Event photography for the modern museum: How to capture moments that matter

Ty Pierce, Ohio History Connection, USA


As museums refocus themselves as community centers and free-choice learning venues, quality photography becomes a must-have asset for promoting your institution. When the Ohio Historical Society rebranded itself as the Ohio History Connection in 2014, its library of candid, current-event photography became as important as its vast collection of historic images. Department Manager of Multimedia Services Ty Pierce's work behind the lens has helped create a new face for his organization. This paper accompanies his MW2015 how-to session on event photography. Whether you shoot on an iPhone or a DSLR camera, this session teaches how to get in the game and become a visual communicator. While the focus is on candid, event-style photography, its lessons are applicable to other types of photo and video opportunities that museums can leverage to showcase their offerings to the public. Highlights include: becoming a visual communicator for your organization; the components of a great photographer; shoot once, use many; exposure, look, and feel; know thy camera, know thyself; preparing for a visual event; shot happens; post-production ASAP; camera RAW saved my life; and how to enable your “visual evangelists” through social media. The session will end with an open discussion about projects, workflows, equipment, and other ways to promote museums using DIY visual communications.

Keywords: DSLR, Camera, Photography, Branding, Visual Communication, Social Media

1. Introduction

As museums refocus themselves as community centers and free-choice learning venues, quality photography becomes a must-have asset for promoting your institution. For many, contracting with professional photographers or having a dedicated photographer on staff are not realistic options, so the creation of visual assets falls either to untrained staff members or to the wayside altogether.

I joined the Ohio Historical Society in 2012 and immediately made event photography a production focus for my department. This quickly started paying dividends, and by the time the organization underwent a complete rebranding in May 2014—including a name change to the Ohio History Connection—we had amassed a library of high-quality images that helped create a new face for the organization.

While I have often taught video-production techniques in my career, I now find myself helping people from all walks of professional life learn how to capture moments in their own work. This article serves to capture some of the most helpful tips to succeed in shooting candid, photojournalism-style sessions at public events, using only natural light, and creating impactful visuals that will be useful across a variety of platforms.

2. Are you a lawyer?

I am not a lawyer, and I’m betting you aren’t, either. Before diving into the fun stuff, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the legal aspect of capturing and using people’s photos. I say “mention” because I’m hesitant to make any recommendation whatsoever given that it is, at its heart, a legal matter, and the law, like history, is open to interpretation. The classic approach is to have a signed media or model release form for every person that appears in a photo (note I said “classic,” not “surefire”). Live sporting events sometimes print legal jargon on the back of tickets, and other venues have “By Entering You Agree To…” signs placed by the entrance. For events, we often go the latter route, and I work to reduce any potential issues by talking with people who may be featured prominently in a photo. Regardless, you should have a frank discussion with members of your organization to decide what approach you’re comfortable with and establish policies to that effect.

3. Camera choice

Today’s smartphone cameras can take incredible shots, but they fall short for event photography for a multitude of reasons—shutter lag, a lack of optical zoom, and poor low-light performance, most notably. Smaller point-and-shoot cameras have similar issues. If a smartphone or point-and-shoot is all you have, don’t worry, just follow the tips below, get what shots you can, and start making the case for your organization to buck up $500 for an entry-level DSLR.

The modern DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) camera is an incredible imaging machine. Of all the features that DSLRs bring, imperceptible shutter lag and the ability to shoot in a Camera RAW format are two of the most important. Any delay between your finger and the snap of the shutter can turn a great shot into a “Meh” shot. Having a camera that takes a photo exactly when you want it to will improve your shot confidence and increase the number of keepers. (N.B. The author provides tips and guidelines on successful use of a DSLR in his other MW2015 paper, Do-it-yourself DSLR: Take your organization’s visual destiny into your own hands. – eds.)

Camera RAW is a file format that saves the raw image data off the camera’s sensor without compression. What that means is that you have unprecedented control over adjusting the image in post-production without degrading the image quality or introducing additional noise. For my work, Camera RAW and a fast lens enables me to shoot in a dark—sorry, in a curatorially conscious—museum without a flash and still maintain proper exposure.

