Becoming the Chief Photographer for Major Events
Event photography is a big business. There are few professional photographers who have avoided this industry completely. It can be fun and glamorous, but it's also a high stress environment where you need to deliver consistent results on a tight deadline. In this tutorial, I'll take you through all the steps needed to understand this profitable side of photography.
I've been the main photographer for a variety of events. Some have been small and serious, others big and loud. My background is in photojournalism, so "shooting people" is what I do best. Although the goals are different, many photojournalistic techniques apply to event photography.
This year I was asked to shoot a large music series in my city. It involved ten separate events over the course of a month. Each event featured a concert and a reception afterward. It was a daunting task, but a great experience. I made close to 7,000 frames and delivered over 300 toned pictures. I hope to share with you today how I did it.
Landing the Job
Landing big jobs like this isn't something you can do right after you buy your first camera. You need to work your way up to it. In addition to my newspaper experience, I assisted many photographers while they shot big events.
Previously, I had worked as a photographer for the World Choir Games, which involved 15,000 participants from over 60 countries. They poured into the city for a 14 day singing and performance extravaganza.
I wasn't in charge of anything but shooting the events I was told to shoot by the photographer in charge. And I was glad for that. Organizing the 40 volunteer photographers and half a dozen paid photographers was an insane task. Luckily it was handled well by someone with way more experience than me.
But, the experience was low pressure and high volume. I got to shoot a lot and if I screwed up, it wasn't the end of the world. You should seek opportunities like this as often as you can. They are the best way to learn, and lead directly to landing big events like the music series I'll be talking about.
Besides your previous experience, it's important to keep your name in front of the people who might want to hire you. Having an active website and social media channels are essential. It's also important to attend events and functions where you will meet people. If you like music photography, you better go to concerts.
I was contacted for the concert series through Facebook.
Once someone contacts you, chances are they're ready to hire you if it's in their budget. Occasionally, they'll want to see more of your work or just talk to you, but it's called the "bottom line" for a reason.
Everyone bids differently, and in the U.S. it's actually illegal for photographers to get together and decide their rates. It's called collusion or price fixing. That being said, I'll talk you through my process.
I have set hourly rate. Let's say it's 3000 bags of peanuts. But on most of my bids, I double this cost because I know I will spend an equal amount of time editing and shooting, but it just easier to charge for the hours you're actually working on site shooting.
The rest is simple math. How many hours will you be shooting? For my event, it was around 30 hours. So that 180,000 bags of peanuts. Factor in driving, parking costs, and incidentals as well and add that to the bid. So let's say an even 200,000 bags of peanuts. There you go. There's your bid.
Most clients won't need or want the bid itemized out, but I still use the same math to calculate it. I also give roughly a 10% discount if I think it will be a repeat job. And if it's a job that will be really inconvenient for me to do, I may put a 50% premium on the price to make it worth my while.
Also, don't forget that you need to be willing to negotiate.
Once they've accepted your bid, you need to clearly set your expectations up front. These expectations fall into two main categories: how you get paid and how the pictures get delivered.
The first expectation is usually pretty easy. After the last photo is delivered, you get paid. But for people who make their entire income doing this type of work, they may have a more complicated system. For most jobs, I require 50% up front. It's refundable, but it has to be paid before the job starts. Many photographers will want all the money upfront. It just depends on what you're comfortable with.
The next part is how the photos will be delivered. For most events, the people will want them within a day or two. For my event, I needed to have the photos delivered the same night as the event.
Just imagine if this hadn't been communicated in advance. If they didn't get their photos until days after they would have been very upset. And if I didn't know about until the night of the event, I may have had other commitments scheduled.
Keep in mind, that some clients might not have a clear idea when they want the photos. It's your job to bring up the issue and help them make a good decision.
Another important thing to consider is there is a third party you'll probably have to deal with. Most often the event organizers will be renting venue space for their events. They should be aware that you'll be photographing. And if possible, you should have a meeting with them to see how they normally handle photographers.
