Shooting a Conference – A Digital Adventure

959E0831-B473-477E-973C-66BE050A747C.jpgA friend was organizing a conference in Berlin, and a really great one to boot, and he asked me if I wanted to be their photographer. The heck I did, so I said yes. This meant a couple of things for me. First, it was obvious I was gonna shoot digital. If you know me at least a little bit, then it should come as a bit of a surprise, or a shock even, since I mostly shoot film in my normal day, and these days rarely touch a digital camera.

Second, I was gonna have to deal with a flash, which is something I have never done before, only played around with them a little bit. I figured even though I was gonna work with stuff I’m not the most familiar with, it was the opportunity to get my feet wet.

I learned an insane amount of stuff about photography that weekend, and I’d like to take this opportunity to jot down my experiences and what I’ve learned before I forget it again. Maybe it’s of use for someone else too, who knows. I’m gonna be analyzing some photos along the way, and if I’m going to comment on what the person is doing in that photo, my intent is not to criticize them, just to explain what that particular moment meant for me as the photographer. They all did an incredible job giving their talks, so this is about judging and criticizing myself.

I was confident I could pull this off, and that’s mostly thanks to one person, James Duncan Davidson, programmer-turned-photographer who I was able to watch go about his work at several conferences, and learn from his photos, his blog and his Twitter. Without him I’d have had a lot more difficulty figuring out where to start.

This is gonna be a long one, be warned, and it’s gonna include a lot of digital photography as well. If it’s any consolation I also shot four rolls of Neopan 1600 during the conference. While the digital part was more focussed on taking shots of the speakers, the film was my way of capturing the atmosphere of the conference. A lot of what I’m gonna talk about here might be obvious to you, but it wasn’t for me. If you have helpful comments, please, leave them. I’m always keen to learn more.

Gear

At a small conference back in October I tried the 50mm lens and a flash with a hood just to get an idea of what I was gonna have to deal with. It was pretty clear that I was gonna need something much bigger than that for the next conference. I rented most of the gear, there was no way I would cough up 4000 bucks for the lenses alone.

  • Nikon D80. I contemplated getting something bigger, but then decided to just give it a go. It’s a good camera, and up to 400 speed the noise in the photos is acceptable.

  • Nikon N90s. That’s what I shot the Neopan with. Gotta stick to your roots in some way.

  • Nikon 70-200 f/2.8. My word, what a beast. Pretty sharp and it comes with VR to reduce vibrations. Just what I needed.

  • Nikon 24-70 f/2.8. I got that as an added bonus, and ended up using it on the Nikon N90s.

  • Nikon SB-900 and Nikon SB-600. The SB-600 was our own, and I got the SB-900 just to see how it is. Good thing I got it, as it would turn out later.

  • 2 Bowens Pulsar remote trigger sets.

  • 2 tripods and a monopod.

  • Polaroid Automatic 355. Oh yes, I took pictures of the speakers with that baby. Great conversation piece too. I didn’t have a lot of time to talk to people during talks, but the oldie broke the ice easily.

The stuff I didn’t have already I rented from Calumet. They’re not the cheapest, but nice people and good service.

I’m gonna go into some detail in terms of the gear, and then talk about the techniques and some general things I learned, if you don’t mind.

Camera

The Nikon D80 did a decent job for me, and even though I thought about getting a D700 or at least a D300, I decided against it. I wouldn’t have enough time to familiarize myself with the camera had I gotten it just the day before, that’s the main reason. There’s good reasons why you’d want a better camera for the job though.

Less noise at higher speeds. Especially with the D700 you can easily go up to 1600 (only one of the several advantages of going full frame) and still have little noise in the shot. That in return means you can shoot at higher speeds or have a smaller aperture. Higher speed comes in handy when shooting speakers while they’re talking. The chance of motion blur becomes smaller, and it’s more likely you get a good shot of them.

Smaller aperture means a wider depth of field. This is not a real deal breaker, ladies, but when you have a nice stage setting it could come in handy to not have all of it blurred.

The most important reason to get a better camera is the simple fact that the time from you pressing the button to the camera actually shooting becomes less and less of an annoyance. With the D80 there’s always a noticeable lag. You don’t notice it when shooting, but you see it when you look at the resulting photo. It took some getting used too, and it sure would be nice having to worry less about that, the results will be more immediate.

