Zero Waste Photography

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Your client has booked you for a full day conference, say beginning at 7am to capture registration all the way through to 11 pm to close out the evening gala. Everything is happening in a few similarly drab conference rooms. Sometimes, just one, where you’ll be spending your entire day and most of the night, training your lens in on the same faces over and over and over again. As creative as you get with angles, bounce flash, focal lengths, at some point (usually around 2pm) you will reach the limits of your creative energy. When you catch yourself repositioning branded napkins, or shooting the conference centre decor, you know you’ve gone too far.

Because of how most events and conferences are organized, there are key moments, scheduled presentations and other agenda items happening throughout the day and night that need to be covered. But there is also a lot of in-between time where you’re effectively standing around in the room, looking for interesting shots to take because you’ve got all you need from the speaker and there’s still 45 minutes left in the keynote…

As every professional events or conference photographer knows, these hours can be long on gigs when you’ve shot everything there is to be shot and you’re still booked for several more hours onsite.

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Ideally you would settle on a fixed rate for the work, then simply use the in-between time to start processing your images onsite, getting a head start on tomorrow’s burden of image edits that await you, but unfortunately, fixed rates don’t usually cover the time spent on the site. For some strange reason, clients seem to believe that a “day rate” should be cheaper than the sum of the total hours on the job, and that a working day for a freelance photographer is 12 hours long.

Alas, since the hourly rate is still the most accurate way to match effort to compensation, it is what usually gets used for setting a price. And that leaves you, the photographer, bound by that schedule with all those hours to fill.

This invariably creates the temptation to produce waste. You are there anyway, so you might as well keep shooting.  But neither you, nor ultimately your client, needs or even wants ten photos of the same faces in the same room taken under the same lighting conditions during the same presentation.

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And don’t get me started on the “shots from the dancefloor” which, like cut flowers on the counter, rapidly deteriorate as the party continues. The fun may be ramping up, but the photos start capturing more and more of what most guests would prefer to not put on record (shiny sweaty red faces, wardrobe malfunctions, male pursy lip dance faces, etc).

My solution is a developing aesthetic towards photographic minimalism. My goal is to shoot only what I will use. No more, no less. Capture exactly what the client needs, but resist the temptation to spray the room with shots simply because I can and I have time to fill.

A very good practice is to align with the client on how the images will be used. If, as is usually the case, the objective is to generate a bank of images to market the event online, use in ads, websites, newsletters and a curated photo gallery for attendees, then the needs are clear.

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What this means in practice is, shoot better and shoot less. Take your time to actually envision the shot you want to create, then wait for the right moment to take it.

Making speakers and presenters look awesome:

  • Piling on shot after shot of the same speaker taken from microscopically altered focal lengths or slightly different crops is not necessary. Five great, varied shots of anyone at a podium is more valuable than 25 ok shots of the same subject.

Capturing conference audience engagement:

  • Organizers always want audience reactions shots. And by audience reaction, they don’t mean heads down looking at their phones. Because the audience is sitting there in front of you, you may be tempted to shoot either indiscriminately by simply pointing the camera in its direction and hitting the button, or you may over shoot them, by continuously scanning the crowd and shooting every half-cocked head, smiling face or look of rapt attention. What do you really need? Perhaps thirty or forty really excellent images of audience engagement taken over the course of the full day. Fifty is probably too many, and twenty too few.

Documenting attendee interactions at trade shows:

  • Walk the floor once just to take in the views and get a sense of the vendors, spaces and exhibits, then walk it again and start shooting. Get the interactions between vendors/participants every client wants, maybe a booth shot of the exhibitors and move on. Unless you’re working a massive, multi-chambered German style trade show, even this more intensive coverage can be accomplished within two hours max.

Showcasing the ambience and VIPs at gala parties:

  • Take in a few wide, ambience shots; a handful of decorative elements, and then simply – and only – shoot when you can get the right lighting effect on your subject. I’ve covered countless huge gala events where organizers are very wowed by their events company and want you to capture the same look and feel in your images, without really understanding that how something looks to the naked eye does not always translate well through a lens. Some lighting (red!) is very difficult to make anyone not look sort of horror showy in, and other kinds of strong pot light effects create harsh contrasts that are nearly impossible to shoot well without making some compromise either on exposure or focus. Far better to take fewer, well composed and captured images of people when those moments do arise when the conditions present themselves, then to fill your cards with images you ultimately won’t be able to use.

When you’ve finally packed it in for the night, what you have sitting on your SD cards is all there is to re-vision, re-package and re-market the event. An immediate filter is applied called time, that means that from the hundreds of images you might have taken, only the really great ones will ever get shown or used. The vast majority of images delivered to clients wind up buried alive on hard drives never to resurface.

As the person charged with documenting the evening, your ultimately job is to deliver a set of images that tell the story of the night, the day, the speech, the award ceremony etc, without any of the unnecessary filler that actually took up most of the time during the gig.

Rare indeed is the client who wants more to do more work – save them, and yourself, the trouble by training yourself to shoot less, paying more attention to capturing the meaningfully and visually gorgeous images that people will want to share, ignoring everything else.