The anatomy of shooting a corporate conference. Nuts and bolts.

My business does a lot of photographs for shows and special events for corporations.  We've supplied these services in the U.S. and across Europe since the early 1990's.  And there's a lot more to providing event documentation than just showing up with a camera and a few lenses.  Some things are intangible and some are not.  But here's the bottom line:  A conference aimed at a corporation's top 700 people (out of nearly 100,000) is neither the time nor the place for event planners and marketing teams to play around with unknown quantities.  Here's what they're looking for:  Someone who's done so many of these shows that they understand all the things that can go wrong and what the priorities are.  For instance, you may have a certain executive on your "shot list" but his admin may tell you that his schedule has changed.  You roll with the punches, not them.  You change your schedule to match.  If an executive needs your chair, your table, your time, your attention, or your lunch you accomodate. They're playing an international game of high stakes and you can't be the person who threw them off their game no matter what.

This blog is not about the content of their conference.  That's proprietary.  (Good lesson).  This one will be about the nuts and bolts, to give you a glimpse at the kind of work we do and what's entailed.  

Usually this client hires us directly.  In this case a production company was handling visual intellectual property requirements so my job was to serve two masters.  I'd provide images for use in a series of videos that were shown over the course of the two days.  That was what the production company needed and that was their priority.  The main client needed in depth show documentation.  They wanted images that could be blogged throughout the day.  They wanted images for future marketing needs.  They wanted images to stick into PowerPoint presentations and other slide shows.  In short, they wanted everything.

The first thing we do, before we even bid the job, is to touch base with each client contact to get a detailed list of photography I'd be responsible for.  The next step was to figure out all the logistics and plan how to deliver everything.  Then figure out the rights package and finally submit a bid and a contract.  We made it clear that without a signed contract in hand we would not be showing up.

Every client wants to show the "look and feel" of a show and this can include everything from the early morning breakfast with messaging signs and banners to registration to the networking that takes place during the breaks between sessions.  I shot people moving from session to session, spontaneous group meetings in the hallways, product demonstrations and even the directional signs.

Ford CEO, Alan Mullaly

Equally important is the coverage of all the general sessions with emphasis on keynote speakers and appearances by top officers of the companies.  For both types of coverage you need to be able to move fast, not draw attention to yourself and get the shots you need without disturbing the subjects.  They are engaged in high stakes business.  Your job is infinitely secondary, in the grand scheme of things, to what they are trying to accomplish.  And they are scheduled tighter than a space launch.

When we shoot corporate shows it's customary to wear black when you will be moving around the "main tent".  That way, if you need to walk thru the audience or near the stage to get an important angle you blend in with the darkened house.  If you wear bright colors you stick out like sore thumb and hundreds of eyes will follow you as you move.  Some of those eyes will most assuredly be attached to angry event planners who spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to ensure that all eyes are riveted on their speakers and officers.  I wear black dress pants, a black polo shirt and a dark gray or black sport coat.  (I love the cut of LA Axis's jackets from a few years ago....the pockets are big enough to hold a flash on one side and a Zeiss 35mm f2 lens in the other.  And they look nice.  Don't forget the shoes.  I wear black Rockports because they are comfy and I know I'll be on my feet for 12 hours a day, three days straight. (And, remember to make the socks black as well.....)

Generally there will be a room dedicated to the production team.  That's where video editors edit footage for short deadline video modules, where the videographers store extra gear and charge batteries and where we still photographers keep our collection of stuff we're not using RIGHT NOW.  

Carl Zeiss 35mm f2 ZE on Canon 7D camera.  1600 ISO.  Jpeg.

It's the defacto "creative break" room where we'll get assignments, eat meals and blow off steam.  I leave my big Domke bag here and just take the camera gear I'll be shooting with for the next few hours with me.

Here's the routine:  Client gives photography shot list and video shot list to production company.  Production gives the list to me.  I assemble the gear I want to carry and head out to shoot.  We'll largely be shooting three kinds of photos:  1.  Medium close shots like this product demo or a typical team building exercise.  2.  Medium shots that might include break out rooms, signage and environmental shots of people networking and conversing.  3.  Stage shots.  These range from wide angle overviews of the entire presentation stage as well as tight and medium shots of speakers and discussion groups, on stage.

