Candied Apples. Whimsical catering on Halloween.
But until Panasonic or Samsung come out with programmable photographic robots that use artificial intelligence for framing and smile detection for shutter actuation it's impossible for human photographers to turn off their cognifiying (buzzword of this week's conference) brains as they sit in the dark and stare through their viewfinders at the people on the stage and at the giant screens, complete with charts, graphs and infographics, on either side of the stage. So what is life like for the hapless photographer as he or she sits through hours and hours of high level information about the inner workings of a giant and mature industry that is based on numbers, trends, forecasts and raw data? Here's what goes on in my brain....
Belinda and I had dinner around 8:30pm on Sunday and now I have to actually think about the conference I'll be attending in the morning, and for the next three days. I walk back to the bedroom and into the closet. What to wear? What to wear? I want to blend in but I also want to be comfortable for the 12 hour day ahead of me. I go with gray dress pants, a dark blue shirt with demure white strips and a black sport coat. No tie for this one. A pair of comfortable Cole Hahn loafers I can kick off under the round table I'll be inhabiting, off and on, for the next three days. I hang all the stuff on the closet door so I can grab it and dress in the dark the next day. Now we're on to the habitually hard part, what to pack.
I walk into the studio which is about twelve feet from the front door of my house and stop. I've been shooting weird varieties of jobs for the previous week and I've been resistant to actually clean up and get everything back into their assigned places. When the choice between swimming and cleaning comes up the outcome is usually no contest. The one thing I have been dutiful about is battery charging. Every camera I now own uses the same type of battery. When I get back from a shoot I put the batteries on chargers and then put the charged ones into a tiny Pelican case. I have 15 batteries for six cameras. I always have enough charged to head out the door and shoot for days at a time...
I look around the studio at the various piles of gear. Here is the pile from Friday. We were shooting promotional images of actor, Jaston Williams, with four LED lights, on location. There they sit, in the middle of the room, surrounded by stand bags, background stands, a bag with a white, muslin background stuff inside and a little cluster of "A" clamps around the edge. Toward the back of the studio are the mono-lights I used a few days earlier (in the studio) but I just didn't have the energy or inclination to break down the soft boxes yet again. I knew I'd probably just be setting up the same lighting configuration for something else this weekend.
Next to my desk is a little Tenba case filled with microphones and interface units. Last Saturday I was making a video about Wyatt McSpadden's photo show and I went through and actually listened to my assortment of shotgun microphones before I selected the one that sounded best to me. That microphone, the attendant cables and the mixer are sitting next to the pile of unchosen microphones and accessories, waiting to have theirs batteries removed, put back in the right order next to a nest of 25 foot long, shielded microphone cables. The whole place is a disaster.
I open the third drawer down on the equipment cabinet and begin the camera rumination which ends with me selecting, more or less, one from each category. An A7rii as a nod to the full frame. An RX10iii as a grudging nod to the power of a long, long zoom and the a6300 as the compromise in between. The two things all three cameras have in common are the silent shutters and the batteries. Every camera can back up every other cameras. But dear God! what a crazy mix.
Out of habit I start to pack every lens under the sun. I get ahold of myself and decide just to pack what will fit comfortably in a little, rolling Pelican case. Really, it's a small case. Smaller than a Think Tank Airport Security case. You can put it in an airplane's overhead compartment. I work it down to three cameras and three interchangeable lenses. The wide to just longer than normal and the 70-200mm along with an 18-105mm for the APS-C camera. The RX10 fits in as does the flash that I'll bring and never use (damn Boy Scout training = be prepared) the extra batteries and a little soft case for extra memory cards. For once though, I don't think I'll be changing cards. I have a 128 GB in every camera and I'm shooting fine Jpegs...
I remember that the A/V company who will be doing the staging, lights, audio and video mag. is one that I love working with and that they, in turn, like getting glamor shots of their staging, so I bring along a tripod.
With everything packed I go online to read the crew agenda. The call time is 7:00 am. Time to do those 50 push ups, the 50 crunches and then hit the sack.
The alarm on my (non-explosive) phone goes off at 6:15 and I pull myself into consciousness and get myself dressed. I make a cup of Irish Breakfast tea and have some whole milk, Siggi's yogurt. Forget the Greek yogurt, this is Icelandic style. Yummy. I take a quick look at e-mail, probably subconsciously hoping that the show has been unexpectedly canceled and that I have won the lottery and can go back to bed and sleep in as long as I want. Studio Dog gives me a withering glance and pads back down the hall to actually sleep in a bit longer. She quickly realized that, with the camera case and tripod hanging out by the front door that this early wake up did NOT presage a pre-dawn walk...
