Like many photographers, we used to be more “jack of all trades” when it came to shooting professionally. We’d shoot a wedding one day and a product shoot the next.
Many people we talk to always ask us, “Isn’t that a bit boring?”. Quite the contrary. We get to participate in all sorts of amazing events and see technology years before the public even hears about it. We get to meet heads of state, world-famous celebrities, industry leaders, and more.
What we didn’t realize when we first got started in corporate event photography was how much we would have to learn about logistics, planning, and organizing photo shoots that were totally foreign to us. Over the years, there were so many curveballs thrown at us by our clients (such as the time we were booked to shoot photos and video of an A-list celebrity in a trade-show booth with attendees and the celebrity showed up drunk and started hitting on all the women working in the booth…yes, this actually happened) that taught us a lot of important lessons on how to run our photography business.
So if you’re new to corporate photography or perhaps you’ve been shooting in this arena for a while, perhaps some of these lessons we’ve learned can be of help to you too.
Lesson #1: Ask Questions
First, always ask LOTS of questions about the event with your client, and be persistent when you don’t get answers!
Many times, events are put together by teams of people, many of whom have little experience in dealing with outside contractors. As such, they will spring on us the weirdest of requests at the last minute.
We once shot a cyber security conference that needed all our team members to pass federal background checks prior to the event. We’ve had clients spring on us at the last minute the need for special OSHA certifications for our team, unique insurance coverage requirements, etc. All of which could have been handled far in advance if we asked the right questions.
Now we actually send out a questionnaire to all our clients upon booking asking a wide variety of questions about special needs or requirements of us. We ask about what the environment is going to be like when we’re shooting (outside, inside, or both). We ask about dress code (one client asked us, three days before the shoot, to run out and get our staff fitted for tuxedos — we charged them extra for that).
Lesson #2: Prepare for Challenging Lighting
Other times we are hired by people who have no experience whatsoever regards to staging or how things affect photos and video. We once shot a three-day training event for about 100 attendees. The company made software for point-of-sale computers in the restaurant industry. Their stage consisted of a 20-foot-wide canvas banner hung from a truss and was lit with up-lights beneath it. None of the speakers on stage were lit either, so everyone was backlit with blue light on a reflective banner.
Our photographer was able to use a flash in this circumstance (something we prefer not to do for presentations unless absolutely necessary) but we were also filming this event from the back of the room. Everyone on stage in this case looked terrible and we pointed this out to the client. Nobody had ever thought to get any kind of theatrical lighting for the stage when they planned the event because they thought the banner and up lights would “look cute”. When they talked to the venue about this, the cost to bring in lights for the three days was close to $7,000, which was way outside the budget for the event. So, they got bad quality video as a result.
This wasn’t the first time we’ve run into this exact type of scenario either, where small corporate presentations never have enough lighting on stage. So, we decided to do something about it and invest in some heavy-duty lighting trees, some LED PAR lights, and a road case for all the above. Now, when a client tells us they never thought about how they were going to light the stage, we can offer our kit for this and only charge them 1/3 as much as the hotel or convention hall will. This results in not only a better-looking event for them but WAY better photos and video that we can deliver, which helps with repeat bookings and a much happier client. The original light kit we bought paid for itself in two bookings, and we have since upgraded our stage lighting twice.
Lesson #3: Beware Cigar Smoke
We once were hired to photograph the awards ceremony for a major cigar company. It was a black-tie event for their top salespeople and we were told it was a cocktail reception and banquet/awards dinner immediately after. It seemed straightforward and nothing we hadn’t shot dozens of times. There were three of us shooting the event. I had one photographer assigned to shoot all the guests entering at a step-and-repeat backdrop while two of us were inside taking pictures of the cocktail reception. Once that ended, all three of us would be shooting the awards ceremony. The event was held at an upscale hotel on the Las Vegas Strip.
What happened after we arrived was something I never could have predicted, but probably should have.
Being that this event was held in a ballroom at a classy hotel, I never would have guessed that cigar smoking would be allowed, and not a little puff here and there, everyone was smoking like a chimney. Once we geared up and went into the smaller ballroom, where the cocktail reception was being held, we noticed that they were pushing around huge cigar humidors filled with hundreds of cigars each… all free for their guests.
Men in tuxedos and women in evening gowns were all grabbing handfuls of cigars, and they smoked all of them throughout the night. It didn’t take long before the ballroom filled up with so much smoke that we couldn’t see from one side of it to another. The smoke inside was burning our eyes and causing us such respiratory issues that we all had to take breaks and step outside for fresh air every 10 minutes.
It is then announced that dinner is being served along with live music for everyone in a much larger ballroom and the awards would be starting soon. We went inside the much larger room and thought it would be much better now…it wasn’t. There was something really strange about watching a woman in an expensive evening gown smoke a cigar while cutting her filet mignon and lobster dinner. It didn’t take long for this room to look like the smoggy haze of a major metropolitan city. By the time everything was said and done, all of us were sick for days. Our camera lenses had soot all over them and we billed the client for thorough camera cleaning and servicing.
