Top Five Things Event Photographers Must Teach Their Clients

A CEO speaking at an event
A CEO speaking at an event (podium sign blurred for this article).

If you’re shooting an upscale wedding managed by a professional wedding planner, or if you’re shooting a corporate event and working with their event planner, you probably have all your bases covered.  They are pros.  They know the drill.  This article is not about those kinds of jobs.

However, maybe you work with a lot of small organizations, often nonprofit, like I do.  They don’t have professional event planners on staff.  The contract is the easy part–what you'll do and deliver for how much money. It's all the little things that aren't in the contract that can trip you up and make the difference between a smooth, successful shoot and a really difficult one. They don’t know what they don’t know.  You’re the photographer.  You’ll deliver good photos, right? That's as far as their thinking goes.

Over the years, I’ve repeatedly encountered five types of issues that my (and your) clients really need to consider if they want their photographer to deliver what they want and need (even if they don’t know what that is quite yet).  Many times, they don’t even see why they should care about these details.  I have to gently educate them about what’s in it for them.  Show them what the major benefits are from spending ten minutes scoping out a plan with me, and help them imagine what they might miss if they don’t.

What’s their vision?

Well, you can’t capture the images they want unless you know what they want.  It’s worth everyone’s time to sit down together and dive deeply into what your clients really want.  Force them to think about what will results make them really happy.  Wedding photographers and family portrait shooters are used to doing this.  Event photographers are less likely to delve into details.

Sure, you want the grip and grin shots, and you want the CEO speaking.  Beyond the obvious, what do they want?  What will they need?  What will they find valuable later?

Too often, photography is an afterthought for business events, like awards galas or conferences.  The sponsoring organization knows they should have the event photographed, but, beyond a photo for (they hope) the local newspaper, they don’t have a vision for how they want to use the photos. You may shoot a hundred great photos but, if only one is used, you have to ask yourself why all the effort?  Instead, they could do so much more with the photos!

I will ask how they envision using the photos of the event.  Whatever they say, I can ask follow up questions.  Will you be using these in print publications, like an informational flyer or annual report?  On your website?  In your regular email to supporters?  In “thank you” messages to board members and funders?  In materials for next year’s awards dinner?  With future funders?  In speeches or presentations?  Too often, event photos go into a file on someone’s computer and never see the light again.  Yet, they can have multiple uses in all sorts of communications from and about the organization.

If you can connect the event with the mission and with the ongoing business of the organization, you can give them great photos.  You can also save them some money by delivering shots that have a variety of uses so they won’t have to buy stock images later to fill out a brochure, or use on their website.

Once you know their vision for the event and the photos, you can not just create better photos but also prevent problems.  One time, I was talking to a client about what image his organization wanted to project.  He said they were all about inclusivity—they work with all races and creeds, genders and orientations, you name it.  Would that be represented at this shoot (which would be at a youth center they ran)?  Um, no.  It would mostly be a bunch of middle class white kids because they were easy to recruit on short notice.  Hmm, problem.  The shoot was rescheduled with a more diverse group of kids and adults.

The extra information often doesn’t change how I shoot the event but, sometimes, it gives me ideas for extra shots, beyond what I’d normally think of doing.  More than once, those extra shots have been among the client’s favorites.

A reading light on the podium makes for really unattractive light on the speaker. Try fixing this in post!
A reading light on the podium makes for really unattractive light on the speaker. Fixing this before the event starts is way better than trying to fix it in post production.

Don’t make bad lighting worse.

Most indoor venues have terrible lighting.  That’s especially true of hotel ballrooms and conference rooms.  It’s challenging enough for the photographer to deal with the color cast from the overhead lights and (as in a recent case) reflections from a bright green banner or the pastel glow cast on the keynote speaker by slideshow projections behind her.

You clients shouldn’t do anything to make things worse.

At a recent fundraising dinner, the client wanted shots of the speakers, including a Member of Congress and local elected officials.  They would deliver their remarks from a podium and I was asked not to use flash.  So far, so good.  When the first speaker came up, they turned on a bright podium light.  While that did help them read their remarks, it also cast a lot of harsh light up at their face in a sort of horror movie lighting style (see photo above).  You can’t easily remove those dark shadows in post processing!  If you see a lectern light on a podium, make sure you know if anyone’s planning to use it and try to find an alternative.

Here’s another: Spotlights with the organization’s colors coming in from different points.  Half of the speaker was getting purple light and half wasn’t.  It wasn’t so obvious to the eye—our brain compensates for that.  But the camera's sensor doesn’t compensate and, boy, does it show in the files.

This woman had white hair. When the screen behind her was yellow, so was her hair. When the screen was blue, so was her hair.
This woman had white hair. When the screen behind her was yellow, so was her hair. When the screen was blue, so was her hair.

As I mentioned earlier, at a recent reception the guest speaker was on a small riser in front of a rear-projection screen that was showing a slide that was mostly red, casting a pale red glow on one side of her clothes.  Not attractive!  It would have taken a lot of time to color correct in post.  Switching to the next slide in the deck (mostly white) saved the day.

A variation on this is when the client has a rotating series of slides projected on the screen, with each slide being predominantly a single color, and each one a different color!  Going through the slide deck in advance can help ensure they aren’t rotating through a presentation, giving different color casts to each shot. In the photos at right, you can see the color cast on a speaker's white hair as the screen behind her goes from blue to yellow, from blue hair to blonde.  Imagine if she'd worn a white jacket!

Much of this can be avoided in advance, if you have a detailed conversation about the lighting and projections/slide deck with your client before the event.  I did a shoot for a lobbying group earlier this year where the keynote speaker was a government official.  In speaking with the client, we decided to project a white slide with the speaker’s name, title and official photo.  I was able to get a couple of shots of the speaker with her photo on the screen behind her, which she liked enough that her office asked for copies.

