Conference organizers know that a lot of planning goes into creating a program of interesting and relevant content and attracting a strong roster of speakers, panelists and breakout session leaders. Effort is usually spent creating a detailed shot list for photographers to make sure that nothing on the agenda is missed and the investment in hiring a professional shooter to cover the event pays off with a load of marketable images of attendees and conference activities to help promote next year’s event.
Conferences often pull together people from within and across organizations that are otherwise rarely all in one place at the same time, and this creates an opportunity for updated group photos, corporate headshots and bio pictures that is often overlooked by organizers with heads full of conference planning details.
Often the venue itself will provide interesting and useful on site backdrops and your photographer will also have the necessary lighting and equipment to set up a small mobile studio in one of the many spaces occupied by the conference. You’re paying for it already so why not leverage the space to either update your firm’s set of portraits or offer the service to your attendees as an added value for attending your event?
Everyone needs a headshot these days – something I’ve written extensively about in posts on personal branding and profile pictures – but organizing one can be a tedious task often dropped due to other more urgent priorities. If you can offer the service conveniently and quickly to attendees who are already on-site and available, you are providing a useful service and alleviating a pain point preemptively for both your attendees and perhaps the marketing team within your own organization.
While candid photos are always good to have, there is still a need for planned, posed and conventional headshots. I am often approached by conference attendees – people not paying me directly for my work – who say things like, “I need a new LinkedIn photo” or “My headshot is ten years old, can you do a new one for me?”. Aside from essentially asking a working professional for a freebie, these kinds of requests would take time away from what I am hired to be doing and are rarely accommodated for. They reveal the demand though, which could be better met by including an on-site portrait option within the general conference coverage contract.
Why not leverage the inherent social nature of conferences to turn a portrait session into a networking opportunity in its own right? You could promote the on-site photo booth as a place to meet other attendees, leverage its presence by offering another component a sponsor could brand, or embed it inside a collaboration or meeting lounge space that conference attendees can pop into when they have a spare five minutes.
When planning the shooting schedule and generating a shot list for your conference photographer, consider asking about including a mobile photobooth for corporate and group portraits. You’ll save time and provide yet another added value to your attendees.
I’ll preface this by saying I’m an experienced conference photographer and know the difference between a breakout session, general session and collaboration lounge but working on a citywide convention across multiple venues with a fleet of photographers is an order of magnitude more complex when it comes to conference photography. How is it different and what did I learn?
Let’s start with a baseline (or just skip down to the end of you want the 6 key takeaways)
What’s needed to provide standard conference coverage?
A normal conference may require one to three photographers. The conference will take place in one of the designated conference centres of your city (in Montreal’s case, that’s usually the Palais de congrès, though sometimes a commodious hotel like the downtown Sheraton, the Delta on University or the Fairmont Queen Elizabeth).
A regular conference has a general program with a few designated speakers, a keynote welcome address and wrap-up remarks, panel discussions, Q&As, and smaller breakout sessions. Depending on whether the conference is academic or business oriented, there may be more or less focus placed on networking and meeting sessions, though all conferences comprise scheduled blocks of time for formal networking, along with looser time and space for informal meetings and networking. Presentation areas with booths, posters and product displays of participating members or sponsors will also be included.
As a photographer, the general mandate is to cover all scheduled events on the program. This kind of coverage should include “beauty shots” taken of the various venues before attendees are in the room, shots of the speakers on stage from all angles, high quality images of rooms full of attendees looking interested and engaged, and any particular activity that takes place on stage such as award ceremonies.
On the topic of “beauty shots,” clients enjoy seeing photos of the spaces they’ve created, before and after attendees fill them up. This would include general meeting areas, as well as designated lounges, eating areas, registration desk and any sponsored booth or presentation area.
Attendees mingling, networking, attending sessions, making contacts, doing business and having fun
Speakers at podium (shot from front, side, near and far)
Award ceremonies including individual recipients being granted their trophies and group shots of award-winning teams
Executive group shots
All sponsored and branded items, including booths and posters (if the conference is academic or scientific)
Cocktail receptions / VIP events
How does a citywide convention differ from a regular conference?
The difference between a regular conference and a citywide convention, to state the obvious, is scale.
Where a regular conference may take place over one to three days, a citywide convention may span a week, with pre-conference activities starting well ahead of the general sessions.
As well, there is a much higher order of project management and coordination skill required as many events will be taking place simultaneously across multiple venues.
While providing complete coverage for the recent Cisco Partner Summit 2015 in Montreal, at one point I had over 10 different photographers/videographers fanned out across the city covering awards ceremonies, cocktail parties, and a slew of various auxiliary events for clients from around the world.
Managing and creating the schedules for the photographers and ensuring each on-site client had all the information necessary as well as providing the same to the photographer alone takes a few days of coordination. Communication is critical, particularly when there are (which there always are) last-minute changes to the schedule and additional requests.