I toss my gear in the back of the car and ride off into the pre-dawn, Halloween fog, heading for the Barton Creek Conference Center, a location I've become too familiar with having photographed hundreds of corporate events, conferences and golf tournaments there over the past few decades. I could drive it in my sleep if not for all the crazy people on the road and the herds of deer who appear randomly, crossing the highway with reckless abandon...
I find the last non-valet parking spot in the area near the golf shop and head inside. I know that none of the executives will hew to the schedule but that's okay as long as there is coffee ready and the stage is lit up. There are a few early birds hovering in the foyer to the conference hall nipping at the bagels and cream cheese, sporting steaming cups of coffee in their hands.
I head to the area that the A/V people have set up in order to run the show. The two show directors are people that I've worked with for nearly 25 years and in six countries. We ask each other about the kids and we get the quick scoop of who is working for whom. Then I offer to shoot some beauty shots of their staging. We shoot from the left, the center and the right. We shoot with various light looks and various graphics on the screens. I'm doing all of this with the RX10iii on a tripod because at ISO 100 it will all look great. I surprise myself by having the presence of mind to turn off the I.S. when I put the camera on the tripod. I'm trying to maximize what drama and flourish there is on the stage and minimize the empty, round tables in the foreground. It's nice if they just silhouette.
The stage designer has made my job easier this year by using a desk with a white front and white chairs and couches. It's easy to do a quick custom white balance on each camera as I pull them out to use them. The front lighting doesn't change color much during the show. Any color change is a result of increasing or decreasing intensity causing the shift and I try to be attentive to it. The front lights are hot lights that have been gelled with half daylight gels. My cameras all tell me the same thing: It's 3900K with a plus 2 magenta cast.
There is no reserved seating at this function; all attendees will be sitting at 8-top rounds laid out through the main tent. I'm there first so I select a seat at the front, center table that gives me a good view of the stage, the presenter couches on either side of a center desk and a line of sight on the podium. (You don't want to be straight into the podium because, almost every time, the microphones will be right in front of your speaker's face...).
I grab out the two cameras I think I'll start with and leave them at my place at the table. The Pelican case goes back to the A/V command center so it's out of the way. I grab a long lens out of the case and add that to the two cameras on the table. I also grab a couple extra batteries and put them in my jacket pocket; just in case.
It's nearly 8 a.m. and I head out to grab something to eat. People are starting to show up. Women in pant suits, men with open collars under their sports coats. Everyone seems ready to get the day started. About half the people choose ceramic mugs for their coffee while the other half chose paper cups with lids. Some are fastidiously toasting their bagels while others are consuming them untested but slathered with flavored cream cheese. There's yogurt (not Sigi's) and granola and fruit and pastries as well. Some adventurous person has made the pilgrimage to Voodoo Donuts (Sixth St.) and gotten the BIG box of some wild donut assortment. He's offering them to all comers but I'm leery of the sugar crash that will inevitably follow the thrill of a thousand calories of fat and sugar and I decline.
The lights in the foyer start blinking around 8:30 to cue people to head to their seats and we make our last runs down the hall to the restrooms and then head into the main tent. The show starts at 8:45 and I use the last few minutes to flight check the cameras. I white balance them, set them to the same focusing settings, chose appropriate ISO ranges for each and set each one to silent shutter. We're ready and waiting for the walk in music.
The owner of the conference hits the stage and welcomes the crowd. I begin shooting. Tight head shots looking for a positive expression and no blink. A middle shot the same way and then a wide, establishing shot of the speaker and the full stage. This is a pattern I'll follow any time we have a speaker at the podium. If I have time I'll move to one side of the room for a different angle.
After the conference principle finishes a group of six people come out onto the stage. Two sit on the right hand side couch and two on the left. Two more occupy the white desk in the middle, between the two couches. They engage in an hour long panel discussion. Through a new phone app the audience can send questions to the panelists which the panelists see on two large screens facing them from the floor in front of the stage. As my brain glazes over from the technical information and unknown acronyms I engage myself in a game I play at all of these conferences. It's called, "What can I do to make these photographs more interesting?"
