Are you thinking about becoming an event photographer? This article will begin by giving you some insight into what the job entails and the beginning steps for getting started. By its end, you should have a fundamental roadmap for getting started.
Editor’s note: Mik Milman is a professional event photographer based in Los Angeles. This article was also published on Milman’s website.
What is Event Photography?
Event photography can be a wide category of professional photography. We often think of wedding and mitzvah photographers as their own genre of photography, so typically when referring to event photography we are talking about everything else such as birthday parties, corporate events, conferences, red carpets, award ceremonies, marketing events, etc.
Who is it For?
Event photography is well suited for a variety of personality types. Often a photographer’s personality type is reflected in their work. Both the fly on the wall as well as the gregarious type can excel at event photography. But truthfully it is someone that can combine both being an unobtrusive fly on the wall and willing to work a crowd that excels.
Getting started can be tough. It is your classic situation in which you need a portfolio to get work, but you need work to build a portfolio. So how do you get started?
You don’t need to work for free to get started. Rather I suggest you work for yourself. Become the unofficial event photographer in your own life. You do not need to be at a bonafide event to practice and start building an “event” photography portfolio.
There are many events you may already be going to that you can begin documenting for practice. For example: music festivals, art openings, concerts, and more are likely events you are already attending. I am an experienced event photographer. I have shot for companies like Nike and Adobe, but If you look at my portfolio, you can see recent events I photographed for my own enjoyment.
How I got started
When I first moved back to Los Angeles and decided to make my passion my profession, I was faced with the dilemma of not having the portfolio I needed to start doing professional work. Most of my time during and after college was spent making fine art photography. I was confident in my knowledge of photography but knew better than to be presumptuous and assume that it would 100% equip me for professional work.
At that time, the photography market was not as oversaturated as it is today and I knew wedding photography was an easy field to get into, so I decided to pursue it. I knew that the best way to learn was by doing and I wanted to learn the trade from someone with experience. But to even second shoot, I knew I needed a portfolio.
So what did I do? I shot a wedding for just about free. No joke, I think I charged about $180 just to cover my rentals — I didn’t even have all the gear I needed yet! But that one wedding I essentially shot for free landed me a second shooting job with the largest wedding studio in Los Angeles at the time. It was my big break in what was quite honestly a very difficult time for anyone: It was 2008 in the height of the great recession.
How did I make that happen?
I’ll be the first to admit I am not a very organized person. But I was serious about pursuing a career as a photographer. So what I did, was make an excel sheet of every wedding photographer in Los Angeles that I could find. In it, I included the name of the studio, the name of the contact person, their contact info, and any notes I had on them.
I then proceeded to email each of them and follow up with a phone call. Sadly, very few called me back and pretty much none of them were looking to even hire an assistant. However, a couple of them referred me to the studio that had the largest segment of the market at the time. So I gave them a call thinking that they would, of course, blow me off. Strikingly, the next day I got a call!
I set an interview, showed up in a suit, shared my limited wedding portfolio, and was hired on the spot! I remember them telling me something like, “well, we have like 100 people interested in a job with us, but you seem good to us.” Not only did they bring me on on the spot, but it was as a second shooter, not an assistant!
Are You Hungry? Should You Work for Free?
Just because you want something and it is beneficial to you, does not mean you should do it for free. But there are caveats.
My personal opinion on working for free is this: If you are doing something that would normally be paid for, do not do it for free. What do I mean by this? If an organization that can afford a photographer tries to convince you to do something free, never do it. If an organization has no budget for photography but you decide to volunteer your time, that’s ok.
Should You Work for Another Photographer for Free?
That depends. I have brought on interns before that I did not initially pay. I am very generous with my time with interns both on and off the job. When I first bring one on, I start off by taking them along to jobs in which neither myself nor the client would normally require an assistant. I don’t really need their help, they are there to learn. After shadowing me / assisting me for some time, when jobs did come that did had a budget for an assistant, they were always paid.
