There isn’t really a magic formula to taking photos at conventions. It’s like all things in life – it takes a mixture of practice, patience and grit and more luck than people like to admit. What works for me won’t necessarily work for other people, but there are several questions that I get asked a lot that I thought I might try to answer here. This isn’t an exhaustive list, and things like actual photography theory and detailed editing would take too long to go into. But I can touch on some general things to help make it all seem a little less daunting. I’ll also pepper the blog with links to articles explaining terms that I think might need more explaining, and add some useful links at the end.
That was one of the biggest things when I started out – it all seemed too big and too complicated and I just read and read and practiced and I was lucky that I had people willing to give me advice.
I didn’t start out using the camera or lenses I have today. When I first started taking photos at conventions, I was using a Sony “bridge” camera. It’s called a bridge camera because it’s not quite a point and shoot, not quite a DSLR. It had a fixed zoom lens and could actually zoom quite far. It was a great camera to learn on, and I used it at a few conventions. But as I started wanting to improve myself, it wasn’t giving me enough detail in low light.
I then moved to a Canon 600D (which I’m not sure they even have anymore?) This was the camera I did quite a lot of learning on. It was close to what I’m shooting with now, just not as robust. Again, it was a great camera but it wasn’t giving me the scope I needed for the low light situations I was shooting in. At every step though, I made sure it was the fact that I felt I was outgrowing a camera rather than just upgrading because I thought it was what was expected, or thought the camera would somehow make me a better photographer. It was about what I thought me and the camera could do together.
That’s when I got my current camera body, a Canon EOS 5D MK III.
I have 3 lenses – a 50mm f/1.8, an 85mm f/1.8 and a 70-300mm f/4-5.6 L Series. The 70-300mm is the workhorse and the one I use most often at conventions. It is by no means what they call a “fast lens”, meaning that it doesn’t have a particularly wide aperture setting (http://digital-photography-school.com/what-is-a-fast-lens/) So it takes a bit of work to use it in low light settings like a panel room, but I’ve used it for three years now and I’ve made it work!
If I ever wanted to experiment with other types of lenses, I would hire them. Hiring is a great alternative to outlaying money for a new lens. A quick google search brought up this example in the US, and to give you some idea, a Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 would cost you over $2,000 US, and yet you can hire one from borrowlenses.com for 10 days for $112 US. Perfect for having before a con weekend to play around with.
Photography is an expensive hobby and despite how appealing it seems to want the best equipment, especially because you think it will make your photos better, it is unnecessary to outlay so much money on something that in all likelihood will sit in a bag in your room for the majority of the time. Unless you are seriously considering making a career or a serious hobby of photography, there are much more cost effective ways to shoot conventions and renting is a big one.
There is a lot of talk in the photography world about how mirrorless cameras are going to take the place of DSLR’s, but I have never used a mirrorless camera so can’t really comment on it. It is another route to go though, if you’re interested in looking at different equipment.
AT THE CON
My camera takes both SD Cards and Compact Flash cards, and I use CF cards 99% of the time now. When I first started out, I was extremely reluctant to go over any of my cards, especially if they had photos that I was proud of, or of cons that I wanted to remember. The hard truth is, like everything else about photography, Compact Flash cards especially are expensive. So I had to give up being precious about my cards and I had to reuse them at each con.
When you start out with a card, if you’re going over an old card or even if it’s just out of the packet, don’t forget to use your camera menu and format your card. This completely cleans your card and gives you a fresh slate to work on. You’re much less likely to end up with a corrupted card, which is a nightmare. Take a few cards with you, since it’s always better to have more than you need than less. I actually carry a small pencil case in my camera bag, and once I have used one card I will put it in there and I know it’s used and not to go over it the rest of the weekend. Professional!
