Event Photography Case Study: Adapting to Changing Light
· Type: Multi-Day Corporate Event
· Location: Las Vegas, Nevada, Mandalay Bay Event Center, Las Vegas Motor Speedway
· Event Size: Medium
· Difficulty: Advanced (stage, available light, night, awards,)
· Elements: Keynotes, General Session, Night, Special Conditions, Awards Presentation
· Skills: Experienced photographer, Challenging/Changing Lighting Conditions
· Challenges: Special Condition, Changing Light, Fast Moving Awards Presentation
· Fun Facts: Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Fireworks
In this case study, I will highlight the importance of an event photographer’s ability to be adaptable and flexible particularly when it comes to lighting. Whether it’s available light or portable light, event photographers need to have the experience and/or training to quickly assess and adapt to changing light to successfully capture larger events. This particular assignment lasted over a day and a half and posed multiple lighting challenges. The challenge of the lighting was fun, and it allowed me to provide my clients with a wide variety of unique images.
The assignment started with me photographing an evening networking event/cocktail hour for the company’s clients. I was hired by the production company for the event to not only capture the event as it unfolded, but to also take “beauty shots” and behind the scene shots of the work the production company created for the client’s various events.
In the first two shots, the venue (Mandalay Bay) converted the hallways outside of the actual ballrooms into a casual lounge and the production company wanted to make sure to get some great images that they could use to pitch the idea to future clients. Even when not requested, it’s a good idea to get these kinds of shots so that you can share them with the production companies you are working with whether they are the ones that hired you or not. Developing relationships with production companies is one of the best ways to acquire leads and get repeat customers.
I used a tripod-mounted camera and in-camera HDR settings to ensure that I was able to keep the highlights while exposing for the shadows. I was careful not to overdo the HDR effects and keep the images looking natural and not over-processed. Color balance is important and sometimes with these images, it’s easy to leave them a bit to warm. While it would have been possible to shoot this scene handheld, I would have needed to use a high ISO and open up the aperture, limiting my depth of field.
Clients like to see rooms full of engaged people. It is a good sign that their efforts have paid off in a successful event. They can later use these images to share and sell the show or event for the following year and attract new attendees. Make sure you move around and find the right angles that show the room or event at it’s fullest. People and objects in the foreground help fill space and create a busy feeling. Watch for empty chairs or vacant spaces that may not seem obvious at first but make an event seem poorly attended. Also, look for angles that show off the room and capture any branding when possible. I stood on a slightly raised platform and handheld the camera to get the shot above. The slight rise in the camera position keeps the shot looking natural and allowed me to visually show how busy the room was by extending the viewers’ vision to the end. I could have used a tripod but the advantage would have been minimal because a relatively fast shutter speed was needed to keep the moving people in focus.
Cocktail hours and networking events are an important part of corporate events and your clients will invest a lot of time and effort to ensure their attendees enjoy them. There will be many different kinds of offerings and entertainment available depending on the event, but food is usually a key component. If you’re lucky, the food will be displayed attractively and with amazing lighting but in my experience, that seldom happens. You will need to be adaptable. In the two examples I have posted, the first one is very colorful and the repetition of shapes is interesting but there is no light on the jars except for standard, overhead room light. If properly exposed for the available light, I would have had to either blow out the accent lighting behind the jars or leave the colorful ceviche in the jars dark and under-exposed. Neither option was acceptable so I chose to bounce some light from my on-camera flash towards a white display that was positioned camera left. The key was not to overpower the scene with flash, so using the flash in manual, I dialed in 1/16 power and just added a pop of light to bring out the colors in the jars while exposing for the bright lights in the background. Determining how much flash to use to keep the scene natural is a matter of experience but it is based on the overall brightness of the scene as well as the distance light from the flash is going to need to travel.
