I was sitting here waiting for big raw files to become manageable Jpeg files (There's 987 of them) and it dawned on me that instead of staring blankly at my screen or watching the rantings of one of my favorite YouTube photo-celebrities I could just crank up the steam powered keyboard and tell you about my event photography experiences while they are fresh in my mind. I did the shoot last evening and just finished processing the files after my noon swim...
The project was pretty low key; I was hired by an Episcopalian Seminary to come over to their place to make photographs of: a lecture, a series of "goodbye, happy retirement" speeches for one of their retiring bishops, and then to photograph the usual group shots and earnest interaction shots between attendees and honoree's that are the bulk of most event that are nice enough to have a "wines, champagnes and heavy hors de oeuvres+dessert" sort of reception.
At the last minute the client e-mailed to ask if I could also make three exterior, outdoor portraits before the event began and, since I practiced doing that all last quarter, I was happy to oblige.
I brought two cameras and four lenses. I intended to use three of the four lenses and bring the fourth as a general back up. Both cameras were Fuji XH1s with battery grips attached. The lenses were: the 18-55mm f2.8-4.0, the 55-200mm f3.5-4.8, the (OMG delicious) 90mm f2.0, and, along for the ride, the 35mm f2.0. I also brought a Godox flash that's dedicated to Fuji cameras.
I brought along a big light stand, a soft box and a second, manual Godox speed light with one of those insanely good dedicated lithium ion batteries. This gear was specifically for the three pre-event portraits. It all went back to the car before I ventured over to the auditorium and reception hall.
I won't bore you with all the details about the outdoor portrait sessions except to say that I've gotten proficient at this kind of work and can do it quickly and painlessly. Painless for both the subject and for me. The lens I used for this was the 90mm f2.0, used at f2.8+2/3 stops. I handheld the camera at 1/125th of a second and worked at ISO 200. It was dusk and I was trying to get everything balanced and working correctly with the goal of: Sharp Portrait. Soft background. It worked well.
After the portraits I broke down the soft box and the portrait specific gear and put it back into the new car. I didn't want to carry around a second flash and I didn't want to keep track of extraneous gear while I was creating high art at the event...
I'm using a Fuji Adaption of Back Button Focusing when using telephoto lenses to photograph speakers at podiums in auditoriums, convention ballrooms, etc. Here's how it works: there is an "AF-on" button on the back of the camera. If you use the camera control on the front to switch from S-AF or C-AF to manual the lens won't focus when you push the shutter button halfway down. But if the camera is set to manual focus and you hit the AF-on button the camera and lens will autofocus on your chosen subject. Now, if you don't change camera-to-subject distance you can keep shooting happily until such a time that this is no longer the case. Push button---get green square---release button---shoot. I guess that's pretty much how everyone's back focus button works, right?
The first order of business when shooting the speaker shots was to assess the main color temperature in the auditorium (theater style seating). The speaker's podium sat in a nice wash of all tungsten balanced light. Easy-peasy, the cameras get set to tungsten; or, the little lightbulb icon. Works pretty well.
Second priority is to figure out the exposure on the speaker, and that probably won't change much either. I had the facility's lighting guy show me the light cue they'd be using for the speakers and used the palm of my hand (plus 2/3rds of a stop) to get a faux incident light meter reading and then found a good compromise between shutter speed (1/160th), aperture (almost always f4.8 on the longer zoom) and ISO (usually 1600-2000).
The final pre-production priority is to find a restroom and pee 15 minutes out from show time. Hate to forget this because cameras don't get any more stable if you are hopping from one foot to another...
The way the room was set up (and the way the audience distributed themselves) There were three good angles in the room from which to get good speaker shots. One was a high shot from the top of the room at the opposite corner from the podium. This allowed me (when zoomed in tight) to get a nice shot of the speaker head-on and, with a little less cropping in camera, to get a nice shot of the speaker with the facility's logo showing on the front of the podium. I would get lots of speaker shots from this angle for each of the five (six?) speakers. I practiced my handholding techniques with this camera and lens and can generally get down to 1/30th or (worst case scenario) 1/60th using the 55-200mm lens on the XH1. Since subject movement becomes problematic at shutters speeds under 1/125th I didn't press my luck.
So far the Fuji XH1 has the screen that gives me the closest approximation of what I'll see on my monitor back in the studio. This takes a lot of the apprehension out of the mix. You pretty much know that if you see something looking good on your camera's rear screen or EVF chances are pretty good that you'll be well inside the bounds of what you expected to end up with.
