Five Tips for Better Event Photography

When I left the news business and began shooting weddings, I quickly realized I had a built-in advantage over photographers whose background was mostly in portraiture.

Specifically, I knew how to cover fast-moving events without panicking or getting flustered.

Not Following a Script

Documenting an event with still pictures isn’t for everyone. Even experienced photographers who routinely take technically perfect, well-composed, sharp and well-exposed pictures don’t always cover events effectively.

Photographers accustomed to shooting within the predictable confines of a studio, or to calling the shots in their photo sessions, can easily lose their cool — not to mention their touch — in an environment they don’t control.

Former California Gov. Gray Davis signs an autograph on the campaign trail.

A wedding, even a well-planned one, has a tendency to not always follow the script. This plays to the strengths of newspaper photographers, who are accustomed to working alone, working fast and thinking on their feet.

For those interested in taking a photojournalist’s approach to shooting events, here are five tips from my experience:

A Newsman’s Tips for Covering Events

At fairs and other outdoor events, an establishing shot gives viewers a sense of the crowd size, weather and other useful information.

  1. Plan ahead. Get maps, look over the day’s schedule, consider the time constraints. Plan out the travel time at events spread out over multiple locations — even if those locations are within walking distance of one another. Consider the gear you need and how this will affect your mobility.
  2. Get establishing shots. At any large gathering, you should capture some images that give your audience an overall feel for the event and what kind of day it is, especially if you’re outdoors.
  3. Find the humanity in the sea of faces. In contrast with the establishing shot, it’s also important to get some tight closeups of people’s faces. Find faces that communicate the tone and emotions of the event.
  4. A University of Redlands graduate blows a kiss to family members during commencement.

  5. Seek out variety. You should look for variety in terms of shapes for your pictures, as well as the relative size of people in the frame. Also, be sure to get some detail shots with no people in them. The more variety you have, the easier to create interesting layouts later — whether for editorial publications, corporate brochures or wedding albums.
  6. Get the big picture. Early in my career, at the end of a closely contested basketball game, I actually photographed a tight shot of the ball going into the basket at the final buzzer. Logically that made sense, didn’t it? But visually and journalistically, it was a disaster. Without the player or players involved, there was no context. Don’t get so focused on an event’s minutia that you lose sight of the big picture.

A mother wipes the whipped cream from her son's face during a school carnival.

10 Responses to “Five Tips for Better Event Photography”

  1. Great article and great tips. I have shot three weddings in my life, two this year and one 15 years ago. When it comes to the general shots at receptions or the general shots at the wedding I am able to give up control and go with the flow.

    But when I am trying to capture those special moments during the wedding (the frist kiss, the hand off from dad to groom) is when I find I get the most frustrated because I have no control over lighting or the people. (Can't exactly tell the bride and groom "Sorry, can we do that again.")

    Thanks for the great advice.

    - john

  2. Thanks for these important reminders to most of us... even when I actually do ALL of these things tho, I still ALWAYS feel like there was something I missed.

    And yeah... lighting at a wedding. Grrrr... I hate being forced to shoot in "bad light"... I cried at the last one I shot . Bright mid day sun... squinting guests, white runway bounced even more light around. Eh... did okay, but not too happy with it.

  3. Great tips Peter,
    I feel confident already haha. On a serious note, I too have shot only a few weddings as an assistant and found I was working along those lines. What I liked the most was the 'BIG PICTURE' definately one to remember. Thanks 🙂

  4. @John @Marsha thanks for your comments.

    Another tip I should have added is: learn to anticipate though that could also come under planning ahead.

    If you ever wonder how news photographers seem to always be at the right place at the right time with the right lenses, it's because they are masters of anticipation.

    At big media events there are typically so many photographers from so many newspapers each trying to outdo the other, scrambling for a different angle or shot. That kind of competition forces news photographers to be on top of their game all the time.

    Personally, no performance review ever kicked me into a higher gear than opening the newspaper the next day to see the competition beat me with a better shot.

    Anticipating can sometimes be a gamble because you can't be everywhere. Let's use our wedding photography example for a moment.

    Let's say you are covering a wedding all by yourself.

    You need to be very aware of time and how long it will take you to get from the altar to the entrance of the church at the conclusion of the marriage vows.

    If you linger too long at the altar, you'll be out of position and will surely miss the "money shot".

    The "money shot" is the one where the couple walks down the aisle for the 1st time as Mr. & Mrs. Their smile and excitement as they walk hand-in-hand together can NEVER be recreated.

    In the back of your mind you should be anticipating that the entryway is going to be brighter than at the altar, so you'll have to decide if you want to adjust your ISO, your flash output, and White Balance as you backpedal and shoot.

  5. That's a good advice! I started as a photographer for newspaper before moving on to wedding photography and I it helps a lot! It gives you a different approach to photography.

  6. Peter, great advice and vital for all of use to follow. May I suggest another: arrive early and stay late to an event. I cover a lot of demonstrations and arriving early gives me the opportunity to familiarise myself with the area and late, well, you'll never know what someone might do. Best Lawrence

  7. Nice article Peter!
    And, yes, Lawrence, if you’re leaving late, there’s always the “morning after” shot. (A child’s toy left on a bench among the streamers and confetti; a torn ticket stub from the event; an elderly janitor reading the wedding reception invitation he found on the floor.)
    Can’t find an invitation or a janitor’s broom? Find one. As an event photographer you are a storyteller… such a picture might have happened,-- maybe it’s happening right now somewhere in the world. Any way, these ‘incidental’ images are the ones that give your coverage more dimension.

  8. Great tips! My sister recently asked me to shoot her wedding (July of 2011) and I initially said no because I've never shot a wedding or any other event for that matter. I'm a street photographer. In the past three months since she asked me, I've been doing research and asking local photographers who are known for their wedding skills for advice. The tips you posted here and in the following comments have given me a little more confidence. Thanks.

  9. @Reportage Photographer, @lawmoment_lawrence,@Rohn Engh and Keith Gardner,

    I sort of forgot about this post or didn't get notification that there were comments.

    I'm very pleased that the advice was sound enough to get comments from all of you. Happy New Year!

  10. I am travelling soon and all these posts are helpfull. Arriving early, leaving late, diversity if shots and being prepared. Thank you.

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