How to Photograph a Conference – 10 Tips

1. Bring extra batteries, memory cards, your cables, and chargers
As simple as this may seem, lots of people who get half way through the day and find themselves begging-borrowing for extra batteries especially before a party. So bring at least one set of extras. If you have a DSLR, chances are you can’t just swing by the local corner store and snag one, so don’t forget your charger (or better invest in a spare battery). Memory cards are a tossup. Carry spare batteries for your camera and speed light, plus chargers, plus cables in your gear bag. 

2. Get out of auto mode
One of the best pieces of advice about using point-n-shoot was to get out of auto mode and into P or program mode. Why? Because you have more control. You can adjust the flash (on, off, sometimes even intensity), white balance, ISO, even sometimes the aperture and shutter speed. In auto mode your pictures will almost always have that vacation snap shot look. Bright flash, broad focus, grainy. Unless you have a DSLR (or really want to play with settings on a point-n-shoot) switching to aperture (A) or shutter (S) priority mode isn’t really worth it. For most point and shoots P isn't scary and you can probably tweak the settings with a jump to menu.

3. Be unobtrusive. Casual shots are better
“Be the wall.” When you have a conference photography gig your goal is not to be noticed or seen. Record how people look in rapt attention or naturally smiling or just being there at a conference. Don’t want people to pose for you. Why? Because 90% of the time people love the informal shots of them more than when they pose. They are natural, relaxed, and real. All good. Those pictures tell a story. This does not mean be a stalker or paparazzi. It just means don’t get in people’s faces. Watch the scene and capture it as it unfolds. Catching a moment is about being there, not making it.

4. Pay attention to the background
Trees and light posts sprouting out of people’s heads are mistakes you don’t need to make. Before you click, just take a quick look at the background. Is there something strange coming from the person? Something that might be embarrassing or distracting? Yeah, stop and recompose.

5. Try not to use the flash
Taking pictures at a conference isn’t easy. Most of the time the lighting sucks and most folks just turn on the flash to make the shot come out. That’s not always the best idea. A flash can take away the texture and depth of your pic, but turning it off won’t that make your pictures be blurry and dark? Maybe. Since you’re in P mode, you should be able to bump up the ISO. You’re probably going to have to go with 800 or higher to get the shutter speed fast enough to reduce blur. Try moving closer, using the light around you, and bracing yourself a bit. Natural light often looks awesome and can make a shot a keeper.

6. Pay attention to the lighting
Obviously this is tied to #5, while you’re trying not to use the flash don’t forget to pay attention to the lighting around you. Is there a lot of sun coming in from a window behind the person? Is the light bright in one area and dark in another? All of these things make for tough shots, but what you should do is try to make the best of it. Backlit shots of people and scenes have a special quality and using the light-dark areas give you a range of styles to shoot. For the dark areas (especially parties) scout places you can brace yourself so you don’t have to turn on the flash. Sometimes though you just have to turn on the flash, when you do turn it down a couple notches if you can and try to diffuse it (a piece of tape or paper napkin over the flash is an old photographer’s trick).

7. Set the white balance
Another benefit of being in P mode is being able to set the white balance on your pictures. Leave yours on auto most of the time, but edit when you bring your files in as RAW images, but … if you’re paying attention to the lighting setting the WB to sun or flash or florescent will make the pictures look a heck of a lot better. Essentially you’re telling the camera’s sensor what the color temperature “white” is. The end result is that the colors you see are true to life.

8. More is better
One of the best pieces of advice was to shoot at least three pictures per shot. Why? Because people blink, glance away, etc. By shooting more and shooting rapidly you significantly increase the chances you’ll get “the shot”. Shooting lots of shots is harder with a point and shoot but trying is good.

9. Zoom less, walk more
If you want more of something in the frame, You have to move closer. And in moving, sometimes you'll notice something else that makes the picture better. As you zoom you also increase the amount of light needed or longer shutter as well, increasing the chance of blur.

10. Have fun
Even when you're getting paid to shoot, try to keep it fun. Try to find funny shots or also take the artistic pics that you like as well. Make the time. When you start feeling like you’re obligated to take pics instead of having fun unless you’re getting paid of course it’s time to put the camera down and enjoy yourself.

Bonus Tip
It isn’t the camera or the lens, it’s the photographer that counts. You can have thousands of dollars worth of gear and not be able to take a good shot to save your life. You can also use a cheap, plastic toy camera and do some amazing things. Cameras are tools. Just tools. Don’t think that just because the guy next to you has a lens bigger than a small child, than his shots will be better than yours. Just shoot, have fun, and always keep experimenting.

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