The man on the right, a retired US Senator, introduced the legislation that established the organization hosting the event. Knowing who all the VIPs were enables you to get key people, like him, interacting with other important guests.
The man on the right, a retired US Senator, introduced the legislation that established the organization hosting the event. Knowing who all the VIPs were enables you to get key people, like him, interacting with other important guests.

Help me find the VIPs

There are always VIPs at events, whether they’re special friends of the bride and groom or family of the CEO.  You can probably find a photo of a Member of Congress who’s accepting an award or of the leader of the organization who is your client.  Most of the time, however, if someone hands you a shot list you’re not going to know who the other important people are. You can do all the homework you want, culling through websites, LinkedIn, the event invitations, and still not know who all the VIPs are or what they look like.

You client will probably give you a shot list, but they're often not complete.  Make sure the shot list is not just things that happen during the event (speakers, awards, presentations, toasts, traditional special moments of wedding, etc.).  Double check with the client that your shot list includes everyone they feel is important—funders, special friends, family members, government officials, board members, etc.

I ask that a staff person work with me during the event to make sure I get the required shots of VIPs.  A friend of the bride or groom could fill the same role at a wedding.  The staffer knows who the VIPs are and guides me to them or them to me.  Ideally, I’ll be in one location for about a half hour during the reception part of the event and the staffer will bring all the VIPs there.  Presto, we’re done in 30 minutes or less and can then focus on getting the shots that tell the story.

Having a staffer helping you can also be a game saver. In the photo above, the senator had help establish the organization hosting the event.  He wasn't on the program or on the board and he wasn't on the shot list, yet he was a really important person to the client.  Good thing the staffer pointed him out to me!

Run of Show

Most weddings and events follow a fairly predictable format, but it’s still critically important to get a detailed “run of show.”  As the photographer, you have to be in the right places at the right times and the run of show is the way you can anticipate where and when the action will be.  You don’t want to be across a ballroom when something important is happening at the other end!

If you haven’t seen one, a run of show is a very detailed outline and timeline of everything that will happen during the event, what the setup is, who is where and doing what.  Kind of like a script for the event.  I’ve been to some events where the run of show even included all the scripted remarks of the speakers.  Most big events have a run of show document.  The sound and lighting people, music providers, even caterers rely on it.

I've been to events where a Member of Congress received an award.  They're very tightly scheduled people.  The typical run of show might have the Member there for five minutes or less.  You have to know when they'll arrive, where they'll go and what they'll do so you can be ready to grab the quick shot with the Member and the CEO, the award presentation and the Member's remarks. Blink and you've missed it.

For a small event, your client may not have taken the time to create a run of show.  They should at least have a detailed outline or agenda for the evening.  Spending a few minutes with the client and their agenda will allow you to fill in the missing pieces of information you need to know to do your job effectively.

A Member of Congress will only be at an event a short period of time. The run of show helps you be ready for a quick appearance by a VIP.
A Member of Congress will only be at an event a short period of time. The run of show helps you be ready for a quick appearance by a VIP.

Rehearse or run through

Big events have rehearsals. Having each person know their role is immensely valuable.  Smaller events often don’t do rehearsals, and that can create all sorts of problems.

I can’t tell you how often I’ve seen people get mixed up coming onto a stage.  I saw one awards event recently where I really felt sorry for the photographer.  Each award recipient came onto the stage from a different direction, stopped in a different place and faced a different direction to receive the award and get the handshake, the “grip and grin” shot.  The poor photographer was running back and forth in front of the stage.  One of the awardees got her award directly behind and blocked by the podium.  Another went to the podium first and spoke, then turned his back to the audience (and photographer) to receive the award.  A simple run through before the event could have prevented that chaos.  Which way do they come onto the stage?  Where do they get the award and handshake? Which way do they leave the stage?  Who holds the award when the winner speaks?  All this should be clear to everyone before the event begins.  Many event planners use electrician’s or painter’s tape to put an X on the floor where people should stop and stand for the grip and grin photo.  It’ll make life so much easier for you.

Are there multiple award winners?  Will there be a group shot?  This should be spelled out in the run of show.  However, it’s worth a quick run through with the awardees.  Otherwise, you get a bunch of uncertain people milling around on stage or, worse, a missed opportunity.  Whether it’s done on stage, in a green room or off to the side somewhere, you have to make sure they know where, when and how you want to photograph them, and that’s far easier to do in a rehearsal than trying to round them up during the event.


In a previous life, I did a fair amount of public speaking and panel moderation.  I call on that experience when talking to clients and convincing them to take these preparation details seriously.  When I was speaker or moderator, I wanted to know how I was being introduced, how I entered the stage and on what cue, what the set up was at the podium (don’t want to bring a PowerPoint deck on a Mac and not have the right dongle to connect to their projector), what the room set up was, who the audience was, and so on.  As hosts, they surely want their guests to have the best possible experience, and their speakers as well as their invited VIPs to be well taken care of.  Thinking through all the little bits and pieces makes the event go so much smoother for the participants . . . and the photographer.  And all this attention to details gives you the insight and information you need to deliver a set of photos that dramatically exceed your client’s expectations!

2 thoughts on “Top Five Things Event Photographers Must Teach Their Clients”

  1. Excellent advice throughout. I’d also suggest that photographers be sure to cover breakout events at conferences. Oftentimes that’s where the real golden opportunities to photograph participants and attendees occur.

  2. Enjoyed the article, thanks for the information. We have someone from the office plan events but they are from accounting. And me, I’m part of the IT dept. This will help me help them. TY

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