Event Photography: Lighting

I always think the opening moments of a party are the hardest, before everyone has had enough to drink. – Stephanie Clifford.

If you ask a photographer what field he or she views as the most competitive area of the field, fashion invariably almost always comes primarily to voice. This is followed by headshot photography, which is followed by product photography, trailed by pet photography, ensued by the subcategory of pet photography that is domesticated-turtle-photography, and lagged behind by ‘guy in a yellow sweater photography.’ There are a million different forms of photography and yet few people often cite one of the largest and most overlooked forms of it; event photography.

Wikipedia’s definition of event photography can be found here.

Event photography itself encompasses a myriad of different scenarios and settings, though the most widely accounted for are corporate, private (social), music, and wedding. Yes, wedding falls under the umbrella that is private, but it’s such a behemoth unto itself of the industry that it really lives within the walls of it’s own (large) house. Music photography could probably be outside of event photography as well, given it’s sheer size and span of genres, but that’s again a discussion best suited elsewhere.

The reason why we’re discussing event photography today is for the simple fact that it’s one of the least costly areas of photography to get into (a fashion photographer might need a $2500 Profoto B1X, for instance, whereas an event photographer might need a $200 SB-800 he/she bought off craigslist) and, as a result, one of the biggest bread and butter areas of the industry. Event Photography will help astounding numbers of photographers get by while they aspire to become the next Mario Testino, or the category itself, well paying as it is, will become something that sustains someone through the entirety of their lives.

Equipment: The Necessities


My SB-700

Most people will tell you that photography is all about light (and this is a thousand percent true). When people make this claim they’re generally referencing ratios of light. They’ll think of balances and the interplay between highlight and midtone and the shadow-tone lurking off to the side that wants to be included but is banished from the scene.

While this is absolutely a truism, one thing that a lot of people neglect to think of is a sufficiency of light. I scroll through page, after page, after page of event photography portfolios and one thing is consistent throughout all of them; they didn’t produce enough light to expose the image without noticeable grain, flat colors, and muddled palettes. Mik Milman (www.mikmilman.com), a Los Angeles event photographer with whose clients include Nike, Adobe, Adidas, and a plethora of other uber-brands, agrees that indoor 99% of the time never have enough light, and it’s your job as a photographer to either find or create it.

I’ve shot more events than I really can count, and over the course of my career, can only really recall one or two off the top of my head that had enough lighting. Indoor spaces at night especially are pretty dismal. – Mik Milman

My first event photography experience was a birthday party at some girl’s apartment in East Williamsburg. She was thirty-something and had an open bar and tons of cake and people dressed more nicely than I.

I didn’t know crap about anything, was fairly new to photography, and had read articles on what to do. I had an SB-700, a Nikon D610, a 50mm lens, and a blue tie. Because I didn’t have a lot of experience, the tie actually remained in my pocket most of the night, as I was too nervous to put it on properly (it wasn’t a clip-on, in the very least). Outside of the Nikon D3200 (I now own a D850 and a D610), a simple 50mm lens with a flash is still one of my most used combinations.

I hadn’t really idea what a fill card was for at the time (that handy little white strip that resides within the top of your flash). Because of this, I generally alternated between flipping it up and down throughout the evening and trying to figure out how the images looked different (I know they looked different, though I couldn’t figure out why).

After awhile, lighting became a less nebulous concept and I gained an understanding of what I was doing and what the difference actually was.

Think of your image sensor as a pan full of hot oil (bear with me). Within that pan reside each and every little photosite in that sensor’s area. When you throw a little bit of cold water on the oil (the cold water is light), the photosites get excited and the pan sizzles a little. When you throw enough water on the oil, you get a big sizzle, the photosites crackle, and you produce a loud, vibrant image.The problem with indoor event photography (and even some outdoor) is there’s rarely enough light to get a nice crackle going, and so this is where your flash comes in.

The problem most photographers have is they aren’t throwing enough water on the oil. They’re throwing just a little bit on; whether because they aren’t using their fill cards, aren’t boosting their TTL (I feel like my TTL is constantly underexposing), or because they’re using something like a Gary Fong light-sphere to power an entire scene in a night-club.

Look, every photographer of intermediate and even basic level knows there’s a key and, when possible, a fill (we’re discounting intentionally dramatic images that are acute-angle-key-only). This is true in almost any given scenario. In outdoor settings where the sun is the key, you’ll have guys standing around with seven foot high sheets of white flat back positioned just outside the model.

When you point your flash at the ceiling, you’re setting a key. Without raising your fill card, however, you’re neglecting to raise a fill. The sole light you have in the room (assuming it’s mostly too dark for ambient) is coming from that spot on the ceiling, or your key, that you’re bouncing your light off of. What this essentially means is that you have one light source on your subject and, given physics, it’s coming from within an incredibly small area. This is why you get harsh shadows under the person’s chin line and brows and why, in the long-run, your photos may be underexposed and not pop. If you’ve ever taken commercial headshots, you’ll note that the area underneath the chin, without a fill, is going to be unacceptably dark using a boomed out light positioned just over your subject. Event photography subscribes to the same concept.

Segue into modifiers

Flash modifiers. Everyone has them and everyone uses them for something. There are a million different mods that do essentially the same thing over, and over, and over. I place them in two categories:

Diffused source

Bounced off your flash and onto the subject (my go to)

As far as diffusion goes, most of the mods on the market in this area are generally pointless. Placing a nylon sock over your flash and walking around shooting is only really going to soften the blow to the persons eyes. As far as the quality of the light itself, it’s not really going to change anything other than your flash will have to work slightly harder to maintain the correct power output (depleting your batteries). Think about the space between your flash and said sock. What is it, two millimeters? Three? Light has neither the time or the area to disperse in the slightest. Go further and think about the size alteration. After all, the larger the source, the softer the light. How much area is that sock really adding to your flash. It’s increasing the size by 1%? 1.5 on a good day?

Stop using socks. They’re so unbelievably pointless. They probably do more harm than good, in that your power output is inefficient.

The flash unit itself may come with a built in diffusion panel as well but I’ve never found a tremendously practical application for this. Upon close inspection between two side by side photos, you may notice a shadow here or a highlight there that looks infinitesimally different, but nothing that’s going to be noticed and subsequently appreciated by the client.

This brings me to the industry’s more popular diffusion mod; the Gary Fong light sphere. The Gary Fong light sphere is a giant dome of plastic that rests atop your flash. It is a nice mod and it’s success in the industry isn’t entirely unwarranted, but does come with two catches.

For starters, it’s essentially a fill light. If you expect to walk into a night-club and spend the evening creating an eye-catching set of images, you’re going to need to kick off a lot of light the sphere isn’t going to deliver. It’s, for starters, inefficient. Outside of the fact that you’re losing a couple stops worth of light to the diffusion (if the sock is a sheet of diffusion the gary fong is an earthen mound of it) to begin with (meaning your flash is going to have to work harder to produce the amount of light it meters as necessary), 75% of the light it throws off itself is a complete and utter waste. Think about it. There are four sides to your flash. North/South/East/West. Your subject is pointed north. The flash lights that direction, but it also lights the three sides that no one that views that image is ever going to see. Going further, throw a CTO over the matter to match the 3200k ambience that nearly every building on the planet seemingly is lit with, and your flash is compensating three to four stops of light. That’s like driving to Florida with an anchor chained to your trunk.

In areas with reasonable lighting however, such as indoor daytime events or outdoor ones altogether that may be a little murky, the Gary Fong rather shines as, it does once again, produce really great fill. Just don’t use it as your key. And if you do use it as your key, make sure you have a camera body that can produce images that aren’t too noisy.