It’s convention season again!
As the 2013 con season begins to ramp up, I thought I’d share a few tips for shooting at conventions (and other indoor events) that I’ve learned over the years. Natasha’s already done a great post on what photo gear to bring to a convention – which I highly recommend you read – but I figured I’d throw in my 2 bits as well.
These are just my personal tips – what I’d say if someone asked me “what should I bring to a con?” My tips are somewhat geared towards smaller cameras (I shoot micro-four-thirds myself), and of course these are just my own personal opinions – but with all that in mind, let’s get started!
Shoot Wide Open (It’s always darker than you think it is)
Indoor lighting is never as bright as you think it is, and it seems like it’s also never as bright as you need it to be. This is why I almost always shoot wide open when indoors at a convention – so that I get as much light as I can. Plus, a wide open aperture gives you that lovely out-of-focus background that helps isolate your subject from the often very busy & distracting background.
Limit Your Auto-ISO (if you can)
Most of the time, the “auto” ISO setting on your camera is kind of useless, since it has a tendency to pick some of the highest ISO values your camera supports… which are often the worst-looking ones – full of noise and fury, but detailing nothing.
However, many cameras nowadays have an “intelligent” auto-ISO setting, or a setting that lets you limit how high an ISO setting the camera will use. This way, you can keep the camera from going beyond the ISO setting at which you feel noise is no longer acceptable.
Plus, a lot of times this “intelligent auto” ISO setting will pick ISO values that aren’t even an option for you – like, say, ISO 240, or 370, or anything in between.
You’ll want a tripod, but you (probably) can’t have one
As I said above, it’s always darker than it seems, and because of that, you’ll probably find yourself wishing that you could set up a tripod. But even if you bring a tripod, you’re probably not going to be allowed to set it up. In a crowded venue, a tripod can be a major tripping hazard, which is why they are often not allowed.
On the other hand, if you have a mini or table-top tripod, you’ll probably be able to use that (depending on where you put it). One of those bendable clamping tripods would also be handy, since they can be attached to whatever might be handy (such as the back of a chair), as opposed to needing a flat surface.
Forget the big glass (unless you really need it)
In my experience, bringing a big telephoto lens to a convention is usually a waste of time – it will end up being “dead weight” that you have to lug around all day, and the chances to use it (and get usable shots with it) will be virtually nil.
While a big telephoto lens can be handy if you’re in a large room and can’t get close to what’s happening on stage, unless the room is extraordinarily well lit you’re almost guaranteed to need a tripod (or a monopod), and as I said before, that sort of thing is usually frowned upon or just banned outright in most convention spaces.
If it’s bright enough, f/8 and be there
Not every venue is quite so dark – some of them have very good lighting, or you might be outside, or you might have a camera with good low-light performance. In that case, you could take advantage of the old adage of “f/8 and be there.”
What this means is that if you set your camera’s aperture to f/8, you won’t have to worry about focus as much – at f/8, most things will be in focus anyway due to the deeper depth of field, so it doesn’t matter as much if your camera’s auto-focus didn’t lock on to the right thing. This way, you can just… point and shoot!
For extra speed, with your aperture at f/8, switch to manual focusing, and then set your focus to roughly how far you usually are from your subjects. This way, you don’t even have to wait for your camera to auto-focus – you can just snap away. Having the aperture at f/8 will ensure that even if your subject isn’t exactly at the distance you set the focus to, they’ll still be “close enough.”
(Note that you don’t have to use exactly f/8, depending on your particular camera & lens – just use whatever aperture gives you a decent amount of depth of field, without sacrificing shutter speed. This is just a rule of thumb, after all!)
Shoot tight, not wide
It’s tempting to want to try to capture “everything,” but often if you do this it’ll just end up looking really busy and won’t be very interesting. Instead, get in tight and focus on details rather than trying to fit absolutely everything into the frame.
Of course, don’t get too close and invade people’s personal space. When shooting people, use a little zoom to get in close, rather than physically getting up in people’s faces. Not only is this more polite, but it’s less intimidating to your subject.
And as always: don’t be Featherweight.
Don’t Be Afraid of “P” Mode
Some people frown on using any “automatic” modes – but really, if they help you get the shots you want, then why wouldn’t you use them?
“P” mode (for “Program auto” mode) is kind of like one step down from full auto mode. “P” mode will still automatically pick the shutter speed and aperture, but unlike full “auto” mode, it won’t trigger your pop-up flash (on most cameras, anyway). Combined with good auto-focus and intelligent ISO, this can be a lifesaver in a busy place with lots of things happening, since you won’t need to worry about constantly changing your settings.
As a bonus, some cameras will let you override what the camera picks while in “P” mode – meaning you could still fine-tune the aperture or shutter speed, if you wanted to.
Pack light (like for a vacation)
I would suggest just taking a fast standard prime lens (something between 35-50mm, preferably) and a medium telephoto (a 50-100mm would be fine). In most cases, I would also leave the external flash at home, unless you know you’ll need it for something specific. Ditto for filters or other accessories.
If you’re at all like me, you’ll probably find it hard to leave stuff behind – you’ll think, “but what if I need it?” Resist this temptation and don’t be afraid to leave stuff behind – remember that you’ll have to carry everything you bring with around with you all day. Also, sometimes having fewer options (gear-wise) can inspire you to be more creative!
Bring extra batteries & memory cards
- I would say bring at least one extra battery, so you can swap it out if (when!) your main one goes dead.
- Also, if you’re at a convention for more than one day, don’t forget to bring your battery charger!
- Memory cards are relatively cheap, small, and lightweight – there’s no reason not to bring a bunch of them.
- A pouch or carrying case for memory cards would be handy too – memory cards are small and can be easily misplaced!
- Have some sort of system for remembering which cards you’ve already used/filled – either mark them or put them away upside down or something – so that you don’t accidentally pop a full one into your camera and miss a great shot!
Don’t forget to enjoy yourself!
Or, as Cherry Jubilee would say… “have fun!”