You might see a great balcony to shoot from, and you need to know that it's not old and unsafe. They may also be able to give you access to places that are normally locked.
The concert series I shot took place at a bunch of different venues. So I asked a member of the event's staff to handle the details of where I could and couldn't go.
Along the lines of your shooting position, you need to be conscience of the type of event you're shooting. The classic music I was covering was usually not amplified. It wasn't a party scene. It was somber and sometimes quiet.
Due to this, I could not shoot from the first row and just click away during the show. Not only would this distract the crowd, it could potentially distract the performer. In some of the venues, it was so quiet that my camera may have well of been a shotgun. Every time I pressed the shutter, it boomed through across the crowd.
A turned my camera's drive to single shot, so I would fire off too many shots in a row. I also made sure to bring my camera that had a "silent mode" to the next performance. Even then, I tried to time my shots to the loudest parts of the music.
Be courteous when you're shooting. If you're rude in order to get the "best shot," you won't be getting any shots in the future.
Knowing the Goal of Your Work
There are many reasons event organizers might want to hire a photographer. Knowing how they want to use your photos will dictate what you shoot during the event.
In my case, the photos were used to promote the events on social media and drum up interest. So my photos need to look fun, and I shot many photos of the crowds and the applause breaks.
If your photos are only going to be used for ads, then you might want to focus all your efforts on shooting the performers and their instruments. If your photos will be used to get sponsorships for the next event, you should be comprehensive and shoot as many different things as possible including wide shots of the venues.
This should be a specific part of your expectations conversation. Be sure to spend some time on it.
Preparing the First Event
In preparation of your first event (or maybe the only event, if it's a one night job), you should first study the schedule. Get a printed copy of it, and make notes of where you want to be and what you want to shoot on it.
If possible, get into the venue early to scout out the location. Get ideas for where you want to shoot from and work out any of those logistical issues. If you have access to an area, you want to make sure it's unlocked.
Obviously, the last part of preparation is making sure you're prepared with gear. Before any shooting, I lay out all my gear. If you're like me, there's no way you want to take everything you own to every shoot. So, I just start by laying everything I think I need out on the floor so I can see it all at once. What lenses will you need? Should you take any filters? Do you have all your cards and batteries?
Capturing Important People
Once you're at the event, it's important to quickly understand who the important people are. Find someone who knows before things really get moving. As they point people out, shoot a quick headshot of them. If these photos are the first thing on your card, you can easily reference them later.
If you're used to shooting an event for a newspaper or just for yourself, it's hard to get used to caring who the CEO of that company that donated to that thing that helped is. But when you're in event photographer mode, if it's important to the organizers, it's important to you.
Shooting for Promotion
There's no way for me to tell you how to exactly what to shoot at your event. You have your own style and techniques, and no two events are exactly the same. If you're hired to shoot something, you already have a basic understanding of how to make good pictures.
But there are a few things that you'll want to keep in mind when shooting pictures used for promotion. And by promotion, I mean all of the ways your photos might be used after shooting the event.
First, shoot a variety of shots. It's easy to remember the medium shots: people, the performers, etc. But you should also shoot wide shots of the venue, stage, reception area, and everything else.
Next, don't forget detail shots. Shoot anything that has a sponsor's name on it. Shoot logos in their environment. Shoot any signage that was made for the event. These aren't glamorous photos to shoot, but they are things that the organizers will love to have a few years down the road when they're trying to getting funding for their event and trying to remember how they did things before.
Edit for Everyone
You may love Photoshop, and you may love digitally cross-processing your images, but when shooting event, it's really not a good idea. When you're in the editing stage of the process, you want to edit your photos so that everyone likes them, not just you and your photographer friends of Facebook.
I would even hesitate to turn a photo black and white. And if you do turn it black and white, be sure to provide the color version along side it. Not everyone loves extremely artsy photos.
Keep your colors true to life, don't vignette anything, and whatever you do, don't ever let them see a sepia photo. Unless it's a Civil War reenactment, leave the sepia at home.
Delivering to Your Client
There are many approaches to delivering photos. If you have a better way, or can think of a reason why my method won't work for you, by all means, modify it. But know that this is one way to do it, and it works for me.
