Saturday, May 24, 2014

It's (Outdoor) Event Season!

It's Spring! or Summer, or some variation of either of those depending on where you live. After this last year, it's time for a lot of my readers to jump up and down and say "I made it!" having survived the Polar Vortex-fueled winter. Here in New Mexico, that wasn't a problem. But wherever you are and whatever your seasons look like, from my viewpoint as a photographer, it is now Outdoor Event Season! This is one of my favorite times of year, so it definitely has me smiling!

Most of you reading probably will have some kind of event to attend this summer, whether a family gathering, a community event, or a trip to the market or fair.  Events are one of my favorite subjects for photography, second only to an engaging, jaw dropping slice of nature, of which there are plenty here in New Mexico. I enjoy anything outdoors, really, and gatherings for portraits, engagements, weddings, and corporate and community events make wonderful subjects for captivating photography and for challenging your skills as a photographer.  So here are a few tips to help that happen for you whether you are an iPhone or point-and-shoot user or you are leaning toward advancing your skills a bit more.  

Event photography is about control.  The challenge is to take control in a situation where, overall, I have none.  Everything about the event -- the schedule, venue, weather, existing lighting, people and all sorts of behaviors -- are all things over which I have absolutely no control.  So, I have to take control of what I can, the things on my end of the situation that enable me to deal with all the factors in play and the unknowns.  I take control by having the right equipment and by knowing how to use it well. Two items of equipment that are essential to good event photography is the mix of focal lengths in lenses to control composition and perspective and the ability to control light. If we can do those things, we open up all sorts of possibilities to move our photography to the next level.  In this blog, I'll focus on those aspects as  the foundation for improving the photographs you take when you attend any sort of event. 

Lenses always seem to be the focus of the first question I get when discussing photography gear.  OK, it's the second question. The first is did I really get that close to Robert Redford? (Answer: Yes.) While lenses and other equipment do not make the photographer, equipment does matter to the extent that a good photographer is one who is prepared and who knows how to use whatever equipment he or she has on hand.

At a typical event, you are going to want some photos that are close up (picture the boss or coworkers with watermelon juice dripping from their chins. On second thought, maybe you shouldn't picture that...), children with smeary ice cream faces, table decorations, family candids, older relatives with their heads tipped back in laughter. You also will want photos of the venue, larger groups, the array of people and tables.  This means you need to be able to get close as well as get some nice wide angle views. We can "zoom with our feet," meaning we move closer or farther back to get the desired perspective. That isn't always an option, though, due to space limitations or the time it would take to do the moving.  Ideally, we need a mix of focal lengths to cover both the wide (28mm or so) and the close-up (100mm or more) perspectives.  The average point and shoot and phone camera has the capability to go back and forth between these focal lengths built in to the camera.  The first tip, then, is to know how to use what you have, and be able to make changes smoothly and swiftly. In the time it takes you to ask "How do I zoom this thing?" the scene you wanted can be gone. Practice a bit before the event. Then practice more. You'll thank yourself for, well, probably forever that you took the time to learn how to work what you have and you are now able to get the photo you want while others are still fumbling with their zoom settings.  Keep up the practice so you don't forget what you learned and you will be the family photographer of choice when the holiday season arrives! Besides, no one likes having to hold that smile for 20 seconds while you figure out which button to push. Sometimes the best photographer is the most swift photographer, and that really holds true when photographing events because things can move very quickly.

For the more advanced photographer, my ideal minimalist event setup covers the 24 - 200mm range in two lenses, a 24-70mm 2.8 and a 70-200mm 2.8. The 2.8 capability adds immensely to the ability to photograph in low light conditions, essential for indoor venues and, especially, weddings and evening events. Here in sunny NM I often go with a different lens that has Image Stabilization. For me, a Canon user, it's the 24-105 mm f4 IS as my main lens. For events, Image Stabilization is a wonderful asset when you are on the move a lot and worth the minor trade-offs in the lens.  There are some very good lenses that provide this range of capability in a single lens and one of those may be just right for your needs at a much lower cost than the two lens setup I mention here. If you're in the market for something to add to your gear, you've got a lot of options, and don't forget there is excellent used equipment available, too.  

Flash. Flash is your constant companion as an event photographer. You  have reached a new level as a photographer when you have developed the ability to use flash well. It's the same way anyone who plays the guitar feels about bar chords. You can't get to the next level without 'em.  "But you're talking about outdoor events," you say? You betcha. Flash. Don't leave home without it.

Lighting is crucial to good photos. In fact, the term "photography" is derived from the words that relate to the idea of capturing an image with light or writing with light.  Light Rules.  Photographers control light through a combination of settings on the camera including ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. Autoexposure takes care of these settings without the need to give it any thought. One of the wonders of technology is that, in some instances, we can get good results without even knowing what we are doing! Like spell check. But we've all experienced what happens with automatic features like that, right? Automatic isn't the way to approach photography, either.

