Conference photography doesn’t have to be boring

With some practice you can learn how to get the best images from live conferences. As in-person events return in force conference centres are filling up and conference photographers and videographers are busier than ever. These past few months it seems that every event that was delayed or cancelled since March 2020 was rescheduled for May or June. Having covered hundreds of conferences in Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto and throughout the US, I am very familiar with the many pitfalls and challenges conference organizers face when hiring for conference photography. (For a primer you can start with reading this article here on how to take better conference pictures then come back and read this one.

Their number one concern is to walk away with a set of images they can share with their sponsors and use to promote future iterations of the same, or related, events.

Their biggest worry is they will wind up with dull images they can’t use because of factors largely beyond their control.

There are many reasons why some conference photos fail:

  • bad lighting
  • low audience-to-room-size ratio
  • poor presentation skills (lack of eye contact with audience, few to no smiles)
  • wrong choice or placement of background images behind speaker
  • microphone / podium size issues blocking speaker or casting unseemly shadows on face
  • breakout sessions fitted into drab and dreary conference rooms

These could be attributed to the conference and there is seemingly little a photographer can do to change the facts of the situation. And many a conference photographer has grumbled about these and other factors that present challenges to getting the kinds of shots all conference organizers want, which are:

  • great shots of speakers we can share with them
  • full rooms
  • audiences looking engaged and interested (eyes ahead not looking down at their phones!)
  • people networking, making connections, having fun…
  •  …(but not too much fun – no eating or drinking)
  • interesting angles
  • signage, sponsored items and areas

The answer of course is to try harder

So how can a conference photographer be sure they will get the images they need regardless of the lighting, presentation skills, room decor and other factors which are often beyond their control?

Simply put, there is no excuse for failure to deliver on any of the key shots and images the client needs.

Take bad lighting.

This is something that can happen anywhere and isn’t always controlled for. Sometimes a great room with big windows is used for the main stage, but the lighting changes over the course of the day causing unwanted shadows. Sometimes there just isn’t adequate lighting on the subject. Or the speaker doesn’t adjust the angle of the microphone so it cuts a shadow line through the middle of their face.

Regardless, there are still ways to shoot the speaker to accommodate for any lighting situation.

Flash can be used (discreetly) for those stages that lack sufficient coverage. Changing the shooting angle can accommodate speakers who move into problem areas from a lighting point of view. Care can be taken to adjust white balance, light settings and ISO levels to match as precisely as possible the lighting conditions on the stage.

For the problem of empty rooms, sometimes it requires some intervention (usually by the conference organizer or if they are inexperienced, a word from the photographer can help, suggesting the back of the room be closed off to herd people closer to the front). Shots can also be taken right behind a few seated guests towards the stage so the speaker is shown from their perspective, flanked by attendees whose silhouettes give the impression of more people in the room. Again, creative angles and proper framing and composition can solve for almost any guest-to-room-size ratio issue that presents.

Speakers who rarely smile or look up are the trickiest to cover but even here there are solutions. If it is possible, sometimes it’s best to grab a few staged shots of the presenter before they begin. If it’s a jam packed day and the speaker is sandwiched between others with no chance for any interaction with the photographer, choose an angle from the side or even a little behind that shows the speaker presenting to the room from the speaker’s p.o.v. Finally, when all else fails, just shoot a lot to ensure you get at least a handful of eyes open shots, hopefully with an expression on the face that is approachable and intelligent.


Get in the mix

Great conferences are places of intellectual exchanges, creativity and idea sharing. Real, face-to-face interactions have been sorely missed and while hybrid conferences are here to stay, the fully virtual event – while convenient and less costly to mount and attend – is a far cry from the real life version where attendees have a chance to engage, meet colleagues, old friends, new friends, peers, vendors and just generally make connections in their professional world.

Nothing beats looking someone directly in the eye and many a long-standing virtual relationship has grown significantly from a single real world encounter. Being there when these moments of connection happen is part of the joy and artistry of conference photography. Knowing when, where and how they might transpire is what the experienced conference photographer does best and getting these kinds of shots over the course of a day, or throughout a multi-day (and evening) event is what makes for great conference photos that are anything but boring.

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Julian Haber Photographer
Julian Haber is an events, corporate portraits and conference photographer based in Montreal. He is the author of a book on freelancing and runs a busy boutique agency of creative professionals in the fields of photography, videography and design. |