SHOOT IN RAW. If you are at all interested in doing a lot of processing and making big editing changes to your photos after the con, shoot in RAW rather than JPEG. Raw files contain every single scrap of information; JPEG compresses a lot of that information. JPEG is fine if you are simply wanting to capture photos and share them online without too much fuss. It’s quick and you don’t need specialized software to open them and work on them. But if you’re wanting to perhaps fix up some photos – recover any exposure mistakes, make any big changes – you’ll need access to as much digital information as possible and that means using a RAW file. RAW files are subsequently much larger and take up more room on your cards. You also need dedicated software like Adobe Camera Raw or Lightroom to open the files and work on them. But if you are serious about working with your photos, your best bet is to always shoot in RAW.
Always remember to have your charger and charge your batteries at night. I have a camera grip on my camera, which is an extra attachment that means that I have two rechargeable batteries working rather than one. This lessens the chances that I will run out of juice during the day of a con. It’s not necessary, but it’s something that has helped me (http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/847530-REG/Canon_5261B001_BG_E11_Battery_Grip_for.html) It’s also useful because it means that when I’m shooting portrait and turn the camera vertically, I have a vertically positioned shutter button and control dials. Which, again, isn’t necessary but it helps ergonomically for photographing for long periods of time.
I do have a flash gun, but I never use flash at conventions. By their nature, the reach of a flash will only work if you are in the first couple of rows at best, and if you’re that close chances are you’ll have light spill from the stage lights and won’t need it. You’re better off trying to work with your camera settings organically, rather than introducing an artificial light source that in all likelihood won’t help much anyway. If you’re not using it outside the con, it’s an expense you don’t need at one.
This is a topic that could take another whole blog on its own. I can put some links to some basic exposure tutorials, but it’s impossible to give a strict guideline about how to expose because every con venue is different. There’s even often differences from one panel to the next in how they are lit, and so how you need to best adjust your settings is a matter of experimenting.
If you’re working with a DSLR, you will have Automatic, Program, Manual, Shutter Priority or Aperture Priority settings. The camera picks all the settings for you if you use automatic, the camera picks settings but allows you to make adjustments if you want if you use program, and manual it is all up to you. Shutter Priority means you will set how fast or slow you want the shutter speed and the camera will adjust the other settings to compensate, and the Aperture Priority is the same only you set how wide or narrow your aperture will be. People will often talk about going “full manual” as if it’s the pro thing to do, and while it will give you maximum control over your exposure choices, it is perfectly acceptable to use the other settings, especially in an environment as complex as a convention panel where you have absolutely no control over the light sources. I will often use Shutter Priority, because I want to keep my shutter speed up to avoid camera shake, which can happen if you have your shutter set at a slow speed which you can tend to do in a situation where there isn’t much light.
Probably the single biggest lesson I’ve learned is not to be afraid of grain.
Exposure is an equilateral triangle. All three settings – shutter speed, aperture and ISO work to expose an image correctly, but they are entirely dependent on each other. If you change one, you have to change the other two to compensate. In low light settings, one of the things that often have to be pushed to the limit is your ISO. The ISO determines the sensor’s sensitivity to light. The higher the ISO, the more grain or noise is introduced. Have you ever taken a photo at a con and it’s come out very grainy like an old photo? That’s digital noise and often comes from having a high ISO setting.
The thing about grain is that it can be cleaned up in editing. Poor exposure is a lot harder to fix. So if you need to pump up your ISO, do it. Just be aware that it can also affect how sharp your images can look, so go high but not overboard.
I use a combination of Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop when I’m editing. There are other options, but these are the ones I’ve always used. Unless you have the physical software from a few years ago, Adobe now works on a cloud based subscription, and you can purchase a Photographer’s Bundle that is Lightroom CC and Photoshop CC for $9.99 US a month.
I use Lightroom mainly to as a way to catalogue my photos, open the RAW files and to do very basic early touching up. I’ll open the RAW file and adjust white balance if needed, and sharpen and reduce noise in Lightroom, then export the photo into Photoshop to do the bulk of the work. Don’t be afraid of either Lightroom or Photoshop – they are daunting, but there are plenty of online tutorials to show you how to make your way around them. I’ve used Photoshop for over ten years, even before I started photography again I was using it for graphics work, and there is still a lot I don’t understand. But like most of photography, it’s about experimenting and finding what works. The beauty of it is if you do shoot in RAW, your files will not be destructed by anything you do – that original file will always still be there and recoverable for you to work from and start again. One of the joys of this is to go back on old photos and edit them with all the updated knowledge you have gained along the way.