The first category is similar to newspaper "enterprise" assignments where I go out into the vastness of the convention center and try to find interesting stuff that is at least tangentially related to the show.  These are all available light under mixed lighting instruments so I need to constantly be aware of getting pretty exacting color balance.  Advanced amateur and knee jerk "pro's" will probably shut down around this point and tell me what a dumbass I am for not shooting raw and fixing everything in post.  Newsflash!!!! I'll need to shoot a lot and then hand over cards to video editors who are producing on site videos in minutes and hours, not days.  No one brings raw converters to the job.  It would just slow everything down.

This means a dependance on real professional practice to hit exposure and color balance for every usable frame or throw the rest away.  Really.  Honest.  You can be "Mr. Perfectionist" and shoot all raw but you'll still be massaging your files when the show is over and it'll be a cold day in hell before you get paid.  If you think:  "shoot for one hour, hustle back to the production room, hand over card to editor,  head back out door to shoot again," you'll have it just about right.  Even with an army of assistants there's no transition time to make the edit-raw-conversion-correction-retouch-jpeg-transfer spread in most cases.  And you never know which one of the cases that will be.  Something you shot that you thought was routine may be just what the client wanted to send out on the newswire to meet a deadline.

So, what's the basic schedule?  Let's take my Weds. as a typical day.  Our call time (when we had to show our faces in production...) was 6:45 am.  We reviewed our agenda for the day but most of the attention went to the video production crews since they had to schedule interviews, etc.  I was a known factor in the whole equation because I'd been doing show assignments like this for this particular company for nearly 20 years.  I understood the flow of the shows and, more importantly, the kind of images their marketing team was looking for.  What I really needed to know was the internal production schedule and the lead times I'd need to keep in mind in order to get the editing crew files on time.

By 7:00 I was out looking for people to photograph for inclusion into a first video module.  I also kept my eyes open for visual representations of networking.  That would be "networking without the aid of electronic devices:"  ie.  people talking to each other.  At 7:45 I turned in the first memory card and headed to the main auditorium.  Show started at 8 am with words from the CEO, a video, and then a series of panel discussions.  At the 10:00 break I head to the production office and then look, somewhat desperately, for the shortest line for coffee.

What am I shooting with during the main session?  Well here's where I had a little fun.  During the course of the show I used four different cameras.  Day one I used the Canon 5Dmk2 and the Canon 7D. When we shoot shows it's now 99.9% available light.  Never do we use flash in the "main tent" (the big ballroom).  I used a 70-200 f4 L on the 7D and the 24-105 L on the 5dmk2.  Stage lights were balanced to 4400 kelvin and the light wash gave me a base exposure of 1/250th of a second at f4, ISO 1600.

We can all talk till we're blue in the face about relative ISO capability and which camera is theoretically better but to my eye and the eyes of my editors both cameras are very, very low noise at ISO 1600.  Part of the low noise results are, no doubt, the shift in stage lighting.  The older 3200 halogens pushed hard on the blue channels of digital cameras and created lots of noise.  The higher color temperature of the LED and HID fixtures seems to equalize the amplification of the three channels and yields a lower, more correctable noise signature.  Bravo 21st century lighting!

I'm shooting the stage action from the front row or one of the front tables (all depends on how the sessions are set up....).  I need to get the shots but I need to do it in a way that doesn't distract the speakers or the people around me.  I've blimped my shooting camera with layers of neoprene that deaden about 60% of the sound.  I try not to handle the gear any more than I need to.  At these light levels a tripod or even monopod aren't necessary to get good, steady, detailed shots.  What I'm really looking for is the right expression combined with the right gestures, with my subject occupying the right space on the stage.  I want to be able to have the right colors and shapes behind them.  If I move in front of the stage I get as low as I can and I shoot from a kneeling position.  Hell on my dress trouser knees but worth it not to stand up and present myself as a visual target....

