Illustration of Derek Powazek by Adam Ellis

How to Shoot Events

A few weeks ago I found myself in Beauty Bar in San Francisco. I was standing on the bar, the actual Beauty Bar, in my own private Coyote Ugly.

My head bumped against the ceiling. I was sweating so hard, my glasses were fogging. I adjusted the flash forward so it would bounce in the right place, focused on the woman reading from her book at the end of the room, and fired. The flash lit up the club for a sixtieth of a second.

I took a few shots and then remembered my favorite rule of photography: Look behind you. So I turned around and shot. In the photo, you can see an ocean of people filling place. It was, to be honest, kinda freaky.

I clamored down off the bar, thanked the bartender, and got the hell out of there.

That was an author reading during the annual LitQuake festival, which I’ve shot off and on for years. It’s an event called the Lit Crawl in the mission, where authors are performing in a variety of clubs and bars all evening. Dozens of events crammed into a 3-hour window. It’s a trial by fire for any photographer, and each year I think I’ve gotten a little better at it. This year, I thought I’d write down a few things I’ve learned along the way.

1. Get (or Make) a Badge

Behold, the power of a piece of plastic! Badges have enabled me to walk past lines, jump velvet ropes, go backstage at concerts, and avoid getting pepper-sprayed by riot police.

If you’re shooting an event at the request of the organizers, get them to give you a badge with the event logo and the word “staff” or “volunteer” on it. When people know you’re just doing your job, they’ll cut you a lot more slack. And in a noisy club where you may not be able to be heard, having the badge allows you so simply point at it and skip the conversation entirely.

2. Don’t Be a Dick

Dudes with cameras have a well-deserved reputation for being dicks. It probably has something to do with walking around carrying a giant phallus. Let’s not perpetuate that myth, m’kay?

Smile at people. Be friendly. If someone waves you away, they don’t want to be photographed – move on. I’ve even taken to winking at people when they look at me like “what’s that guy doing here.” Winking is a dorky thing to do. No one seriously winks anymore. But it makes people laugh (or at least roll their eyes) and that lets me keep doing my job.

Do not get pissy when people tell you not to shoot. Most events happen on private property, and though an event-goer can’t legally kick you out, they can get an employee who can. A simple smile can diffuse a lot of difficult situations.

3. Be Confident

So long as you’re not being a dick, be confident in what you’re doing. Shooting events often means getting in people’s way. Smile, say “excuse me,” and then move your body to where it needs to be. Do not ask permission. Remember, you’re there to do a job.

Here’s a tip: There is no such thing as a totally full room. Almost every packed club has space up front. It’s just the way crowds form. People who get in early don’t want to crowd together. So all you have to do is get past the wall of people at the door who are too timid to push in. There’ll always be someplace for you to go.

Besides the smiling, the camera, the badge, and saying “excuse me” a million times, there’s one other piece of advice that was once given to me by a concert EMT. If you really have to get through a difficult crowd, and nothing is working, here’s how to do it.

Step 1: Take your camera in one had, and hold it over your head. This is noticed by people around you, who will unconsciously shift away from you a bit.

Step 2: Take your other hand, hold it hip-high, and poke it into the side of the person you need to move. The poke is gentle, but pointed. Shoot for just above the hip bone. The person will move out of the way on instinct.

This works 100% of the time. Try it on a friend. Poke them in the hip, and they’ll unconsciously move away. It’s just how we’re built.

Remember to be nice about this! Once you’ve gotten the person to move, smile and say thank you. You never know who you’re poking, and what kind of day they’ve had.

4. Be Fast

Understand that you are probably going to bum people out while shooting events. You’re going to get in their way, annoy them with your flash, and possibly poke them in the hip. Don’t let this stop you, of course, but be sympathetic. What would you want if you were them? You’d want that annoying guy with the camera to go away.

The single defining characteristic I’ve observed in professional shooters is speed. I’ve seen photojournalists swim to the front of a crowd, clack the shutter a few times, glance at their LCD, and go home. Now that’s a pro.

Set up your camera for the shot you’re gonna get in advance: ASA, lens, aperture, even pre-focus you can. Fill in as many of the variables before you swim the crowd, so you can get right to the shooting and get out as quickly as possible.

5. Wear Black

Black will help you be less noticeable, and won’t show dirt when you have to crawl across a floor to get the shot. And wear comfy shoes – you never know how long the gig will last. I once shot a protest rally wearing a brand new pair of stiff leather shoes. The protest went wild and I wound up walking for miles in the rain. My feet still throb when I think about it.

For previous LitQuakes, I carted around a fat bag full of extra lenses, little tripods, and flash bouncing Tupperware that I never used. All it did was slow me down and bonk into people when I was trying to get by.

So this year, I took only what I needed: a Canon 5D, 28-70mm 2.8 lens, and a flash. Honestly, the flash was the only optional piece of tech I had. I kept it off for most of the trip because the clubs had excellent lighting, but you can’t always count on that.

My advice is to leave the camera bag home. Take your favorite camera body, put on the best lens you have, add a flash if you think you’ll need it, and that’s it. Stuff your pockets with batteries and extra CF cards.

And remember, clubs are hot, so leave your jacket at home. And be sure to carry a lens cloth for both your lens and your forehead. Photography can be sweaty work.

6. Don’t Flash Unless You Must

Do not use a flash unless you absolutely have to. Events will usually have light on the performer, and a moody red light will look better than a bright flash that illuminates every bit of grime in the club. (Have you ever seen a club in daylight? Ew.)

First, crank up the ASA on your camera as high as you’re comfortable with. Noise is usually better than blur. Shoot as much as you can, metering on the performer, not the background.

If you have to use a flash, set it to slow-synch and open the shutter longer than you have to. This will make sure you get some natural light in and avoid that washed-out flash look.

Also, flashes really bother the audience. I’ve had people yell at me a few times for shooting events, and it was always the flash that pushed them over the edge. So if you must flash, try aiming it up to bounce it, and taping a piece of paper to the back of it. This helps the light bounce and helps shield the light from the eyes of the people behind you.

7. Shoot the Whole Scene

Musicians are easy – they’re constantly mugging. Writers are a little harder. When people are just talking, freezing their face mid-word can create very unfortunate photos. People look really weird when they’re in the middle of a vowel.

Authors are the worst. (Daniel Handler, I’m talking to you. Look up, man!) There’s nothing worse than getting home after a long night’s work and reviewing dozens of photos of a person with a book in front of their face.

If you’ve got a nose-burier, find a good spot and hunker down. Take your camera away from your face for a while and watch the performer. Get a sense for their cadence. Authors will still glance at the audience once in a while, if only to make sure they’re not sleeping. Wait for it. Be ready. A successful shot in this situation is often the result of being able to predict when the subject is going to do something visually interesting.

Often times the best moments will be at the beginning and the end of the performance. In the beginning, the performer is still warming up, looking out over the crowd, and gearing up for The Big Read. At the end, they’ll take a moment to hear the applause, and smile a bit out of relief for being done. Be ready.

And don’t forget about the audience! It’s easy to focus on the performer, but try to include some evocative audience members in the frame – it helps tell the story of the moment.

That’s it! Happy shooting.

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Hi, I’m Derek. I used to make websites. Now I grow flowers and know things. I’m mostly harmless. More.