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Tips for Taking Photos at Conventions – A Primer

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by David Pomeranz, Photographer-at-Law

These days, everyone has a camera with them all the time.  When we’re not talking, texting or surfing the net, that little gadget in our pocket can take some fine pictures.  And within the last few years, the proliferation of iPhones as a person’s primary camera has increased one hundred fold.  Then there’s the rest of us: Those who either carry a 35mm equivalent or a PAS (point and shoot).

No matter what type of camera you have, taking “good” photos requires a bit of forethought (or luck, which typically isn’t in plentiful supply).  And taking “good” photos at conventions such as Comic-Con, WonderCon and the like requires a little more preparation than many of us would consider.  Generally, we see something cool, we whip out the phone, hit the “camera” button, look at the screen until we’ve lined up what we want, and click away.  This method will invariably produce results you may not have intended.  You can end up with lighting flares, blurry images, washed out scenes, images that are too dark, and all manner of other problems.

So what is a “good” photograph?  Generally, if it represents what you saw when you were taking it, and it’s not too dark or light, not too blurry, and doesn’t cut off anyone’s head, it’s a good photo.  Getting good photos at conventions can be somewhat elusive, so I wrote down some tips, tricks and things to consider, so that each of your photos can yield gratifying results.

The first thing to consider is the very basics of photography.  This is where most people’s eyes glaze over and they start thinking of pulling the fire alarm to get me to stop talking.  That never works; I just keep talking outside while waiting for emergency crews.  But if you want to know how to take a picture you’ll be proud of, well, indulge me for a minute.  The most important element in photography is light.  There are entire treatises on lighting for photography but for our purposes, you need to consider the most obvious formula:  no light equals no picture.  Too much light equals sucky picture.  Apply a little Goldilocks logic and you can get your photos just right.

Convention shooting is typically indoors, so that’s what we’ll focus on (that’s a photography pun, thank you very much).  There may be tall ceilings with fluorescent, halide or otherwise unflattering and scattered light.  It’s bright in those halls.  But that type of lighting produces harsh shadows and bright backgrounds which will cause your camera to overcompensate for the lights and your subject will be dark.  So then your flash pops out.  And now you’ve got ol’ Red Eyes with bright pale skin and a dark background which is not at all what you saw when you actually took your photo.

On most cameras and camera apps, you will have at least some ability to control the shutter speed and the aperture.  These are relational; they work together.  To let in more light, open the aperture up.  To stop a picture from being blurry, increase your shutter speed.  But increasing your shutter speed limits the amount of light coming in, and you can only open an aperture so far.  And worse, many phone cameras and iPads won’t let you set the shutter speed and aperture.  And, even if you could, who has time for that when something interesting suddenly happens right in front of you?

It’s not important for our purposes to actually sit down and fine tune your settings for each individual photo while all the action passes you by.  You just need to be familiar with how and what to change so that you can apply this knowledge and your photo-taking experience to at least make on-the-fly adjustments.

Those of us who take a zillion dollars’ worth of camera equipment with us every time we leave the house to get milk can do these settings by instinct, but it’s only because we’ve been doing it for 40 years.  Experience counts.  Taking digital photos is free.  Practice a lot.

I’m not a fan of using flash unless necessary.  And you always see us camera geeks with off-shoe flashes.  That’s because flash right above or near the aperture will send a bright light into the back of the subject’s eyes and it will bounce back illuminating the blood vessels and, ta da, red eye.  Great if you’re an ophthalmologist.  If your flash is adjustable, aim it a bit upward to bounce off the ceiling, since natural light comes from above anyhow.  That typically doesn’t work in conventions due to high ceilings, but in some meeting rooms, it’s a good trick to know.  Otherwise, your solution if you must use flash may be to back up a bit (people tend to use their zoom lens to do the work they should be doing.  You can zoom in and out all you want, but if you use a flash 5 inches from someone’s face, it’s going to be over-exposed).  So back up and use the flash.  Also, try an unusual angle or not posing the subject (a spontaneous shot) so that you don’t necessarily have red eyes staring into the camera.  One last cool trick for on-camera flashes:  use a piece of acetate (gel) over the flash to color the flash itself.  You know what they say about looking at the world through rose colored glasses!  Using a very light rose or amber color can help reduce the washed out look of a flash.  You can get these inexpensive gels, often in kit form with other colors and Velcro and such, from Adorama, Amazon, and Ebay.

If the back lighting is too bright and your subject comes out dark — and you don’t want to use flash which would create an artificial and washed out look — try closing down your aperture one or two steps and lowering your shutter speed.  This lets less light into the camera, but keeps the shutter open longer. You will get better results with photos taken inside a convention hall by doing this.  The trade-off (yes, there’s always a trade-off) is that the slower your shutter speed, the easier it is to get blurry images.