Autoexposure typically aims for a "happy medium" or what photographers know as neutral grey (18% grey if you want to get technical). This is the phenomenon that turns white snow grey if you photograph it using automatic settings. The camera tends to make all light close to that neutral tone so the bright white of the snow gets exposed to be grey and the rest of the photo is adjusted similarly toward that neutral point so it all balances.  There are ways to work with that phenomenon by manually controlling the settings that affect exposure. Another key to controlling light is effective use of flash.

I often find that newer photographers have a fear or at least a loathing of flash. We have all seen those burned out, bright white "hot spots" and the red eyes that came from improper use of flash and learned to despise flash as a result.  The fact is, though, that if flash is used correctly, you can't tell it was used at all.  Outdoors, we use flash to balance the light provided by different sources so that everything in the photo has a more even lighting. There are a lot of good sources online about managing flash and enough discussions that it is obvious how perplexing flash is to a lot of people.  But it doesn't need to be.  Start with your camera manual (and flash manual, if you have an external flash) and read how to control flash output in your camera if you have a system that can be manually controlled. Most DSLRs have that capability. Once you know how to control the output, you've made a huge step forward on managing the light for your photos.  If you can't control your flash manually, the solution is to move. Move farther back if you are taking candids or photographing a subject you can't move. Move your subjects into more even lighting, not bright sun, if you can.  Light shade provides wonderful light and natural skin tones. If you are using a DSLR, check your white balance as you move into different kinds of lighting.

It is tempting to think that whatever goes wrong with a photo can be fixed later in the computer if you have some photo editing software. That approach makes me cringe. Computers are an essential part of digital photography, but  photography, itself, is not a computer skill, and learning photography is not the same as learning photo editing. Besides, a heck of a lot of things cannot be "fixed" in the computer, such as those blown-out bright white hot spots or that deep shadow that makes it look like Uncle Ed is missing one side of his head. No software will fix that.

Carrying it all. For most events, I want to go as minimalist as possible. This stuff gets heavy. Camera phone users have it easy here! But, I do get a lot more of that control I mentioned. I often have two cameras on me and ready to go, with different lenses attached, along with flash and, of course, the backup equipment I want available.  That calls for a good way to carry it all without getting tangled up or letting things bang together. I'm a big fan of Cotton Carrier and Black Rapid straps for when I need two cameras on and ready to go and want the pressure off of my neck.

A couple of options I like depending on the setting and the gear is a sling bag (Kata, now Manfrotto) that is super lightweight and holds a pro camera with the 70-200 attached and, my favorite bag for most events, a Think Tank Photo (fabulous products) Speed Convertible BeltPack. In addition to carrying what you need and keeping it accessible, a good bag protects your equipment, something that is especially important at crowded venues.  Someone bumping into you and spilling their soda on your camera can really ruin your day.  And it could mean I can't deliver on what I was hired to do. Look for a bag that is light weight, offers good protection, fits your equipment, allows you to get your gear out quickly, and comfortably matches your carrying style.  Consider, also, that you probably will have car keys, ID, and the other stuff you want to have with you. And water. I'm in NM, so a bag with a water bottle pouch or a place to clip a carabiner and attach a sport bottle is a must. Think about all you plan to carry when selecting a pack, not just the camera gear.
That does it for the basic gear list and some added incentive to get out with the camera for some practice.  By the time Balloon Fiesta comes along, you'll be seeing it in a totally different, um, light. There will be another blog about developing the eye of an event photographer, or the creative/artistic angle. The blog last year about getting the most out of the Fiesta has some basic tips that are applicable to any event.  For now, get out with your camera  and enjoy this amazing season and practice for the events you have coming!

If you have questions about equipment or want more suggestions on event photography, feel free to contact me. I'm happy to talk camera "stuff" any time. This year you can find me at a number of events including, of course, later this year in the media tent at Balloon Fiesta.  I usually have my logo on my gear somewhere.  Photos of zombie flash mobs will be coming later in the year from another event I am covering, and the birthday party of a three year old will provide lots of  those adorable ice-cream smeared faces (the kids, not the zombies). I'll also be doing some gratis work for non-profits as I enjoy contributing to my community along with other events for hire. Picnics, conferences, zombies, engagements, children, seniors of all ages ... Let me know if you have an event coming up and would like photography services. You can find some examples of previous event and portrait work in the gallery of my website at Beth Rodgers Photography.  Whatever the event, and even if you're not Robert Redford, you'll get stellar professional photos, always with a smile!

Happy Event Season!

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