Process | Portland Design Lecture Series: Collective Inquiry
A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of photographing Billie Faircloth of KieranTimberlake while she gave a presentation during Portland Design Event's Lecture Series. This lecture was both inspiring and thought provoking, challenging the audience to continually explore and learn from their processes. I have been taking photos for the better part of the last decade. This experience has allowed me to not overthink too much about the process of my photography--especially with photojournalistic event photography; most of my professional photography experience has come from documenting events and presentations. Every once in a while I stumble upon an old photo I've taken and question what I was thinking when taking that photo. With that in mind, I figured I could and should start documenting my thought process and intentionality behind the photos that I take. Often times there is no rational thought behind a photo other than just experimenting and trying something out and that's okay. I think I just need to document that thought. I believe this could be beneficial to my photography craft when I look back on these thoughts and compare them to others. I'm hoping that I can keep this up as a regular series of blog posts going forward.
Let's start with the setup of the space. This lecture took place at Ziba's auditorium in downtown Portland. I Googled the venue to get a general idea of what it's like. It is a very uniquely designed space with steep auditorium seating that immediately catches the eye. From an architectural point of view I was very intrigued with the modern design and found it to be a successful extension of Ziba's high design caliber.
Prior to the event I was forewarned that it will get very dark during the presentation, a condition that I assumed would be the case. Since I have never been to this auditorium before, I decided to rent two lenses for this event to increase my flexibility: the Nikon 24-70 f2.8 and the Nikon 16-35mm f4 VR. I opted to forego the 70-200mm f2.8 primarily because I didn't anticipate using it too much and it wasn't worth the extra weight. If needed, I also had my 50mm f1.8 and 85mm f1.4 in my bag. I did not regret this decision, but there were a couple of occasions where I thought that it would have come in handy. Based on the seating layout, I would be primarily limited to photographing from the sides along the staircase. It would have been distracting for me to step in front of those seated in the front row to capture a few photos. This wasn't a huge deal. I still had plenty of freedom to move up and down the stairs to get from one side of the auditorium to the other and add to my step count for the day. I felt pretty confident with the gear I had going in and my preparations that I should be able to get some pretty decent photos. The only things left were variables outside of my control--the speakers and the actual lighting conditions.
I arrived a little bit early to the venue to walk the space while the event organizers were setting up. I like to do this because it helps me get comfortable with my surroundings and offers a sneak peek to what the (lack of) lighting was going to be like. The other advantage of arriving early is that it allows me to present myself as the photographer to the event organizers and volunteers and speakers and gives them a chance to be comfortable with me taking their photos during the lecture. Gray Magazine was setting up the venue with a free copy of their latest issue at the time. The videographers were testing out the live stream features. Volunteers of Portland Design Events were setting up promotional materials. And the Ziba staff were running through the presentations, going through soundcheck, and testing the lights. They weren't kidding when they said that it would be very dark. I would say the most challenging aspect was that there wasn't a dedicated spotlight that followed the speaker, which caused the amount of light on the speakers to vary depending on where they were on the stage.
THE MAIN IMAGE
When I set out to take photos, I always try to figure out what I want the three C's (content, context, and composition) to be--especially for photojournalistic photos where visually telling a story is crucial to its success. In other words, I ask myself the following questions:
Content - what is the focus or subject of the photo? Is it obvious enough?
Context - what else is going to be in the photo and does it help enhance the subject? Is it too distracting from the focus of the image?
Composition - how do I want to visually present the content and context?
In this photo, my main subject is Billie. And more specifically, Billie lecturing. The context I set out to include was the audience. Too often I see photos of lecturers or speakers where it's a zoomed in photo of the speaker without providing any context to help ground the image. The organizers had set up a lectern for the speakers so I tested out some potential compositions based on its location. Billie rarely stood anywhere near the lectern and instead moved around the stage quite a bit, engaging the audience. This forced me to have to think on the spot and find a new vantage point. I decided to settle for a couple rows up from the audience so I can place the audience in the foreground and bring the viewers into the photo as if they were part of the crowd that evening. By default I tend to compose with the rule-of-third as a safety net, especially when I need to think quickly on my feet and won't have an opportunity to redo a photo. There was a row of lights above that perfectly illuminated Billie when she stood from a specific spot that would allow her and the audience to line up along the rule-of-thirds. All I had to do was wait for her to return to that spot and do some kind of action that was generally appealing whether that be some gestures, a smile, and/or an expressive face. Luckily for me, I was able to catch her doing all of those at the same time.
In addition to the photo above, I also took photos of the audience, the other opening speakers, and photos from other vantage points. The photos were delivered to Portland Design Events where it gets distributed to the press upon request. It's always interesting to see which photos they end up choosing to showcase. I understand different people will have different tastes and may pick certain photos over others. However, it's a little validating when more often than not the photos that I thought were most successful end up being the ones that get picked.
For most of the evening I used the Nikon 24-70mm f2.8 lens on my Nikon D810 body. The main photo above was shot with a shutter speed of 1/250s at f2.8 and ISO 6400. One of the main things that I like about the D810 is its dynamic range and the ability to bring back information from the shadows and highlights. This allows me to underexpose the images a little bit to maintain an acceptable ISO and increase my shutter speed. Post-processing for this image was fairly minimal. I increased the exposure by almost 1-stop, lightened up the shadows a bit, corrected the white balance and lens distortion. I also applied some noise reduction to the images. Overall I'm pretty satisfied with the resulting photos from this event.
I don't think there would be much that I would change with this setup outside of upgrading to the Nikon D850, but I don't see that happening anytime soon unless someone is feeling very generous. I would also probably use the Nikon 24-70mm f2.8 VR if it were available to rent from the gear rental place. Now that I'm more familiar with the venue, I probably wouldn't rent the Nikon 16-35mm f4 VR again since it wasn't really needed. 24mm was plenty wide for my needs. I'm still on the fence with the Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 FL VR and would probably depend on who the speakers are.