In the image of toasted sandwiches and au jus in coffee cups, the key light was provided from the heat lamps the food was sitting under. Heat lamps are very bright, harsh, and yellow creating a narrow spotlight effect with drop off around the edges being extreme. Camera settings were drastically different from the low light room settings I had been shooting so I had to make some major adjustments to ISO and exposure setting to keep this scene from being completely blown out. I also dropped the color temp to 2800K to eliminate as much yellow as possible. To avoid the spotlight effect that this sort of set up creates, I moved in close and cropped out as much of the unlit area as possible keeping the image evenly lit. Fortunately, the coffee cups were white, making color correction relatively easy in post
The lighting setup I use for shooting candids of people at networking events is an on-camera flash attached to this bracket(Custom Brackets RF -Pro). This allows me to flip the flash horizontal or vertical giving me the flexibility to aim the flash in pretty much any direction needed to bounce the light. In these photos, I am using the flash directly by either aiming it at my subjects or aiming the flash up. When I aim the flash up, I am not trying to bounce off the ceiling but instead, I am using a Sto-fen cover mounted on the top of the flash and using it like a light bulb of sorts.
There is enough light in the room so that I can expose for the ambient and just add a pop of flash to fill in the shadows and brighten faces without making it obvious. I usually place a Sto-fen flash diffuser on the flash to soften the light a little unless I am bouncing the flash, in which case I just stick it in my pocket.
The procession of my photographs from room shots to wide shots to details and intimate candids of people is how I like to work networking events. Get the room and details while they are fresh, then begin capturing people about a half-hour after the event begins. Why do I shoot in this order? It usually takes some time for people to arrive, grab a bite to eat and get comfortable. They get a chance to see me moving around, capturing details and they get used to my presence. It also allows them to get a few drinks, find friends and start having fun. All of these things lead to natural, relaxed candids of attendees enjoying the event. This is what your client will be looking for. In these candids, the people have real smiles, are engaged and shaking hands and laughing. This helps to create images that project a successful event.
People like to huddle in circles when they interact. That means invariably, you’re going to get shots of the backs of people heads and that seldom looks good. To avoid this, I try to find angles that minimize this problem and look for intriguing enough expressions and reactions that distract from less than ideal head placement. This strategy requires some patience on your part but stay vigilant and keep moving around to find those angles. You can also shoot “posed” candids where your subjects smile and look at the camera. I like to mix in these kinds of shots with true candids. I am always on the lookout for groups of three and five, (the camera likes odd number compositions) who are having a good time and have a formed relationship with each other that will result in fun natural expression and lots of smiles. I will briefly wait for lulls in the conversation so that I can quickly get their attention for a quick shot. It is important to be ready with your settings and not make them wait while fiddling with the camera or flash. This delay, even for a second can result in stiff expressions and unnatural looks. Two quick shots and I’m out, letting them get back to their conversations. Some people are not comfortable having their photos taken and that’s okay. I know I don’t. Don’t force it if they are not interested, just say no problem and move on.
Both of these shots are shots the production requested. A behind-the-scenes image of the back-of-house, backstage setup and a front of house “beauty shot” of the stage before the session begins. Both shots were taken using the same technique and equipment. However, the shot of the backstage control room was extremely dark with only the monitors visible and the front-of-house stage shot was very bright. I used in-camera HDR settings in both cases, with a tripod-mounted camera and a cable release.
Both shots are “realistic” in the sense that you can see details in the darks, the screens and monitors are readable but what’s naturally dark is still dark in the photo and what is bright is still bright. It would be “unrealistic” to make everything evenly lit. Avoid the temptation to overdue HDR effects, it will just make your images look fake and in my opinion unprofessional. These shots would not have been possible without a tripod so keep one handy.
Sometimes you get lucky and the production team does an outstanding job of lighting the stage. It is usually a product of how much money the sponsors can and/or are willing to spend. For this event, no expense was sparred and the lighting was incredible. Hence the production company wanting to make sure they had professional shots of the setup and general sessions. Granted, the lighting was exceptional, but it was still my job to make the images interesting. It would have been a shame to work with such great lighting and only to create mediocre shots. Positioning is important and I attended rehearsals earlier in the day so that I would know when and where everything was happening on stage. For this shot, I knew the little electric car would be entering stage right but would then do a u-turn and end up facing the way it came in. The headlights add an extra dimension to the image. There is enough light on the crowd so that you know they are there while keeping everything realistic. Available light only.
