Event Photography Gear and Guide
Ben Weeks, April 2011
It’s been a pretty nice Spring so far, so you could be forgiven for thinking that Summer is already here. While that might be a bit of a premature statement, the onset of longer, brighter days means that the event season will soon be under way. Posters advertising county shows, fetes, gala days and various sporting attractions will be popping up on lamp-posts and telegraph poles across the country, and from a photographer’s point of view many of these events can be an absolute photo goldmine. Of course, it’s not just the outdoor events that are worth paying attention to – indoor shows and music events take place throughout the year and can also be a source of fantastic images.
If you’re lucky enough to be the “Official Photographer” for any of these events, with sideline, dressing-room or behind the scene access, then your job is made much easier. However, this blog post assumes that you’ll be at these events and one of potentially thousands of spectators, with no special treatment because you have a camera around your neck, and looks at some of the gear and techniques that may come in handy.
Pick your place
Getting the perfect shot is more difficult if you’re several rows back from the action and jostling for camera space. Getting to the event early enough to find and claim your shooting place is well worth the extra effort if you know that the shots will be there. This might mean having a good look round the location to establish where the best angle will be, particularly if it’s a venue you’ve not been to before or a sport or event you’re not familiar with. Sometimes you may be provided with a wealth of shooting options, while on other occasions you may be limited to one or two spots where you can shoot through a gap in a fence or over the heads of other spectators – a good recce in advance will let you find out.
Of course, if it’s a particularly busy event, you need to decide whether you intend to hold that spot for the duration, or if it’s worth switching locations midway through. Any leg-work you’ve done in advance will pay dividends at this point – you’re unlikely to want to abandon your post if you’ve no idea if there are any other options out there. You also need to consider if the other shooting locations you scouted before the event are still likely to be free, or if another eagle-eyed camera wielder will have stake up residence there. As such, it’s certainly best to try and get it right first time. That said, if you’re lucky enough to be somewhere with great action and no crowds, you can take your time and experiment – just be sure to drop me an email and tell me about it because these opportunities are few and far between!
Use your zooms
If ever there was a subject where zooms should be the main choice of lens, it’s at fast moving sports and display events. It doesn’t matter how great your prime lens is, if the action’s happening while you’re changing lenses, it might as well be a milk bottle. Zooms on the other hand offer the freedom and convenience to make sure you don’t miss a single shot. Lots of action going on everywhere in a particularly exciting environment? Use the wider end of the zoom and get it all in.
Oh, but suddenly the centre-piece of the action has got considerably more interesting and is deserving of more focus. With a zoom lens it’s easy – simply zoom in to the telephoto end and continue to snap away. Of course, even zooms can vary considerably in focal length, so whether you need a wide-angle zoom, a standard zoom or a telephoto zoom will be governed by how close you are to the action, but there’s no denying that a zoom of any kind is considerably more useful in the event arena.
Put your arms in the air
The great thing about Live View is that nearly all compact cameras and most SLR cameras have it. No longer do you have to keep your eye stuck to the viewfinder to be able to frame your shot. Now you can hold your camera over your head and still use the screen to compose, focus and shoot. If the screen is of the vari-angle, tilting type, then this is made even easier. With your camera at arm’s length over your head you can shoot above the rest of the crowd and capture that celebrity signing autographs at the barrier in front.
The bad thing about Live View is that nearly all compact cameras and most SLR cameras have it. As such you are unlikely to be the only person with their camera held aloft, snapping wildly in the air. You might just end up with a shot of the back of somebody else’s camera which, unless their photo is brilliant and you simply crop your shot and pass theirs off as your own, is far from ideal.
Choose your views
Another difficulty in shooting any kind of event is that you may well be one of hundreds of people all trying to get the same shot. This means fighting for elbow room with your camera in hand just to get into a position where you can take the photo. And then, once you’ve got it, it’ll be exactly the same photo that everyone else has just taken, and everybody wants their photo to be unique.
To get something a bit different, simply keep your eyes peeled for other, less obvious shots. They might lack the drama and action of the main event, but there can be some equally interesting and intriguing shots to be found away from the focus of everybody’s attention. So while all the other photographers are fighting for lens space in the camera scrum, step back out of it and see what else there is to photograph.
