5 Ways Event Photography Sharpens My Documentary Work

The focus of my professional photography has evolved over time and continues to transition even now. The majority of my work these days is documentary family photography, but Chad and I still photograph some portraits, weddings and events of all kinds. In fact, we just got home from the Chicago area where we photographed a conference that was back-to-back to another conference we photographed in Baltimore last weekend. Although we don't generally travel and shoot events like that year round, it did remind me of the aspects of event photography that I love and that inspire my documentary family work.

Whether it has been a youth retreat, baptism at church, leadership conference, fundraising event or wedding, I absolutely love capturing genuine candid moments. Posed photos can be pretty, but there is true beauty in the raw, spontaneous moments that unfold naturally. With a single image, a person can be transported to a particular moment in time in their mind. The role of "event photographer" provides the perfect environment to gain experience as a skilled documentarian. Here are the top five ways event photography sharpens my documentary family work.

  1. Shooting events helps me practice anticipating moments.
    Observing people and being ready to capture their behavior is what elevates photos from the realm of snapshots that anyone can make into polished images that others wish they could make. Little side moments are continuously happening at an event, so zeroing in on one or two people at a time within a crowd helps me anticipate photo-worthy actions. Patience is key here. For instance, with families, an image of a child smiling with a fresh ice cream cone can be cute, but waiting until that ice cream is melted and dripping all over her hand or nearly falling off the cone as she's licking it are scenarios that make much more interesting, story-telling images.
  2. Shooting events teaches me to set my camera's exposure quickly and confidently.
    Being in the right place at the right time is the first step, but if your camera isn't set appropriately, you can't capture the moment well. Events have lots of movement and usually plenty of inconsistent light, making it much more challenging to set your camera appropriately. The more you master your gear and your understanding of exposure, the easier it will be to make quick adjustments, no matter where you are or what/whom your subject is.
  3. Shooting events stretches me to be a part of the story and experience it through the eyes of those involved.
    The best documentaries include images of the big picture stories, the side moments, as well as the little details. I have found that photographic excellence lies in finding the perfect balance between being inconspicuous and also being right in the middle of the action. This is true at an event as well as inside the walls of a family's home.
  4. Shooting events encourages me to get to know my subjects.
    It's easy to stand at the edges of a room and be a "sniper" of images, but it can make your subjects feel slightly hunted. When I get to know the people I'm photographing and ask them questions about themselves and the event they are involved with, it gives me insight to their perspective. This simple knowledge increases the relevance, content and quality of my images in every scenario. (Plus it makes me feel less like a creepy stalker.) This works especially well with families, too! You may learn about their traditions, inside jokes, or meaningful heirlooms to include in photos just by starting conversation and asking the right questions.
  5. Shooting an event gives me practice with batch editing large amounts of photos.
    I use Adobe Lightroom for my image cataloging and post-processing. Depending on the event, I may be importing several thousand images, so organized storage and multiple back-ups along the way are imperative. This was a bit daunting for me at first, but once I found a system that worked for me, I was able to get this down to a science. (And also my amazing husband can cull through images faster than anyone I know, so that certainly helps, too!) Systems are key—for memory cards to make sure they are all stored and imported properly, for catalog folder structure to keep images organized, for file back-up to make sure images are not accidentally lost, and also for file naming so exported images can be referenced easily by yourself and others. Not only will you keep your own head on straight, but your post-processing will go much faster and your clients will be happier with your end results.

Experience can only be gained one way—through experience! When you put the time in, make the most of opportunities, intentionally hone your skills, and push for improvement, experience is gained and talent takes shape. If you want to be a successful documentary photographer, maximize your potential by seizing every photo opp you find yourself in.