I have all my cameras set as closely as possible to the same parameters.  With Canons the least bit of underexposure seems to lead to too much saturation so all my units are set up to "neutral" picture setting. I modify that by turning up the sharpness to plus 3 and turning the contrast to minus 1.  Before the show starts I go on stage and measure the color temperature of the stage lighting with a color temp meter and then set the WB by Kelvin to exactly the right spot.  In the big showcases outside the main tent a quick WB custom setting (off a white table cloth) gets me into a good ballpark.  Out in the hallways with a mix of sun and internal lighting I depend on AWB because the light changes too quickly to rely on a single setting.

During the "main tent" session I'm getting a mix of wide shots to show how big and well done the stage is in relation to the size of the speaker.  I'm also getting tighter and tighter compositions all the way down to tight headshots.  My use of the 70-200 on the 7D is get more range.  By using the 24-105 on the 5D2 I can go wider.

I'm never happy just getting the shots.  I really like to experiment and see how new gear works.  As you might remember from a recent column I bought a couple of Canon 1dmk2N cameras and I was anxious to see how they would stack up against the much newer cameras when it came to color and high ISO performance.  I shot almost all of the last day of the show with these cameras and found that the AF performance and handling was super but the high ISO shots showed a bit more noise in the blue backgrounds than the other two cameras.  It didn't show up on the reduced size images they used for video projection (the two side screens measured at least 30 by 40 feet!!) and when I brought all the images back to the studio for a more leisurely edit for the print marketing people I found that with a tweak of the "color noise reduction" slider in Lightroom 3.0 I could make the noise profile in all three cameras look pretty much the same.  So much for progress.

I also used the 60D and it was okay but felt like a compromise next to the stellar handling performance of the 7D and the 1Dmk2's.  Files were fine.  It just didn't feel as sexy in the hand as the other two.

The real fun for me was adding in the two Carl Zeiss lenses.  I recently bought the 50mm 1.4 and the 35mm 2.0.  I love the way they render images.  The 35mm in particular is razor sharp wide open and when used up close and wide open gives you two things.  Context with the background and a really dramatic focus differential between foreground and background.  I found shooting them with the 1dmk 2 bodies very straightforward and I depending on the focus confirmation beep and signal for final focus. (Of course, I turned the beep off during the main session....).   

The real secret to good coverage is to blend in with everyone else.  With my conservative dress code and general age I was already in the middle of the demographic for this leadership conference.  Here are two very important photo tips:  1.   I never carried a camera bag around with me.  In most instances (outside the main tent) I walked around with one camera in my hands and an extra lens in one pocket.  I tried as much as possible to look like just another attendee who happened to bring along his camera.  Not like "The Camera Guy!"  Why?  Because we're not here to sell gear or set prices based on the kind of cameras we use I'm trying to sell good images.  Images that show an immersion, not a surface representation from the outside.  And every layer of "costume" puts me one layer further away from the subject.  A guy in a vest, sporting a big camera bag, with flashes everywhere would have instantly labeled himself as an outsider.  Levels of cooperation dropped commensurately.  Welcoming and inclusive looks disappear.  I see it happen all the time.

The show day ebbs and flows.  Lunch is a great downtime for everyone.  A time to revisit what we've all shot and what kind of holes we might have in our content.  We all grab plates from the buffet line and head back upstairs to the production room to eat and re-arrange our equipment for the next session.  Faster, wider lenses for break out sessions in smaller rooms.  Extra CF cards in my pockets.

I talked about not using flash for the shows but in some cases it's unavoidable.  We did a "social" function as part of the recent show over at the new Austin City Limits stage at the new W Hotel.  It was evening and the venue was dark.  Even at 6400 ISO shooting would have been very problematic.  Focusing impossible.  I'd heard so many bad stories about Canon flashes and the Canon flash technology that I approached this part of the job with a bit of trepidation.  But I'd just read Syl Arena's book on Canon flash and I was anxious to incorporate what I'd read.  I used only the Canon 7D camera and the 430 ex2 flash and I found the combination to be incredibly good. Every bit as good as the flash exposures I used to get from the Nikon D700 and the SB-800.  If I used the FEL function I never missed on exposure.  The IR AF assist was critical and worked as promised.  Shooting as ISO 800 I had the perfect combination of low flash power use and nice file construct.  Anyone who bitches about their Canon flash performance should look into the 7D and the newest series of flashes.  The performance is there but it requires a bit of education.  Thanks to Syl for a great book!

