There are two types of corporate photography – event photography and portrait photography. Event photography means taking pictures of employees and guests in corporate events such as conferences, birthday parties, Christmas parties, receptions and sales events. Corporate portrait photography means taking formal pictures of employees for websites, magazines and other various publications. In this article, I will provide some tips on how to photograph corporate events.
1) Basics of Corporate Event Photography
Taking pictures of corporate events is a very responsible job. If you get hired to photograph an event or volunteer for event photography, you definitely need to make sure that you have the right equipment and technique before accepting the job. Do not assume that if you can photograph outside portraits, you can easily photograph any event. You really need to know how to work in low-light environments and how to use external flash, since many corporate events take place indoors with a very limited amount of ambient light.
In addition to photography equipment and technique, you also need to know some basics about event photography in general. Here is a quick list of basic tips that I compiled for event photography:
- The first and the foremost advice I can give you, is to look like a professional and blend in with the rest of the group. This means that you have to dress up accordingly. Most corporate events require “cocktail attire”, which means wearing a suit or tuxedo for men and a formal dress for women. Other events are more casual, where a “business casual” attire is acceptable. However, you should not guess – just call the event organizer beforehand and find out what the dress code is. It really looks bad when everyone is formally dressed and a photographer shows up in jeans and sneakers. Oh, and make sure that your clothes are all clean and shoes are shiny!
- If possible, scout the location and analyze the lighting conditions before the event. Ask your organizer if you can visit the venue beforehand to get a clue about what you will be photographing. You need to find out if you are dealing with plenty of ambient light during the day, or with very minimal light indoors/at night. This is extremely important to know, because you will need to take the right equipment for the job. If for whatever reason you cannot go to the venue, then try to find out as much as you can about the location from the organizer and venue owners/management.
- Get a complete schedule of the event from the event organizer. You need to know what is going to happen and when, and when they need you the most.
- Find out who is running the show and who you need to concentrate on. Ask your event organizer to introduce you to the senior management. Most of the time, it will be easy to remember the “big guys” because of the way they talk and dress, but you still need to make sure that you know who to photograph.
- Try not to interrupt important conversations. You can tell if a conversation is important by looking at how heavily engaged a person is in talking to another person or group. When you approach people in a relaxed environment, they will immediately notice you and even pose for a picture. You do not need to make everyone feel your presence, so try to be as unnoticeable as you can.
- I attended many important corporate events and parties and one thing that bugs the hell out of me, is when a photographer tries to pitch in and engage in a conversation. Obviously, out of respect, people will not show that they are annoyed or bothered, but it is still a very inappropriate thing to do. If someone needs your opinion, they will ask you.
- Do not drink alcohol, even if you are offered to have some. Nobody needs to see a drunk photographer and you shouldn’t smell like one either.
- Have a good lunch/dinner before the event. If the event is long and you are offered something to eat, move away from the crowd to a different location and eat there.
- Do not take pictures of people eating food! Would you feel comfortable if someone took your picture while you were chewing on something?
- Try to be as polite as you can, even with people that are not polite with you. If someone asks you to take their picture, do it with pleasure!
- Do not get locked up with just taking photographs of people. Look around you and most likely you will find something interesting to photograph. If there is a celebration with a cake, do not forget to take pictures of the cake before it gets cut.
I could add many other things to the list, but you get the idea – just do your best in representing yourself as a true professional and you will be rewarded with great pictures, future opportunities and lots of business referrals!
2) Photo Equipment
Equipment plays a big role in event photography. In addition to a good camera and lenses, you will most likely need other tools as well, especially when working in low-light environments.
2.1) Best Camera
It goes without saying that you will need a professional camera – forget about corporate event photography with a point and shoot. Although you can get away with one camera body, I would recommend two cameras, one with a wide-angle lens and another with a telephoto lens. That way you can quickly capture any action without the need to frequently change lenses. Plus, the second camera body will be your backup in case the first one fails.