A little sidestep to the left and a long lens on my monopod, same scene, different look. Available light. Later in this study, I will talk about using fill flash on stage in certain situations but the light was well thought out and the presenter is lit from multiple angles with fill and key lights. Watch for hand gestures and expressions to make these kind of shots dynamic and interesting.
From the on-stage close-up, I simply turned my long lens towards the audience and waited for a bright scene to appear on the giant screen. The attentive audience was illuminated and I fired away. It’s hard to focus on every face and what each person is doing so be patient and take multiple shots in this scenario. People yawning, napping or looking down at their phones, (which looks an awful lot like they are napping) can ruin this shot. The idea is intent, interested faces, learning from the presentation. Available light from the on-stage screen.
Another right place at the right time shot. The backlighting is from car headlights and it adds a dynamic to the shot that would not be there without it. Being in the right spot was not luck. From attending rehearsals, I knew when and where this would happen and moved into place shortly before. I mention car headlights. This was a Toyota sponsored event and the stage was set allowing them to drive their latest models on stage for their audience of dealers to preview. The trick was that most of the cars had not been introduced to the general public so, for privacy reasons, I was asked not to shoot any of the cars that appeared behind the speakers on stage. It was a challenge, but by moving to the left and right edges of the stage, I was able to capture all the action without revealing the automobiles.
This was a scripted “candid moment” and it was very important for the client that I capture it. These can’t miss moments and requests from your clients are critical to the success of the shoot. Make sure you know when and where to be and that you have a backup camera if possible. You won’t get a second chance.
From the same location where I shot the selfie. I just stayed put and went with a wide lens to get an image of the overall scene as the athletes were wrapping up their segment. Available light, handheld.
Immediately following the general session, the attendees were directed to a large ballroom that had been set up for an awards ceremony luncheon. This is were adaptability becomes a necessary skill. We have now gone from a dimly lit cocktail hour to a well lit, action-packed general session, and on to a fast-paced awards ceremony.
I am posting these side by shots to show a subtle but important difference that you need to be aware of with stage lighting. On stage during the general session, the lighting bathed the speakers from multiple angles and was easy to work with. For the awards ceremony, most if not all the light is coming from lights positioned in the front of the stage and does little to illuminate the sides of the speakers. This creates harsh light and dark shadows and one-dimensional lighting. To create a pleasing shot of the speaker, I am using an on-camera flash, aimed directly at the subject to fill in the shadows. I have the flash set on manual and at about 1/8th power to fill but not overpower the available light. Too much flash causes the images to look unnatural and creates unattractive shadows on the stage and background behind the speaker.
Awards ceremonies move fast. They generally don’t stop if you have equipment failure, run out of card space, or have a battery die. Miss any shots due to you not being prepared or having backup equipment immediately available and you probably won’t be asked to shoot another event. Best to be prepared with a backup set-up equally capable of getting the job done. For this event, I had a second identical camera/flash set up just next to the stage with extra batteries and a third flash just in case. The stage for the awards was well lit, and the participants knew where to stand so things went pretty smoothly. I generally mount a flash on my camera with a Stofen aimed up. I do this, not to illuminate, but so that my subjects can see the flash and know the picture(s) are being taken. I pre-focus as they are lining up and quickly fire two shots. It’s important to get the shot, so make sure you get it but it is also important to keep things moving. Event planners like it that way.
Just a simple shot of the dessert offerings towards the end of the luncheon. Shots like this are important to filling out the story of the event and highlighting details that your clients have planned and coordinated. Plus these shots can be fun. Here I set the exposure in-camera for the available room light and then manually set the flash to bounce of a nearby wall, camera left, providing a subtle accent without overpowering the deserts. The light angled off the wall creates a soft, directional light that is much more pleasing than using direct flash or auto settings. I would like to have had a direct flash shot to compare this too but I didn’t even consider the possibility.
