My Event Photography Adventure

If you’ve been following along with Chrystina Noel for a while you know that last year I did a summer photography project where I took pictures of a different friend every week to get better at portrait photography. (Here’s a recap of what I learned from the first half, what I learned from the second half, and what I learned overall.) This year I decided that I wanted to push myself out of my comfort zone and try my hand at event photography – a completely different ball game.

My goal was to take pictures at an event every week, but I only managed five. I still definitely learned a lot though; I took pictures at a graduation, a 30th birthday party, a 1st birthday party, a work event, and another 1st birthday party. Here’s a bit about what I learned at each event:

The Graduation

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Event Photography - Graduation 02

My friend graduated from Jefferson as a Master of Public Health and wanted a few pictures to commemorate the graduation. This was actually a really good first “event” to shoot because it was a combination portrait & event shoot. It completely threw me for a loop when I realized I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to be capturing moments (by just clicking the shutter) or creating moments (by posing people). I ended up taking a handful of each, but posing people isn’t something I feel incredibly comfortable with at this point. Should they be close to each other? Where should their arms be? What happens if they’re facing the sun? Will they all be in focus when I click?

Overall I learned that I need to get better to communicating to people where I want them to be and what I want them to be doing. I also learned a lot about trying to edit shadows out of photos, but overall I was definitely pretty happy with how the pictures turned out.

A 30th Birthday Party

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Then I was asked to take pictures at a 30th Birthday Party. This was the first event where I felt really out of my element. Right off the bat I realized I should have done a little more research and asked a few more questions. For example: is it an indoor or outdoor event? what is the event setup going to be? They had rented an awesome tent in case it rained (which it did), the party was casino themed, and it went from about 6:00pm to 10:00pm – so it started to get dark pretty soon into the event. For this mostly natural light photographer that was a game changer. I also should have done some research into the key players at the event – know who the parents were, what their names were, etc.

Photographers need to be able to do this thing where they assimilate into whatever event they’re at. That’s not me; I’m an observer, I like to blend into the background until I understand exactly what event I’m at – and I actually really hate asking to point a camera in people’s faces, especially people I don’t know, and especially when I’m unsure how the photgraph is going to come out (because it’s so dark outside). It was at this moment that I also learned that I’m much more comfortable helping out at parties than trying to take pictures at them. I took a few “candid” photos, but instead of feeling like part of the moment I came out feeling like I was always on the outside looking in.

I was really bummed because I felt like I messed up the most important shot: a picture of my friend, her husband (whose birthday it was), and their daughter. I wasn’t able to get the three of them together until it was already dark outside, which meant that I was going to end up with a really grainy photograph or I was going to have to use the (dreaded) built-in flash. I came to the event assuming I could try to use napkins to attempt to cover the intensity of the flash (which I had seen done before at a concert), but when I got to the event I found out the napkins were red, which tinted my picture red. Then I went inside to grab a papertowel to cover the flash with, but it looks really silly to have a bunch of papertowel taped to your camera flash with washi tape. This was the moment I realized I was going to invest in a Canon 600EX-RT Speedlite Flash.

Aside: It was right around this time that my computer broke this summer and I wasn’t sure exactly how much money it was going to cost to fix it, which meant that I had to put buying my new flash on hold until I figured that out.

The first 1st Birthday Party

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The next event I took picture at was a first birthday party. I, yet again, should have asked what the setup was. It was an indoor event, for some reason I had continually pictured an outdoor event.

When I arrived I was one of the first ones there and I immediately asked if they needed help. Yay comfort zone. I talked to a few people without feeling overwhelmed and felt useful as I stacked the cupcakes on the trays. A little bit before the event actually started another photographer showed up and all of a sudden I actually felt a huge sigh of relief. It wasn’t going to have to be me who put the camera in everybody’s face, it could be him. I introduced myself to him to make things less awkward, “hi, I’m Chrystina, I was looking to get more practice shooting events this summer and the host told me I could come here and try”. He was very nice about it and offered some good advice (like buy a UV filter for my expensive lens so I didn’t destroy the lens by accident, which turned out very useful when I fell on my face in Portland last weekend while holding my camera), but then I had to figure out how to interact with another photographer. I decided it involved me staying out of the way, especially because he actually had a flash. Which kind of meant that I had failed.

I was also very confused about whether photographers actually get to eat at the events they’re shooting. I decided the answer was yes, but I’m not sure I would have decided the same thing if the paid photographer wasn’t there.

This was also the first event I was at where people kept asking me to take photos of them. I had a camera, they wanted photos, it really did make sense, I was just so surprised that they wanted me to do it when they could clearly have that more experienced guy take the photos instead. (I guess they didn’t know that though.) I was just so nervous because I didn’t have a flash again, which meant the pictures were either going to come out grainy or extra-bright.

In the end, the paid photographer ended up taking most of the pictures of the family and I walked around and took pictures of some of the other guests. When I was walking back to the train station I was so angry at myself for whimping out again, then I ran into a guy from the event who asked for my business card. He told me he liked the style of photograph he saw me taking and was wondering where he could hire me if he needed a photographer. Maybe I did have a chance at this? (Or maybe I just looked really down in the dumps.)

The work event

Event Photography - Work Event 01

This one was a complete fail (sense a theme here?). We had a work event that they wanted photos taken at and I said I had a nice camera and I’d bring it along. I had even bought the flash at this point, which meant I could really try my hand at this for the first time. What happened? I got there and someone else had a camera who seemed to be taking a lot of pictures so I backed off. I officially left the event with less than 5 pictures, none of which are a good representation of the event itself.