So, we started this day around 5:45 am and finished up around 10 pm.  A runner met me at the W Hotel to pick up the last card of the day.  The overnight editing crew would incorporate images from the evening into a "walk in video" for the next morning.  I headed home and went thru the holy ritual of the multi-day event photographer.  It goes like this:

Put all camera and flash batteries on their respective chargers.

Pull all memory cards and download the contents (via Lightroom) onto two different hard disks.

Check all camera sensors for dust spots by stopping down to f16 and shooting into a bright white source.  Clean as necessary.

Return all the e-mails from the day  (We DO NOT e-mail, text or take non-emergency calls during our shooting days.)

Get the agenda for the next day into the camera bag.  Add or subtract gear as needed.  

By the time all this is done it's well past midnight.  The call time the next day is the same.  It's exciting and fun.  I get to meet and listen to incredible speakers.  Each company I've worked with has some incredibly interesting players, and, in the technology sector you have a ringside seat to one of the fastest moving industries on the planet.

It's all great.  

The last step in a show like this occurs after the final session.  You'll likely have wound up with between 1200 and 1500 images per day.  I shot just enough to make sure I had good compositions and good expression and I wound up with about 3200 images for the three days I spent on site.  Now all of these images need to be edited and massaged for final delivery to the client.  They bought a license for many different uses and some will be in print where the highest quality is expected.

I start by editing out all the unnecessary stuff.  Now I have 1600 images.  Most of  them I can color correct and density correct in small patches.  Some have to be hit individually.  When I'm finished I'll burn all of the images, by day, onto DVD's.  Two sets for me.  One set for the production company and two sets for the final client.  I'll be backed up in four places but (and this is critical) we state in our contract that all current digital storage media are transient and it will be their responsibility to back up and archive critical images.  We absolve ourselves of any long term keeping responsibility.  And they (all the clients) need to understand that.  It's great to think that we'll have the work forever but the liability of guaranteeing that is onerous and impossible to ensure.

Three gear observations:

1.  The 1D series of cameras is viscerally addictive.  Feels great in the hand and, if you grew up with flagship film cameras, you'll enjoy the heft and solidity.  I was able to handhold a 200mm focal length at 1/80th with good results.  I love the way they work and how fast they focus.  

2.  Rockport walking shoes are the finest "show" shoes I've ever worn.  Great support and cushioning when you're on your feet for twelve to fifteen hours a day.  I got them in black.  I hope they make a brown pair too.  

3.  Best camera of the week was the 7D.  It's so much more responsive than the 5D2 and in this kind of work the ultimate image quality of the 5D2 is much less critical than the handling and speed of the 7D.  It worked well with the two manually focused Zeiss lenses and it handled flash as well as anything on the market.  While people make a big deal about the image quality difference between the 7 and the 5 I think it's very overstated.  Whatever small deficiencies the 7D might have in ultimate noise handling they are handily compensated for by superb handling and temperament.  I'd be happy with two of the 7D's as my work cameras.  They feel just right for this kind of corporate journalism.

Bottom line on gear?  Just use lenses like the 24-105L, the 70-200 f4L and the Carl Zeiss lenses so you can shoot with confidence at wide open apertures.  Wide open sharpness trumps high aperture speed.  Camera bodies?  Shoot the ones that feel the best in your hands because, as far as IQ is concerned, they are all pretty good for this kind of work.  With a little nudge on noise reduction even the oldest fits firmly in the mix without calling attention to itself.  The real "gear" is the mental and social gear that helps you to be part of the process and fit in.  Leave your ego at the door and get the job done.  That's the mantra.  

Just a few words of careful optimism.  It seems like the economy is starting to come back.  My recent client announced great earnings for the quarter.  The Ford CEO shared news about his company's successes this year, and several more of my clients have returned to the marketing and advertising space with relative gusto.  Now is the time to push back toward our traditional pricing models.  It's good to see the last three years as an accident or a a blip and not the start of a new paradigm.  Strong attention to good marketing and good pricing practices will help all of us in the long run.  The organics of the industry didn't irrevocably change any more than traffic laws change after an accident.  Let's buckle up and get back in the traffic.


JohnL said...

