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!

Testing PocketWizard™ Flex Radios

As part of my research for a writing position with the fine folks at LPA Design, Inc., I had an opportunity to test the new PocketWizard™ Flex radios for Nikon – the diminutive MiniTT1 and the FlexTT5 transceiver. Without a doubt, these units are game-changers!

For my first test I enlisted the aid of fitness model Stephen Harvey. (Great model – very focused and relentless energy!) I had an idea to test a shot with my Nikon Speedlights in bright sun, so we headed off to the San Diego Convention Center and set up a shot with Stephen running up the stairs and leaping over the camera. (See images below)  I mounted two SB-800 flashes on FlexTT5 transceivers, both set to full power and facing the model head-on as he leapt over the top step. I set the D3 to Aperture Priority mode at f/4, positioned the camera on the ground, and shot up in to the afternoon sun. Without Speedlights I would be expecting a near total silhouette. What I got was eye-opening — the PocketWizard™ units fired with my D3 all the way up to 1/6400 second!

PocketWizard setup
PocketWizard Setup

Fitness model Stephen Harvey leaps up the stairs
1/2500 sec

Next we set up for some running shots before the sun set. Our positioning for these shots didn’t require as high of a shutter speed even at f/2.8, but I’m accustomed to seeing a big black bar when I exceed the 1/250 sync speed of my D3. Here I was synching with the PocketWizard radios at 1/640 sec without the black banding!

PocketWizard FlexTT5 setup
PocketWizard Setup

1/640 sec

So that brings up a valid point about Speedlights. The Nikon CLS system is capable of doing high-speed sync up to 1/8000 with their infrared signals. Two problems arise though. The IR does not function well at all in bright sunlight, as the receiving sensor can’t detect the signal when it’s overwhelmed with sunlight. When it does work, the remote Speedlight must be pretty close to the transmitting Speedlight. Secondly, when CLS needs to sync at faster shutter speeds (where the shutter is never fully open, but rather an open “slit” passes over the camera’s sensor), the Speedlight must fire a series of “mini-pulses” to illuminate each area of the sensor as the shutter exposes it. This uses the lower power “tail” of the flash pulse — resulting in a greatly reduced effective range.

In my first series you see a shot taken at 1/2500 second. This was accomplished using the High Speed Sync feature of the PocketWizard™ radios. Yes, power was reduced and the Speedlights used the pulsed technique — but for the first time I was able to sync this action with my camera in bright sunlight by using the radio signal rather than the invisible IR signal!

In my second series you see a shot taken at 1/640 second. This took advantage of the Hypersync™ feature of the PocketWizard™ radios. With Hypersync™ the MiniTT1 signals the FlexTT5 to start firing the flash just before the shutter opens. The happy result is a full power flash even at a faster shutter speed. This is huge, as it negates the problem previously mentioned with having to rely on the low-power “tail” of the flash pulse.

I tested this by taking a (very unexciting) image of the wall above my desk. I noted that there was a little bit of light falloff or unevenness when I exceeded 1/250 second, but surprisingly my full power flashes showed no black band until a whopping 1/1000 second with the D3. (Other camera models will perform slightly differently.) There was a faint edge of shadowing at 1/800 second, but that would likely not impact a typical image.

Can you think of photographic opportunities to shoot with flash in bright sunlight at f/2.8? I can! And I will be doing more of it soon, now that I don’t have the burdensome 1/250 X-sync limitation. Stay tuned!

ASMP San Diego Pro Workshop Series

ASMP San Diego presented a Pro Workshop Series on Saturday August 22. The workshop consisted of three 2-hour segments concentrating on product photography, fashion lighting, and sports/action photography. Lon Atkinson hosted the event and demonstrated how he builds the lighting for a western gun and holster and then fine-tunes the image captured on the medium-format Sinar camera. Studio J owner William Morton demonstrated fashion lighting for different types of fabrics and wardrobe. William provided an exemplary demonstration of Murphy’s Laws in all their glory, as first one lighting power pack smoked and then a backup pack failed halfway through the segment. Added on top of two models canceling the day prior, two laptops not talking to either the projectors or the camera, and software failing to initialize, William certainly had his hands full as he worked around the multitude of problems to get working solutions.  Fortunately photo assistant Jesse Dhein helped tremendously. Eventually last-minute-volunteer models Heidi Lee and Stephanie June posed while William illustrated the key features of the dresses provided by stylist Susan Linnet Cox, who also demonstrated how she makes the wardrobe “fit” the model.  Makeup Artist Mary Erickson transformed the models’ to make them “camera ready.” The attendees commented that they appreciated seeing a shoot that didn’t go flawlessly, as the real-world scenario illustrated the importance of not only having a Plan B, but a Plan C, Plan D, and Plan E as a minimum. Perseverance pays off! Sports photographer Stan Liu finished off the workshop with a frank discussion of the sports photography industry, his stellar imagery, and a demonstration outside with a well-armed high-jumping model. All-in-all, it was an info-packed day for the attendees. A few candid images from William’s segment are included below, compliments of Wayne Richard, as well as a couple of William’s shots.

Model Heidi Lee
Model Heidi Lee

Reviewing the features to be highlighted
Reviewing the features to be highlighted

Adding lights to fine-tune
Adding lights to fine-tune