Although I can not say for certain that all photographers would be as generous with their time as I am, I can imagine many would be happy to have an assistant volunteering their time. Even if they do not train you, you can learn a lot by observing.
What You can Learn from Another Photographer
Second shooting for a seasoned photographer was an exciting experience for me. It was from working with him that I got to practice everything I knew about photography. So much of photography is learned by doing and I got to do so without the pressure of being the main photographer. Understanding concepts of photography is one thing, but putting it into practice is another.
Going into my first job as a second shooter, I knew my stuff when it came to photography. In fact, I was already teaching it. But shooting with a seasoned professional, I learned how to leverage that knowledge and put it into practice. He provided me with go to settings for different situations and taught me new techniques as well.
Having access to gear
One of my favorite parts about working with an experienced photographer was the access to his gear I had. When I first started out, I shot with a Canon 40D, which I bought with a grant I received to develop a digital photography program for a city of Los Angeles art center. But I had very few lenses AKA one kit lens. But I slowly built my gear up and because I had access to so many lenses, I knew what I wanted. I also learned what the most essential lenses were in an event/wedding photographer’s kit.
What else did I learn?
Although I learned what to do as a wedding/event photographer, I also learned what I personally did not want to do. Eventually, I found my own style and approach, but by working with experienced photographers I had a template to build off of and make my own.
Leverage Your Connections
Perhaps you know someone who is or knows a photographer or maybe you know an event planner. But if that is not the case my advice is to just let people know you are a photographer so that they will think of you when they need one. Do not ignore social media either. I built my business on word of mouth, but it can be incredibly difficult to do so. If you are not a fan of social media you should at least be asking clients to review you on review sites.
Buying Photography Gear
Camera bodies are depreciating assets. If you are still early in the learning phase, by the time you are able to fully utilize your camera, it will have lost significant value and there will be better options out there with more modern tech.
My advice would be to buy the last generation’s model of whatever camera you’re interested in, either new or used. Most depreciation in cameras occur right away and then have a very large reduction in price once a new version comes out. After that, they somewhat level off again.
Use the money you save to start building your lens collection. Remember lenses make images more so than cameras. Additionally, unlike cameras, lenses hardly depreciate in value.
Which lenses to buy
This is simple. The first lens you should buy is a 24-70mm lens. This lens will give you a somewhat wide to somewhat zoomed in field of view. The second lens you should buy is a 70-200mm, which is essential for a lot of different types of event photography, especially when you are required to photograph a speaker on stage for example.
Please note that when shooting with those lenses on a cropped frame camera body, those focal lengths will have the field of view of a 36-105mm and 105-300mm and may not be as suitable if you need a very wide field of view.
The next lens I recommend getting would be on the wide end. I personally use a 17-40mm f/4 lens when I need to get wider than 24mm. Better lenses are made with wider apertures, but I rarely need something so wider than 24mm. When I do, I am typically photographing larger groups or wide “establishing shots” which require narrower apertures to properly get everyone or most things in focus.
When making lens choices, remember that you’re building a photography business and therefore it is helpful to think of purchases as business expenses in which cost vs benefit should be weighed. Personally, I would estimate that my 17-40mm lens is on my camera less than 5% of the time. It is still a necessary lens for what I do, but not worth upgrading. I used to have a fisheye lens. Take a guess how often I used that and why I sold it.
You can save money by not buying memory cards with larger storage capacities. Two 32 gig cards for example typically cost far less than one 64 gig card. But be sure to buy quality memory cards with fast read/write speeds.
Do the research and make sure to buy the fastest memory cards recommended for your camera by its manufacturer. This will make a difference. Buying higher specced cards than what’s recommended may not make a difference. It would be like putting premium gas in a car not designed for it.
When I started as a photographer there was no viable alternative to a Canon-branded flash. It was essentially a two horse race then, with Nikon as Canon’s only competition. But since then, off-brand manufacturers have closed the gap in the quality of their flashes for a fraction of the cost.
