Taking Photos at Conferences

You've been asked to take some pictures for the team's/company's blog/newsletter while you're at the conference. How do you come back with something actually usable?

How hard can it be?

If you were sent to the souks of Morocco with a half-decent camera, it wouldn't be hard to come back with a few fantastic shots. You'd have amazing light, fantastic colors, and exotic characters to work with. Conferences typically have none of these things -- the light is usually horribly unflattering and there is too little of it, and you're taking pictures of a lot of people in business suits milling around making presentations, and in meetings. It can be difficult to get enthused about the subject.

There's a reason I use stupidly heavy, expensive cameras and lenses for these photo shoots, but learning to use this equipment takes time. And who wants to lug around tens of pounds and thousands of dollars worth of camera gear, in addition to your laptop and other gear? So what is a road warrior to do, especially if you just want to use your iPhone or slim point-and-shoot?

There are a few things working in your favor:

Your shot will probably be displayed in a relatively small size -- perhaps just a thumbnail in a blog entry or a newsletter to try to make big blocks of text more visually interesting. Your shot is not going to be printed in a two-page magazine spread, so you don't need to sweat the small, technical stuff.

Secondly, today's cameras (even the one in your iPhone) are amazing pieces of technology. Compared to the cameras of 5 years ago, the way they handle low light and complicated lighting situations is almost miraculous.

Almost ...

1: Your Camera Doesn't Think. That's Your Job. 

My first tip: Do not mistake all those technological features in your camera as intelligence. Your camera is not smart, however much its manufacturer may claim otherwise. Your camera does math really well. It guesses at settings based on what its sensors are telling it and how it is programmed, and this looks like intelligence within normal shooting parameters, such as your family vacation. But when you're inside a badly lit hall, that programming starts to fall apart. Your job is to do the thinking while your camera does the math.

This basically means that you shouldn't just rely on your camera to get everything right. When the exposure or color balance is off or looks horrible, you have to know why and be able to make compensations. Unfortunately, in taxing photographic situations such as a conference or meeting, you can't always rely on the dummy "P" mode. You're probably going to have to access some of your camera's more advanced features. When you chimp and see something wrong with the shot you just took, think about what the camera is not getting right and adjust accordingly.

Don't let this scare you off - you don't need a degree in photography to be able to do this. You just need a few more tips ...

2: Turn off your flash

This is one reason you have to get out of "Program" mode: your camera will "see'" the low light in any presentation room as too dark. It will turn on the flash -- which is, at best, useless and obtrusive and, at worst, ruins your shot. How will it ruin your shots? The flash is too "fashy" (I hope I'm not getting too technical here). You know those pictures you took at a birthday party with the flash on, where your subject's skin is bleached white and the background is monstrously black and dark? That's what flash does. It over-lights your subject and makes everything else black. This is the very definition of a snapshot, and while you might be able to get away with these kinds of shots on Facebook, they will make your newsletter look amateurish.

When I say your flash is useless, I mean it probably won't reach your subject. Your flash might look bright, but it is tiny, harsh and directional -- and it probably won't even reach more than 6 feet. Your iPhone with its LED flash probably doesn't even reach that far. You know when you go to a concert and see all those flashes going off in the audience? They're all a useless waste of batteries. You will never see a professional concert photographer using flash. Why? A flash powerful enough to reach their subject would be too heavy to hold. If it did reach the subject, it would annoy the performer and the audience, and the resulting picture would look like it was lit by daylight not the stage lights. Stage photographers use "available light" -- and you should, too.

There is a price to pay for using available light indoors, and that is "noise." Noise is the ugly grainy effect you see when you shoot in low light with the flash off. It is the result of your sensor working hard, and electronics amplifying a weak signal. But grain is far preferable to not getting the shot or taking a "flashy" deer-in-the-headlights picture. There is something we can do about noise in editing; we can't make it totally go away, but we can reduce its effects. Noise, however, is usually only noticeable if you look at a picture large - when it is printed or cropped small, it is hard to see.

3: Watch the light

Photography is all about light. When photographers look at the light, we look at two things: quantity and quality. Quantity is the amount of light available. Our eyes are amazing; we can walk from bright sunshine to a dark theater and they adjust almost instantaneously. Our cameras are not quite so flexible. Even though we can see clearly in both situations, that doesn't mean there is the same amount of light. Inside, there may be only 5% (or less) of the light available outside in the daylight.