Lenses

As I said you need a big lens, it’s quite convenient being able to move around the room zooming in and out as you go, the 70-200mm zoom allowing for some playing around. But I found that I mostly ended up shooting at 200mm, since (at least with the venue from last weekend) a close-up portrait worked best. The background and the stage didn’t look very inviting from a photographer’s point of view. It took me a while to realize that, but you live and learn. With a full frame camera you’d need something even bigger, like 300mm, and sometimes I wondered if a 300mm lens wouldn’t be even better for the job, but then again, there’s no f/2.8 300mm Nikon lenses as far as I know, so the above applies with regards for a better camera.

I shot at f/2.8 most of the time, which is quite a challenge, because when the speaker only moves a couple of inches, you have to refocus, depending on the focus setting. I might try a different setting autofocus next time though (I shot single-spot), because it sure got annoying, and together with the VR mode it drains the battery faster than you like.

As I mentioned earlier, one or two inches off focus already make a very big difference. Light-wise I didn’t have the luxury to shoot with a smaller aperture, but it would’ve been interesting. I’ll have to play around with different focus modes next time.

The 24-70mm Nikon lens is frickin awesome. From weight and size it’s still bearable and being able to shoot wide and tele with f/2.8 is pretty neat. Came in quite handy on the Nikon N90s, though I got the feeling it ignores the camera setting and constantly refocuses.

Flashes

Let me just go ahead and say it upfront: The SB-900 is a badass flash. It’s almost twice the size of the SB-600, and the light is insane. Supports zooming up to 200mm which suited me well. I used it at 85mm most of the time though, because I found the light to be nicer.

When I picked up my gear I forgot to take the Pulsars. The shop delivered them to the venue the next day, but I had to shoot the first speakers with the flash on camera. That was okay, but not great. You need to be very careful where you direct the light. Depending on how it bounces off there’ll still be a noticeable shadow. That ruined some of the shots, but it was just okay. Also the flash tends to get in the way. I liked hiding behind columns to not get in the way of the audience too much, and it wasn’t easy maneuvering it around while still trying to get a good angle for the light to bounce. The one below was taken with the flash on camera, and I’m still quite happy how it turned out.

JSConf.EU Day 1

After I got the triggers I finally could get set up and get my Strobist on. My setup was the SB-900 slightly off the right of the stage, hidden from the audience by a column (there was a video camera installed on the left, so I didn’t have much room to play), attached to a tripod, triggered with a Bowens Pulsar.

Apart from the fact that I got one set of Pulsars with the wrong cables I also realized that the SB-600 is a no go with synchro cables. Shame really, so watch out for that, and get a real flash. Gotta say I’m a bit disappointed, since it’s still not a cheap flash. So I decided to switch between remote and the SB-600 in the two rooms. The main room was nicely lit with the SB-900, downstairs I could play with the bouncing light from the SB-600 to get it right. What can you do? Improvise as best as you can. Worked out nicely, because that way I had a tripod left for the Polaroid camera.

The SB-900 flashed against the ceiling, bouncing right back down on the speaker. I used a diffuser, so there was also light coming directly from the flash. The resulting light wasn’t bad for my first time doing something like that, but it wasn’t always perfect. The Pulsars were pretty reliable too. You can see stage and flash position in this group shot (flash went off on the right):

The awesome crowd at JSConf.EU

One piece of advice: Bring batteries, lots of batteries. I ran through around 40 batteries over the weekend, most of them in the SB-900. At 85mm they lasted for maybe around 150 shots, and they were literally sucked dry. The batteries were so hot when I took them out I doubted there was any power left in them.

Before the conference some people suggested using the Nikon built-in master-slave mode. While it’s great in general, there’s two problems. For one you have to be in sight of the external flash making you less flexible moving around. Second, the master flash needs to fire to set off the slave. That means the on-camera flash will go off. Apart from sucking the battery dry even faster, it’s very distracting when there’s flash light coming from two directions, one of them being not even important for the photo. Hence the decision to get remote triggers. Another hat-tip to James Duncan for the inspiration.

JSConf.EU Day 1One thing that bothered me was the thought of the flash going off constantly distracting the speaker. I wasn’t sure if they’d notice it at all because of the big spots shining into their faces, or if it would be a major annoyance. I talked to some speakers, and they said they didn’t even notice it. Phew.

Before this I had no idea how to use a flash. I’m still learning, but I sure learned to appreciate it. When done right it definitely is a very handy tool. Until now I either used a long exposure on a tripod to take indoor shots or simply just shot outdoors, but neither was a real option here, so I made friends with the flash, and it didn’t let me down on our first date. It wasn’t third base, but it was something.