In terms of type of a camera, I would recommend a low-noise DSLR camera that can shoot at ISO 800 and above without introducing much noise to the picture. Obviously, full frame cameras such as Nikon D700/D3s or Canon 5D2/1Ds would do best, but crop-sensor bodies can also be used, as long as there is sufficient light or external flash is used. With external flash, there is almost no difference in what DSLR you use – the difference in image quality is not going to be very noticeable. Many event photographers use a full frame camera as their main camera while having a smaller and lighter backup camera for special needs, which also works great.
2.2) Best Lenses
When it comes to lenses, I suggest professional-level lenses that can work very well in low light and produce pleasant bokeh. I highly recommend having at least two lenses – one for portraits and one for wide-angle shots (for groups and extreme close-ups). My favorite Nikon portrait lenses for event photography are Nikon 50mm f/1.4, Nikon 85mm f/1.4/1.8 and Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 (read my review of the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8E FL). Canon has a similar selection for portrait lenses, but has a slight edge in prime lenses: Canon 50mm f/1.2/1.4, Canon 85mm f/1.2/1.8 and Canon 70-200mm f/2.8.
As far as wide-angle lenses, I prefer to shoot with the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 on a full-frame body and with 17-35mm f/2.8 or Nikon 17-55mm f/2.8 on a DX body. Canon also has a similar Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 lens and Canon 17-55mm f/2.8 and Canon 17-40mm f/4.0 are also excellent.
2.3) External Flash
Unless you are shooting during the day outdoors, an external flash is a must! Your in-camera flash is not sufficient for event photography and you do not want to be shooting direct flash, because it will create nasty shadows and really ugly skin tones. Make sure that you get a flash that has an adjustable head, because you can bounce flash off white ceilings and walls, creating a more natural-looking light with very soft shadows. For Nikon cameras, I recommend the Nikon SB-5000 flash, while for Canon cameras, I recommend the Canon 600EX-RT. If you do not need much flash power, the Nikon SB-700 AF and Canon 430EX III will also perform well, however, keep in mind that neither of the latter are equipped with a slot for external battery packs and they have a longer flash recycle time. The Quantum Q-Flash is also a very popular external flash that many professionals prefer over the Nikon or Canon brand flashes.
If flash photography is prohibited, you will need to talk to the event organizer about increasing the amount of ambient light in the room, or perhaps adding more continuous light (such as video light) for your photography. In that case, having a low-noise DSLR camera with a fast lens is going to be extremely useful.
Another nice thing about flashes, is that you can add a nice catchlight to the subject’s eyes.
2.4) Off-Camera Flash
In some cases, you might be asked to take pictures of arriving guests in one specific area. If you are shooting from one location, it might be best to set up a an off-camera flash for better quality light. While bouncing the light off the ceiling or a wall produces nice-looking images, having a separate off-camera flash setup is still undeniably the best way to obtain great-looking portraits.
I always carry at least one umbrella kit with me in case I need to set up a quick off-camera light. You can get a really cheap off-camera flash kit for less than $500.
Here is what’s in my bag for off-camera flash:
- A set of trusty PocketWizard Plus III Transceivers. This is the most expensive part of the kit and you will need two of them – one will go on your camera hotshoe and the second will be used as a “slave” in your off-camera flash.
- Manfrotto 5001B Light Stand – I have a couple of these and they are very compact and sturdy light stands. There is also a much cheaper alternative by “Impact” that I have used in the past and they also work very well.
- I use the Westcott 43″ White Umbrella with Removable Black Cover for most of my flash photography and I’m in love with this umbrella. It is very compact and I carry it with me all the time. Best of all, it only costs $24.95!
- Manfrotto 026 Swivel Umbrella Adapter to connect the umbrella.
- Stroboframe Shoe to connect the umbrella adapter with an external flash.
Assembling the above parts takes only a few minutes and it is definitely worth every penny!
2.4) Other Accessories
- Take plenty of extra batteries with you, both for your cameras and your flashes. If the event is very long, take your chargers as well and recharge your batteries during breaks. Some of the events will have “award ceremonies” towards the end of the event, so make sure that you have enough power for that portion of the day. Having a camera battery grip can come in handy, since you can use two batteries without having to worry much about swapping batteries in between the shots.