For the first time since I began photographing this type of conference in 1988 I have at my disposal two tools that change the paradigm. First, silent camera shutters. Damn. That's nice. It means I can sit at the center table with people on either side of me and shoot as many frames as I like. No one gives me the "hairy eyeball" and no one bitches to me about the noise. The downside is that I find myself shooting many, many more frames. Second paradigm shifting feature is the 600mm equivalent lens on one of my shooting cameras. From nearly 40 feet away I can zoom in an fill the frame, from chin stubble to balding head. And, with state of the art image stabilization I can handhold the camera with it's integrated lens and expect sharp, sharp, sharp results.
This combination led me to experiment more with image sizing in the frame. After shooting images of the whole group on stage, and then subgroups, I'd dive down a bit and fill the frame with a loose head and shoulders shot of each person. Once I had a good one of each participant I'd choose the panel members with the most interesting faces and expressions, wait until they started speaking or responding, and then try to get interesting shots at extreme close up. The game was to time for expressions while keeping the frame stable enough at full magnification to preserve my composition.
I've never been able to shoot this tightly before and have never been able to capture as many frames from the audience area without fear of becoming a distraction. But....an hour per panel is a long time and I get restless. When I have (too much) just enough coverage of the panel I choose a raucous stage moment to move out from the center and make my way to the back corners of the room. Now I'm trying to find compressed angles with the silhouetted crowd in the foreground and the stage in the background. The action on stage ebbs and flows. Some people are on more than one panel and I try not to "over cover" them.
Once I've gotten a lot of good and interesting shots in the bag. I ask myself "what would this look like from the other side?" I go behind the stage and shoot through the gaps in the curtains to get more interesting shots of the speakers in profile. Sometimes a panelist will turn to address someone sitting next to them and I get a wonderful "over the shoulder shot" that looks just like a movie still. With a long zoom and close proximity your choices of what to include or exclude expands. An ear and the side of a head in the foreground with a compressed full face just to the side of those details.
Every once in a while I will have a crisis of confidence in the camera I've chosen to use; especially if I'm continually shooting with the one inch sensor camera. I worry that ISO 800 will be too noisy or that the high ISO noise reduction will result in files that are too plasticky. I have a panicky moment of realization that the last five or six hundred shots I've made, including those of the keynote speaker, are coming from a camera that would not have been considered "professional" a few years back; by some, not even a few days back. When I feel the butterflies of fear float around in my chest and my stomach I reflexively grab the for the "legitimate" camera ( a full frame with a white lens on the front) and start to go back over territory I've already covered. It's useless gesture since the money speaker has already exited and that one very interesting guy on the last panel has already jogged out of the auditorium to catch a plane to the next speaking gig...
Just as I am starting to get a bit jittery about my choices we break for lunch and I borrow a laptop from one of the A/V guys and start checking the files from my "bridge" camera. I toss a few samples into Photoshop and look at the 15 inch Retina screen. My fears fade away as I use the magnification tool to dig in all the way to 100%. Granted, the files from the one inch sensor will never match the ones from the full frame sensors but I can see that as long as I stay under 1000 ISO these files are competitive and the magic bean of the long focal lengths builds a compromise math equation of features that provides effective balance.
It's now lunch time and we head for the conference center's beautiful restaurant where they serve up a delicious buffet. I know that photographs of people eating are less than useful so I take a couple of full room shots to show off the show ambiance and then I grab a plate, try to make healthy choices, get bushwhacked by the warm bread pudding and find an empty spot at a table. With my camera tucked away under the table; hanging from my knee on its strap, I am mistaken for just another attendee and soon we're all chatting about the conference and the future of XYZ.
We're back from lunch in an hour and we all dive back into the afternoon sessions. This particular show is famous (in my notes) for tossing unexpected stuff at me. This afternoon the show's main driver appears on stage to announce that the next session will be a "Champagne Session" and waiters appear to hand out flutes of Champagne to all the audience. The "emcee" is pouring for the panel members on stage. I'll need a flash to really freeze the action of the toast and sometimes the silliness that surrounds it. To that end I've got a "flash designated camera." I chose a camera to use and set it up at the beginning of the day with a flash and short zoom. I get all the settings dialed in and I test it before the show doors open at the beginning of the first session. If I sense something about to happen I grab the camera, flip everything on and get ready. Sometimes I'm wrong and sometimes I'm right on the money but I've done without before and ended up wishing I'd captured the group/stage action at f8 with bounced flash just to stop motion AND get everyone in focus...