Tripods

Okay, this is more about the monopod than about the tripods. The tripods were very handy for the remotely triggered flashes, but what really made this a good experience was the monopod. It has just one leg and lets you move around pretty nicely, always giving you a pretty steady standing. With the 200 mill on the camera you can lean on it for extra steadiness and a cool, professional look.

I wasn’t entirely happy with the monopod I got, but they gave it to me for free for the weekend, so I won’t complain. This one used clips to affix the different parts of the leg, and it was a bit of a hassle, plus they weren’t as tight as you’d wish for, when I set up it always sank back in for one or two inches. Next time I’d get a screw-in one, much more flexible and easier to handle. I don’t like that for tripods, but for a monopod it sure is handy.

This is pretty much the why and how on my gear. Now I’d like to look at some of the photos and discuss some techniques I picked up, or thought I’d picked up.

Portrait vs. Landscape

JSConf.EU Day 2I started out shooting landscape, but I quickly realized that portrait is the better choice. Usually I don’t like shooting portraits, but in this case I was taking pictures of people, conveniently called portraits, so why not give it a shot?

When shooting the speaker, the only thing that counts is the speaker, so you try to get a good part of him into the frame. In this case the stage didn’t give me much to add to the scene, so I tried a good mixture of portrait and landscape. There was a big sponsor banner on the far right that added nicely to the pictures having it in the background. I tried to get a good mixture of both, but I figured it was best to get as many different angles of a particular speaker as possible.

My feeling is that it’s nicer to get as much as possible from the speaker in general, and take in more of the scene when there’s actually a scene that adds to the photo. But there’s situations where something from the screen behind the speaker or the stage in general lets the viewer get a feeling of the size of the room, and that can turn out nice.

JSConf.EU Day 2

Also, with landscape the rule of thirds suddenly becomes important, and where you put the speaker’s head. It’s less interesting when you have the speaker looking into one direction, but his head is in the two thirds of the side he’s looking at. They look a lot more balanced, and I didn’t like any of the shots where that wasn’t the case. They just look a bit off. I’m sure this was obvious to you. As much as I was aware of the rule, I didn’t really care for it that much. Sure, with square shots there’s not much room to play with anyway, but here it suddenly became obvious why the rule exists.

JSConf.EU Day 2

Mr. Speaker

Some thoughts on the different types of speakers I came across, and how I liked shooting most of them. In general I found something of a 2/3rd profile to work best. When shooting from the front it’s usually nicer to have some sort of gesture in the picture, and to again have some sort of nice-looking stage that adds to it. With a profile it’s less likely that you get some awkward looking faces. You don’t have all of the mimics in the photo, and e.g. slightly opened lips don’t look as awkward as they would from the front.

JSConf.EU Day 2

Just the profile works as well, but you don’t want to exclusively shoot from the side, because the faces tend to look similar from the side over the course of different shots, giving you less flexibility for getting different shots of different speakers. The profile does allow to widen the shot though, at least that’s what I thought. You get a better feel of the venue and the talk, but again, it gets boring doing that with every speaker.

JSConf.EU Day 1There’s speakers that are easier to get good shots of. Not because they’re more attractive, have a cupcake in their hands, or just generally are photogenic. It’s because some speakers talk slower and more thoughtful than others. Some take pauses during sentences, some just keep talking, or add “uh” or “hum” in between their sentences. It’s next to impossible to get a good shot of the latter. You usually get shots with awkward lip positions and an added weird face on top. I’m sure I’m falling into line with the ones never shutting up when I’m on stage talking, so I’m feeling very sympathetic for them.

Others look different in every shot, making a different face every time. Funny to watch, but makes it a lot harder to get several good results of the same expression and to get any good expression on their faces at all. In this case the 2/3 profile does its magic when you’re in luck. In some situations it looks just good enough even with a slightly opened mouth.

JSConf.EU Day 2

There’s speakers that keep moving around the stage a lot. I know why, and I do it too, guilty as charged. When you’re nervous you tend to pay less attention to what your body is doing, I totally feel for that. But this time I saw it from a different perspective. You constantly have to refocus, and constantly have to think about the lighting, because the further away from the flash they go, the less light will hit them. Worst case is when they walk out of the stage light. I know that it’s not their job to worry about me as the photographer, it’s just an observation I’ve made, and it makes an already exhausting job tons harder.

