My first awards dinner was straightforward. Dinner in a big room. Photo booth in the foyer. Photos of award winners and their trophies just off stage.
Payment: free dinner.
It was my first awards dinner and I saw it as good practice. I prefer environmental portraits, but it could lead to more work, so I agreed. However, to make a bit of money, I decided that a photo booth was necessary to do some group shots. I bought myself a decent set of Metz 200 Studio lights at a great discount, set up a table and booth and actually sold some photos.
The client was so happy, they asked me to photograph all their events in 2020.
Adapting to change in 2020
Then COVID happened. To begin with, everything was off. And then slowly, restrictions were lifted. Not all of them, but enough to get the awards dinner back on the agenda. The one restriction that stayed had to do with groups: no group photos standing up.
So, I couldn't photograph groups. BUT, what if I worked an artistic angle? What if I did individuals' and couples' portraits? Or small groups sitting down? With really moody lighting.
That wasn't the only change. The other major change was the venue. Instead of an enclosed space with the photo booth outside the main function area, the new venue was the local racecourse, Elwick. The photo booth was placed in the same room, which was a bonus as it was in plain sight and more inclusive. Being a racecourse, there was a wide, wall-to-wall view of the track and the river beyond and all the extra light that entailed.
In front of the photo booth, I set up a table with an iMac and a second monitor displaying all the best shots from last year's junior comps. I have this beautiful gold material that I use for various projects, which I laid over the table to add some flair.
As the night went on, I dumped the images from the night into the screensaver so the guests could see their results.
Changing the process
Last year the process was simple. I had two cameras. One, full-frame Pentax K1MII with 15-30mm lens, set up on a tripod set to 100ISO, f/7.1 and a shutter release. It was a permanent installation with the focus set, so I could focus my energy on making it fun. The second camera was an older crop-frame Pentax KS-1 with a Sigma 35mm 1.4 Art Lens and a speed light mounted. I used this for roaming and to photograph the work I was being paid for.
This year, due to the nature of the "studio" shoot, I didn't use the tripod. I attacked from all different angles. I still used the old KS-1 camera for roaming. The K1MII had my new Pentax 24-70mm 2.8 lens which was perfect for the close-range shots and allowed me the freedom to move back and forth. The KS-1 I kept as the same setup as last year with the 35mm Art Lens. It's a great lens with beautiful bokeh and lots of light.
The studio-style shoot required assistance in the form of my artist girlfriend who knows a thing or two about fashion, style and colours. She was on-hand to help with the style and pose of each subject and to help make it fun for the kids. Thankfully, the nature of the room meant I could do the serious stuff while Laura was up front working her magic there.
Because I was going for a more studio-portrait style, the major limiting factor was the wall-to-wall windows to the right of the photo booth. This introduced a huge amount of light, especially as we were heading towards Summer with Daylight Savings in full effect.
To combat the light, I ramped up the lights as high as they would go. One light I ran as direct, with a hard light coming in from above and to the left, but from a distance so as to temper it a little. The other light was set mid-level and to the right, but had a soft box set up to help fill in the natural light from the racecourse and to lessen some of the harder shadows.
To really sell the idea of the portrait shoot, I purchased a length of crushed black velvet as a backdrop. This helped soften the shadows by blending in with the background, whilst the backdrop had a slight shimmer due to its surface.
Throw in a couple of stools, one tall and one short, with some extra for the group shots, the portrait style shoot went without a hitch.
Having an assistant was invaluable. Armed with her own camera, Laura took some shots of the tables and all the presentations. In this way, I had a shot of the actual presentation, plus a gorgeous portrait of the winners with their trophies.
The first thing I do after importing the images into Capture One Pro is to set the white balance using the X-Rite Color Checker panel. It's an invaluable tool to get the basic colour settings right. I took a few pics of Laura holding the panel before the event began.
Because the shoot conditions were controlled throughout the night, all I had to do was find the brightest shirt and adjust my levels for that image, then copy the adjustments across all of the photo booth shots. There was some tweaking individually, but the hard work was taken out in the first 15 minutes.
After a brief culling (not every shot is ever going to be perfect!), I cropped the remaining images and posted them for the guests to purchase.
The roaming and presentation shots were more difficult, as the conditions were more fluid with changing lighting conditions and distances between the subject and the mounted speedlight. In reality, this only added an extra hour or two to the job.
The only real problem of the night was that I changed the file format of the Pentax KS-1 from .dng to .pef, Pentax's native file format. Capture One Pro works with PEF from the K1MII, but would not recognise the KS-1. I had to use the clunky Pentax software to convert all the files to JPG - for some reason it would not convert to DNG, even though I tried several times.
A lesser problem, but one that I've faced in 20 years of hospitality, was to eat dinner quickly.