Good event shooting starts with location. When I arrive, whether it’s a parade, a crime scene, or a rally, I start by finding other media folk. Typically they’re already there, comfortably ensconced in the catbird seat, and any official or PR reps associated with the event are there too. It’s a good idea to check in with them because they can provide valuable information.
Bear in mind, however, that shooting for stock isn’t exactly the same as shooting for news. Most of the photographers covering an event are looking for hero shots on behalf of their editors — and those are good shots to get, but they’re only a part of the whole scene. When shooting for stock, you want images that will resonate with buyers long after the event itself has become passé. You want to create images that also show detail, context, and nuance. Here are four things that will help you do exactly that.
1. Stay on the Move
The key to making these images is mobility. Focusing exclusively on the main subject risks getting you hemmed in — it’s only natural, after all, that everyone else wants to be where the action is; they’ll swarm around you like ants on a lollipop.
This shot of swimmers jumping into the Hudson River at the start the NYC Triathlon would have had more impact had I been on the pier next to them as they jumped off. But look to the right — the line of contestants marching down the ramp for their turn. Had I been on the pier, I would have been blocked off for at least an hour or two, and there was a lot more going on that I would have missed as a result.
I never would have gotten a shot like this while stuck on the pier:
Crowds move; authorities change the location of barriers; the center shifts. You never know what might happen, so be alert. Imagine you’re a military commander observing a campaign, and always weigh the value of surrendering your mobility against the potential value of a money shot.
2. Get the Right Gear
Despite the abundance of high-quality mirrorless and crop-frame cameras on the market, event shooting requires a full-frame SLR to utilize higher ISOs and faster shutter speeds without sacrificing too much image quality.
This image of lifeguards receiving final instructions was done with available light at ISO 1250 on a Canon 6D with the 16 – 35 at 2.8 1/40 sec. Shooting with longer focal lengths sometimes demands higher ISOs, even in good light.
I recommend a decently powered flash with an external power source, such as the Quantum Turbo series. At a distance, even fill flash drains batteries rapidly, and you don’t want to be changing them while also being jostled by the crowd or wrangled by the authorities.
Above: EOS 5D mkii ISO 500 70 – 200 mm at 2.8
While it might seem like nothing more than common sense, you also have to train yourself to check your camera’s settings constantly. Moving through a crowd with SLRs dangling gunslinger-like from your hips, settings will change; lenses will shift to manual focus, guaranteed. (My 6D has a lock button on the function knob to prevent inadvertent changes, but it changes constantly anyway — and always at the worst possible moments.)
I also invested a good pair of EMS pants, because they have super-deep cargo and rear pockets. My wallet stays secure even when I’m mobbed to point of near asphyxiation, while the other back pocket is big enough to hold Canon’s monster 2.8 70 – 200 L if need be. The cargo pockets are generous enough for my largish Fuji x100s, press credentials, business cards, pad and pen, flashlight, and more.
3. Work with the Weather
Weather is always a compromise. When there’s plenty of light, it tends to be hard, producing unforgiving highlights and shadows — hence the tendency of pros to use flash in broad daylight. Overcast skies produce nicer light in the form of a massive diffusing screen arrayed in the stratosphere. But there’s less of it, demanding recourse to those tricky higher ISOs.
Camera stores offer plastic rain sleeves at reasonable cost. I use plastic shopping bags that I keep in my bag, along with a cloth or two to wipe rain drops off my lenses’ front elements. The real issue with rain at an event is how umbrellas open all around with the seemingly sole intent of blocking your shot. Impending rainfall compels you to sacrifice mobility in order to get in front of everyone else, lest you wind up shooting images of gaily colored nylon and little else.
4. Keep Yourself Informed
Social networks and search engines have become tools every bit as important to the event photographer as fast lenses and full-frame sensors. I got this shot of a grim-faced NYPD Commissioner William Bratton because a note about gunfire erupting in the West Village sent just minutes after it happened came across my Twitter feed while I was working on a vector image at home.
When I cover rallies, I take whatever handouts are offered, because people with similar agendas often attend in part to support their own similar-themed upcoming events. One thing leads to another. I also talk to other photographers, swap cards, and share tips, because these are usually returned in spades, either in person or on social media.
Media personnel can be a valuable resource, too. Use them. But they can also mislead. For example, during the US Coast Guard Silent Drill Team performance on Wall Street, a Coast Guard photographer suggested I shoot from the base of the George Washington statue because the team was about to demonstrate its rifle slinging. I did, and got this shot.
But I can’t help thinking the photos I got would have had more impact if I’d stayed put and shot from a lower perspective — the rifles would have been seen flying against the background of the NYSE or Trinity Church.
Beyond these tips, most of the rest is a combination of common sense and experience built on the painful memories of those shots that got away because you had your back turned, didn’t realize the action had shifted, or just weren’t quite fast enough to capture that momentary scene that was equal parts sublime and evanescent.
But every now and then you get one right. And that makes the whole thing worthwhile.
Top image: 14th Annual NYC Triathlon photo by Andy Katz