Reading the room

Photographing a event where an audience of 150 people are observing you could easily be daunting. When those 150 people are almost all wedding photographers and the event is DocDay – a documentary wedding photography conference – it definitely is daunting. All the more so when the conference itself is taking place at a venue you’ve never stepped foot in before. And when your day starts with ridiculous traffic on your commute, meaning you arrive with 20 minutes to spare rather than an hour, then let’s just say the word ‘stressed’ doesn’t begin to cover how you are feeling when you do eventually arrive.

So it was that I arrived into The Sugar Club in the heart of Dublin city, at 9.10am on a Tuesday morning in February, with DocDay due to kick off at 9.30am sharp. Me, a couple of cameras, four lenses, three flashes, three gels, three lightstands, two triggers, and a tiny hint of a plan.

Bringing those three flashes was key to that plan.

I didn’t know much about The Sugar Club. I didn’t know how big it was, how full it would be, what the lighting situation would be. And as a general rule, the more unknowns there are in a space where you need to spend a day taking photographs, the stronger the argument for bringing your own light source (or, for a big space) sources. Bringing lights doesn’t commit you to using them, but it’s good to have the option., And it was the unknowns that had me bring three flashes with stands and gels.

Why gels?

Because to me nothing screams “the photographer has lit this” than using daylight-balanced flashes (as all flashes are) in an indoor windowless space where no one expects to find daylight. Ungelled flashes in that environment will always create a light that is a different “white” to any other light source. Gelling flashes gives you a chance, at least, of more subtly mixing your lights with the room lights, and makes it all much more of a seamless exercise.

Why stands?

Because of the unknowns. I could have brought clamps were I sure there’d be somewhere to put them, but I wasn’t. And I’ve yet to end up in a space where there’s nowhere to put a stand.

Why three?

Because I have a tried and tested system for lighting big spaces, and I trusted that it would not let me down. It’s how I light dance floors, and how (occasionally) I light speeches. So it’s, essentially, my go-to setup for a big space.

The setup

To set up off camera flashes to light a big space, you do need to understand the space – and in the few minutes I had before the conference kicked off, the first thing I did was to stand on the stage and assess the space – what you might call “reading the room”. Is there anywhere I can’t put a flash? Is there anything I can bounce off? Is there any source of reflections I need to be aware of? Is there any curve ball the space might throw me when I’m least expecting it.

Ambient light photo of the room.

My read of the room was as follows:

The Sugar Club has a theatre vibe, there is a lot of red, and the seating is tiered. It’s rectangular, with a lot of people, no space for any light stands on the sides, but space behind some banners on the stage, and in front of the sound box at the back of the room.

So now, I have a plan.

My three flashes would go at three of the four corners of the room, each pointing at the diagonally opposite corner, in accordance with my usual setup for dance floors (it never lets me down). The variable in this setup is which three corners to use, and that depends on both the read of the room, but also on what I will be photographing (or, rather, from where I will be photographing). In this case I knew I would be photographing the stage a lot, so I wanted two of the three flashes either side of the stage, and the third at the back of the room. And my assessment of the room suggested this was viable.

The slight quirk in the layout of this space was the tiered seating – the flashes on the stage, while elevated as high as my stands would allow, were still lower than the seating at the back of the room, while the flash at the back of the room was considerably higher than the stage. So as well as thinking about how they pointed left to right, I had to think about how they pointed up and down. The flashes on the stage are pointing up slightly, the flash at the back of the room pointing down slightly.

Put all this together and you’re aiming to achieve as even a spread of light as possible across the entire space, and it can be surprisingly effective.

What’s more, you can shoot from a surprising number of locations in the room and have the light work for you. I’m a sucker for some back light or rim light, so if I stand at the back of the room facing the stage, I’m shooting into two flashes, with one from camera left (in this case) over my shoulder as a fill. If I stand along the right hand side of the room and shoot across the audience for reactions, I again am shooting into two flashes, with one from camera right now as a fill. And I know it’s highly unlikely I’ll spend much time shooting from the stage, but if I do find myself doing that, I get an even spread of light from the flashes on the stage, and some of my favoured rim light from the single flash at the back of the room.

One other aspect to this setup – how it looks in photographs. And by that, I mean, specifically, what the flashes will look like because you’ll see them in some of the final images. I can’t hide them in wide shots, for instance. The placement (and the gels) mean they complement the stage lighting and add what someone later called a “looking like rockstars” effect to wide shots of the speakers. I’ll take that as a result.

The hero shot for each speaker was high on my shot list.

Flash and camera settings

The flashes were all set to 1/8th power, zoomed to 35mm, and the middle one was gelled blue with the other two gelled tungsten. I had one flash in each of three groups – A, B and C (in the order I placed them in position) so that if I needed to I could turn off one or two of the three. Here’s a shot where I did just that – Cafa, the speaker was adequately lit by the stage lights, but I wanted to light Annie and Kevin (the conference organisers) and their son Max (the special guest for the end of the day) so I turned off all but one of the flashes on the stage that was pointing their way to get this frame.

Two flashes off, one flash on to even up the light between stage and audience.

Why 1/8th? Because any brighter would be more distracting for attendees, and also slow down the rate at which I could fire the flashes due to longer recharge times.

The camera (when using flash) was set to 1/100s, ISO 1600, and typically f/5.6. I figured that setting out at the outset, when setting the flash power to 1/8th. I’d have preferred a lower ISO and could have got it with a wider aperture, but wanted some depth of field. So this was a reasonable middle ground.

Shooting the speakers

So here’s the thing. Despite all of the above, I actually always planned to shoot as much of the day as possible using the ambient light, with my flashes switched off. Why? Well, simply because flashes are distracting. I would take thousands of photos over the whole day. It would get very annoying for attendees to have to sit through thousands of pops of my three flashes.

What I was after was that “hero shot” for each speaker – a wide frame from the back of the room – and to be ready also for some key reaction shots if any justified turning them on.

Reaction shot from the side

I probably fired the flashes in total maybe 100 times over the whole day – so maybe once every 5 minutes or so. Enough to get me what I needed, but not so much as to be distracting (I hope).

Shooting the audience

There were a couple of times during the day where I did shoot from the stage – the most notable being right at the end of the event when I suggested getting a full group shot of everyone in attendance before they left their seats. And this shot shows the power of that flash setup to light a big space. It’s not perfectly lit, but it’s pretty good.

The group shot