The Importance of Event Lighting

Mayor Kevin Faulconer speaks at the podium for the 25th anniversary of the San Diego Convention Center.As a longtime professional event photographer, I am regularly hired to cover corporate events of varying scale, in most every type of venue – and under every type of event lighting. A large stage with multiple spotlights and huge projection screens on each side makes an impressive presentation, but just as often I find myself in a dimly lit hotel ballroom or a small meeting room with only recessed lighting. Sometimes the speaker will request that no flash photography be permitted, as it can be distracting – particularly if the speaker is looking at a teleprompter. But it’s only fair to advise my client on the effect of their lighting choices, particularly since it’s been ordered in advance and already set when I arrive. I’d like to introduce a couple of considerations for those organizing events.

keynote speaker - Event photography by William Morton Visuals Event photography by William Morton Visuals.

Let’s examine two scenarios, beginning with a stage presentation. With a larger stage presentation there are typically two ways to light the stage. One possibility (in some venues) is to use ceiling mounted lighting, sometimes permanently mounted. The advantage is that the venue may have fine-tuned their lights to wash the stage evenly. However, the risk is that the lighting may be at too acute of an angle to properly light the person on stage, particularly in rooms with very high ceilings. Lighting that is too high will give that midday sun look, with the speaker’s eyes being in shadow and looking like dark holes. See the example image at left. Adding flash can help mitigate that issue, but that will only work for closer shots from right in front of the stage. And not all speakers like having a flash go off repeatedly right in front of them.

CEO speaker. Event photography by William Morton Visuals.The alternative is to bring in additional spotlights on trees or trusses. This provides the ability to get the lights down lower so that it can illuminate the eyes of anyone on stage, particularly if on a tree. See the example image at right – the folks at Isagenix and CG Creative Studios do this exceptionally well. (See photo at right.) Trusses will do this if they aren’t too close to the stage, and they allow you to spread the light evenly. The drawback to this option is the placement of the lighting in relation to seating for guests. If the layout of the event permits it, I highly recommend this option.

Terry Watson speaks to the CAI conference at the San Diego Hilton Bayfront. Event photography by William Morton of Morton Visuals.One other consideration is backlighting. Speakers are often in dark suits or dresses and standing in front of black curtains. Photographing them from the front makes them blend in to the background. Note the  photo at right. Although the profile shot makes the speaker stand out, you can see that he has no backlighting to separate him from the background. In the image of the speaker at the podium at the top of this article you can clearly see great lighting on his face and rimlighting behind. This helps separate him from the background in photos — in my opinion, a great improvement. (The crew at the San Diego Convention Center know how to do it!)

keynote speakerA good question to ask your A/V team is whether or not they will be able to make the stage lighting comparable to the projection screen(s) that may be on either side of the stage. Similar illumination levels will be easier on the audience’s eyes, and allow your photographer to catch images that show the speaker and the screen to which they’re referring. See the example at left. If they are able to use daylight-balanced lights, or gel the lights to be closer to the color of the projection screen, it will help. And I love it when the lighting engineer can tell me the color temperature of their lighting!

conference speakerconference speaker Event photography by William Morton VisualsThe second scenario is a meeting room or ballroom, usually lit with only downward facing recessed (or “can”) lights. This lighting creates hot spots directly under a light and comparatively dark areas in between lights. Anyone standing under a light will have the same dark shadows in their eyes and usually a bright (overexposed) forehead and nose. Definitely not a flattering look! Since this is typical for events with many breakout sessions in individual hotel meeting rooms it usually isn’t cost efficient to bring in lighting in all those rooms. But your photographer should be able to provide a well-placed flash to tightly illuminate the speaker without irritating all the guests. See the examples alongside this paragraph.

Stage lights often include a color wash on the background, which can overpower the subjectOne other thing to be wary of is the popular colored light wash on the stage background, particularly if you have a light colored stage background. These lights are too often too bright, and will cause blown-out highlights in your event photos. More often than not the frontal lighting on the stage isn’t bright enough to compete with these colors, so a photographer isn’t able to expose for both ends of the spectrum. Exposing for the backlit subject will blow out the background, and exposing to show the color in the background will yield a silhouetted subject. If you are planning on this please let your photographer know – he or she may want to bring in additional flash to help light a dark subject on stage.

Since I’m being hired to cover an event it’s safe to say that the images captured are important, and will likely be used to advertise (and attract potential attendees to) next year’s event. Should your hire Morton Visuals to handle your event photography I would be more than happy to help you coordinate your lighting with the A/V contractor at your venue. After all, it’s in my best interests to do everything I can to help us capture great images of your event. Please feel free to email us with any questions, or feel free to post any comments here. And of course the sharing of this article is greatly appreciated!

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Author: William Morton

NC native, now a Texan after 20+ years in SoCal.

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