How I succeeded at event photography the first time


An organization recently asked me to do event photography for a high-profile fundraising event. I accepted, despite never having done it before. It went quite well. Here’s how I went about doing it the first time out.

Fundraiser event photography, Skirball Cultural Center.

“Can you take some photographs for us?”

The Development Director of a large non-profit organization asked if I wanted to take photos at a large-scale gala fundraising event, awards ceremony and dinner at Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, CA. I was intrigued. I had never tried to do event photography. Almost all my successes as a photographer have been doing long exposure night photography, a completely different genre.

I felt I should try something new. Learning different forms of photography often informs your creativity and keeps you more open to other possibilities. I asked some questions, negotiated a fair price, and it was on.

At this point, you might be thinking, “You accepted a gig to photograph millionaires at a high-profile gala fundraising event with no experience in event photography?” Yes, that’s exactly what I did. I had enough confidence to know that I could pull it off. But now, I had some preparation to do.

Finding out about the light

When doing event photography, it can be good to get different perspectives.
When doing event photography, it can be good to get different perspectives.

First, I determined what sort of lighting there would be. I would photograph from about 6–7:30 pm The lighting during that time would be a combination of intense summer sun with shade, later becoming mostly shade. I would need to constantly wander indoors and outdoors. In other words, the lighting was quite variable. This was a worthy puzzle to solve.

Using my night photography background

I did light painting during long exposure night photography, I had a strong foundation of how light shapes and controls an image. I had also done some night portraits using off-camera flash. This too would help. I’d think of it like light painting, only doing it much faster.

Fundraiser event photography, Skirball Cultural Center.
Fundraiser event photography, Skirball Cultural Center.

Flash bracket

After some thought, I purchased an inexpensive Stroboframe Quick Flip 350 Flash Bracket. While I rarely used on-camera flash, I felt this might work.

Why?

First of all, I received only vague information about the room. During the rare times that I did use flash, I bounced it off a wall or ceiling. This produces a more pleasing light than pointing the flash at people and getting harsh, flat light and unflattering shadows, red-eye, and irritated looks. But could I do that here?

I also needed to walk indoors and outdoors many times. The light would change.

And finally, I wanted consistency in my lighting.

I felt the flash bracket— although cumbersome — would provide this.

Balancing ambient light vs. flash

Generally, the concept of using a flash during these varied lighting scenarios is simple. You set the camera to expose for the existing ambient light. We all do this naturally anyway. The only difference is that you then use the flash to fill in the subject more. Hmm. Sounds like night photography with light painting to me, only done much quicker!

The aperture remains the same (more or less)

I knew that I wanted to keep the aperture at similar settings. This would create consistency in how softly the background would be in focus.

Adjusting shutter speeds while the light from the flash remains constant

What is really fun here is that I could use a slow or quick shutter speed to determine the ambient light. However, my flash setting would light the subject by about the same amount. 1/50s? 1/200s? It didn’t matter. This made everything easy.

Furthermore, even if I used a slow shutter speed, the instant burst of light from the flash would “freeze” the subject so that they wouldn’t be blurry. Cool!

Shaping the light

I decided I would point the flash straight up to reflect light off the ceiling. This would result in a nice even light from above.

Also, I would use a light modifier called a Rogue Flashbender Reflector to direct the light forward as well. I could bend this back or forward as necessary to determine how much light went forward. This setup gave me flexibility. It would also create catchlights in the eyes in almost any configuration.

Fundraiser event photography, Skirball Cultural Center.
Fundraiser event photography, Skirball Cultural Center.

Developing muscle memory

It’s one thing to know how a flash works conceptually. However, it’s quite another to do it. I wanted to achieve sufficient mastery so I wouldn’t need to think about it. The camera and flash had to be an extension of me.

I photographed items around the house two days before the event. The first day, I photographed some products for a Photofocus article. I photographed dark objects, bright objects and more. And I photographed my wife. I used darker rooms, brighter rooms, photographed near a window or doorway and photographed outside.

The second day, I did all of the above, but wandered in and out of the house very quickly. I became quicker at adjusting or modifying my settings. I had developed muscle memory.

The day of the event

I arrived two hours early. I love arriving early. I love to walk around, look at where I would photograph, determine the light and take a few photos of decor details.

Fundraiser event photography, Skirball Cultural Center.
Fundraiser event photography, Skirball Cultural Center.

I spoke to the marketing director. She gave me some advice. “You’re not creating art. If the lighting isn’t perfect, it doesn’t matter. What matters is getting the photos of the people.”

I had already heard this advice. However, I must say, it was reassuring to hear this. This was probably especially true for me since almost all the photography I do is for creating art. She pulled me to photograph some prominent people several times. I made certain they were well-lit but took comfort in the fact that they didn’t need to be.

Creating fun

Fortunately, at gala fundraising events, most people want to have their picture taken to show they were there. They expect it. We as photographers can have fun, engage people, be friendly and act like we belong by being confident and dressing appropriately. This is what I did for the next 90 minutes.

Photobombed at event, Skirball.
Getting photobombed by the CEO. And he enlisted one of his buddies for this one! The combination of very bright light and shadow can make photos like this very challenging. Flash photography helps even out the subjects quite a bit.

In fact, several of us had quite a bit of fun. The CEO kept laughing and photobombing me for fun. Another guest invited me to sit at his table. If I had any more fun, I might have felt guilty for getting paid. And all of this also creates more intimate, fun and memorable images.

Fundraiser event photography, Skirball Cultural Center.
Fundraiser event photography, Skirball Cultural Center.

The day after

I had set the final images’ delivery time and method beforehand. All of this, the hours, the general approach to photography and much more need to be set with the client prior to the event.

I prefer “under promising and over delivering.” The client and I had agreed on a time to deliver the photos. I delivered them 24 hours beforehand, completely finished and professionally processed.

How I processed the photos so quickly

Fundraiser event photography, Skirball Cultural Center.
Fundraiser event photography, Skirball Cultural Center.

I could have still delivered the photographs before the deadline using Adobe Lightroom Classic. However, I had read about Imagen in Photofocus. They describe themselves as being able to speed up workflow using “AI-powered batch photo editing desktop app for Adobe Lightroom Classic workflows” for both Mac and PC.

To my utter delight, this worked quite well. I submitted almost 100 photos. In the time I walked to the kitchen to get a drink and return, Imagen had finished editing. More importantly, the photos looked great. Although I would have felt more than comfortable delivering the photos edited by Imagen, I tweaked them a little more. I also cropped and straightened them. But Imagen saved me hours of editing (I wrote about my experiences here). The client was very happy with the quality of the photos and the quick turnaround time.

By the way, Imagen offers free editing on your first 1,000 photos (1,500 if you use this link).



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