When a talk is given by two speakers, it gets a bit more difficult, unless you zoom in as close as you can go, focussing on one speaker at a time. Having both speakers in the shot you usually end up with the non-talking one looking slightly bored, waiting for his turn. I didn’t always have time for the other to take his turn, so I ended up with one or two of these shots. Once again, I’m guilty as charged. There’s not much you can do as the second speaker except stand around, watch and wait for your turn, maybe throw in a comment from time to time.

JSConf.EU Day 1

It’s not hard to guess which ones are the nicest to shoot. Usually you have the experienced speakers that know when to pause for a dramatic effect or when to take a second to involve the audience somehow, and that’s great. Looks especially nice when there’s smiles involved. But the real art and constraint is to get your best shot out of everyone on stage.

I’ve had at least one speaker where the first and the last shot were the ones I picked in the end, with 150 in between. I wouldn’t say there’s a particular meaning to that, but it was an interesting turnout. With some speakers I just ended up waiting for questions and answers at the end, because by then most of them are likely to stand still for a couple of seconds waiting for questions. Some make faces during that time, but they tend to be a lot more relaxed and therefore it’s a nice time to get a good shot.

JSConf.EU Day 2

Scene

It’s strange to suddenly realize the little annoyances in a stage setting. Major facepalm for me was the microphone. When the speakers don’t have tiny microphones attached to their shirts (a god-sent) there’s either one attached to a stand or, even worse, they’re holding it, both getting in the way. Though the stand tends to get more annoying than a hand-held microphone.

JSConf.EU Day 2

Again, this is all from my view as the photographer. I don’t blame the speakers for what they do, it’s just very distracting in the photo, it doesn’t add anything, it’s just in the way. I had several speakers where I had to move around just to get a clearer shot without too much of the mic sneaking into the frame. In the downstairs room there was a cable hanging from the ceiling. I could make do with the microphone, but that cable really bugged me. I ended up always retreating to one side of the room where it would get in the way less. Plus, the rest of the room didn’t allow for much moving around without blocking either the video camera or the audience’s view.

JSConf.EU Day 2

There were sponsor ads on both far ends of the stage side of the room. Both made for a nice background, but unfortunately one side of the room served as backstage for hardware and to store people’s stuff, mine included. I saw it in some of the shots during post-processing and was a bit bummed I didn’t realize it earlier. You can see a bit of it in this shot:

JSConf.EU Day 2

Next time I’ll be on the look-out for stuff like that, and talk to the organizers about it. It was a major facepalm during this particular shoot, and I should’ve noticed while shooting, so it’s pretty much my bad.

JSConf.EU Day 2In general the pinkish red of the banners made for a nice contrast, especially when it was dark out. Contrast was a a bit of a problem in general. Shooting the speakers in front of just a simple stage setting was not very spectacular, I found the shots including some part of the screen or said sponsor banners a bit more interesting to look at, especially when I was zoomed in on the speaker pretty closely and the banners would cover the background almost entirely. It made for a nice lighting together with the spots hitting the speaker’s face. I like most of the shots that turned out like this one.

Lighting

JSConf.EU Day 1

In the main room the stage was in front of two windows. Even though they were draped they were a bit of a problem, especially when shooting from right in front of the speakers. Even though they let in good daylight, they also caused very harsh shapes around the speakers, making them look like cut-outs, you can notice it on the speaker’s left side, especially around the hat.

JSConf.EU Day 2I found the ones I shot when it was dark out to have a much nicer mood and light. When shot in profile the speakers were nicely lit from the front while the back of their heads was usually darker. Made for a much nicer mood in the photos. There was lots of spots lighting the stage, but the light coming from them was very yellow. The same spots lit the walls behind the stage, making it even harder to find a good white balance.

For you own sake, shoot RAW, for the love of Ansel Adams, shoot RAW. There’s shots where the white balance will be off, and you’ll be thankful just like me that you can manipulate the white balance without losing any detail during post-processing. It’s hard to get it right, especially when you have two different rooms with totally different lighting.

I also made the mistake of not using the lens hood during the time I had the flash on camera. I found that when I put it on the pictures looked a lot more even. I could just have been dreaming that or it’s true.

Most of the time I shot with 1/100 shutter speed, up to 1/160 was bearable, but not great. In some shots the flash position didn’t look exactly right, I’ll have to play with that a bit more.

