Shooting the Special Event

Saturday night was the 55th annual Charter Party and club-level International Speech contest for First Oakville Toastmasters here in Oakville, Ontario. I was asked by the organizers to again shoot the evening and especially the International Speech contest winner (who it turns out was my wife Marion). Photos here at Peter West Photography.

When you’re shooting a special event the best suggestion I have is shoot a lot. Documentary style photography requires a good eye and an ability to slip in and out of shooting opportunities without creating too much attention.

Lighting at any special event held indoors is going to be a challenge and the Bronte Harbour Banquet Facility is no exception.

So what should you use as far as equipment is concerned?

You’ll appreciate a full-frame DSLR. Who wouldn’t? But at an opening bid of around $3K just for the body most of us are shooting DX format and even Micro Four-Thirds (Olympus Pens, Panasonics G-series and others). Regardless of what camera you’re going to need an external flash that allows for bouncing the light around and at least one fast lens.

On Saturday night I was using Nikons. My D-300 was my main camera and my D-90 was my backup. I had two SB-900 flashes and I forgot my Gary Fong Lightsphere which would have thrown a lot more light into the faces of my subjects than the straight flash bounced off the high ceilings even with the little reflector pulled up. Bummer.

Bringing in a set of lights or even putting the flashes on stands would work but remember this is a special event with over 100 people crammed into a medium-sized room. Anything on a stand that isn’t tied down is going to get knocked over.

So your best solution is going to up your ISO as high as your camera (and software. I use Lightroom 3 for its ability to handle hundreds of images and for its noise reduction software ability.) will allow (thus the full-frame advantage over DX and DX’s advantage over the Micro Four-Thirds in the ability of the larger sensor to capture more light in dark venues without dramatically increasing the noise in the image) bounce your flash and shoot with your camera using a slow shutter.

As for the mode when shooting in slow shutter I like to use aperture which I set to fully open the fast lens (a fast lens is one which will open to f/2.8 or better) or manual mode which allows me to control everything. This creates backgrounds that glow with ambient light. You need to be fairly close to your subject for the flash to stop any action and reduce blur caused by movement.

The automation in cameras today isn’t your friend if you’re starting to shoot at a pro-level. I’ve seen shooters at wedding shooting with Canon Rebels with the kit lens and an external flash they use on camera straight on in automatic mode. This is not the way to shoot a wedding. You absolutely need to know the difference between auto, program, aperture, shutter and manual modes and how to use them.

For wedding photography, regardless of what camera, you need a faster lens (I used a 17-55mm f/2.8 DX format zoom) and a 35mm f/1.8 fix lens. I also used my 12-24mm f/4 super wide angle for shots in the crowd.) and know how to bounce as big an external flash as you can afford. You can never have too much light. There’s a ton of other stuff that helps but this is the absolute minimum. I’d carry a second camera body like a Rebel or D90 just in case the main camera fails and I bring two flashes minimum.

Monolights that you setup for group shots are next IMHO. Don’t buy cheap lights as their white balance will vary with their flash output. Cold lights are great for video but are tougher to use well for still photography when you don’t know the venue and are under time constraints. Also remember the knock-over factor. 

The idea wedding kit looks something like this:

  • Full-frame DSLR (or two)
  • Backup DX DSLR
  • Full-frame 17-35mm, 35-70mm and 70-200mm lenses and all f/2.8
  • Full or DX format lenses: 35mm f/1.4 lens, 85mm f/1.8, 50mm f/1.8 which for DX series is cheap at $150
  • two big flashes like SB-900s for Nikon with Pocket Wizard remote controls
  • two monolights such as Alien Bees or better yet Elinchrom
Finally don’t try to shoot videos and the same time you’re shooting stills. You can’t do both in the time allotted for the event. If you have a second shooter who is shooting video make sure you’ve got a game plan worked out so you don’t keep walking into their shots. If you’re working with someone you don’t know who is doing the video, well good luck. I’ve watched as novice wedding shooters walk in front of the video camera just as the rings were being exchanged. Almost witnessed a homicide.
BTW while I use Lightroom for special event photography, I’d be using Photoshop for my detailed wedding work. 
My special event images get pretty much the same parameters dialled in (exposure boost 10%; white balance set using the eyedropper where possible) clarity down 10% or more (soften faces); vibrance up 20% (make the image pop); and saturation at zero or up 5% (avoid too much colour). Noise reduction up based on faces. I like to add vignetting which isn’t to everyone else’s tastes so I have to be careful here. Remember this isn’t high art. It’s mean-and-potatoes shooting used most often on member’s websites.
For weddings I can still use Lightroom but if there’s any detailed work to do and if you’re getting paid enough then Photoshop is the way to go on individual images.

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