Why you should not hire a portrait photographer for your event

Posted by Corie Farnsley on August 24, 2017

For best results, hire a photojournalist instead.

[Event photo by Corie Farnsley, CorComm Creative] This touching moment came during an event attended by 2,000 people, most of whom were to the photographer's back at the time. For events, the photographer must look at both the official happenings of the event as well as the moments that are happening on the sidelines.

[Hover over images (touch and hold on mobile devices) for notes about the photos, including the photographer's technical and mental requirements that were involved in capturing them. Note the differences between portrait photography and event photography.]

What's the first word that comes to your mind when you think about photographers? More than likely, it probably has something to do with portraits — weddings, family photos for Christmas cards, school photos.

And because this is the common response, it's natural for someone to instinctively reach out to a portrait photographer when she needs someone to photograph an event.

But that's not the best plan.

Why? Because portrait photographers have focused their craft on posing people to look their best. They're used to having control over the photograph, including:
  • where they place people in relation to others in the shot
  • the time of day the photo is taken
  • the type of light that's available (adding artificial light in many cases)
  • the backdrop
  • how long the session will last.

[Portrait by Connie Phillips] Portrait photography offers the photographer an opportunity to choose a background, props, time of day and related lighting effects - items that are not controllable in most event situations, when a photojournalist would be a better fit.

They're really good at it! (This photo by Connie Phillips is beautiful!)

Choose a portrait photographer for:

  • Professional headshots
  • Family photos
  • High school senior photos
  • Environmental portraits

But many of the technical decisions that are required to compose and capture a great portrait are completely different than those needed to capture the emotion, energy and activity of an event.

[Event photo by Corie Farnsley, CorComm Creative] Event photographers are photojournalists who are looking for and anticipating "the moment" -- something visual that summarizes what's happening at the event. In this example, the event was a city march supporting immigrants whose families are being torn apart by deportation.

For events, seek a photojournalist instead.

It's a good idea to choose a photojournalist for:

  • Events with action -- like rallies, prayer vigils, marches and protests
  • Events of a corporate nature -- such as conferences, trade shows and speaking engagements
  • Behind-the-scenes action for your business or organization (great for social media use)
  • Artists in action (musicians performing live are especially fun — but sometimes technically tricky — to photograph)

[Event photograph by Corie Farnsley, CorComm Creative] Conferences are sometimes difficult to capture in an engaging way. Many times, the photos include just a single speaker and a backdrop. Photojournalists will be anticipating a reaction, an emotion or another kind of "excitement." They will be ready to capture the speakers in difficult lighting situations, such as very dark backgrounds and well-lit faces.Photojournalists focus their version of the art of photography on capturing the unpredictable. They're naturally looking for — and anticipating — "the moment," that time when everything aligns perfectly to create an engaging shot.

The hard part is, photojournalists (like me) don't usually know what's coming next, so we can't plan to capture a great shot. We have to be ready for it...

  • mentally (brain anticipates the coming moment)
  • physically (standing in, squatting near, sitting under or ready to run to the best position to capture the anticipated moment)
  • technically (camera settings set to accurately capture the subject, light and motion of the moment)

[Sporting event photo by Corie Farnsley, CorComm Creative] Sporting events, especially, require a keen sense for what's coming next as well as ideal positioning, camera settings that will capture the action clearly and a knowledge of the event. To capture this baseball photo, I had to know that the play was going to be at home, had to be positioned to capture the action (shooting through a fence, no less) and had to have my camera ready to stop motion and correctly expose for the action during cloudy weather.

What happens when you choose the wrong photographer?

I have a journalism degree with a concentration in photojournalism, and I'm pretty confident in my version of the craft. But I'll be the first person to tell you that you don't want me to take your family portrait. I'm just not good at it.

I stress over positioning each person, making sure chins are up so shadows don't make noses look too large, being aware of whether people's arms are are positioned in a way that makes them look wider than normal, if there are glares on glasses or the wind is blowing hair out of place. I get so flustered with those details that I forget to actually make sure the simple things are in order — that everyone's eyes are open, that the composition is ideal and that the feel of the final image is one that appears as natural as possible.