Canon’s latest flagship flash the 600EX II-RT goes for $579 at full price. Meanwhile, the Yongnuo YN600 RT-II comes in at $121. It’s essentially a Canon clone (It’s even named similarly. Don’t ask me how that’s legal), and costs less than a fourth the price.
Personally, I own two Canon flashes, but would not have a problem with purchasing a third party flash as another backup at some point.
Setting Your Rates
There are lots of articles out there on how to set your rates, most of them focusing on itemizing your time and charging appropriately for it. But the brutal truth is that nobody cares about how you value your time. The simplest way to set your rates is to charge what you think you can get based off the market.
Figure out the range in photography rates in your area. Starting out, price your services on the lower, gradually raising them as you gain more work and build your portfolio. When you see a reduction in how much work you are getting, you will know you’ve gone too far.
Booking a Job
Congratulations on your first booking! The following will prepare you for what to expect prior to the day of a job and how to conduct yourself on the day of it.
Except for mitzvahs and weddings, it is very unlikely your client will want to meet in person. They will however likely want to go over details regarding the event prior to the day of shooting. These details may include:
- A discussion on the timeline of the event.
- Must have detail shots.
- VIPs to look for.
- Types of shots they would like to see.
- Point person(s) and their contact info.
On the day of your first shoot
I always recommend leaving early for an event. Personally, I figure out how long it will take to get to the job on Google Maps, and I double it. Worst case scenario I get to the area a full hour early and I enjoy a coffee.
It is important to act and dress appropriately. I usually can deduce how formal to dress without asking, but when in doubt, always ask. Still not sure? Then it’s better to overdress than under. Some photographers swear you must wear black. I believe so long as you are not standing out in a bad way, there is some leniency on this. Personally, I either wear black or grey.
Remember to always look pleasant. Smile and people will smile back making great photographs.
What Should Your Focus be When Photographing an Event?
Details matter at an event. Organizers put in a lot of work to produce an event of any size with many details to show for it. When photographing an event put on to showcase a product, the product should be your focus. That said, be sure to get shots of attendees interacting with the product. You should always discuss what your client is looking for, but this will most likely be it.
Although a photographer’s job is in part to capture details, their focus should typically be on capturing defining moments. These moments tell a story and evoke a feeling regardless of the type of event. Every photograph delivered should be about something. It can be about an emotion, someone’s reaction, or an interaction between people, but there should be meaning behind each image.
These highlights offer a window into what it was like to be there. Always shoot with intention and never raise your camera to your eye just to snap a shot. Event organizers and marketers do not need thousands of lousy images, they need photographs they can actually use. At private events, people want emotion-filled images that bring them back to a moment. Capturing the height of an expression can be a ringing reminder of exactly how they felt in that moment.
Below is a List of your Main Shot Types when Shooting an Event
You do not need many of these. A few wide shots are essential to give a sense of place. I will typically shoot these at 17mm with my 17-40mm lens. I try to get a shot from several different perspectives. Shots like these can be each corner of a banquet hall, a wide shot of a crowd from a stage, shots of several booths at a convention, etc.
There are many ways to shoot detail shots. I have shot these with a 24-70mm lens, 70-200mm lens, 50mm vintage lenses, 135mm lens and more. These shots will compliment your wider establishing shots to tell a story.
These are the shots that really capture the emotional high points of an event. They can be shot in a variety of ways, but usually with a telephoto lens and a shallow depth of field in order to focus the viewer’s reaction on the emotion of the shot.
Similar to close candids, candid interactions but provide context to the moment you are highlighting. In other words, you can see the person or persons the subject is interacting with.