- Having a battery pack for your flash is very handy if you are photographing indoors. A good battery pack will not only shorten the recycle time of your flash, but will also last much longer.
- Many event photographers use flash brackets to reduce the effect of red-eye and create more natural shadows. If you cannot bounce your flash (ceilings are too high or of different color), then I highly recommend getting a flash bracket. There is a large selection of custom flash brackets for every need, so take a look at the selection and choose what works for you. You will also need to get a cable that goes from your camera hotshoe to the flash.
- Make sure to bring plenty of camera memory with you.
- Get a good photo backup solution for on-location backup, or write to two memory cards in your camera.
- Having various light modifiers and bouncers can also be useful. Some people like to use ring-flashes such as Ray Flash for portraits, but I personally do not like them.
- If the lighting conditions are very poor, you might also need to get some video light.
3) Camera Settings
What camera settings should you use and why? I personally have two camera settings that I typically use for different light – one is for low-light photography and the other is for flash photography. While most camera settings remain the same, there are some differences between the two that I would like to point out.
Here are some settings that I suggest you leave the same:
- Image Quality: RAW. Read why you should use RAW.
- White Balance: Auto. I do not mess with White Balance and deal with it in post-processing. Due to constant changes between shooting with and without a flash, I find that it is easier to keep it in “Auto” and change it later in Lightroom.
- Beep: Off. If you are still shooting with your beep on, turn it off, since it is annoying when your camera beeps all the time.
- Active D-Lighting: Off (Nikon only). If you are shooting RAW, there is no need to have it turned on.
Everything else stays at default settings, except for the following.
3.1) Camera Mode
For normal photography without flash, I typically use “Aperture Priority” mode. I find that this mode works best for low-light situations and I have complete control over the depth of field by increasing or decreasing the aperture. For flash photography, I always use “Manual” mode and use shutter speeds between 1/50 to 1/200, depending on how much ambient light I want to let in. Aperture varies between f/2.8 and f/5.6.
3.2) ISO Sensitivity
If I’m shooting without a flash, I turn “Auto ISO” on, set its “Maximum sensitivity” to 3200 on FX and 800 on DX and “Minimum shutter speed” to 1/50th of a second. You might want to increase the minimum shutter speed to a higher number like 1/100 if you have shaky hands. When using flash, I turn off “Auto ISO” and set ISO to the base value, which is “200” on almost all modern Nikon cameras. There might be cases when I need more light when using a flash and I might bump up the ISO to 400 or 800 every once in a while, but generally I like to keep it low.
Focusing in low-light environments can be very challenging. Be careful about using large apertures between f/1.4 and f/2.8, since you might end up with a very blurry image if the focus lands elsewhere. If your shutter speed drops below 1/50th of a second and you are already near your maximum aperture, you should consider using external flash. I typically do not use my camera shutter for focusing and move the function to “AF” button on the back of my camera. That way, I can focus multiple times and recompose the image, if needed. Most DSLR cameras will let you move the focus function from the shutter to a dedicated button on the back of the camera, so I suggest that you give it a try and see how you like it.
In terms of servo mode, I prefer to use the “Continuous” servo mode (AF-C), in case my subjects move. On Nikon DSLRs, you can switch to the Continuous Servo mode by simply moving the switch to “C” position in the front of the camera.
I find that Matrix metering (also known as “Evaluative” metering in Canon world) works best for me. The only exception is when there is a bright background on the back of the subject when I’m shooting without a flash – that’s when I switch to spot metering and let the background overexpose a little. When I use flash, the metering is not important, since I shoot in manual mode anyway.
4) Composition, Background and Bokeh
Although you are primarily photographing people, do not forget about composition and try to be a little more creative in your photographs. It gets boring if all pictures you submit to your client have people centered in the frame. Try to frame your shot differently every once in a while and position yourself so that you do not have messy backgrounds behind your subjects. The background part is not always easy, especially when the place is full of people that move around, but you should still try. If you see a better background with a nicer light, politely ask your subjects to move around a little bit and they will gladly do that for you. This doesn’t mean that you should be moving people from one place to another just to get your shot though!
