Conference photography case study

I had the privilege of being invited to cover the London Property Summit last week at the QE2 Conference centre in Westminster. For those who haven’t visited the venue it’s a purpose built venue capable of running two or three 700 – 1300 attended events at the same time with countless smaller rooms for break out meetings and smaller events. Also being in the heart of Westminster it’s very popular for it’s central location.

I was there to cover the London Property Summit for one of the the organizers London First. London First is an organization that both lobbies and coordinates for the promotion and progression of anything to do with London whether it be Crossrail or trading hours for retail, road management or airport hubs.

The event was proposed to start at 8am for registration and kick off after the usual networking over tea and breakfast at 9am in the main auditorium. As usual I like my client like to get a head start on the day so we meet at 7.30am to discuss final briefing notes and to give me time to not only familiarize myself with the layout for the day but also get round and do the pre event images.

I find at conferences, whoever I’m working for a good selection of the branding and overall lighting effects of the main stage are always welcome images. Whether they are used for anything more than reference in future is another thing but better to have them than not.

I checked out not only the main auditorium but also the 4 break out session rooms for both branding and lighting levels. As normal the breakout rooms had the minimum of branding with just pop-up displays next to the branded speaker podiums with projection facilities for display.

What was unusual was the lunch areas had not only a selection of stands by would be suppliers to the industry but also a room full of architectural models. These of course were very visual so would make a good backdrop for branding the days reportage shots.

My second job of the day was to get round and cover all the stands at the conference, first again reference shots without people and later the requirement would be to get at least one good reportage shot of each stand manned and in action, preferably with a good interest from delegates. Working for one of the organizers I knew these second sort of shots would be the promotional images used by the displaying companies to promote their attendance after the event.

While locating all the different rooms I also found a gallery that would give me access to high shots of the main auditorium. A good events photographer will always hunt for the largest ranges of different views of an event, especially one’s the client is unlikely to see.

The first hour whizzed by and by 8.30am I was back in the reception area recording attendees signing in and being given their conference packs. I was then asked to stay in that area to get the arrival of the Planning Minister Nick Boles and shots where possible of him being greeted by organizing directors.

This is the sort of work I love. You have no control over a situation that will unfold before your eyes and you have to second guess the best position to be in to get the shots you want. In this case knowing the Minister is coming in through the front door and will most likely walk straight towards the director to shake hands I always start level with the greeter to one side. Once the handshake is made then I leap into action trying to get ahead of the group as they move to any other area.


Minister Nick Boles
The handshake!


On this occasion the minister arrived early enough to be given a brief tour of the  architectural models which gives a perfect reportage image of guest speaker host and subject all in one shot. I was ahead of the game even before the conference had started!

The Minister was the first Keynote speaker after the organizers introduction. With any conference it’s always a must to have an important speaker first and last, this keeps attendees there all day hopefully!

With a custom built venue like the QE2 Conference centre the professionalism and knowledge of the organizers make my job a lot easier. The stage lighting is correctly balanced between speaker and back projections giving the photographer the scope to shoot by ambient lighting which not only helps capture the mood intended but also is less distracting for attendees than if we are having to add fill in flash to achieve an acceptable exposure.

Of course today’s digital cameras with their chips able to cover vast ranges of exposure makes the job even easier. But there is nothing like a venue that has enough space that one can move around the room and get different angles on a speaker.


London Property summit keynote speaker
Good balance of lighting in a quality venue along with correct positioning tells a story.


Where most attendees are listening to the keynote address any photographers in the room are hardly hearing a word! It’s not that we are deaf, just that our total concentration is involved with firstly getting a correct angle on the speaker that has either branding or the speakers name in the background and then waiting for the moment to fire when a hand is raised or moved to emphasis a point. I’ve missed whole speeches by Nelson Mandella, Prince Charles and Desmond Tutu while taking pictures!

The day progressed well through the first two discussion groups in the main auditorium, again with my priority to catch each speaker in an animated pose, hopefully from more than one angle. Then as the delegates  take a break from sitting on the backsides listening we photographers move from continuous movement round an auditorium to continuous movement around a trade show doing our best to capture action at the stands.

I always am quite amazed at companies that take stands at conferences, trade shows and exhibitions. They are spending quite a bit of money to attend, they have spent a lot of time and money on designing and producing a display they send someone to man their stand who has no attack. How many times have you walked past an exhibition stand manned by either a good looking young lady or even an experienced looking older gentleman wondering what they do to yourself and no one approaches you, says good morning or even acknowledges your existence! It seems to be one of the weakest points of UK trade, the traditional throwback that selling is a dirty word!

I could write a whole blog on manning trade stands, and perhaps I will in future. But needless to say getting all the stands pictured with staff being interactive with delegates was a hard job and required a second attempt in the lunch break.

The afternoon session is the most energetic for a photographer where we had 5 break out sessions for one 45 minute period followed by 4 sessions for a further 45 minutes. This can be where briefing notes for a photographer can become essential. With only 45 minutes to cover 5 meetings it is difficult to make sure you have shots of every aspect of the meetings especially if you have a panel of 4-5 speakers it sometimes makes it difficult to be there to make sure you have everyone speaking.


A break out session
The right way to cover a break out session with a 5th of the audience of the conference. 
Breakout session 2
The wrong way to cover the same session, illustrating the author of a picture can radically change the perception of reality.


On the this occasion I succeeded pretty well and got everyone in the first session in all 5 locations but as luck would have it on the second session I progressed round the rooms in an order that missed a primary part of one of the meetings, a video conference call from an absent speaker. This really was unlucky because I hadn’t been briefed that this call would only be a small part of the 45 minute slot rather than a contributor throughout.

Of course this might well not have been known to the event organizer either so I can’t blame a weak brief but for any event organizers reading this it’s worth noting if something is important to be caught in picture it needs prioritizing in your photographers brief. If you haven’t already read my event photographers brief you should scan my blog for that and watch out for the soon to be available “543 photographers brief” a much more detailed version that can be downloaded from my web site very soon.


Shadiq Khan MP
London Shadow Minister Shadiq Khan MP with host and visual distcription of the show subject.


The day ended in the usual format with all the delegates gathered together for the final keynote address, this time from Shadiq Khan MP Shadow minister for London, giving political balance to the day and closing comments from one of the organizers Baroness Jo Valentine.


Keynote speaker 2
Getting the branding as well as the subject, the second keynote speaker is always the photographers goal.


The end of day drinks reception gave me a final chance to get reportage networking shots of faces from the day and pick up the last of those wayward stands with people interacting.

Being a conference photographer is physically a hard days work full of concentration and continually moving and on your feet but it is  an exciting way of earning a living.


Brian Russell copyright 2013