conference coverage


When Dr. Robert Ballard, probably most known for the discovery of the RMS Titanic, stepped in front of a screen depicting the future of underwater exploration, I knew I had my photograph.
If you are a corporate photographer and find yourself taking pictures in the same location over and over again, then this post is for you. If you are an event photographer that returns to the same location over and over again, then this post is for you. And if you are either one of these photographers and want to create unique pictures every time you are at this location, then this post is for you.

In my case, I am responsible for covering ceremonies, conferences, and speakers in our corporate conference center several times a month. Everyone from famous oceanographers, Nobel Prize winners, four-star admirals and generals, authors and scientists have passed through and while the presentations are fascinating, it is the same venue, same light, same big screens, etc. You get the picture.

When a Time Magazine cover featuring Albert Einstein appeared on screen I knew that it would make a different photo of Nobel Prize physicist Dr. William D. Phillips.
In this post I'll focus mainly on covering speakers and presentations as opposed to events. So how do I make that interesting or different when I've been shooting in this location for eight years?  Well read on.

On the surface it would appear that nothing changes expect the person and that would seem like the big disadvantage, right? Not really. Your first advantage is that the basics of the environment doesn't change, which means your exposure doesn't really change. I know that I'm going to put my camera on manual with a shutter speed of 100, f-stop around 3.2 and an ISO of 1600. Now that might change just a bit on occasion depending on whether the speaker remains in the front of the room or moves around. But in any case it will only change a stop or so in either direction.

It wasn't until the final slide of his presentation, which featured the cover of his new book, that I felt I had a usable photo of Dr. Peter W. Singer.
The second advantage, and this will save you time in post processing, is you can assign a custom white balance and forget it. As I'm walking up the stairs to our conference center, I set my camera as stated above and make sure that my camera's white balance is set on custom. Now when I enter the room all my attention is on how I'm going to make these images different from the previous ones. All the technical issues were solved years ago.

Which brings us to the title of this post, the fact that you really are shooting the same scene over and over and the changes you are looking for can be subtle.

The dark slide behind former Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead provided nice contrast with his uniform.
More than 90% of the speakers have some type of Power Point slides or video they use during the presentation. You can use those slides to your advantage. Since I am able to include a large video screen in my frame whether I'm shooting from the left or right, I wait for a slide that in some way works visually with the speaker. It could be a graphic or have strong color and because you control the depth of field, it is your decision on how much you want the viewer to know. If it's the title slide or has words that help identify the speaker, then a little deeper depth of field is the answer, or if it is a graphic element or strong color, then shallower normally works.

Professor and complex network theorist, Dr. Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, had some complicated slides so I opted for a  shallow depth of field and waited. 
In one sense I'm fortunate that I have those video screens to use since they do provide endless opportunities. So what if you don't have anything like that? If that was the case, I would most likely place a colored gel and strobe the background to add some punch. Or maybe place some temporary art on the wall that you are confident you could use as visual elements. That's assuming this is a space that you control.

I realize every venue is different, so the key is to figure out all of the basics first, such as shutter speed, white balance and f-stops. The real point is that if you are required to photograph in the same location, then master that location, embrace that location and most of all, be creative in that location. You don't have a choice, right?


The designer of this background didn't take into consideration how it would appear when viewed on television.

I'm sure the president of the University of Richmond was unaware of what television viewers saw behind him during a C-SPAN3 broadcast of a panel discussion on History in the Digital Age, but it sure caught my eye. Also, I'm sure that no one who was present in the audience that day was aware. And just maybe, if I hadn't put it in the title of this blog, you too would be wondering why I posted this picture?

In all things photography, both still and video, you must always be aware of the background. In this case the Historical Association's banner placed behind the speaker would at first seem like a good promotional idea. But did anyone check what the background would look like when viewed at 16:9 on television? I'm pretty sure they didn't.

In most cases a photographer scans the background looking for a pole or tree branch poking out from behind a head. In other cases it is making sure nobody is flipping the bird or photobombing during an interview.

In this blog I'll talk about photographing a conference, something I do quite often, where having a dynamic background, preferably with the conference title, can add interest and help tell the story, and where a poorly designed background can present all types of problems.

Same conference background viewed from two different angles works equally well in both instances. Bill Nye the Science Guy, left, and Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus speak at the Naval STEM Forum in 2010. This background presented many interesting possibilities regardless of the angle I shot from.
Tips for those designing backgrounds.

1. Take into consideration all the angles that photographers will be shooting from.

2. In backgrounds, size does matter. If too small it will look strange when photographed using a wide angle. Too big and the speaker will get lost.

3. The speaker will get lost if the background is too bright, either by color choice, or over lit by the production crew. If the background is too busy, it could detract from the subject.

4. Keep in mind that the video camera is probably on a riser in the back of the room shooting straight on, while still photographers are shooting from a lower angle.

Choose a shallow depth of field when using background screen as a graphical element.
Video screen showing presentation in background adds graphical interest to otherwise static photograph of Mr. Thomas Kalil, Deputy Director, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
Tips for photographing backgrounds.

1. Work with the background by varying your angles to add interest. Make it work with the photograph by incorporating or isolating portions. Be selective.

2. If there are video screens off to the side, see if the imagery or graphics can be used to enhance interest. Emphasize patterns in these slides by using a shallow depth of field.

3. If possible find a way to elevate yourself, such as shooting from a riser or using a ladder, to put yourself at eye level. If the background was designed to be viewed this way without many options, then put yourself in the same position.

4. If the background does not work at all, or if there is no background and just a curtain, do your best to avoid leaving a black hole behind the speaker. Shooting from an extreme low angle to include overhead lights or spots can add interest, or shooting from slightly behind the speaker and including the audience is a good idea.

Using video screens as backgrounds can be tricky if not handled correctly.
Besides presentations, video screens often will show the speaker, especially in large venues. In this photo the screen on left was directly behind the speaker and just didn't look right if photographed straight on,  however when taken from the side and including another screen, I think it frames the speaker, Rear Adm. Matthew Klunder, chief of naval research, nicely while adding interest. 
Whether you are designing a background, have input into the design, or are the photographer assigned to cover a conference, take into account all the possibilities and most importantly, if your organization or company's title includes the word "Association," BE CAREFUL!