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Shooting Events, a Diverse and Rewarding Business – by Gene X Hwang of Orange Photography

One of San Francisco Bay Area’s top event photographers, Gene X Hwang, has agreed to share his story and expertise on event photography. Gene is the graduate of Auburn University and the co-founder of Orange Photography collective. In the 15 years he’s been a professional photographer, his work has been published in numerous publication including the New York Times, Wired, Muscle and Fitness and most recently the San Francisco Chronicle. Gene has also been featured in Northern California Meetings & Events.

Shooting Events, a Diverse and Rewarding Business

Shooting events is often seen as a ‘lower’ form of photography since all of us have seen some pretty miserable event photography, but it can be both a lucrative business and quite fun as well. I first got into shooting events because I had a journalism background and enjoyed covering things of all sorts from sporting events to doing reviews for the entertainment section (restaurants and bars) as well as personality profiles, etc. With events you never knew exactly what you might have to cover much like a photojournalist so the diversity was a plus.

When I started out, I was shooting a lot at nightclubs just because I used to go out dancing a lot. We had started our studio out on digital when it was first emerging so I could do a lot more experimentation with digital than film; well, at least it wasn’t as expensive and you could keep trying new things off a single memory card  (I just found an old 16MB one that came with my first Canon D30, yes that is MB not GB!).

Of course shooting at nightclubs isn’t the most lucrative business when you are going to small mid-afternoon happy hours and underground parties so I moved more into corporate events. Our first corporate event was through a friend of ours who was an emerging event planner (and now one of the top in the city!) and was at Saks Fifth Avenue.  It was a holiday themed shopping party/photobooth along with candids. With the bubbly flowing and well-heeled guests mingling, it allowed us a fairly low-pressure intro into event photography and we pulled it off quite well.

When shooting events, there are certain things to be aware of as your clients can be all over the board. It’s always important as with any business to manage expectations and never to assume too much about what your client may want from their event photography. Sometimes clients may be thinking something like a step-and-repeat setup that you often see at fashion events and movie premieres (see image on left from Twilight, New Moon), or they could just want candid coverage. You should always ask your client what’s most important to them so that you know what they are looking for and don’t miss a thing.

It’s also smart to take a documentary or photojournalistic approach to the shoot – you want to be able to tell the story of the event which might mean getting some wide shots to establish the context, as well as some details and/or logos and branding that’s relevant to the event.

Another factor that’s often overlooked is making sure to know what the dress code is. A client might assume you know that the Black and White Ball is a fancy gala, but if you’ve never been you might be unprepared and underdressed – which could mean the difference in getting more work or not from that particular client. In general, of course, you should dress up as you can’t recover if you are wearing jeans to a black tie affair. (And um, yeah, you probably should never wear jeans unless you are shooting an event for say, Levi’s®).

My first time at a well known billionaire’s private party, I was told that the theme was silver, I had silver pants and was told that I should wear them. So I wore my shiny tight vinyl silver pants, and felt slightly awkward since there were people in full tuxes and all, but when I saw Larry Harvey there (he’s a co-founder of Burning Man) I felt safe and of course the compliments from guests helped as well, but that could have been a disaster.

Another thing about shooting events is that you get to do a wide variety of photography. Sometimes you may need to get food shots so it’s a lot like editorial where you have to stay sharp on various types and styles of photography. This of course lends itself to a lot of great changes to learn and try new techniques. Maybe you just got a new macro lens to use on food shots, but also a tilt-shift to get great wide perspective-correct room shots or building exteriors.

If you read the blog, then you probably have an idea of ways to leverage ‘small lights’ while on location but for some events you’ll also be using strobes and/or constant lighting sources. This diversity is what I like best about shooting events. The image above was from PRIDE in San Francisco and Levi’s® set up a free photo area and Margaret Cho stopped by. I’ve gotten a chance to meet many celebrities and such that I probably would have never met if I didn’t shoot events.

Sometimes you do need to watch yourself as you can’t be a fan but have to be a professional. I once met Tom Brokaw covering an event and I actually told him “I used to want to be you” which sounds terrible since it sounds like I didn’t any more, but I explained after the faux pas that I meant that as a little kid I once picked “Tom Brokaw” as my career choice, and of course here I was not in broadcasting but a photographer instead. That’s also why I retained a Midwestern accent even though I grew up in the South. I knew a television newscaster would have a better shot with a more neutral accent than a Southern drawl!

As I mentioned earlier, I think the diversity of work that you do and the experiences that go along with them are some of the most fun aspects of event photography. The image above was created for the San Francisco Symphony for their marketing use. I’ve probably got to hear the Symphony play a lot more times than I would have if I hadn’t been shooting events!