That said, I did take a lot of pictures this summer just for fun. Pictures at events where it wasn’t my responsibility to take the pictures and I was just a guest. Hence, the “Just for Fun” category.

Just For Fun

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My cousin’s wedding happened earlier this summer and I definitely got some good shots of the family together (and an entire photoshoot of my sister, but that’s a different story). I went into the event energized, I had just sung at the wedding, it was a beautiful day outside and I was so excited to capture some memories that don’t usually happen. That said, I had known almost every person I was taking photos of for at least 23 years, which probably helped.

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I also took some photos at my friends’, Melissa and Heather’s, wedding. Yet again, there was a specific event photographer who I didn’t want to get in the way of so it took me about 2 hours to feel okay pulling out the camera. I got some good shots, but most of them felt like I was on the outside looking in again – and by the time I worked up the nerve to ask people to take pictures of them directly it was already dark outside. (I decided taking the flash to this party would be overkill. Also, there wasn’t really anything to bounce it off of anyway.) I did, however, get some good candid moments.

The second 1st Birthday Party

Then we get to the most recent event, Johanna’s son’s first birthday party. This event felt right. I showed up early and helped prepare for the party, I got to take pictures before the guests arrived, I knew everyone who was coming, and there was a super cute “The Very Hungry Caterpilar” theme.

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I followed the kids outside at one point and got this awesome picture. Natural light for the win, man. I was proud of myself for heading outside because it was out of my comfort zone. Also, interacting with these children/teenagers who I had met before was way easier than interacting with the children I hadn’t met before at the other first birthday party.

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Then the cake came out, which I wasn’t totally ready for. I didn’t have my flash – it was all the way upstairs! I took some photographs, but I was still kind of bummed out about how grainy they were. I kept moving around Joseph to try to find the best light and I was able to get some good candids, but I didn’t really get an awesome cake shot.

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I was able to put my flash on before we got to presents though. I still hadn’t actually used the flash for more than a few shots, but goodness gracious it made a huge difference. All of a sudden I was no longer embarassed by the indoor photographs I was taking. I experimented with the difference between bouncing the flash off the ceiling and the side wall to see the different shadows it created in the picture. It was great. (I learned bouncing the flash off of green balloons will turn your whole picture green. Who knew?)

The only problem was I felt like I was sitting right in the way of everyone else’s view of him opening photographs. Maybe I actually need a zoomier lens? We’ll see. Maybe that will be my birthday present to myself.

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The other thing that was really great about taking pictures at a party where you know all the people is that you know all the inside jokes (not that this is a joke). I knew it was important for me to take pictures of Max and Fritz. And I liked knowing that ahead of time. (Although I guess she made a point to tell her wedding photographer, so she could have just made a point to tell me.)

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I had even remembered to ask if there were any specific shots they wanted me to capture to which, Johanna responded “no, I just figuerd if I took out my camera it would sit on the counter the whole time and I wouldn’t use it” – which, yet again, right from the beginning took the pressure off.

I was definitely pretty happy with how the photographs for Joseph’s birthday party turned out. As for whether or not I have a career in event photography, I clearly have a bunch more hurdles to jump through before I could charge anybody for this service. Mainly getting better with the indoor flash, learning how to command a room, finding some chutzpah, and determining what questions to ask to really understand the client’s vision before I show up. I think some of this pressure could be alleviated by building an actual portfolio because then if somebody hired me based on my portfolio they would already know what kind of shots I usually take. Something to consider for the future I guess.

Maybe it’s time to shut down the greeting cards business and start building up a photography business? We’ll have to see what 2016 brings.

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  • I don’t think you actually “failed” at any of these because you had a take away from each one and building confidence can take time.

    • Thanks my dear. I swear I used to have life confidence though. I think the real world destroyed it a little bit. There’s probably a blog post in there somewhere.

      • Well I don’t think your are alone in that one. The real world is a harsh place.

  • Those cupcakes at that birthday party look amazing!!!
    What fun! 🙂 I particularly love that first graduation photo! Where you captured a moment! And also that swanky wedding! 🙂 Nice!

    • Thanks! Yeah, that first graduation photo is definitely one of my favorites. It’s been a fun adventure 🙂

  • This was so interesting to read! Kudos to you for thinking about what you can do better in each situation (and being brave enough to blog about it!).

    • Thank you, thank you! It’s a fun challenge for the summer, then I get to cut myself a break the rest of the year.

  • Meg

    I LOVE hearing your thoughts about your photography as you’re learning and experimenting. I feel like I’m in the exact same boat as you, with being nervous in front of crowds, feeling like I’m taking up too much space or getting in someone’s way. Too often I feel like I see blogs about beginning photography but they make it seem so easy – it definitely is not! Their “beginning” feels more like what I hope my “middle” to be (and that’s ok!). I just want to let you know that I love your blog and I believe in you. I’m sure you’ll learn much more along the way and you’ll be amazed at how great your pictures get.

    • Thank you so much for this comment! It made my day. I’m also glad to hear that I’m not the only one who’s every felt like this – you’re right, I feel like a lot of the “beginners” seem like they’re starting in the middle. Also, thanks for the bobost of confidence, that is definitely always appreciated.

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