Great post Kirk.

Daniel Fealko said...

"Rockport walking shoes are the finest "show" shoes I've ever work. Great support and cushioning when you're on your feet for twelve to fifteen hours a day. I got them in black. I hope they make a brown pair too."

They do make them in brown too. I have both black and brown pairs and they are by far the best shoes made, bar none.

I see now why you haven't posted in a few days. I was starting to think you disappeared from the face of the earth.

A very informative post!

Dave Jenkins said...

For myself, I haven't found anything to beat Wright Walkers.

Ed Lara said...

Very informative post. Shot #4 (the overhead of the three gents) is really good.

Michael said...

Great post Kirk. Really gives an insight into the working life of a top-notch pro.

And seconding Ed Lara - the body language of the three men in deep discussion, the patterns in the carpet and the subtle shadows being thrown across the floor create an arresting photo that just screams "important business".

Oh, and it's nice to know that my 7D and 70-200 f4L aren't what is holding me back from greatness ;-)

Anonymous said...

Can I just say how much I love the last photo? The foreground, middle ground and background are just perfect. Love seeing intelligent images.

Anonymous said...

Just curious,when you say:
"At 7:45 I turned in the first memory card and headed to the main auditorium"

Did you make a copy of this CF card right away, in case it gets lost by the client. Do they return it to you? Do you id/number them?

What are the mechanics of this step?

Eric said...

Hey Kirk, your last post about the Canon 15-85mm has some kind of hitch in it's git-along. It's not showing up on your blog. Hope you can get it on there. I'm interested in your take on that lens.

kirk tuck said...

I was working with a production company. The cards would go to them. They are consummate pros. I put another card in my camera, formatted, and went on shooting. There was no time to sit and make copies of the card. When I returned again I re-acquired the card and stuck it in the card wallet, face down, to make sure I would not re-use it until I had archived all the images on it on my own system.

At some point you have to trust the professionals you work with.

Patrick Dodds said...

Great post Kirk and thanks for the generous amount of detail you shared. Quick question occurred to me: does it ever discomfort you that a good photo could be a great one with a touch of judicious processing but the turnaround times don't allow for it? Just as a writer never finishes a novel, only abandons it, does a desire to tinker endlessly ever afflict you? I'm not, btw, suggesting that the photos accompanying this post appear "abandoned", far from it.

kirk tuck said...

Patrick, In a word, no. I have the images archived here and can access them and tinker with them as much as I want, after the fact. Their use in fast breaking videos and slide shows hits a limited audience. If they have real promise I can unlock it later.

That said I'm not much for tinkering and when I write books I tend to go from beginning to end, edit and send. I never look back once it's out the door.

Bold Photography said...

Kirk - my Rockports are in Brown.. get yourself another pair!

Nice description of the working days. Sounds much like when I was shooting horse shows, except you got paid...

kirk tuck said...

Not yet.

Dean Forbes said...

Recently started reading your blog after seeing a link from the Online Photographer blog. I'm enjoying your posts immensely and appreciate the detailed practical advice you offer, such as in this post about conferences. I shoot Nikon but your comments have some cross-platform value and I will send this column to a few friends who shoot Canon and Nikon.

Marc Weinberg said...

Tnx Kirk. Fine thoughts from years of experience. I conclude you are shooting your f4's wide open and center weighted focal points in small group settings. Do you ever consider a deeper DOF and how what's the slowest shutter speed you're willing to settle for to keep proper exposure at 1600 ISO? I love the improvements in Lightroom 3 processing of noise, but my Nikon D300 won't keep up with D700 or yours. Thanks.

kirk tuck said...

Marc, they just put everything past f4 on the cameras for architectural photographers and landscape geeks. I'd shoot most stuff at 2.8 since most are single person or small group shots. I do hang at f4 because that's as fast as my glass will go. I miss the idea of my Olympus 35-100mm lens with the f2 aperture but not the muscle strain that accompanied it.......

The slowest shutter speed with the 24-105 with IS is about 1/40th. With the non stablilized 70-200 I go with the old "one over the focal length" rule. ie: at a focal length of 180 I'm shooting at 1/200th or better. If I need more I increase the ISO. Lightroom 3 NR is great.