Quality refers to how directional (or defused) the light is and its color. We usually can't do anything about the directionality of the light in a conference room, however, watch for strong back-lighting. For example, if your subject is standing in front of a projection screen, they are back-lit (the light coming from behind them is much stronger than the light falling on the front of them). You are unlikely to get anything more than a silhouette. What can you do about this? Move your feet and your shooting position. If you move to the side so the screen is not in your frame anymore, you should get better lighting for your subject.

Light has a color. Again, our eyes and brains automatically adjust for this, and your camera tries but interiors throw it off. Daylight is slightly blue. The light first thing in the morning or last thing in the evening is much warmer (the golden hours, in photog parlance). Interior light is often very orange, but that depends on the light source. Fluorescent strip lights look green, and don't get me started on the horrible sodium lights they use on my conference demo halls. It will help if you know how to set your camera's color balance manually, but again, there is a limited amount of color correction that we can make later. It is more important that you try to see like the camera and become more aware of the light.

4: Burst mode is not just for sports photographers

Most cameras have a burst or continuous mode that is packaged for sports pictures, however, it is really useful for conference shots, too. One of the main reasons a photograph is not acceptable technically is that it has a lack of sharpness. This isn't usually a result of the camera not focusing on the subject, but more often is because of movement in either the subject (motion-blur) or the camera (camera-shake). In low-light situations, your shutter speed is typically longer -- which means that there is a much greater chance of introducing camera-shake. When you press the shutter, don't hit it like a keyboard but squeeze it like a trigger. This reduces the amount you move the camera itself when you take the shot.

In burst mode, you typically take 3+ shots every time you press the shutter. The advantage of this is two-fold: first, even if the camera is moving in the first shot as you press the shutter, it will probably be more still in the second and third, so they will be sharper. The second advantage has to do with people's expressions as they talk. When people speak, their mouths move into unusual positions for a fraction of a second. We often do not appreciate that until that moment is frozen by a camera. As people talk, their expressions can look momentarily unflattering. Some people blink a lot when they speak. If you take a lot of shots at once, you have a much greater chance of getting a flattering, sharp shot with the subject's eyes open.

The professional photographer's biggest secret is that he/she shoots a lot more than any amateur. We don't ever take one shot -- we shoot and shoot and shoot some more. When we get back home, we sift through hundreds of shots for the best one or two, and the rest never see the light of day. If you only take one shot, the chances of it being a keeper may be 20:1 (10:1 if we're being generous). If you take 20 shots of the same thing, therefore, you are much more likely to get the shot you need.

5: Zoom with your feet - turn digital zoom off

In the quest to impress consumers with massive zoom magnification figures, manufactures sometimes bring "digital zoom" into the equation. Optical zoom is achieved through the physics of moving pieces of glass around. Digital zoom does little more than crop your image in-camera and boost the resolution of the resulting file. If, when you zoom in, your images look jaggy (another technical term) on sharp edges, the digital zoom may have kicked in. Go to your manual and find out how to turn digital zoom off. It's better to just to crop the image yourself when you get home than to let the camera do it.

If you're using your iPhone, all of your zoom is digital -- so don't use zoom.

It's much better to "zoom with your feet," that is, keep the camera lens at a wide angle setting and walk to a better shooting angle rather than shooting from the back of the room and zooming in. The longer your zoom, the greater the chance that you will introduce camera-shake. Try this: take a camera with a wide zoom setting, and at its widest setting, try to hold it still while framing a shot. You should be able to hold it pretty steady. Now try again at the longest (most zoomed-in setting). You should see that your frame doesn't remain as steady zoomed in. Zoom exaggerates camera movements and shake. Extreme zoom should be avoided, especially in low-light situations.

6: Watch your frame

Our eyes and mind, in combination, are selective and see what we want to see -- not necessarily what is actually there. A camera is not selective like that. It just represents what is put in front of it, so you should try to see like a camera. Try to be aware of where your subject is in relation to the edges of the frame. Fill the frame with your subject, especially if the image is to be displayed at a relatively small size. Remember to check your background. Keep horizon lines as level as you can. If the stage appears to be tilting at some crazy angle, it will throw your viewer off. Even a small tilt makes the viewer think things are slipping downhill. Keep an eye out for distracting elements such as glowing exit signs behind a presenter. By moving your camera position even an inch or two over, you may be able to block that distracting element with the subject.