In terms of bokeh, pay attention to it and make sure that you are getting a soft, creamy bokeh in your pictures, especially when shooting with 50mm/85mm prime lenses and 70-200mm telephoto. I find that apertures between f/2.0 and f/4.0 yield the best-looking bokeh for individual shots.
5) Group Shots
I find that group shots are the toughest to work on, especially when the group is large and the amount of ambient light is low. You should always plan for these kinds of shots and this is another item that you should ask from the event organizer beforehand.
I prefer to shoot groups outside, because I do not have to worry about setting up the lights and making sure that the light is distributed evenly. If you are taking a picture of a group outside, then your biggest issue is going to be putting the group together and making them all look good for your pictures. Talk to your group, come up with a nice joke or two to make the group laugh naturally. Do not just ask for a “cheese” moment, since you will end up with fake smiles and stupid faces. Take lots of pictures and shoot in bursts. That way, if some of the group members blink, you will still have something to work with.
Photographing groups indoors is a challenging task. You will need to know how many people will be in the group and you will also need to find out about the dimensions of the room, lighting conditions and whether the room has dropped ceilings or not. Bouncing the light off the dropped ceilings produces the best-looking group shots. If you have a small or medium-size group with 8-10 people standing close to each other, you might get away with a single flash, as long as you can bounce it off a white ceiling. Try to keep the group as tight as possible, which means asking the group to stand in multiple rows and close to each other.
If you have a relatively large group of people in three rows, you could set up two or three light stands with external flashes, put them in manual mode to quarter or half power and point them at a 30-45 degree angle towards the group. The flash power will obviously depend on the amount of ambient light in the room, so you will have to play with that beforehand and make sure that you are providing sufficient amount of light to bounce off the ceiling onto your subjects. If you are not getting enough power from your flashes, try increasing the camera ISO. Make sure that the light bounces off and hits the center of the group (middle row), not the front or the rear row. That way, the light will spread evenly across the group and illuminate everyone. If the room is lit with florescent light, you might need to use some gels with your flashes to match the light.
Here is a simple lighting diagram that you can use for group shots:
The above diagram is for rooms with dropped ceilings. The flashes are pointed up at a 30-45 degree angle to land on the center row.
Whether you are shooting indoors or outdoors, I highly recommend getting a ladder for group portraits.
In terms of lenses, this is when you need to switch to your wide-angle lens, because you need to fit the group into the frame and need the most depth of field. Do not use super wide angle lenses below 24mm on full frame and 18mm on crop sensors, because you will distort the faces of the people on the sides. I personally use the 24-70mm f/2.8 lens for these kinds of shots and like the results.
6) Flash Photography Tips
Here are some tips for event photography indoors:
- If you are bouncing the light off the ceiling for the majority of your shots, using TTL (through the lens) mode should yield consistently good results. Just set your camera on TTL mode and you should be good to go for the most part. If you are getting an underexposed/overexposed image, you can always use the flash exposure compensation button on your camera to increase or reduce the amount of flash.
- If you set up an off-camera flash and you are using an umbrella in one location, I recommend using a Manual mode on your flash to get consistent results. Test your setup with an assistant or a volunteer and make sure that you are getting enough flash power.
- Shoot in single mode to prevent accidental multiple shots with your flash.
- Watch your flash, let it recycle and cool off before firing again. If you are shooting at full power, make sure that you are giving enough time for your flash, as recommended in the manual. Many photographers end up burning their flashes, because they do not pay attention to this. In fact, I highly recommend not to shoot your flash at full power and decrease aperture or increase the camera ISO instead.
- If your subjects are illuminated well while the background is too dark, it means that you are using a fast shutter speed. Remember, shutter speed controls ambient light in flash photography, so if you need to let more of that background light in, you will need to lower your shutter speed. Also, when shooting at low shutter speeds, I recommend using the “rear curtain sync” function on your camera to fire the flash at the end of the exposure.
7) Low-light Photography Tips
If you will be shooting indoors in a dim environment without flash, I highly recommend reading my “low-light photography tips” article.