Sometimes you will shoot posed portraits of an individual, but most of the time posed portraits are of groups of two or more. These are simple to do. Anytime you see a small group conversing, approach them with a smile and simply ask, “hey can I get a shot of you guys?” These should be shot at narrow enough apertures to capture everyone in focus.
f/2.8 or lower can work depending on distance, focal length, and how similarly distanced they are to you, but a rule of thumb I use is to shoot at f/4 or higher to capture groups of three or more. I usually do not feel the need to go any higher unless the group is somewhat staggered in distance from me.
How to Choose Which Images to Deliver
It is your job to cull your images. Do not put the burden of this on your client.
People that hire you to photograph a private event do not want to sort through a dozen images of the same thing. Every image should offer something distinct. If you do a burst shot of an expression, deliver only the best one in color but consider using a second one for a black and white conversion.
Sometimes you are hired solely to document an event and your images will end up in a corporate black hole never to be seen. But most often you are creating content for marketing purposes or the client’s website. When making photographs your goal should be on capturing images that can be used for that purpose. When editing down your images, make it easier for your client to find these images by editing out bad and mediocre work.
How I cull and select images
I want to be straightforward with you. I detest this process. What I enjoy most about photography is the shooting. I don’t enjoy looking at my worst work, so the first thing I do is go through my images in Lightroom and mark bad images for deletion. I do this by using the hotkey “x” on the keyboard.
I set Lightroom to filter out images marked this way so that I do not have to see them. Because I have no use for them, once I finish selecting every image I do not want, I set my filters so that only these images are visible, I select them all (with CTRL+A on PC or CMND+A on a Mac) and delete them. With practice, it will become much easier to select images you definitely do not want to deliver in one pass, but initially and for a while, you will likely have to make several passes to mark them all.
Partly this is because we are more attached to our images when they are fresh. Additionally, mediocre images might seem pretty good when next to a bad one, but once you remove all the really bad images, it will become more apparent to you that some are mediocre. I also recommend taking a break for a while after you’ve completed your editing process to make one more pass to see if you can edit your work down further.
Rating your photos
Lightroom gives you several ways to rate your photos other than rejecting them or selecting them. There are also color labels and star ratings available to you. Everyone has a different way of utilizing these rating methods. I will not get into them here, but I would like to share with you how I decide what gets delivered to my clients. At this point, I do not rate every image to determine this, but I think of my images in these terms:
5 Stars = Excellent image worthy of being in my portfolio
4 Stars = Very good image. Perfect for posting to social media or my own marketing. Worthy of being posted in my portfolio if it is important subject matter: a presidential candidate or celebrity for example.
3 Stars = a good image. These will likely be the bulk of what you deliver.
2 Stars = Not worth delivering to my client except for special circumstances. For example: the only shot of an important person at an event or an important family member at a private party. Of course, you should avoid letting this happen in the first place by knowing who to photograph.
Delivering Your Images
Delivery time should be discussed prior to booking. It is always better to under-promise and over-deliver. I personally tell my clients it will take about a week and work hard to complete my edits before then.
There are several photo hosting sites available to you. Personally, I use SmugMug because it both hosts the photos so that they can be downloaded by my clients, but they also beautifully display the images.
Maintaining Your Clients
Your relationship with your client should not stop after delivering your images. If you did a great job, they will want to use you again. However, it’s not a bad idea to periodically remind them that you exist. Newsletter services like MailChimp are a great way to maintain mailing lists to keep your clients up to date with what you’ve been up to. I recommend sending something out monthly or bi-monthly. You do not want to spam your clients.
At this point, you should have both a roadmap for getting into professional event photography as well as have a general idea of what you are getting into. Remember that professional photography is an increasingly competitive field which will take hard work, time, and perseverance to succeed at.
P.S. Are you interested in knowing what event planners may be looking for when hiring photographers? Check out my article I wrote on hiring an event photographer.
About the author: Mik Milman is an event photographer who specializes in documenting authentic moments and interactions. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. Milman has been working in Los Angeles for over 10 years. You can find more of his work on his website, Instagram, and YouTube. This article was also published here.