A portrait photographer can make sure these details are just right while having fun and casually interacting with the subjects. And she can do them quickly and effortlessly. Meanwhile, I'm stressing and praying that the photos won't be a complete disaster and that I haven't forgotten to make sure the babies in the shot don't have runny noses.

[Portrait by Connie Phillips] For this shot, Connie had to have the football player on the field at the ideal time of day (the "golden hour," when the sun casts amazing light), she needed to know he should have his back to the sun in order to get the dramatic contrast between dark background and perfectly-lit skin tones, and she needed to be prepared with portrait lighting to compensate for the backlit position of the player.

On the flip side, if you ask a portrait photographer to take photos at an event, she might stress about things that come easily to a photojournalist, who is used to capturing candid moments. The portrait photographer might feel stressed about losing the control that she's used to having. She can't control the lighting of an outdoor event taking place at noon. She can't move her subjects to a new location if their current one doesn't feel right. The people aren't even listening to her, much less moving just-so as she requests. She can't make people pause until she gets her camera settings just right or until everyone is positioned perfectly.

As a result, if you hire the wrong type of photographer for your needs, you're likely to be disappointed with the results.

Looking for a photojournalist in Indiana?

Photojournalists that are not employed by specific media outlets whose editors and publishers determine the photog's schedule are sometimes difficult to find. Results of a Google search for photographers in Indianapolis will naturally be filled with portrait photographers, for many reasons:

  • There are many more portrait photographers than photojournalists available for hire on a project-by-project basis.
  • Portrait photographers' sites are naturally magnets for visitors (parents, grandparents and friends of that high school senior she shot last Monday; plus sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, parents, grandparents and friends of the six family members in that family photo she shot earlier the same day, for example), which will drive them upward in search engine results. Photojournalists might not draw such large crowds, which could make their websites fall on pages 2, 3 or 20 of the Google results. You might have to search hard to find one.
  • Large media outlets tend to rank the "Top 10 Photographers in XYZ City" frequently, drawing lots of attention to their websites and therefore higher Google listings. Finding a "Top 10 Photojournalists" list, on the other hand, will be difficult.

Getting referrals from other companies and organizations for a great photojournalist can be difficult, as well, largely because most companies automatically use a portrait photographer when they should be using a photojournalist instead. They just don't know that.

At CorComm Creative, our photographers fall squarely within the photojournalism category. We're ready to capture your rallies, your sporting events and your conferences. We can even help you communicate with your audiences before, during and after your event. (Think about your social media, printed materials, website content, blogs and other communications tools you might need to use to tell people about the event you've created and executed.)

So the next time you need someone to capture an event you have planned meticulously, one that includes important people or one that is the culmination of a sporting season, call us. 

But if you need a family portrait, please don't. Call Connie instead.

[Portrait by Connie Phillips] Connie had complete control over this image, including where she positioned the teen, how her arms were folded, what angle her eyes would be when looking at the camera, what background to use for great contrast and texture, and more.

[Sporting event photo by Corie Farnsley, CorComm Creative] For this photo, I didn't have any control over the fact that the sun was setting directly in front of me, but I knew the action was going to be best captured from this position. I needed my camera settings to capture motion but overexpose (slightly) the image, because the camera wanted to expose for the bright sky.

[Event photography by Corie Farnsley, CorComm Creative] The tone of this event was somber and focused on the cultural and systemic pressures placed on black people specifically because of the color of their skin. The group running the event is a faith organization that is led by clergy, the Indianapolis Congregation Action Network, or IndyCAN. The woman in the center of the frame is one of the volunteer leaders for IndyCAN. She represents the people involved, the cause and the faith leaders who are supporting change.

[Event photograph by Corie Farnsley, CorComm Creative] This photo was taken at an event that was focused on discrimination and the government's use of fear to threaten immigrants. This photo captures the moment -- a woman who could be an immigrant, holding a sign in protest of fear and hate.

Topics: photojournalism, sports, photography, events