I wonder if the person who booked us intentionally never told us about the smoke, but at the same time, I should have thought to ask as well. Our lesson here is that we always ask our clients to describe what the events are going to be like, so we know how to properly prepare for them. In this case, perhaps gas masks or hazardous material suits probably would have been a good idea. I also would have turned this job down had I known that we would be exposed to so much second-hand smoke that night.
Lesson #4: Review Everything with Clients
When it comes to shooting corporate events, I can’t stress enough how important it is to review everything with your client over and over again prior to the shoot. When companies plan large corporate events, it might involve dozens or even hundreds of people from different departments and committees. In the weeks and months of planning the event, those team members may get together several times in different meetings to iron out schedules, staff assignments, the speaker roster, menu options for the meals, the custom drinks they are having at their private party, etc. So, when you get an outline of the event two months out, chances are things are going to change dramatically by the time the event rolls around and most likely you won’t get the updated list of all the changes.
A few years ago, we were booked to shoot a large, 3½-day e-commerce conference. It was the first event this company had hosted and so they wanted a lot of coverage of everything. In addition to wanting photos taken of all their keynote presentations on the main stage, they wanted every one of the nearly 100 breakout sessions photographed plus photos of the green room for their celebrity speakers, pictures of all the branded experiences they were providing from espresso stations to early morning yoga classes, and then some.
They wanted multiple photographers to shoot their corporate party, coverage of all the event setup, and to top it all off, video coverage of all of this to be made into a highlight video. It was a lot. On top of this, they had a small expo area and they told us they wanted photographs of every individual booth so they could use this to get more vendors at future events.
When we were booked for this, six months prior, we had this conversation:
“About how many vendors are you expecting in the Expo?” we asked. “About a dozen. maybe 15 or so” they told us. “We want to make sure every booth is photographed well so please be aware of this” they repeated. No problem. For one of the days, we assigned a dedicated photographer to shoot for a few hours of their expo area.
Fast-forward to the day before the conference started, we were walking the floor with their staff, going over any last-minute details when we walked inside the expo hall as it was still being built out. “There’s a lot more than twelve exhibitors here,” I said, with my jaw on the floor. “Oh yeah, we have about 175 now. I guess we forgot to tell you. And yeah, please make sure we get every booth photographed. That’s really important!” we are now told.
Now it went from having a photographer shoot booths for an hour or two to needing a dedicated photographer to shoot over ten times as many as we expected over several days. We had to spend hours redoing the schedule to accommodate this, bringing in more staff to help on last-minute notice. Of course, the client doesn’t care about any of this, yet it’s still up to you to make it happen and make them happy, so now we know that at large events like this, always have people on standby!
Lesson #5. Check-in with Clients Often
We once were shooting a large event at Caesars Palace here in Las Vegas, whose convention center is about 300,000 square feet in size spanning multiple floors. Two days before the event we got our finalized shot list of speakers and events that needed to be photographed throughout the day. We arrive early, gear up, and started shooting exactly according to plan.
We were told repeatedly that one of the most important things to get photos of that day was a noon press conference for a major product they were rolling out. We had it on our shot list, reminders on our phones, etc. We were all ready to go. 30 minutes prior to the press conference starting we walked to the designated ballroom on our shot list and when we entered, the room was completely empty. No tables, no chairs, no stage…nothing.
I walked outside the room, confirmed the room name against our shot list and it all matched up. I called our on-site contact for the company, and she wasn’t answering her phone. I’m sending her text messages and calling over and over to no response. We’re walking around the area looking to see if the press conference moved to an adjacent ballroom and everything around us was empty.
Five minutes before the press conference was about to start I get the call. “Where are you guys?! The press conference is about to start!!!!” says our client. “We’re standing outside the ballroom right now and nobody is here,” I said. She responds with, “Oh, I guess I forgot to tell you, we moved the press conference last night to another room on the other side of the convention center and two floors down. What’s your ETA?” So with cameras around our necks and Pelican cases of gear in tow, we ran across a giant convention center to a press conference….that started 30 minutes late anyway.
The lesson here is, no matter what the client gives you, review and check in with them every morning of an event, or even several times a day during long days to verify that everything is where it’s supposed to be and happening when it’s supposed to happen. Events moving or times changing is a very common occurrence on these types of shoots, so it is crucial to have at least one or two on-site contacts you can reach regularly in case things go sideways.
Lesson #6. Build Up Your Contact List
If you are planning to dive feet first into shooting large corporate events, be sure to have a huge contact list and be prepared to be resourceful if you plan on being successful in this business. We have a policy that no matter what’s asked of us, the answer is always “YES!” and we can figure out the details later.