4. Educate your eye

Thankfully, our visual-driven society keeps us inundated with great images, which provides any aspiring shutterbug ample opportunity to study. If you’re not already on Instagram, sign up now. It’s perfect for a photo mini-break now and then, and obviously following other museums to see what kind of images they use is great research. Cruise Flickr and find photographers whose work you like (you can even contact them and ask for tips). Save photos you like as bookmark links, in an Evernote notebook, anywhere, and begin thinking critically about what makes an image work for you. All of this is to get your eye and your brain talking about what makes a great shot.

5. Camera Zen

Rubber, meet road. Whatever camera you are using, it is imperative that you get out and shoot. Standing in line at the coffee shop? Pull out your phone and see what kind shots you can capture. Pack a lunch and go on walkabout once a week. Spend half the time shooting and the other half reviewing shots while you eat. Take your camera to a staff meeting and try to get a shot that makes people sitting at a table at 10 a.m. look interesting. As you start doing this, your eye will “open up” and you’ll start seeing great shots in the most mundane of settings. Also, start looking at your reels with a more critical eye—“Why didn’t this shot work? Why doesn’t this look as good as it did in person?”—and make adjustments to get the shot on the screen to match the shot in your mind.

In addition to honing your eye, all this practice serves to bring your hands into the conversation. The number of variables involved in capturing an image is staggering—aperture, shutter speed, angle, lighting, focus, composition, avoiding that one kid who keeps trying to photobomb your shot—and getting it wrong in practice moves you closer to getting it right when it matters. If you’re shooting on a DSLR, push yourself to take off the training wheels and shoot with manual settings. Shooting manually for any of the three exposure controls—aperture, shutter speed, and ISO – will quickly educate you on how each one impacts the resulting image in more ways than just exposure. Manual focusing will force you to think more critically about aperture and depth of field and also sharpen your reactions when shooting moving subjects. Focus is also the one thing you can’t “fix in post,” so I usually recommend taking the control of focus back from the camera early on in your development as a photographer. It takes a long time before you become one with the camera, but at some point you’ll stop thinking about focus-this and f-stop-that and realize you’re just shooting. As I like to say, “Shot happens,” and if you haven’t put in the time to get your eye, brain, and hands in sync, you’re going to miss that perfect shot when it materializes in front of you.

6. Before the shoot

Planning for a successful shoot is a huge component of success. Look over the agenda for the event and make note of where and when good shots are likely to happen. Think about specific uses or outlets for each shot, as well, and follow a mantra of “Shoot once, use many.” If the event is at your museum or on familiar turf, plan out specific shots you want to capture (“I have to get a shot of a fourth grader engaging in experiential learning with Conway the Mastodon in the background!”). For larger events, also take note of what shots you might get between point A and point B. Ultimately, you want to create a series of waypoints that will guide your camera through the day.

One helpful tip is that if the event is a conference that starts at 10:00 a.m., your best time to shoot is at 9:30 when everyone’s milling about for registration and running into colleagues they haven’t seen since the last conference. Smiles abound, and it’s candid photography gold. Contrarily, lunches aren’t great, because it’s really tough to get a flattering shot of someone digging into a chicken Cobb salad. Also, if you’re planning to post to InstaFaceTwitterBook during the event, write drafts of those posts ahead of time and have them loaded into your phone (I live and swear by Simplenote) so you can cut, paste, post, and move on instead of trying to research relevant hashtags with your thumbs and missing good shots.

One final note on planning is that I’m sure many of you will end up wearing more than just the photographer hat for a given event—nature of the non-profit beast and all that. However, if you are serious about getting good shots for your institution, you have to make shooting a priority. The number and quality of your shots depends on the amount of energy you put into them, and if you relegate photography to the back seat, your final reel will reflect that.

7. In the moment

You’ve planned for your event, you’ve “shared” a couple of event-related duties with colleagues so you can focus on shooting, and you’re ready go. Now it’s all about getting into the moments that are happening all around you and keeping yourself there. Here are some strategies to put your camera in the moment:

  • Delegate to the smartphone. The first thing you should do is offload your waypoints into your phone. Set a series of alarms to tell you when to move onto the next set of shots. You want to focus on the moments that are happening now, and if you have one eye on the clock you might miss them.
  • Shoot with your ears. Listen for laughter, for an incoming group of kids, for a boisterous conversation, and follow that noise. Chances are if something sounds interesting, it will look interesting.
  • Be considerate and conversational. No matter what legal strategy you settle on, talk to the people you’re taking photos of. If I’m about to get close up with a group, I’ll politely introduce myself and ask if I’m okay to take their picture, especially if there are children in the group. In our social media-conscious world, many people are interested to know where they can find the photos; take the opportunity to connect them to your social media channels and turn them into brand evangelists. At the same time, there are people in this day and age who don’t want their picture taken and blasted out to the Internettings. You’re job is not to sell them on the benefits of tweeting their picture, but to thank them and move on; no picture is worth running afoul of one of your visitors.
  • Accuracy by volume. Memory cards are capacious and cheap, so don’t be afraid to shoot a lot. Take three or four shots instead of one, especially if things are lively or it’s a tough shooting situation, and try getting multiple angles of the same subject for variety.
  • Running shutter. Many DSLRs have a “burst” shutter setting that will take multiple exposures with one press of the shutter release. Use it to chain off three to five shots in a second as insurance.
  • When in doubt, shoot landscape. If a shot looks good in both portrait and landscape, try to get both. If you can only get one, though, go landscape, as it can be cropped more effectively for different uses.
  • Work, then play. You may want to try various in-camera effects (shooting a long exposure during an evening event, etc.) Even if you have practiced these techniques, make sure to get the shots you need first, then work on the shots you’d like to have.

8. Post-production

Post-production isn’t an afterthought; it’s integral to the art and deserves extensive practice. The ability to efficiently select, grade, output, and distribute your work with confidence will help connect your photos to external eyeballs more quickly. Also, the more familiar you are with the limitations of your process, the more informed you’ll be when you have to make in-camera compromises in tough shooting situations.

My preferred workflow is to use Adobe Bridge and Photoshop. I use Bridge to quickly review photos, tagging ones I like and others that need cropping or additional editing with key commands and color-coded markers. Selected images are opened in Photoshop’s Camera RAW window, where I adjust for exposure, contrast, and color. Any that are ready to go will be output as a batch of JPEGs, and the rest are opened into Photoshop, where they can be cropped and manipulated further. Typically, I don’t add a lot of heavy effects; my job is to generate the raw visual material for multiple initiatives and let designers downstream add the vignettes, filters, and other techniques that suit each publishing purpose. The final set of JPEGs are uploaded to Flickr in their own album named after the event, to a corresponding folder on our organization’s internal network, and also backed up to a RAID storage drive with the original RAW and XMP files.

File management is a critical component of post-production. You need to establish a system that provides access to everyone in your organization and provide training on how to find and use the photos. In our case, we currently have a very lo-fi set of folders with a naming convention of “Event Name–Date” that, surprisingly, has worked pretty well. All the file names and folder names correspond to the file names and albums on Flickr; often staff will browse on Flickr and then find the corresponding full-resolution image on the network. We also have a project to evaluate Digital Asset Management systems that’s been relegated to the backburner, but I’m keen to resurrect that in the coming months to add additional search functions and improve access to our growing repository.

9. Make it happen!

Photography has paid off in multiple ways for our organization. Our marketing division has images that are impactful and better represent the energy of our events. In combination with our rebranding efforts, we have managed to knock the dust off the public’s perception of our organization in a relatively short amount of time and enabled patrons to become brand evangelists. We add new Instagram followers with every post, and as of this writing our Flickr account is cruising towards half a million views. The staff response to our photography initiative has been overwhelmingly positive; in addition to providing a steady stream of fresh visuals for staff presentations and blog posts, this work has generated an excitement among staff as they see the historic sites, events, and programs they love portrayed in such a positive, refreshing light.

Personally, this work has proven to be exceptionally gratifying. To look through the viewfinder as all these disparate elements come together as a single shutter click and capture a moment as it happens—a teenager touching a relative’s name on a Vietnam War memorial, a boy in an Ohio flag t-shirt smiling through a bout of tug o’ war in Ohio Village—is incredible. On the opposite end, to walk out of a meeting in the museum and see a photo from six months ago gracing the cover of our annual report reinforces all the hard work that goes into showing a fresh face of the organization.

Cite as:
. "Event photography for the modern museum: How to capture moments that matter." MW2015: Museums and the Web 2015. Published February 1, 2015. Consulted .