Event photography is often both a mental and physical strain that presents its own particular set of issues and problems, but also unique opportunities to get amazing images. Here’s my thoughts on the difficulties of event photography and how it compares with – say Studio Portraiture – during my latest event photography assignment: shooting this year’s Sheriff’s Deputy Rodeo held at the Wayne Johnson Rodeo Arena on Foster Mound Road in Natchez, Mississippi.
I’m the kind of photographer that has his hand in almost every photographic genre out there. And, not just photography either, because I’m nuts enough to also dabble in videography and website design as well! Yeah, yeah … I know. It’s not recommended by the gurus who teach photography, as they will often tell you to pick one part of the field (such as Wedding Photography or Senior Portraits as examples) and master that. The problem with that for me is twofold: I’ve never followed directions very well. Secondly, it is just not me. It’s simply in my DNA to dabble in many aspects of a particular thing, and the visual arts for me is no exception.
I can tell you this, that while the “guru” may correctly point out that by no means have I mastered any one aspect or genre of photography, what has happened is that it has made me a much more complete and well-rounded photographer. What I have learned in videography has made me a much more effective and understanding still photographer. My wedding photography has made me much better at sports photography. My commercial work, taking product shots, has definitely made me a much more demanding (of myself) and detail-oriented visual artist (thanks Don Giannatti), and so on and vice-versa.
Event photography is a large field that encompasses many types of “events.” These can be recitals, parties, reunions, RODEOs!, etc … but of course the BIG ONE that most quickly comes to your mind is probably Wedding Photography. Wedding Photography is one type of Event Photography that is so huge of an industry that it demands its own genre or category. Just a few of the downside issues are: 1) the events can be long and grueling. Staying on your feet for that long, usually in attire that is NOT conducive to being comfortable, is a drain and a pain. I’ve shot weddings that easily lasted eight or more hours from the getting ready shots to the end of the reception; 2) there is a huge amount of pressure (especially with weddings) because there are no “do-overs.” You have to know what you’re doing and nail it on demand. High-strung brides can have lofty expectations and have often held them since childhood. It’s their day, and they want everything to be perfect, and rightfully so. It is certainly no genre for the weak or faint of heart; 3) Weather. It’s out of your control, and of course it’s often scorching hot or freezing cold, and they want it outside (of course) … or it’s raining on all your subjects AND your expensive camera gear (THAT’s what most important!); 4) Lighting: again, it’s not going to be in your control, and you have to deal with poor or low light on a regular basis; 5) Murphy. He is alive and well in event photography, and he seems to never miss the invite. Something is always going to go wrong, whether it’s a camera or card failure; a weather change, a moody person, dropping a lens, or whatever … you just have to know how to limit Murphy’s chances and roll with him when he throws you a curve; 6) Know Your Kipling: Keeping your head while all those about you are losing theirs is a critical skill. So, memorize “IF” and live by it. There are tips and tricks that experienced photographers use to mitigate some of these issues, such as wet-weather gear; fall-back plans (A, B, and C etc); employing second and third shooters; purchasing cameras that have two card slots in them for instant in-camera redundancy so you’re less apt to lose images to card failure; plenty of cards and batteries (and purchasing the high-quality cards to begin with); knowing how to shoot in continuous low and continuous high (wink-wink); very good expectation setting and planning with clients weeks before the event; scouting the event locale for good angles or problem areas; and being an expert at knowing every single dial and setting on your camera and how to manipulate those settings in low or no light. Those are just a few things that one must deal with and know well. Oh, and insist on getting paid well for your efforts. Good luck with that one.
So, I would say that Event Photography has elements of both Sports and Street Photography – you often have to capture the motion, so shutter speed is an important element. (I guarantee you you will find yourself right against the limits of your gear in manual mode unless you have the very top-of-the-line stuff. (If you’re trusting to Auto Mode, then why are you even reading this?). However, like Street photography and unlike Portraiture, in Event Photography you often get to capture the candid moment, and your subjects are often unposed. THAT can be intensely rewarding and makes for some really cool images. I call it Sniper Mode.