In a convention setting, you really don’t want to be carrying around a tripod (it’s just too tempting to start whacking slow moving people with it when you’re trying to get somewhere).  So you need to remember that cameras are always subject to shaking, moving, jostling, and all manner of movement designed to blur your photos.  So if possible, remember the importance of holding your camera still while snapping the photo.  Brace your arm against something, use two hands to hold it, whatever.  Keep it still.  You cannot possibly hold a camera too still (unless you’re following a subject and trying to keep them in focus and blur the background, but we’ll save that for another time).

My personal favorite part of photography is the art form we call composition.  Making your shot something of interest.  Framing your subject in the smack-middle of your viewfinder (careful not to cut off Darth’s head) won’t necessarily make for an unforgettable photo.  It’s just a picture of someone.  Give it a little pop.  There’s something in the photographer’s bible called the rule of thirds.  Place your subject in one-third of the camera’s frame instead of the center to create some interest.  Works well with landscapes.  Make the ocean the bottom third and the sky the top two thirds.  It just holds more interest than 50/50.  Not always, just keep it in mind.  Creating some drama or interest in your composition is always rewarding.

In a convention setting, the enemy of composition is…the conventioneers.  There’s always 60 people blocking your view, causing you to raise your camera above your head in hopes of simply getting a shot of Jenny McCarthy at all, not caring so much about the precious rule of thirds.  And even if you’re not blocked in by other others standing in your way, your subject may well just keep walking and moving and turning.  Composition flies out the window.  And for that matter, so does slowing down the shutter speed because your subject is now causing the blur, not your camera.  Arrgghh.

To combat these problems –and they will arise – you need practice, perseverance, patience, and patience.  Yes, you need so much patience that I listed it twice.

Now that you’ve mastered all of the above and know how to compose, light and expose your picture, you’ll want to make that good photograph into a great one.  No problem.  I’ve seen some amazing photos taken on an iPad!  I mean magazine quality stuff.  The cameras in phones and iPads and PAS units are terrific these days.  To get images that really stand out, you’ll need to do some homework on your type of shooting.  For our purposes, we want to know how to get the best photos at conventions with high ceilings, bright overhead lighting, crowds, and all manner of distractions.  One trick to getting the best photos is to stand next to a pro who has set up to do the same shot.  But you can’t always do that.  For portraits (not necessarily using flash), get a bit closer than you normally would, open the aperture all the way (f/2.8 is perfect if available) and then slow down your shutter speed until you have the right amount of light (your camera will tell you when you’re properly metered).  This will blur the background like the pros do (the term used to describe this art is a Japanese word: bokeh).  For further research on the subject, Google “depth of field.”

Another trick is to take photos from unusual angles.  This can minimize harsh shadows from the big ugly overhead lights, or even use them as focal points.  Don’t be afraid to take the picture from the side or lower or higher, etc.  Be aware of your background lighting and move around to avoid having it over-expose the photo so your subject is too dark.  Some cameras have a setting to use the flash as “fill lighting” (not too much flash but just enough to compensate for an over-exposed background) which will also greatly help.

Another trick to turn your photos into something really great:  Photoshop.  Not everyone can afford the Big Kahuna of all photo editors (keep in mind that Adobe Photoshop Elements 13 is as little as $60 instead of a thousand), but there are lots of apps for smart phones that can reduce red eye, crop, straighten, and otherwise manipulate your photo.  Most are free, just search the app store.  One trick to make your photos pop is to saturate your colors a bit using your app, reduce the brightness, and increase the contrast.  It’s kind of the hat trick of digital manipulation.  Just remember to work with a copy of your photo, and keep the original one stored in a nice safe read-only folder.

Take a look at our event photos in our galleries on Facebook!

Last, whenever you’re at a convention like Comic-Con, it’s usually cool to take photos of those in costume. Photos of cosplayers tend to be among the most popular. Taking photos of attendees at almost any comic convention is allowed by policy, but sometimes people say no.  Don’t sweat it.  Be polite and professional and move on.  Always know the photo policies of the venue and the event promoter.  They’re always posted somewhere, so check the venue and event websites and the event guide.  Follow the rules, even if they make no sense to you. If you’re invited to a press room or exclusive party, make sure you know and follow all the expected rules, or you may ruin things for everyone. Don’t be that photographer.

And don’t forget to remove your Spider-Man hood prior to snapping those world-class pix!

 

Keep your camera webbed to ComicsOnline.com on Facebook, Twitter, Blip, Instagram, and iTunes for more event coverage and everything geek pop culture!

About David Pomeranz

Photographer for ComicsOnline. Little known Dave factoid: took a college course in crime scene photography! Check out Dave's band at www.arenarockmusic.com.

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