One particularity of working for a global enterprise like Cisco is the level of professionalism required. There is no room for error when covering an event that comprises over 50 different events needing coverage and a traffic flow of over 4,000 attendees. Execution must be customer-centric, flawless, and timely, and that’s precisely what my team and I delivered.
We set up an on-site office, staffed with technical support, just to manage the intake and processing of the over 35,000 images generated from the coverage. All of these images needed to be edited, sorted, categorized and uploaded to shared drives with a variety of clients requiring access to the images within 12-24 hrs of them having been shot. This always-on, near-instant turnaround on such a heavy volume of images is one of the key distinctions between this kind of massive convention and a smaller scale conference. Things like connectivity, upload speeds, etc. become critical.
World class client service is also paramount. For an event at this scale, there is not just one client – there are numerous clients, all requiring the same level of service and attention to detail:
There is the ultimate client, Cisco, within which there may be 10 or more individuals with photography or videography needs that must be met.
Cascading down there is the event management company that creates and manages all the logistics of the event, who may be the direct client, within which there are also a number of event specific clients.
Then there is the AV team, responsible for the screens, sound and lighting; managers responsible for the interior and exterior signage; food and bev directors, caterers, decorators all of whom may need specific images for their own purposes which may all fall under the responsibility of the core photography team.
I personally dealt with more than 20 different clients, all of whom are equally important even if only a few are actually paying for the service.
With the management, coordination, pre-show preparations and post-show post-production on images, and after-market service, one citywide convention like this can require a month’s worth of work, compared to a week or less for a scaled down single focus conference.
It can be exhausting, with days stretching from 5 am to well past midnight, and stressful, but it is also hugely satisfying to complete. Because of the high level of organization and the size and scale of the client, everyone working this kind of event is at the top of their game. Professional, organized, supremely competent and almost invariably a pleasure to work with.
So what did I learn?
As the old adage goes, the client is ALWAYS right. Courtesy, respect, delivering on time and within budget goes a long way towards ensuring the experience is positive for everyone involved. So does being responsive to last-minute changes and providing the same level of highly customized service before, throughout and after the event
Keeping the team of photographers in the loop and informed of all client needs and requirements is equally important. While photographers tend to be independent self-starters, they benefit from and appreciate being made aware of the bigger picture (no pun intended!).
Establishing and maintaining clear and open communication with clients is essential at all times. The way I do this is through active listening, identifying the client’s needs, and proposing innovative solutions to potential challenges before they even materialize.
Providing visual examples of the types of images needed to your photographers helps guide their inherent creativity towards the client’s specific needs.
Online collaboration tools like Box and Dropbox are necessary to ensure wide distribution of images to all clients.
Keeping focused on the end purposes of the images helps navigate the editing process to ensure timely delivery —this is especially true in the case of the Cisco summit where, as mentioned, we needed to process thousands of images in a very short time period.
Taking on a citywide conference mandate is not for everyone. Many photographers are excellent at what they do but lack the interest or the skills required to manage an operation of this scale. But getting to play in the big leagues means you have to step up and move outside of your comfort zone, no matter what business you are in, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
Most conference, summit and corporate event planners these days try to cast a virtual net by linking their event to a centralizing set of social media hashtags – mainly for easy findability and shareability on Instagram and Twitter. Making sure your event photographer is aware of these unifying communication tools and using them appropriately can help you get maximum value from your conference or event photographer.
Photographers are all seeking to cultivate their own realm of influence in social media. One mutually beneficial way to reach into different networks is to provide bits of snackable content generated by events as they happen.
Personally I’ve grown to enjoy using Twitter and Instagram to jot down insightful things I pick up while observing conferences or to help my client broaden their event footprint by creating and quickly sharing images guests and attendees will want to reshare.
It’s not always a perfect fit – while covering the Governor General Performing Arts Awards press conference (#ggpaa) in Montreal this month I actually tweeted out the name of a recipient BEFORE the official announcement (deleted 2 minutes later after a politely urgent message from Ottawa) but when it works, it helps spread the excitement and generate buzz about the event.
Not all photographers are going to want to multi-task for you, but it doesn’t hurt to ask for their social handles and add them into your network, while sharing with them the hashtags and IG names they should reference when getting social with your event images.
And sometimes, sharing is also really funny. Like this old SNL clip of Fr Guido Sarducci’s 5 Minute University that I saw at a recent conference on autism I immediately had to go find and watch.
One of the most important things to keep in mind when hiring a shooter to provide conference or trade show photography is to think about the value the photos create and how you will get the best use out of the images.
There are multiple audiences for good conference and trade show coverage. Here are a few that come to mind:
Past and present attendees
Prospective and future attendees
Speakers & presenters
Corporate communications teams
Marketing and sales teams
Event planners and event management companies
What is the value of these types of images?