Also look for things blocking your subject. A microphone on the lectern may provide a sense of place, but if it covers the speaker's mouth or an eye, it will be distracting. A microphone, auto-queue or even a speaker's papers can also throw off your camera's focus, so try to make sure your camera is locked on the speaker's face. If your camera has "Face Chaser" technology, turn it on. After you think you have the shot, review some shots on your camera's display to make sure what you caught looks something like what you saw and what you wanted to show.

7: Don't run out of juice

Your camera needs power and space on a memory card to work. If you are nursing a battery or editing yourself before you even take a shot because you are running out of space on your card, you are likely to miss the best shot. Have a fresh battery plus a spare with you when you begin every day. Also, buy a second or third memory card and keep it in your pocket. Remember, the biggest difference between pros and amateurs is that pros shoot much more - with enough power and card space, you can easily shoot like a pro. Don't cripple yourself by skimping on these accessories. Be prepared.

8: Learn to be selective and edit

Even though professionals shoot a lot of frames, they show only the best and they hide the rest away. Sifting through your pictures on your computer is a skill and a chore, but must be endured. You don't want to give your team every shot you took of a particular presenter -- you want to show them one or two of the best. If you show more, you dilute the impact of what you have and your "consumers" become spoiled by choice.

Sifting through your images generally goes in two or more passes. On the first pass, eliminate any pictures with technical issues. If something is even slightly out of focus, throw it away. If a shot's exposure is so far off that it is beyond saving, delete it. In the second pass, pick the potential shots to process and deliver. There is a lot of software out there to help you with this chore, from the free (Picasa, iPhoto), to the moderately priced (Photoshop Elements) to the professional (Lightroom, Aperture). Pick one and learn how to use it. None of them are difficult to use after a brief learning curve.

I can't teach you to edit in the space of a paragraph, but no professional delivers images raw out of their camera. There is always a tweak or two worth doing. It can be a little intimidating when you begin learning to edit, but operations usually fall in a few general areas:

  • Global adjustments that affect all pixels in an image like levels, exposure, color balance, saturation, etc.
  • Specific adjustments that change limited groups of pixels like cropping, cloning, perspective correction, etc.
  • Artistic adjustments such as converting to black & white, filters, etc.

Don't worry if this means nothing to you yet, but if you learn nothing more than how to crop and adjust your levels in your free, image-editing program, you will greatly increase the impact of your photos. Be warned: Learning how to edit pictures can become an addictive time-suck.

9: Don't say "cheese"

The way we've been taught to take photos is to jump in front of one or more people, tell them to say "cheese," watch them stiffly pose, and take the shot. This might work at the Thanksgiving dinner table, but it won't get you anything too interesting at the conference. There is a place for a quick, formal head-shot, but that's a different subject than general conference photography. What you want to tell the story is some establishing shots (the venue exteriors, crowds milling around, the demo grounds floor, conference banners, etc.) and then the narrative itself (presenters presenting, attendees attending, demo staff demo'ing).

Get a good position in the front row to take pictures of the presenter at work. He or she will be far too busy working the crowd to notice or worry about you taking pictures. As I've already mentioned, taking flattering pictures of someone talking is a challenge, so take lots of shots. You don't want shots of the person looking stiff behind the lectern either, so look for moments when the presenter becomes especially animated and uses his hands or even props to illustrate a point.

Once you've taken your shots of the presenter, get up and work the room a bit. Take wider shots of the presenter and the screen, wide shots of the filled room with the presenter up front, and detail shots of the rapt audience. Without being too creepy, try to be inconspicuous and catch people doing what they do. If you're not too up-in-their-face, they won't pay any attention to you. The larger the room, the easier this all is. In a more intimate environment, it is much harder to be inconspicuous. In this situation, you should still take lots of shots, but write off the first few minutes of shots until your subjects become used to you being there and taking photos. Once the novelty wears off, they will stop paying attention to you, and then you can get the better shots. In small-room presentations, look for those moments when the presenter and audience are interacting. In those moments, when people are enthusiastic and involved, they will totally forget about you -- and you will be able to get the most animated shots.

10: Have fun

We don't get too many opportunities to play while at work, but photography can be playful and fun. If you are just doing the minimum required to get a shot, your photos will reflect your attitude. Look for what interests you visually, and it will interest others. A presentation room maybe the most mundane of venues, but play a game with yourself to find the most visually interesting element in the room and feature it. Try taking a panorama of the whole room with an app on your iPhone. In your image editor software, try to make your best shots even better before delivering them. Use what you've made to illustrate your own reports, blog posts or other documents - illustrating those paragraphs of text makes them much more digestible.

Happy shooting!

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