Sunday, July 31, 2011

Photographing Staged Events

One of my students asked for some direction in photographing events in auditoriums or other large, artificially lit venues. Let's  look at some of the most commonly encountered problems . This sample photo was made in the College of San Mateo auditorium during the 2010 San Mateo Adult School's graduation ceremony.

Lighting: This is a no-flash situation, so you must rely on the exiting lights. As I said in an earlier post, the "Nose Knows", so I would suggest that you shoot only when the subject is looking towards the light to insure some detail in the eyes.This can be difficult when photographing inexperienced speakers who are probably won't make eye contact with the audience very often.

ISO Settings: You should expect to use high ISO settings when shooting indoors, but don't go overboard. Use the lowest setting you can get away with. Remember that the higher the ISO setting, the greater the effects of noise on your images. Your camera's built in noise suppression may not be as effective as a post production fix, so you would be well advised to turn the in-camera noise adjustment to "low", or "off". I try to stay at 1600 or below, when I can.

White Balance: You can bet that some sort of incandescent light source will be used. If you cannot set a custom white balance, you must rely on your camera's presets. for this photograph, I set the camera to the incandescent white balance preset. You can always make minor corrections after the fact using the photo editor of your choice, the route I normally choose.

One unique lighting problem occurred during this assignment: A digital projector was used to position an image of the school's logo behind the podium. The color temperature of the projector's bulb was significantly cooler that the spot lights aimed at the stage. Had I relied on the camera's automatic white balance setting, the correction would have probably been confused by the the two different light sources, and the subsequent difference in color temperatures. I decided to stay with a setting that gave the most pleasing skin tones, which is why I stayed with my original Incandescent preset.

Lens Selection: Most people will start their digital careers using the "kit" lens that came with their cameras. While these lenses are often quite sharp, they almost always have maximum apertures that vary with the focal length. For example, the 18-55mm Nikon kit lens has a maximum aperture of F3.5 at 18mm, F4 at 24mm, and F5.6 at 55mm. If you are so far from the speaker that you are forced to shoot at a focal length of 55mm, you will working with a very slow lens!

There are two relatively inexpensive lenses that will serve you well when used indoors: the F1.8 35mm and the F1.8 50mm lenses. The 50mm gives you a slight telephoto lens (about 75mm in 35mm terms), and nearly a 3 f-stop increase over your kit lens at the same focal length.

Depending on how important these shots are, you may choose to buy or rent a more suitable lens. There are a number of different available rental outlets, but a local source,, is worth checking out if you live in their service area.

Shutter Speed Selection: If you are photographing an animated speaker, you'll need to pick a shutter speed brief enough to stop the action on stage. I generally start with my lens wide open and see what shutter speed freezes the action sufficiently.

Aperture Selection: Shutter speed and aperture size go hand in hand. However, all lenses will perform better when stopped down. 3 stops smaller that the maximum aperture used to be considered "golden", but even 2/3 of a stop will often produce a noticeable improvement. Shoot your lenses wide open when you must, but stop down a little bit when you can.
The lead photo was made at 1/160th, F4, 1600 ISO. First, I set my camera to Aperture Priority with the lens wide open and made a close-up of my hand while standing near the front of stage. I was careful to insure that the lighting on my hand match the lighting on the speaker. If I was happy with the exposure, I set the camera to Manual and set the shutter to the speed chosen by the camera.

Incidentally, your lens aperture size and shutter speeds will default to 1/3 stop increments in most cameras. So if you stop down your lens by two clicks, increase your shutter exposure by two clicks.

Vibration Reduction: VR, as the Nikon People call it, is advertised as providing gains of two to three stops. One can then infer that if your best efforts yield acceptably sharp images at 1/60 of a second, the VR feature, when turned on, will allow you to shoot a 1/15th of a second with similar results. This can be deceiving. You may be able to hand-hold your VR equipped camera at 1/15 of a second, but if your subject is moving quickly, you'll get a good dose of motion blur caused by the subject. It's unfortunate the VR seems to be the big thing with variable aperture super-zooms that lose maximum aperture size when you increase the focal length of the lens. Any gain in longer shutter speeds is offset by the smaller maximum aperture at the long end.

Monopods: One desirable addition to your equipment collection is a monopod. While inexpensive ones are satisfactory for "flash on a stick" applications, you will need to pay more for something sturdier if you expect to support a camera while photographing in low light. Monopods have the advantage of being totally usable from a sitting position, and they don't require a large footprint like a conventional tripod. While you must still employ good, steady, camera holding techniques, a monopod will both tame those camera shakes considerably, and support the camera's weight during those long periods spent waiting for something exciting to happen.

ne final word of caution. There are some instances where event photography is unethical, illegal, or just plain rude. My presence as a photographer was sanctioned by the sponsors.