For my event, they wanted photos right away. So I delivered between 20-30 photos directly after each event. I knew they were pretty much only using them online, but occasionally in other ways. So I split the difference with my sizing, making them 1500 pixel on the long side, and compressing them a little.
The easiest way for them to receive the photos was via email, so I usually sent three or four emails with batches of photos. This is obviously an antiquated way to do it. If I were to work with them again, I'd try to convince them to get set up on Dropbox or Google Drive.
Now here is where my method differs from some people. For event photography and weddings and parties, I believe people really like to have every photo I shoot. I don't know why because I can't think of any examples where people have used anything other than the selected edits I've provided them. But nonetheless, I give them everything.
In my case, I waited until the very end of the series and gave them a cheap small hard drive with all the photos on it organized by event. Each event had it's own folder that contains my sized down edits in a sub-folder, full sized edits in a separate sub-folder, and then finally another sub-folder called originals with all the photos I shot.
Call me crazy, but people seem to really like it.
I want to briefly mention direct distribution. It's not something you want to offer all the time, but in some cases it's best for everyone.
If your client has a specific place they need their photos to end up, it sometimes makes sense for you to put them their directly. There are two examples of this that I've done in that past.
First, if your client just wants some photos on Facebook, offer to put them up on Facebook directly. The second situation I've encountered is when a client is working with a printer. I always offer to work with the printer as well to make sure all the technical information doesn't get lost.
Delivering to Others
The last part of delivery is something I've had trouble with in the past, but I really try to do more of now. It's delivering to people I meet at the events. At the concert series, I would meet performers, the sound techs, the patrons, and they would all end up in my photos.
If I could get a business card out of them, or if I could find them online, I would also email them a photo. Often times you'll want to receive permission from the organizers for this, but it's usually fine.
I also never charge for these photos. I consider it marketing to get my name out there and keep it in the minds of the people I meet.
Easter Egg is a programing term for smoothing extra and unexpected snuck into the code of a game or application. I like to throw a few of these in with my edited photos. Sometimes there the more artsy photos with effects on them, or maybe just funny pictures of people making faces at the camera.
My favorite images to submit are pictures of people's kids. At the concert series, the kids would be all dressed up and on their best behavior. It's a great little extra tidbit for their parents to have a picture of that special night.
During a multi-shoot gig, it's essential to remember that the people in charge don't really want to talk to you the night of the show. They have much more important things to do. So a few days after the shoot, be sure to give the organizers a call to see whether they were happy with your work.
If they thought you missed something, be courteous and accept the suggestion. As much as we like to act like deep thinking artists, at the end of the day, we have to remember who's paying us.
After the final shoot is complete, I'm a huge proponent of sending a thank you card. You provided them with a service, they provided you with financial support. It seems like an even trade, but for most us, people aren't knocking down our doors to have us shoot for them.
Running a photography business is a grind, and if taking three minutes to write a real, personal thank you note to a client will get me more business, then I'm writing the note.
Getting the Gig Next Year
This all leads to extending your reputation and possibly landing a repeat customer. If you've done your job right, they will call you again. But there's a few things you can do to gently remind them.
First, as soon as you land a gig, you should invite the people you're working with to follow you on social media. Whether it's finding them on Twitter or sending an invite to your Facebook page, get them involved with your work.
If possible, try to help them. As a photographer for a big event, you're behind the scenes. You're going to hear about the problems they encounter with all sort of things, whether it be funding, volunteers, support staff, catering. Throughout the year, keep your ear to the ground for people who can help them. If you hear about a good affordable caterer, send someone an email and let them know. Not only will this keep you fresh in their mind, they will want to return the favor.
And finally, contact them a month or two before event to see if they've chosen a photographer for the event. Let them know that you're really excited about, and if it's not too expensive buy a ticket (you can always give it away to friend). Tell them that after shooting last year, you have great ideas about how to do the job even better.
After doing a few of these jobs well, you might have a full-time career on your hands.