How speaker lighting should ideally be done if you want great pictures of them in action. Pic: ASM Media & PR

I’ve attended a lot of events over the years, particularly since I set up my business almost five years ago.

I usually take one of my cameras – just in case an opportunity to get a nice picture offers itself. “f8 and be there” as the infamous news photographer Weegee is supposed to have answered when asked what you need to do to get a great exclusive news picture. But that’s another story.

I’m usually looking for something nice which captures a flavour of the event to post on social media and perhaps share with the organisers in return for a credit. And, of course, showcase my skills. Which is a fair trade, I reckon.

As with everything in life, some events have had more thought and time put into their planning. So my heart sinks when I go to one and see the opportunity to get a great photo, for them and me, but find it’s been made difficult or near-impossible because of the set-up or lighting.

Common issue

The most common issue is the speaker’s lectern being placed in a pool of deep shadow, close to the bright screen on which their presentation is appearing. And without any lighting on them.

Any photographers reading this will now be nodding their heads and sighing. We’ve all been there.

The issue is that even with the many advances which have been made with the sensors of digital cameras, including the ability to shoot in very low light, even professional bodies like my Canon 5D Mk IIIs struggle to have what’s called the dynamic range to capture both the brightness of the screen and the person in the shadow in one shot.

If it was a static commercial shot of a building or product you’d use the HDR (High Dynamic Range) technique of shooting more than one frame at different exposures and then blending them together using special software to capture the full range of tones from white to black, like with this picture of the Barnetts Volvo showroom.

The customer Living Room at Barnetts Volvo in Dundee – the first Volvo Retail Experience (VRE) showroom in Scotland.

But with a subject who will move at all you can’t do that as it involves multiple exposures and if they move between them they would blur, causing ‘ghosting’. You’d also need the camera on a tripod to ensure it doesn’t move between frames.

So, if the shadow depth is really bad you may be forced to use flash to ‘fill in’ the shadow – bringing its brightness closer to that of the bright screen so one file can capture it all. But, of course, that disrupts the focus of the event, potentially putting off the speaker and audience. It’s a desperate measure, but sometimes it’s necessary to get anything at all – even without the screen in shot.

Now if a professional photographer with a top-end camera will struggle in this circumstance to get a shot, what chance have the audience or organisers with their smartphones of getting anything that will look good for the event? Very little, as I showed in my previous post.

Why does it matter?

Why does it matter, I hear you ask? So much of communication across all media – from print to social – now is visually-driven.

Pictures speak 1,000 words and more INSTANTLY every second and if the first impression people get of your event is from grainy smartphone pictures where they can’t see the person who was so important you asked them to speak – just a bright screen and lots of shadows, that’s not good for your event or brand.

Also, if TV news crews are covering your event their cameras will struggle even more to get decent footage of your speaker talking – probably having to zoom in on them or maybe just do an interview afterwards in better lighting.


What you can do

So how do you avoid this?

1. Plan for the pictures you want and need to look your best, just like the team at London 2012 did. They planned for the shots they wanted and arranged things around them – ensuring TV and photographers would get pictures of action with amazing views behind which would showcase London as well as the sport.

So you can, with the help of your photographer if you’re hiring one, work out where they will need to stand to get a clear shot of the speaker with the event and organisation branding behind. And ensure they can get to that space and other good viewpoints easily during the event. That way you can get pictures like this from the 2013 Dundee & Angus Chamber of Commerce Tartan Day Conference. The political party conferences and major sports events do it and you can too.

John Swinney MSP gives the keynote speech at the 2013 Dundee & Angus Chamber of Commerce Tartan Day Conference. Pic: ASM Media & PR

2. Have some kind of light on the speaker. Ok, everyone mostly wants to hear what they’re saying, but having a light on them will help the audience focus on them and make the pictures easier to get as well as visually draw attention to them in the frame – the eye goes naturally to the brightest points and people.

3. Ask the advice of a news, PR or events photographer. Ideally, go to the venue with them and go through what you’re planning and listen to their advice.

4. Give the photographer a detailed brief of what’s happening, when and where and the pictures you need and would like, in that order. That way they can plan to ensure you at least get the must-have images and maybe the rest if they can get a second person to work with.

If for some reason you can’t do all that, your hired photographer, or any there, will do their best. But you and they will get a lot better results if you plan for great pictures beforehand.

To see a range of my best images, including ones from events, go to the Photography page of my new website via this link