The sessions continue until 5:45 and I'm still playing my game and keeping track of wide shot/ stage shot/ panel shot/ interesting two shot/ individual shot/ super tight shot/ angle search and reverse shot. The game goes on all afternoon. The part of my brain that listens to the show tries to take in the overall information. The 40,000 foot understanding. The markets will recover and here is why. The millennials are the biggest demographic with the highest education and the U.S. markets are buoyed by net population growth. Etc.
Every once in a while I jot down notes. When I get bored by that I make lists of things I'd like to do. Not things I need to do.
After the sessions we move on to a very nice cocktail party before everyone breaks up and heads to private dinners downtown, sponsored by relevant companies who can offer services to the heavy hitters here who make decisions for their companies. At the cocktail party I try to time images of small groups of people chatting so that no one is holding a drink to their face or putting food into the mouths. I'm balancing this by trying to figure out how to balance the blue-ish, late afternoon sunlight coming through the wall of enormous windows with the very warm room lighting from tungsten balanced LEDs in can lights at ceiling level. At some point to decide to filter the flash I have halfway between sun and 3200K and to fill in with it. Seems to work okay.
I'm using a 24-70mm lens for the cocktail party. By now I am one of the tribe and everyone is comfortable with the camera and with the photographer. No one bats an eye when I line up a composition. But the routine of wide to normal zoom, flash fill and nothing pushing the edge of the process bores me and I grab the premium full frame out of the bag, slap on an 85mm f1.4 and put all that high ISO promise to the test. I will subsequently open one of the files, note that it's nothing special, technically, and then look at the exif to see that I shot the frame at 16,000 ISO and it looked pretty darn good. On par with the ISO 3200 image I shot on its little brother on the 24 megapixel, full frame model. As the party winds down I decide on just where the point is where the basic happiness of the party started tipping toward accelerating entropy and I grab my stuff and head for the door.
In years past I would rush to the computer in my office and start loading the files into Lightroom so I could see just what I'd done. Now I'm more complacent. I've spot checked. I've chimped in between sessions. I trust my gear more. Instead, I pass out Halloween candy to the neighborhood kids while Studio Dog keeps a watchful eye.
My only real question at the end of the day is: "With an 8:45 start can I ditch the call sheet time of 7a.m., hit the pool for the early workout and still make it through rush hour to be there comfortably before the start of the show the next day????" Sadly, I decide that a bargain is a bargain and part of the agreement is to play by the rules. Who knows what the show creatives may have cooked up for me to do before the "curtain rises" the next day?
In the end I want to come away from my final edit with about 1200 images that show, pictorially, what the look, feel and design of the show was all about. The images are used to advertise future shows and I want to make sure I've captured the emotions of being interested on the faces of both panelists and audiences. I also want to make sure I've covered the event completely.
While there is much knowledge floating about at the better shows it tends to be hyper-specialized. Photography isn't about conveying the knowledge but it is about conveying the experience. If I am successful I will have crafted a visual narrative that shares the visceral experiences of being at the show but with the extra layer of excitement that comes from being closer to the speakers than reality.
In the down moments of the show I worry about my property taxes going up while my investment yield goes down. I worry about missing too many swim workouts. I worry about that portrait job coming up this Saturday. I think about how many things have changed in the running of these shows. How the big, printed graphic signs have begun to disappear. How big monitors with changing screens continue to replace them and I wonder if next year we shouldn't be shooting this all on highly mobile, 4K video. But really, who wants to wade through 24 hours of continuous coverage?
Toward the end of the show I start to think about how I will do the photography differently next year ( or next show ). Will I default to all bridge cameras with one inch sensors? Will I capriciously try to shoot the next one with two full frame cameras and two bourgeois lenses? Will I calculate the time value of the return and stay home to play chess with Studio Dog? (I usually win. She's a good sport). It's hard to say but there's a lot of time to think about stuff like this at most shows. Maybe too much time....
Yesterday I got serious about editing. I imported everything into Lightroom and then went through and flagged the winners. I selected the flagged images and made them the only ones visible. Then I started in on enhancing them via post production improvements in Lightroom. The process was efficient. We are ready to deliver. That's what we do at conferences.
A Keynote Speaker portrayed at podium with the "one inch" miracle camera.