The biggest tip I have for shooting at a convention is not really to do with photography technique at all. It’s to do with looking after yourself.
I am a big believer in how you are feeling affects your output. If I am having a bad day, or I’m not feeling very well, I really believe that my photos won’t be as good. A convention is a very unnatural environment. It’s frenetic and emotional and it’s very easy to get swept away in the adrenaline. But there are a few ways you can keep an even keel and it will help you avoid such a startling crash at the end of the weekend.
Drink water. All the time. Even if it’s a con like VegasCon where there is a steady supply of alcohol, drink water too. Water will help you concentrate, help you sleep and help you function.
Eat. Even if you can manage one sit down meal with friends at some point in the day, where you are actually sitting and focusing on eating it’s better than nothing. Whether it’s breakfast, lunch or dinner, just one proper meal. Throughout the day, try to snack on things like nuts or fruit.Trail mix is great. You will mostly be running on adrenaline and chances are you’ll be too nervous to eat much, but try to eat something.
Sleep. Even if it’s a couple of hours a night. You’ll want to stay up all night deconstructing every photo op with your friends, and that’s part of the fun of a con. But try to snatch a few hours just so that you are somewhat refreshed for the next day.
Shower and take any medications you need. Showering will make you feel more human, and take any medications you would take at home. If you’re on blood pressure meds, or anti-anxiety meds or anything like that, be responsible and take them during the con when you should. I am on anti-depressants, and I am of absolutely no use to anyone if I don’t take them. It’s my responsibility to make sure that I do.
If you have any questions or concerns or something has gone wrong, speak to someone. A volunteer, a staff member, a friend. Don’t think that any question is stupid, or trivial. Chances are, you are not the first person to ask it and you won’t be the last.
Thank the cast, thank the staff and thank the volunteers. They all need to hear it, especially the volunteers. It’s a hard job and they have to do and put up with a lot all weekend. (If you’re at a Creation convention, thank Chris, the photographer in the photo op room!)
Have fun! It’s one of the most fun things you will ever do but it’s so easy to get caught up in feeling anxious and overwhelmed that you miss out on the fact that it is fun. Especially if you’re wanting to photograph the con, you can get distracted by wanting to do such a good job that you forget to really listen and enjoy a panel. It’s okay to say you want to sit a panel out and just be there and experience it rather than photograph it. There’s no shame in that. A few years ago, I had a bad migraine on the Saturday night at SPN VegasCon, and the next day I couldn’t focus properly to photograph Misha Collins’ Sunday panel. He brought his son West out on stage and while I was extremely disappointed I didn’t get to photograph that, I knew that in all likelihood my photos wouldn’t have been very good anyway because I was so sick. So I just got to be there and enjoy the panel itself, and there are still lots of other photos of the panel out there.
This may all seem like strange advice for a blog about con photography, but taking care of yourself on a weekend like this is a big deal, and your photos, and your experience overall, will be much better for it!
Exposure Guide – http://www.exposureguide.com/exposure.htm
Cambridge In Color: Learn Photography Concepts – http://www.cambridgeincolour.com/learn-photography-concepts.htm
Digital Camera World Lightroom Tutorials – http://www.digitalcameraworld.com/tag/adobe-lightroom-tutorial/
Digital Camera World Photoshop Tutorials – http://www.digitalcameraworld.com/category/tutorials/photoshop-tutorials/
Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop CC Photographer’s Bundle – http://www.adobe.com/creativecloud/photography.html?promoid=KSDQE
Borrow lenses US – borrowlenses.com
Fstoppers – https://fstoppers.com/
How To Become A Rockstar Photographer – http://howtobecomearockstarphotographer.com/ – a great blog that is geared towards concert photography but the principles between that and con photography are often the same
Digital Photography School on twitter – @digitalps
Fstoppers on twitter – @fstoppers