One of our largest clients has us shoot several large events every year for them culminating in their annual conference where they fly over 5,000 employees to Las Vegas to attend. One of their smaller training events though had only a few hundred people and they asked us to provide photos and video of some of the keynote sessions for distribution to the rest of the company unable to attend. It wasn’t a very complex shoot at all, that is, until the second day.
“We want to do a group photo sometime tomorrow with everyone here. How can we go about that?” the client asked us. “This isn’t as simple as getting everyone together in a room and shooting them on a ladder,” we explained, but they persisted that they really wanted this to happen.
The event was being held at the Park MGM resort, directly adjacent to the Toshiba Plaza and T-Mobile Arena, where the Vegas Golden Knights NHL team plays. The courtyard between the two properties is very large and can easily accommodate this many people. There is also an adjacent parking garage where we thought we could position a photographer to get the group photo. So on a lunch break, we went to scope things out, and we discovered that at the only time of day we could take this photo, the sun would be moving across the courtyard and a shadow would be covering half of the group while the other half would be in direct sunlight, so this wouldn’t work.
Our only other option was to move the group somewhere else in the courtyard and get up high somewhere to take the photo and the hotel wasn’t very cooperative about this. So, I called my friend Joe, who was the General Manager of a large trucking and logistics company, how hard would it be to get a scissor lift delivered there in 24 hours? “No problem!” he said. He would even have someone available to drive it for us! 23 hours later, we had our scissor lift, the client’s staff got everyone to wear a conference shirt, wrangle everyone into the courtyard, and we got our photo.
The lesson here is to keep business cards for anyone who might ever be able to help you with anything, and keep their information organized and on your phone. You never know when you might need someone to bake you 1,000 cupcakes in a day or organize a company sack race as part of a team-building activity in less than a week or get you a scissor lift to the Toshiba Plaza for a group photo of hundreds of people.
Lesson #7. Use Legwork to Fix Problems
Sometimes you don’t have the luxury of being able to just call someone though. You must be able to use some legwork to fix a problem. We were once booked to shoot for a vendor in a library convention (yes, those do exist). The theme of that year’s expo was “Transforming Your Library” so one of the main sponsors of the event, a software company, booked us to take photos with attendees and a “Transformer” street performer to get people into their booth. So we would take a photo of the attendee with the Transformer, wirelessly transmit the photos to an online photo gallery, and then give a card to the attendees pointing them to where they can download their free photo after we scanned their badge. It was a really fun promotion and we knew everyone would enjoy it.
While in the planning stages, our client asked us, “So, where can we get a person to be our Transformer? Most of the talent agencies in Vegas weren’t being very cooperative”. “Oh, I’m sure we can take care of that for you,” we said, and we worked out a price that they agreed to. Now we just needed to find a Transformer! We had over a month to plan this, so we ran some casting calls on social media and we got a lot of responses (some better than others). One of the people who responded had a great-looking costume, was comfortable with the pay we were offering, and agreed to do the job.
A few days prior to the event I called our performer to confirm everything, and I got the bad news, “Oh yeah, about that, I sold my costume and moved to California. Sorry about that!” and he hung up. We are now less than a week away and had no Transformer. So what did we do? We hit the streets of Vegas to go find one!
If you haven’t been to Las Vegas in a while, the downtown area and Las Vegas Blvd. (“The Strip”) have dozens and dozens of street performers busking for tips. You’ll see musicians, contortionists, magicians, and all sorts of unique entertainers. You’ll also see a LOT of people in a wide variety of different costumes all out there looking to take a photo with you in exchange for a cash gratuity. Spending a few hours walking and talking to every “Transformer” I could find was a bit challenging for sure as many of the street performers didn’t speak English, but I did manage to find one who was available to work the corporate gig coming up. So in the end, it all worked out, but it was certainly a very stressful week hoping we could find someone and that they would show up.
Our Transformer showed up on time and he was awesome. Everyone at the convention loved him, and after we received praise from our client as to how well everything went, not knowing the craziness of what happened in the days leading up to the event. It wasn’t until later that we told them what happened, and we all had a good laugh. It was a stressful moment, but we made it all come together.
Every genre of photography has its level of craziness behind it, and we never thought that shooting corporate events would keep us on our toes as much as it does. If there is anything we’ve learned about all this though is that there is a lot more to being a corporate event photographer than just taking pictures of cocktail receptions. You need to learn to stay cool under pressure, network with people very well, stay very organized, be good at managing teams of creatives, and make your clients extra happy at the same time. One thing is for sure though: working in this environment does lead to some interesting stories!
About the author: Adam Sternberg has been a professional photographer and videographer in Las Vegas for over 25 years. He is the co-owner of CorporatePhotographers.com, one of the largest corporate photo and video companies in the city.