The event moved outdoors to the Las Vegas Motor Speedway in the late afternoon. If you are not familiar with Las Vegas, we are located in the desert where we have bright sunlight and cloudless days about 90% of the year. This creates harsh lighting that we have learned to deal with. The motor speedway does not offer a lot of shade so we were required to work within the limitations of that harsh lighting. The trick is to either look for reflected light or use on-camera flash to avoid the strong shadows on people’s faces, in eye sockets and under hats caused by the harsh overhead sun. You can use shade where you can find it, but you have to be aware that you will probably blow out any background detail that is not in the shade.
The bright sunlight is great for colors and it can make things pop.
When not shooting faces, the direct sunlight is not a problem and you can see from the sky that we had a few clouds that day.
It’s when you start to shoot faces that you begin to have to deal with the harsh shadows caused by the downlighting. In this case, the light is striking her face, under the helmet so we can see her expression. It also helps that the concrete track is a neutral gray and is reflecting light up and into the faces giving us some detail.
The trick here is the use of on-camera flash in such a manner that it brightens faces without being obvious or overpowering. At times, I like to set my auto output on the flash to -2ev to -3ev just to get a pop of light. On Canon flashes particularly, it seems they are easily fooled by black or white objects and the output can be very inconsistent. Understanding this, I will manually set the flash and pre-test the results to ensure I am getting the desired effect. For instance, a manual setting of 1/8 power output on a bright day gives me a little pop. I then just need to maintain a consistent distance from my subjects, maybe 12 feet when I fire. These are not absolute numbers so you will need to experiment and adjust as the light changes. A final point. Bright sunny days require pretty high f-stop/ shutter speed combinations making it difficult to get your flash to sync with the camera’s low sync speed. The standard is 1/60 but can range as high as 1/180 on my Mark IV. This is still to slow for bright sunlight and proper ambient exposure. My trick is to always carry a polarizing filter. This gives you 3- 4 additional stops to play with. The polarizer effectively becomes a Neutral Density Filter.
As the sun begins to get low, the main grandstands are beginning to shade the infield where most of the event is taking place. This shot was taken when the light balance was about right. The contrast will continue to grow until the sun sets and the lighting will even out for a short time.
It’s approaching dusk in the infield during the event and we are beginning to use fill flash to separate and light our subjects a bit. The trick here is to balance the flash with the daylight so that it’s not too obvious. Constantly monitoring and adjusting is the key here.
We finished the evening with a concert! Concert lighting is generally pretty easy to work with and the production crews do a great job of creating fun, lively and directional lighting that you can use to your advantage. In this case, they were using newer LED’s so balancing the waning daylight with the concert lighting was easy enough. Tungsten lighting would have been nice though because we would have balanced for the warm stage lighting which would have produced deep, stunning blue skies in the background. I’m not complaining though.
As dusk begins to settle in, we get the happy hour of “night shooting.” The point where artificial lighting balances with the sky, creating deep blue colors and backgrounds. This is the best time to shoot skylines, architecture and buildings to get that deep blue sky while still retaining detail in the buildings and lights. These magic hours happen fast so be alert and prepared to take advantage. Once it passes, the artificial light takes over and you lose details and are left with black, detail-less skies.
Classic, long exposure of a Ferris wheel. This is handheld, probably 1/15 of second with an image stabilized lens. Anything longer would have required a tripod but we will still get a nice effect and a beautiful blue color in the sky. You’ve got about a 10-minute window for this particular shot.
Firework shots. Handheld and I simply exposed for the fireworks as they burst. The display was big enough and fast enough that I didn’t have to time my exposures. Just point and shoot at the right exposure for the Ferris Wheel lights and fire away.
There was also enough available light from the displays and stage to allow me to expose for the fireworks and still capture the crowd as they enjoyed the show.
To sum up a rather long article. Being able to adapt to the changing lighting conditions and challenges, will allow you to be confident in accepting any event gig that comes your way. Knowing your camera, its abilities and limitations as well as being able to use the light around you will add a professional dimension to your event photographer that your clients will value. Flash is a critical tool as well and knowing how to use it subtly but effectively will take your event photographer to a whole new level.