only with available light. It depends on the situation, including schedule, space and conditions.
Set your white balance for the ambient light and remember that many venues will have mixed light. One side of the room might be daylight white balance and other other incandescent. Shooting raw allows you to choose later if you get it wrong.
The Presenter is generally more of a collection of photographs so let’s discuss what belongs in the set. While the person is presenting, you need to capture at least three angles: Straight on, Profile and Environmental.
Straight On & Profile
We normally use a 70-200mm for the Straight On and Profile shots. Portrait length primes (85mm, 105mm, 135mm) are also a good option, but are less flexible than a zoom. For both types of photos we try to get a variety of framing including as wide as full body (showing the podium) to as tight as a head shot (watch for a good expression or powerful moment). The only real difference between the Straight On and Profile shot is where we stand. Straight On shots are from the audiences point of view looking into the presenter’s face. Profile shots are taken from the wings of the stage and show the presenter in profile.
Meter the the scene to properly expose the presenter and set your white balance to match the stage lights so the presenter’s skin looks normal. Depending on the conditions, we might shoot in Manual exposure mode (the light is consistent and not changing) or Aperture exposure mode with spot metering (for lighting that is changing on the presenter). In either case, remember to properly expose the presenter’s skin. We don’t typically use flash since it distracts the speaker and audience.
Environmental shots show the presenter in the context of the room and include shots of the audience in general. Sometimes they are over the audiences shoulder (showing the audience), sometimes from “the pit” in front of the stage showing the presenter small against the backdrop of the stage. Other times, they are from stage showing the audience (if we can get on stage without distracting from the presentation). The goal is to show the presenter in context with the stage, audience, graphics, and any other design elements the event includes. A wide angle lens is useful in many larger rooms. We use the 16-35mm focus length range to show all the elements coming together. A 24-70 is also a good option for environmental shots.
Exposure and white balance settings can very dramatically for environmental shots since the light level, layout and intent of the shots varies so much. Sometimes we may want the presenter silhouetted against a lit backdrop or projected image. Other times we might want to properly expose the presenter’s skin. Other situations call for exposing the audience properly, which will likely be in much dimmer light than the stage. Regardless of the situation, always start with the image in your head (visualize the results) and then adjust the camera settings to achieve that result.
Some corporate events have a lot of details, others don’t. Regardless, detail shots can be a great storytelling element for your customer. A variety of lenses work for this, but my gotos are my 24-105mm f/4 zoom and 100mm f/2.8 macro. In general there are 2 types of shots I look.
The first detail shot we look for is a close up. We normally use the 100mm macro lens. The close ups shows event items in high detail and isolated from background distractions. You can think of this as an on location product photo trying to make the detail look as good as possible alone.
The second detail shot we look for is the room shot. It shows most of or all of the room in its finish form before attendees have entered. We don’t worry about this for conference rooms with rows of simple chairs, but ball rooms at awards banquets (for example) are a different story. If someone went to pains to make the room look good (there are decorations, center pieces, up-lighting, etc), we photograph it. The event planners need to make sure there is a window of time when the room is finished but not in use and my schedule is open otherwise. It is (nearly) impossible to take good room shots when the staff is fiddling with things or the crowd has already entered.
What’s In a Detail
Remember, details include things like table centerpieces, signage, plated food, special drinks, gifts or anything else small or special at the event. Don’t forget detail shots of the event staff in action too. Close ups on hands working with some of the special elements of the event fit here too and help tell the overall story of the event.
In general, I find that I need a set of time to focus on finding detail photos at the exclusion of everything else. Finding the small for me takes a dedicated mindset. This will take practice but I usually look for hands, eyes and logo’ed items. Look for things the event organizers spent time and money on. And, as a rule, I almost always ask “are there any special details I should know about” since some of the special items might not be obvious. Finding the small that tells a bigger story is a skill I definitely had to work on. This shot usually comprises about 5% of my delivered sets but but accounts for way more of the impact.
The Crowd Shot
Like the “Environmental” shot in the “Presenter” section, crowd shots aim to give the event context. Normally we use a wide-ish lens, for example a 35mm but there is no hard and fast rule. The goal is to give viewers a sense of the scope of the event on a session by session basis. Was it a packed room party or was it a classy relaxed dinner? Was it an energetic awards ceremony in a packed auditorium? Whatever the event is, the crowd shots are the set of images that tell that part of the story. You can think of these as even landscape photos.
And, like the environmental presenter photos, settings and lens choice for crowd shots is going to vary widely from situation to situation. Start with the image in your head and choose your settings to achieve that goal. In general, make sure you have enough depth of field (i.e. your aperture is stopped down slow enough). With wide angle lenses, you can shoot at f/5.6 or event f/4 and still have reasonable depth of field. Determine exposure and white balance according to the conditions and the image you are visualising.