I was recently commissioned to photograph a large conference in Manchester, it's by no means a new thing to me. I've photographed all sorts of conferences in my 20 years of photographic experience. But it got me thinking about the difficulties that photographers face when trying to provide good images at these events and to provide a few hints and tips into improving your photography at challenging conference venues.
A good many years ago, I'd have run for the hills if asked to photograph a large light sucking theatre, full of delegates that are usually wearing dark suits. I used to blast flash at everything that moved and the results were frankly dreadful. These days with a sturdy tripod and embracing the higher ISO range of modern digital cameras you can work through a lot of awkward low-light scenarios.
One of the biggest problems with photographing conferences is the lecture theatres themselves. Most are large dimly lit rooms that offer very little ambient light for the photographer to work with. Worse still is that the house lights are only on for the delegates to find their seats, then they drop the lighting so everyone can see the presentations on a data projection screen. This leaves only one realistic option for photographers; raise the ISO (camera sensitivity) until you can achieve a working exposure that you're comfortable with. Fast apertured lenses are essential for this environment. When using high ISO's its imperative to get an accurate exposure, pushing or pulling exposures in post will result in increasing noise in the shadow areas (black suits) and blow the highlight detail (screen information), so make sure your exposure is spot on. If light levels are particularly bad, a tripod will be an essential friend.Tripod tip: Use a slow shutter speed (1/8th - 1/4th) to capture the blur of activity as delegates take to their seats. This can capture the feeling of movement to an otherwise static event.
Using flash in large light-sucking environments is (in my opinion) a complete waste of time. The ceilings are enviably too high to bounce off, the audience too far away and you run the risk of interfering with the presentation. If you use flash even once in this darkened environment, your audience is immediately switched on to your presence and so your chances of blending in or stealthily shooting is over.Tips for better images: speak to the organiser of the event and get the projectionist on-board. Ask if they're happy to show the presentations with a small amount of house light on. Most new conference centres have variable dimmer switches, so ask them to only take them half way down. Failing that, as the screen is the most important thing for the audience, ask if the house lights can be left on at the rear of the auditorium. Any light is better than no light. One other tip is to ask the event co-ordinator to raise the house lights in between presentations, at least you can get some decent photos in the Q&A sessions.
Your conference presenters can inspire and animate the audience, look out for these fleeting moments and be ready. On the whole, presentations can come across pretty dry, unfortunately this may translate into participation being pretty low, the occasional hand raise maybe all you can hope for.
Most conference organisers will want images that make their event look animated, active and engaged, so it's up to the photographer to choose angles that compress the space between presenter and audience. Using a long focal length lens will promote a field compression and help to bring audience and presenter closer together. If you're lucky enough to be in the right place when a question is asked, you can bag yourself some great interactive shots, so watch the audience for some likely question-askers.
Avoid wide angle lenses as this will have the reverse effect, however if you can get a behind the speaker looking out into the audience, this choice of lens can add drama by showing a large auditorium with an eager on-looking audience. However, be mindful if attendance numbers are low this choice of angle is best avoided.
Here's a few images taken at the recent conference.
I'd love to hear your experiences of conference photography and what you've done that's worked out well, so feel free to leave a comment below.