The opposite of Event Photography would most likely be Studio Portraiture. In the studio, you control the temperature (with central air), and you control the lighting down to just tenths of an f-stop! Furthermore, in a decently equipped studio, you will have soft boxes, beauty dishes, grids, diffusion gels, gobos, flags and cutters, yada-yada, along with all manner of shaping and diffusing the light to exactly whatever you or your client wants (ever heard of Cine-Foil?). You usually have restrooms handy, a refrigerator, snacks an arms-length away, and a stool or chair to prop your rear-end on if you need a rest! Rarely are studio sessions over an hour, and it’s just all around much more physically gentle. I would also venture to say that it is much less a mental strain as well, because you can do a “do-over” very easily. Often, when in-studio during premium sessions, I shoot tethered to my MacBook Pro so I can view the image on a large-screen rather than the small 3.5″ LCD on the back of the camera. That’s the ultimate shot “chimping” and helps insure, with a glance at the screen and the histogram, that I’ve got a shot and exposure that I like and can work with during post-production retouching.
At the Rodeo this year the standard issues applied as it poured-down rain the first night. Protecting my expensive gear was a very real challenge. It was also hot and humid, and I had to do a lot of maneuvering and constant repositioning in order to get the shots I wanted and needed, as well as not get run over by angry animals! Cowboys can be a stoic bunch too, and not given to conversation with dudes carrying cameras. The rodeo clowns and the cowgirls are friendly enough though. 🙂 Then, there was the other photographer who didn’t have much to say despite my friendly attempts at conversation (why are photographers often so insecure around other photographers???). There’s a special challenge to getting a good shot of a bucking bronco throwing a rider just at the right moment that’s a huge amount of fun. I certainly enjoyed myself despite the challenges, the mud, the rain and the grimy sweat. The limitations are mainly the battle between a shutter speed that freezes the moment just right, a pleasing/workable aperture, and an ISO that is manageable. Expensive lenses are a huge advantage. Yes, I’m talking about the ones that are fast at f/2.8 all the way through their range but cost around $2400 per lens! And, a camera body that can handle high ISO’s without much grain (LOVE my Nikon D810!). The lighting in venues like rodeo arenas are horrible as well, as the Mercury Halide lights give off a greenish tint to everything they cast light upon, so solid post-production skills are a must, as well as understanding color-space and white balance. Most people think photographers take photos in .jpg format, and are thereby puzzled that it takes so long to get them out onto the web. They’ve no idea we shoot in raw and have to go to the digital equivalent of a darkroom once we arrive home (called Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop) to often spend hours bringing the raw data to amazing quality (or sometimes at least presentable quality). For Event work, I shoot in raw in both CR2 and .NEF, as I use both a Canon 70D with a 100-400mm for telephoto shots and a Nikon D810 with 24-120mm for wide and “walk-around” shots. The Canon’s cropped-sensor gives me a factor of x1.6 that lengthens the telephoto. I do battle the light with the f/4 lens and that crop-sensor though, especially at high shutter speeds, but the compression effect is nice. The Nikon helps on closer shots, especially when I slap the 14-24mm f/2.8 on it. I’m working on acquiring the other two lenses of Nikon’s “trinity” of pro lenses. (I’d love to have the 70-200mm f/2.8 with a 1.5 teleconverter!!!) I carry other lenses for specialty shots, such as a 105mm f/2.8 macro; a 16mm fisheye, and a Lensbaby Edge 80.
This year I was able to get what I consider to be three or four noteworthy shots that I can honestly say that I like. I love shooting an Event Photography session with a come-away goal of one really good shot for the entire session. That’s what I most enjoy – the kind of shooting that allows me to really go for one really good shot. I edit and present more than that to the client of course; but personally, I’m going for “the one shot” that really stands out among the others. If I get two or three in the process, that’s a bonus! 🙂