The Audience

It was hard to get a good picture of them. Mostly because I had to use my flash to shed some lights onto the people. Otherwise I’d have to shoot at low speeds, and that didn’t turn out to well. In some case the lighting from the flash was close to magic for me and really added to the photo.

JSConf.EU Day 1

Because it required me to switch settings I didn’t take a lot of digital shots of the audience, but instead resided to using the Nikon N90s for that. With the audience it’s also much nicer to have a wide lens, because now it suddenly becomes interesting to see as wide a field as possible.

Moving around the room

JSConf.EU Day 1This was not an easy thing to pull off. There were tables all around the audience with chairs set up in between, requiring me to snake around people sitting between tables, sometimes blocking my path. Most of them made room when I passed through though for which I’m very grateful.

I tried to stay out of their view. They paid to see the speakers talk, and it was not at all my intention to steal the show. So when I wasn’t shooting from the side where I didn’t block anyone, I stayed close to the two columns left and right of the stage. Although it was pretty hot it was also a good place to get some nice 2/3 profile shots.

Equipment

Some more general thoughts on this. I already mentioned you should bring batteries for your flash, but that’s not the only thing. With constant refocussing your battery won’t hold as long as the package says, you can be sure about that. Have a backup battery with you at all times, or a battery grip (makes you look a lot more professional too). I had to learn that the hard way, thankfully I could borrow a battery from a fellow Nikon guy.

Same is true for memory cards. Always have a good stash available, and a safe place to store them when they’re full. I ran out of space on the first day and realized that I’d forgotten my MacBook at home, so I left my pictures on a friend’s MacBook coming with those handy SD slots.

It was a bit chaotic behind the scenes, but it turned out okay.

Post-Processing

My god, it suddenly becomes so important. I’m just not used to fine-tuning details of a RAW file. Usually I tend to leave my photos just like they come off the scanner. If it’s not right from the get-to, and I can’t fix it with simple tweaks I much rather leave it be than making the shot look different from the original. Weird I know, but I just haven’t done much post-processing since I started shooting film. i just don’t feel the need.

But now it’s necessary, especially when fine-tuning skin tones and white balance. In the first run I went through all photos to reject the ones I didn’t like. Then I did a second round to narrow it down, editing the ones I liked on the go. J said the photos still looked a bit yellow, and at first I didn’t believe her, because I just didn’t see it. I had to sleep over it and get back to it the following morning to see what she meant. There was indeed still a tad too much yellow on the shots, so I went and re-edited all of them, being a lot more pleased with the results.

Statistics

I took about 1800 shots, and in the end was left with 60. Insane, and I’m just not used to that. With film you usually try to savor the moment, maybe take one or two extra shots, but that’s it.

I’d like to get the initial numbers down in the future. This time it was better safe than sorry, so I just kept shooting.

Conclusion

Phew, there’s a load off my mind. I wanted to write this down so I don’t forget some of the things myself. Some of the gear I used already made me consider what to do in the future. I was just invited to shoot the next conference in Washington DC, and I’m considering getting the SB-900 flash, and maybe a Nikon D300s until then. Who knows?

It was an incredible learning experience, shooting with techniques I had yet to learn. Great way to get started I’d say, and it was totally worth it. I learned to appreciate the flash and even digital cameras, believe it or not. I’m very happy with the final selection, and so were the people that asked me to do the shoot.

In all, it was an exhausting job. Standing around all day, looking through the viewfinder most of the time, trying to stay focussed on the target is surprisingly tiring. The good kind of tiring though. There’s an odd feeling of accomplishment at the end of the day.

Speakers, you did very well. It was great seeing you go about your business on stage with a totally different point of view, and I’m thankful I was able to learn so much through you guys. Probably not what you talked to the audience about, but I still learned from you. I see you guys next April in Washington DC, where I’ll be shooting the next conference.

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4 thoughts on “Shooting a Conference – A Digital Adventure

  1. i saw the polarpoids of the speakers at your flickr account and thought: “that’s how i imagined people, who would come to a javascript conference.” (because i’m one of this computer science nerds, as well). 😀

  2. thanks for the insight with all the details you gave. Did thought that much equipment was involved. Great post and great photos.

  3. I didn’t expect a short wrap up, but this is very intense. 😉

    Thx for that, cause gave a good impression of all the things to concider, when taking pictures of people.

    /cheers bro

  4. thanks for all the gear tips… i own and shoot with a d80 and my SINGLE, BIGGEST complaint about it is the noise as soon as you go above 400. Can’t wait for an upgrade!

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