I recently had the opportunity to photograph and document a 2014 National Philanthropy Day celebration at Prescott Resort. My wife, founding partner of GoalBusters Consulting and a long time fundraising professional, asked me to be the photographer for the event and I readily accepted. While my first love in photography is landscapes, I have been actively seeking opportunities to expand my horizons – and develop new skill sets – by doing portraiture, sports and event photography. Taking on this assignment would not only allow me to grow my event photography portfolio, it would be an opportunity to give back by volunteering my time and talent in support of people who make it their daily mission to improve the lives of others through the arts, charitable and other not-for-profit organizations.
My task list was fairly straightforward; make photographs of the following:
- Award plaques
- Speakers making remarks at the podium
- Each honoree with their presenter
- Group shots of the honorees and also of the honorees with their presenters
- People attending the event
As you can see in the above photo, the conference room where the event was held features a panoramic wall of windows. With most clear skies on the day of the event, a wonderful, soft midday light filled the room. Seeing the award plaques displayed on a table at the front of the conference room, I started the morning by capturing a series of photos of the awards. I made at least one photo of each plaque, individually, and also of the awards as a group. After some introductory remarks by my wife and her business partner, the attendees settled in for a catered lunch.
I took advantage of this break to make some photos of the attendees relaxing and chatting with each other. I also scouted the outside terrace patio for a location to use for the group photos. The patio outside the conference room overlooks the town of Prescott, Arizona to the west-northwest. Arranging the honorees with their backs to the terrace wall would position the sun behind and to their right. This would put their faces mostly in shadow so, I made a trip to my vehicle to retrieve the speedlight kit, light stands, umbrellas and modifiers.
The photo immediately above shows how the ambient outdoor light served as a beautifully soft light source when filtered through the window wall. I would have continued to shoot the event from this vantage point with my back to the windows, if not for two significant issues.
With most attendees seated directly in front of or to the left of the podium, speakers tended to look straight ahead or to their left to make eye contact with the audience. Rarely, would they look in my direction. As a result, there were few opportunities to see their eyes. The other and more significant issue was that honorees would approach the podium from the speaker’s left to receive their plaque. In hindsight, this is something I could have anticipated given that the awards were arranged on a table along the wall behind and to the left of the speaker.
When the first honoree approached the front of the room, she quite naturally stood to the left of the podium. This placed the podium between me, the honoree and her presenter, which made for an unflattering composition. I walked around the back of the room to the other side to get a better angle on the presentation. While standing with the podium to my left gave me an unobstructed view of the award presentations, it also meant that I was more or less facing the window wall. A proper exposure for the half of a person’s face illuminated by that gorgeous ambient light would leave the other half of the face darkened by shadow. A proper exposure for anything in shadow would leave the rest of the shot blown out.
Earlier after retrieving my speedlight kit from the car, I had made the above photograph of the attendees enjoying lunch in the conference room. Wanting both the view through the windows and the interior of the room to be properly exposed in a single shot, I had set up four speedlights to illuminate the room interior during the exposure. Two were Yongnuo YN-560 III’s, which have built-in radio receivers. The other two were Nikon SB-700’s, which were mounted on Vello FreeWave Fusion radio receivers. With a Yongnuo 603 NII radio transmitter attached to my Nikon D610 hot shoe and a Vello radio trigger mounted atop the 603 NII, I experimented with shutter speed and flash intensity until I was happy with the result.
Here, are the settings for the final exposure (Nikon D610, Tamron 24-70 f/2.8 VC):
- ISO 450
- Two speedlights at 1/2-power
- Two speedlights at 1/4-power
While making my trek to the other side of the room to a vantage point with an unobstructed view of the honorees, I powered up and the speedlights (they were still set up and in position) and switched on the radio triggers on the D610. After a couple test shots to adjust settings, I was back in business.
The above photograph is one of many I shots I made using speedlights on radio triggers to illuminate the subjects. I bounced the flashes off the ceiling to create and even wash throughout the conference room. With four speedlights at between 1/4- and 1/2-power, the recycle time was kept to a minimum. When photographing the presenter speaking at the podium, I used the following settings (Nikon 610, Tamron 70-200 f/2.8 VC):
- 200mm focal length
- ISO 200
- 1/200-second exposure
When the honoree came up to accept their award plaque, I made portraits using different settings (Nikon 610, Tamron 70-200 f/2.8 VC):
- Variable focal length (95mm to 140mm)
- ISO 640
- 1/200-second exposure
My only concern with this set up was that the speedlights, when firing, would be something of a distraction for the attendees. However, I can safely say very few people even noticed I was using flash to illuminate the room. There was one gentleman who asked me about my lighting after the awards ceremony. Rather than finding it a distraction, he wanted to know more about the radio triggers and receivers.
While processing the RAW exposures, I noticed that the depth of field at f/5.6 was not quite enough to guarantee crisp focus on the eyes of both people. While the images are acceptable (in my opinion), I would probably shoot at f/7.1 or f/8 in the future to ensure sharp focus on both sets of eyes.
After the ceremony, I went outside with the honorees and presenters to take the group photos. I made an exposure of the full group without using speedlights and, as expected, the faces were in shadow. After retrieving the Nikon SB-700’s, I recruited a couple of lighting assistants to hold the speedlights, one to the left and the other to the right of the group. I then made an exposure firing the SB-700’s at full power. This photo looked overexposed so, I reset the flash intensity to 1/2-power on each unit and retook the group photo. The resulting image is presented, above.
While the speedlights definitely help this photograph, I should have done a better job of arranging the group so nobody would be in shadow. Also, I had to do a fair bit of processing in Adobe Lightroom to recover highlights and reduce the overall exposure. Shooting in RAW compensates for a multitude of sins. I reduced the exposure by 1.10 stop without losing any detail in the final image.
So, what did I learn from this experience? First, it is critical to be equipped for any lighting situation. The speedlights gave me more shooting options. When the ambient, natural light was at my back, I could simply switch off the radio triggers. When shooting toward the window wall and into the light, I could switch on the triggers and use the speedlights to illuminate my subject. Second, using down time (I chose to forego lunch) to make the wide angle photo of the luncheon paid huge dividends. With the speedlights already set up, it only took me a minute to power them back on and adjust their intensity. As a result, I was able to very quickly adapt to a new shooting location and a different lighting environment. I only missed photographing one award presentation during the ceremony and was able to make that up as soon as the ceremony ended.
Finally, I should have taken the time to better arrange the group shot and do test exposures on the outdoor terrace. This would have taken only a few minutes, but would have resulted in better images and saved some worry on the drive home. Shooting in RAW allowed me to recover all the detail that was lost in the original, overexposed photographs. If I had taken the time to properly arrange the group photo and to adjust my exposure settings, those original RAW files would have been better exposed and nobody would have been in shadow.
I was also reminded of the joy of giving. As each presenter shared the story of their respective honoree, I was so impressed by the generosity and compassion of the human spirit. Each award recipient had generously given their time, talent or treasure in support of a non-profit organization or cause. Attending this event and hearing these stories, I was reminded that the simple act of giving often delivers the greatest personal rewards.
Now, get out there and shoot.
Bill Ferris | November 2014