The second shot was from a position down near the front of the auditorium but on the opposite side of the room from the podium/speaker. The third shot was on the side aisle on the speaker/podium side of the room; as close to the speaker as I felt I could get without calling too much attention to myself.
The camera helps to make me less obvious. Even just using the mechanical shutter the camera is quieter than just about any camera ever made. You'd have to be sitting right next to me to hear it. If you do find yourself right in the middle of the audience the silent, electronic shutter mode is absolutely silent.
When the program starts that's when the fun (and challenges) start. You'll want images that show people making good eye contact with the crowd; not looking down at their notes. You'll want to show the subject's lips parted so that in each image it seems as though he is speaking. Extra points if you also get good hand gestures to go along with the look of speech.
Before the audience gets into the room you should do a quick sweep for clutter than might work its way into the frames if not dealt with ahead of time. I moved some cardboard boxes and a couple of mic stands out of the room in advance. Light switches? We'll have to get those in post production.
I worked the speeches with two cameras. One camera functions as described above but I think of the second camera as a photographic b-roll camera. I used the wide-to-not so wide zoom on the second body and got crowd shots, reaction shots, room shots with that rig. In this case there was some fiddling that needed to be done re: exposure. The EVF made that pretty easy.
The 55-200mm f3.5-4.8 did a really good job nailing the needed images and also stabilizing everything well. I shot the lens mostly at wide open apertures. It's plenty sharp there all the way out to the longest focal length.
The most stable shots came when I sat on the side steps to the auditorium and pressed my back against the side wall. I think I could have disabled the I.S. and still had good shots.
My overall strategy was to provide coverage of each speaker from three different angles, and, if I had time, to make images that were tight, a bit looser and also wide (think: head and shoulders, full length with podium an wide enough to show some audience in the foreground) from each angle. The client suggested before the event began that he would like to have shots in a vertical orientation as well as horizontals. The organization puts out a magazine (printed!!!) and he wanted to make sure we'd have images shot to fit on a vertical magazine cover. I over shot this part of the assignment but I'd rather overshoot by hundreds of frames than to walk away from a venue with one shot too few...
The last part of the job was to photograph the post speeches reception. The caterers did a great job with both decor and the food and one of the first things I did when we moved from auditorium to lobby was to shoot the food set up and the table decor.
With everyone moving around in a mostly dark meeting room accented with blue and magenta lights it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that I would need to use flash to clean up the light on faces. I used a Good/Fuji dedicated flash in the hot shoe of the camera and covered the front of the flash with an orange filter which converts the daylight output of the flash to a tungsten color temperature. This allows the light from the flash to mix almost seamlessly with the ambient light in the space, which was predominantly also tungsten. You just need to set your white balance to tungsten as well and then you are set to go. I love spaces with white ceilings and I took advantage of the ceiling by bouncing the flash off it. This gave me a soft overall wash of light. I also used a tiny bit of white card (maybe and inch and a half square) rubber banded to the rear of the flash head opening so it worked as a forward bounce card to get enough front fill to make everything look a bit more natural.
If you have a white ceiling and a camera that's good with high ISO noise reduction I recommend ramping up your ISO to something like 3200 and you'll get a better mix of ambient and flash while reducing the amount of power your flash kicks out each time. That means a lot longer battery life and quicker recycling.
Parts of the room were lit better than others and I started to have difficulties getting the camera to lock focus on people when I wanted it to. I did something I rarely have done before and enabled the AF illuminator to assist me. That worked in many lighting situations but was not foolproof. I finally defaulted to using manual focus and it worked much better than I thought it might. When I grabbed the focusing ring on the 18-55mm lens the camera was set to automatically zoom in an allow for magnified focusing image combined with focus peaking. That's going to be my preferred method in the future for this kind of work.... I've never had good luck with autofocus or automated flash under these conditions but that a blog post for another day.
The XH1 was a great performer. The longer zoom was perfect for capturing speakers in front of an audience while the 18-55mm is pretty much a perfect party lens.
I enjoy this kind of work. I get to play with my cameras, hear interesting lectures, eat fun food and occasionally have a glass of good Champagne. Working with two matching cameras is heavenly as they are so easy to go back and forth with. No confusion about settings or controls. And, bonus! I think I've pretty much memorized the menus.