Depending on who the end client/user/viewer of the images is intended for, the value can be:
Showcase a successful event – large filled rooms, happy smiling people looking engaged, looking like they are having a good time, connecting with each other, doing business
Highlight successful positioning of branded signage and collateral
Highlight the breadth and scope of an event to attract future attendees
Show off quality of speakers and content
Boost employee morale and drive engagement
Sell tickets / drive attendance rates for future events
Builds content for your social media channels and web properties
So which types of shots are the most useful and critical to get right?
1. Set-up and room décor
Ideally rooms should be shot from multiple angles, but preferably with a wide enough lens to capture the breadth and feel of the space. The best time to capture the room set up is just before it will be opened up to the public, when the lighting is set up and the room is like a present waiting to be opened up.
2. People networking
This is an easy one to get done but requires attention and fast reflexes. You must anticipate handshakes, smiles and friendly greetings and capture the exchanges without interfering. Every conference has built in networking sessions even if they don’t call them that. More festive social events will also leverage the socially enlivening effects of alcohol. Depending on the industry, the drinks and bars themselves will have branded sponsors. Embedding into this environment requires a special blend of sociability and detachment so you know when to step back and capture images of people as they begin to loosen up.
3. Speakers on stage – front and side views
Getting good images of people on stage is trickier than it looks as the stage lighting can often cast unwanted colours or distortions on your subject. As well, not all speakers are to the podium born and some spend more than ninety percent of the time looking down at their notes. The best shots will come from both telephoto and shorter lenses, shot from the front of house and close to the sides. I usually aim to capture a few images of speakers with fun or illustrative slides behind them if they are in the midst of a slide show, but also make sure to get a few clean and clear ones just them, eyes open, faces smiling and mouths preferably not mid-word. It can be a bit of trial and error but the end goal is really just to get a handful of great shots of each speaker.
4. Views of room from speakers p.o.v
This is really a hybrid categories as it touches on both speakers and rooms, but it is worth having a few of these shots usually angled from the side or sometimes above the speaker, showing both the speaker on stage and the audience to whom he or she is speaking. This is a fun photo for the speaker themselves to have later one and helps promote a sense of attending an interesting, worthwhile event.
5. Big and wide shots of filled rooms
All event planners, conference organizers and companies hosting events want to see their event as a success – and nothing says success better than showing a room full of people. There will be different kinds of such rooms: some will be general sessions with people sitting in their seats, others will show the room in states of transition before or after an event. Sometimes the big room is where an opening night reception is being held. Other times it’s just a general overview shot to show the look and feel of the full space. These images should be taken with big, wide angles, but can also be augmented with candid portraits drawn from the crowd shot on telephoto lenses so the subjects are truly at ease and may not even realize they are in the photos.
6. Engaged audiences in sessions
Diving a little deeper into the idea of showing full rooms, these shots pertain primarily to smaller breakout sessions common at many conferences. Here the rooms are smaller, the speakers usually just standing at a the front of the room, sometimes with but often without podiums, and the aim, as always is to capture images of people paying attention, eyes forward, smiling and asking questions. Depending on the nature of the conference and industry, it may be helpful to have a few shots of people taking notes or texting on their phones, but the majority of images should show people doing what they are supposed to be doing in the room – learning something.
7. People smiling, having fun and making connections
The social side of business confabs is in some industries the most important part of the event. In businesses where making connections and doing deals is important (and when isn’t it) conferences can provide ideal locations for meeting a large number of high quality prospects/partners/future employers. This is the value to the people attending. The value to the people organizing these events is showing that their event is where business gets done and connections are formed. I love these kinds of events and have a lot of fun weaving in and out of the crowd soliciting, eliciting and noticing great photo ops. Selfies, photobombs, generic groupings of twosomes and foursomes (or more) will all happen in here so working with a short and flexible lens is key, but I also carry around a long lens to take sniper type shots of people across the room, trying to avoid detection so that I can capture real emotional exchanges and genuine reactions.
8. Interesting details, close ups of on-site marketing collateral, giveaways, promos
Finally, throughout the conference you’ll want to make sure you have images showing any promotional item provided by a sponsor, as well as just a set of fun, creative, interesting, artistic even, shots of details that emerge as salient to the event. Judgement and skill is required here but over time it becomes clear what these elements are. No-brainers include shots of program covers, branded spaces, signage, banners and products (in the case of trade shows).
9. People interacting with displays/products
This one pertains mainly to trade shows but can be relevant to conferences that host vendors in common areas as well. The main goal here is to showcase the brand, the product or service on offer, and lots of images of people engaging with the display or items. Interaction, engagement and as always, smiling faces are key here. Closeups on pertinent details and any interesting visual elements available should also be captured.