Get some support
If elbowing your way to the front of a crowd with an SLR and large zoom lens around your neck doesn’t make you unpopular, proceeding to clear a space and erecting a tripod certainly will. No, it’s fair to say that using a tripod to support your shots is not really the done thing in a crowded event environment. Luckily, many of today’s lenses and even camera bodies are equipped with differing forms of stabilisation which make it much easier for you to hold your shot still, even when using long lenses or slowish shutter speeds.
However, there are occasions when you simply have to have some kind of physical support to get your shots, and this is when a monopod can become your best friend. Thin enough to stand unobtrusively in front of you in a crowd and portable enough to be taken almost anywhere, a monopod can provide your long lens with enough support and manoeuvrability to get the shots that might otherwise require you to lean on the person in front. If even a monopod isn’t an option, then using the top of a barrier, or leaning against an upright such as a lighting post or even a tree can all help keep your shots steady and blur free.
Timing needn’t be everything
Many photographers will tell you that the best way to get that perfect action shot is through careful planning and good timing, and there’s certainly something to be said for this approach. If you’re shooting fast moving subjects, but you know where they’re likely to be, then it’s possible to pre-focus on a selected point (manual focussing may be preferred) and simply push the shutter button when your subject arrives in the frame. This is a good way of saving memory card space by only shooting the photos that need to be taken, but as mentioned, it does require you to know where the subject is going to be.
Digital SLR cameras offer frame rates of anything up to 10 frames per second, depending on the model. While this machine-gun like approach to photo taking may seem a little over the top for most subjects, but for fast moving action and sports shots, it is ideal, particularly if the movement is erratic and unpredictable. Even camera with a more modest frame rate can make it much easier to capture the shot you want. Simply set your camera’s drive to continuous and hold the shutter down while following the action. You can then choose your favourite shot and delete the rest if they’re not needed.
Watch the watchers
Any major event is likely to attract lots of people, and people make interesting photo subjects. So, if the action in the middle is slowing down, or you’ve got all the photos you want, turn your lens towards your fellow spectators and see what shots present themselves…
The Wex Photographic showroom’s Steve Hone took this photo at a Speedway meet. It’s an impressive shot by any standards, but the faces on the spectators are what make it special.
Photograph the atmosphere
It might sound slightly arty-farty, but trying to the capture the atmosphere and the spectacle of an event is both extremely worthwhile and more of a challenge than shooting the event itself. Often a major sporting or music event will be so laden with atmosphere that it’s almost tangible, but trying to get that on camera isn’t easy.
The people, the light, the colours – all contribute to the visual spectacle that these events can create, so trying to capture some of that in a single shot is a challenge any photographer worth their salt should be willing to take up. With a Royal Wedding rapidly approaching, there are bound to be moments that are begging to be photographed, and if your shots not only capture the moment, but also the feelings and atmosphere that went with it, then you’ll be proud of those photographs for years to come.
Read the small print
Unfortunately, many events, particularly music gigs and concerts, are held on private property with the organisers able to impose a seemingly endless list of restraints on what may or may not be taken into these. Look carefully at a ticket for one of these shows and you may well find the small print forbidding the use of recording equipment and cameras. Of course, with most mobile phones offering both video and photo capabilities, this has become far harder to enforce and many events organisers take a far more laid back approach to photography. However, shooting occasional snaps with a mobile phone or even a compact camera is rather different from attempting to access a venue with a full photographic kit bag, and most venues will take a rather dim view of somebody with an SLR and collection of lenses forcing their way to the front to photograph the goings on.
To avoid being turned away at the door, it’s best to check the exact policy on photography before arriving. Tickets will usually carry this sort of information, but if in doubt, give the venue a call and double check. You might decide that a compact camera will be the best option – allowing you to at least take some pictures, even if your photography will be somewhat stifled. Other photographers take the view that it’s worth trying their luck and wait for someone in authority to tell them when they’ve crossed the line. Without a doubt, these people may end up with the best photos, but it’s also just as likely that they’ll end up with none.
Show us what you’ve got!
We know only too well that many of you will have you own tips and ideas and, as always, we welcome those in the comments. Feel free to share your own thoughts, stories and images with us and the rest of the WEX Blog readership. Chances are that your experiences may be shared by others, and at the end of the day, it’s always good to read that other photographers have gone through the same challenges (and potentially made the same mistakes!) as us!
Likewise, if you know of any upcoming events that you’d like to share with other photographers, post a comment and tell us all about them. That is, of course, unless you want to keep it your secret!