It’s a cliché in photography to say that “lighting is everything”, but this is especially true for event photography.
Lighting at an event often sets the tone for the whole experience. In some cases, like the recent show at the Notre Dame Basilica I went to mounted by Moment Factory (where sadly photography is prohibited) the lighting IS the experience
I’ve seen the light…
But for a typical gala evening, or post-conference drinking rally, the lighting at the venue (along with the sponsored cocktails) creates an ambience and mood that becomes part of the signature of the event.
Organizers often take pride in how their event spaces look, and rightfully so, and they want to see their work reflected in the photos and videos that get delivered afterwards from the people they’ve hired to cover the event.
As a photographer often covering events I am regularly confronted with a choice on what lighting to use when shooting in a room full of mixed patterns of show lighting. Personally I share my client’s desire to capture the look and feel of the event by using the lighting onsite to do my work, but this can sometimes compromise sharpness in an image.
Some photographers place a high priority on the sharpness of their image and default to using flash which provides a much higher guarantee of capturing an image in tack sharp focus. Unfortunately, this same clarity can sometimes remove all of the emotion from a scene and turn a beautifully lit event space into a garish hall with not much more ambience than a bus station.
Sometimes you may not have a choice
The same applies, to a lesser degree, for conferences and speakers at podiums. If they are well lit with spot lights, it is often preferable to use the stage lighting rather than keep popping a flash in their faces which can be both distracting, or even explicitly forbidden by the speaker, as I once learned to my deep embarrassment when covering a speaking engagement by one of my favourite marketers, Seth Godin, whom I approached afterward full of gushing enthusiasm only to be chastised for using flash “it was in my rider.” (Side note – event photographers are not generally privy to marquee speakers contractual riders).
Weighing the two, I tend to favour and promote more ambient lighting over flash. While flash can be used very creatively to capture and evoke mood on its own, if there is a lighting plan in effect at an event I am covering, I will shoot the majority of my images using it with the understanding that some of my images will lose a degree of sharpness and I may miss one or two shots that otherwise would have been easier to snag with a sharp focus using flash. An exception, shown below, is when you using the ambient light as a backdrop and the flash fills the foreground – effectively getting the best of both worlds.
To flash or not to flash…
Weighing the two, I tend to favour and promote more ambient lighting over flash. While flash can be used very creatively to capture and evoke mood on its own, if there is a lighting plan in effect at an event I am covering, I will shoot the majority of my images using it with the understanding that some of my images will lose a degree of sharpness and I may miss one or two shots that otherwise would have been easier to snag with a sharp focus using flash.
I still wouldn’t attempt to cover any event without having a flash (usually two) on me, but I may only use them 10% of the time, if that.
Want to judge for yourself?
Check out some of the photos in our portfolio (using the button below), showing examples of both photos taken using flash (usually bounced off a nearby wall or ceiling) and ambient light. What do you prefer? As a client, knowing what to ask for specifically when hiring a photographer or videographer to cover an event can help ensure you get exactly what you want and need. If you prefer more ambient light and less full frontal flash, asking for it up front helps both you and your photographer deliver results that satisfy everyone.