In early October 2010, I was fortunate enough to be able to go up to Manchester and try my hand at conference photography as part of the PHP North West 2010 conference. What started as some throw-away comments on Twitter with my friends turned into a fun and rewarding part of the weekend, and certainly proved to be an interesting bit of learning. In this blog post, I’m sharing what I learned and what I would do differently next time.
I took along my Nikon D300s, and used just the two lenses: the Nikon 35mm f/1.8G DX for the Friday social in the pub, and the Nikkor 80-200mm f/2.8 in the conference hall for the talks on Saturday. I shot hand-held on the Friday, and mostly on a tripod on the Saturday. I didn’t use the camera’s built-in flash, nor an external flash of any kind. I shot auto-focus using the 35mm lens, and manual focus with the 80-200mm lens.
I picked the 35mm lens because a pub isn’t the place for a tripod, and at f/1.8 the lens allowed me to shoot in very dark conditions. I did consider the 24mm f/2.8, but I’m really not a fan of portraits taken with wider lenses, and the 50mm f/1.4D has a waifer-thin depth of field when shot wide open. The 35mm seemed a good compromise, and I’d definitely choose it again for a similar situation.
The 80-200mm lens is a personal favourite of mine, and has become my main lens since I picked up a second-hand copy on eBay. It costs a fraction of the 70-200mm f/2.8 VR and VR II lenses, but optically it’s close enough to those lenses to be worth it for a hobbyist like me. VR doesn’t interest me, as it’s no help when shooting something (or someone) that is moving. It is a heavy lens, but by god you sure look the part toting the damn thing around all day
And I have to say that it probably helped a lot. I’m sure quite a few people thought I was an official photographer, and therefore didn’t mind my presence so much throughout the day.
Lesson 1: Shoot Auto-focus Every Time
Conference halls are ridiculously dark. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that they’re so dark, it’s no wonder attendees come out at the end of the day feeling tired from the eye strain involved. I knew this from previous years at the conference, but it still surprised me just how much of a problem light was to be throughout the day. I’d hoped that taking some moderately fast glass and a camera that was happy at ISO1600 would do the trick. It turned out that wasn’t the entire battle.
On the Saturday, I was shooting using manual focus, because my particular copy of the 80-200mm has a broken selector switch (which is how I could afford it in the first place). In the darkness of the conference hall, even using LiveView on the back of the D300s, it was simply too dark to focus accurately by hand. Bad focus cost me more shots than any other single technical fault throughout the day. (If you want to see how I fare with manual focus in reasonable light, see this shot of an RAF helicopter in flight as an example of what I can normally achieve).
Next time I ever try my hand at this, I’m going auto-focus all the way. That’s what I did in the pub for the Friday night social, and a much higher percentage of shots turned out okay.
Lesson 2: Eliminate Motion Blur By Careful Positioning
Even shooting at ISO1600 (I can’t afford a D3s, which would be the ultimate solution to this problem … anyone want to buy me one?) and with a cracking f/2.8 lens, it was so dark that there were real problems with motion blur throughout the day. Despite shooting hundreds of photos, I only managed about 10 or so acceptable shots of the speakers – at several of those were taken at the end of the day when the house lights were up.
The problem wasn’t just the darkness; in the morning, the place I’d picked for my tripod was part of the problem. Speakers in general like the wander around, and I’d managed to pick the spot where the speakers were moving left to right and forwards and backwards all at once. The only time they stood still, they were hidden by the lecturn.
In the afternoon, I moved over to the other side of the hall, which helped enormously. Now, whenever a speaker stood at the lecturn, I had a clear line of sight. But a D3s would still have been a better solution
Lesson 3: Sight Lines Require You To Move
My regular style of photography is urban and landscapes. It was interesting how the Manchester Conference Centre threw up very similar challenges with sight lines throughout the day.
The thing with urban and landscape photography is that (in general) you can’t move things out of the way to make a shot seem less cluttered. You’re much better off either moving yourself to find a different angle, photoshopping things out (not for me, but I can understand people who do), or learning how to incorporate the clutter into the shot.
In the morning, feeling very nervous (I seldom shoot people, especially people trying to put on a performance less than 20 feet away), I tried to find a different angle … but I didn’t move much. I ended up with the motion blur problems mentioned earlier, and sight line problems with the lectern when each speaker stopped moving. Part of the problem was definitely being tied to the tripod; moving it around mid-talk would surely have been extremely distracting to speaker and audience alike. And part of it was confidence: I wasn’t an official photographer for the event, just an attendee who perhaps was pushing his luck as far as possible!
By the end of the day, I was feeling more comfortable, and happily moving around to pick out my shots. Because I was feeling more confident in myself, I feel that the afternoon’s shots were the better portraits.
Lesson 4: You’re Shooting With Fast Glass, So Use It
Like a lot of photographers, my collection of f/2.8 lenses wasn’t bought so that I could take photos in darkened lecture halls; I use them for shallow depth of field shots. I like the fact that I’m free to pick out a subject from a scene, to place the emphasis where I artistically think it’s strongest or most interesting. Within the laws of physics, fast glass gives me room to be creative. If only it automatically came with talent too!
Anyway, one of the benefits of fast glass is that you can shoot in darkened lecture halls, and the nice thing about depth of field is that the depth available doesn’t depend on the amount of light available, if you can shoot at all at f/2.8. You get the same depth of field in bright sunlight as you do in gloomy semi-darkness. So take full advantage of it.
Lesson 5: Don’t Forget The Audience
Whenever you see conferences covered online, the photos tend to be of two types: everyone drinking at the bar, and of the speakers doing their thing in front of an audience. It isn’t often I see the audience photographed, and that’s a shame, because my favourite shots from this conference were those I took of the audience. I just wish more of those shots had turned out well enough to publish.
The thing with the audience is that there’s simply more to capture in your photos. A speaker up on stage is largely a solo portrait; if you’re lucky, you might get a good slide behind the speaker, but most of the time you’re picking your moment to hide the fire exit sign and other such things. But with the audience, there’s real depth to the shot. You’ve got people to pick out of a crowd, and because they’re normally arranged in rows, your fast glass will allow you to drop other people out of the shot with ease.
Bonus Lesson: Photography Helps You Focus
Whenever I go to a technical conference, I’m one of those delegates who breaks out the laptop and uses the time to work away on something that needs several hours of effort in a block … because it’s rare for me to get a block of time on any one thing these days with the nature of my job. I’m not saying that I don’t listen to the conference speakers, but my attention is certainly divided at best.
Not this time, and not just because the laptop stayed in the hotel room all day. Trying to find the right photos for each speaker meant being in the moment with them; it meant listening to them properly. It also meant not scrambling around for power half-way through the day (I used an iPad all day to be part of the conference conversation on Twitter, which didn’t get charged until I got home late the following day. Marvellous thing, the iPad is).
The end result was a great day for me, some faltering first steps at conference photography, and I actually learned quite a bit too by following the speakers more closely than in previous years.