How to photograph an art event


Social Works Live

Social Works? Live, Manchester School of Art, April 2019

Documenting any kind of event with a camera can be daunting and presents a number of challenges for a photographer. Taking photos on your mobile phone is good for social media and sharing things quickly, but if you want quality documentation that will act as a legacy of something that happened then read below for some useful tips.

The points below assume you have some basic knowledge of digital photography!


If you’re photographing anything with people it’s good practice to let them know you're doing this. If you've been commissioned by a venue or event organiser, liaise with them and ask them to make attendees aware that the event is being photographed. If someone doesn't want to appear in photos they can let the event organiser know and then they can point these people out to you.

Make sure there is plenty of signage around the venue which clearly states the event is being photographed. If you’re photographing children then you should definitely obtain written permission from a parent or guardian. Again, ask the event organiser for help with this.

The event organiser may also ask you to provide them with a risk assessment and proof of public and product liability insurance. Axis has Public and Product Liability and Professional Indemnity insurance as part of Network Associate membership.

Use a DSLR or a good mirrorless camera

Use the best equipment. If you don't own a DSLR or mirrorless camera, you can hire one quite cheaply or you may know someone that owns one that you can borrow (or who can take the photographs for you!). Basically you need a camera with a good lens, which allows you to set the shutter speed, lens aperture, ISO and white balance (see below).

Lenses and camera settings

The kit lens that usually comes with a DSLR should be sufficient for photographing an event. Ideally you want something with a good zoom range (between about 18mm to 105mm). This will allow you to capture wide-angle crowd shots and also close-ups of people and details of objects.

Stabilisation and shutter speed

Another thing to look for in a lens is image stabilisation (IS). Image stabilisation compensates for camera shake (i.e you moving the camera) and means you can reduce the shutter speed to allow more light into the camera (useful if the venue is dark). Note that if you reduce the shutter speed too much then you may get motion blur if you photograph someone moving quickly. If people are relatively still and not moving much then a shutter speed of between 1/60 - 1/125 of a second should be sufficient. If they’re moving quickly then you may need to increase the shutter speed up to something like 1/250 - 1/500 of a second.


The final thing to consider for a lens is its maximum aperture setting (i.e. how wide you can open the aperture). This is measured in f-stops - the lower the number, the wider the aperture. A lens with an aperture of f/1.4 will let more light into the camera than a lens with an aperture of f/2.8. 

Being able to open the aperture and let more light in is useful if the venue you’re photographing in is dark. It also allows you to use a faster shutter speed as you’re letting more light into the camera through the aperture, so increasing the shutter speed offsets this in order to obtain the correct exposure.

Aperture also affects depth of field (how much of the image is in focus). The wider the aperture, the shallower the depth of field. This can be useful if you want to isolate or draw attention to  someone and blur the background behind them.


If the venue is really dark then you may need to increase the camera’s ISO setting. Note that the higher the ISO the more visual noise/grain will appear in the image.

Obtaining the correct exposure for a photograph is a combination of shutter speed, aperture and ISO settings.


If you’re photographing any event you really need to use a camera with good autofocus capabilities instead of focusing manually. There are two main types of autofocus system: ‘contrast detection’ and ‘phase detection’. To go into how each one works would take too long but if you’re buying or renting a camera, look for one with ‘phase detection’ - it’s quicker and more accurate than ‘contrast detection’. Newer Canon cameras use something called ‘dual pixel autofocus’ which is one of the best autofocus systems currently available.

White balance

Be aware of the lighting conditions you're taking your photographs under (e.g. daylight or indoors with tungsten or fluorescent lighting). If you don't set the correct white balance, your images can come out too blue or too yellow/orange. Most DSLRs give you the option to set a white balance for different types of lighting or dial in a specific colour temperature. If you're shooting in the RAW format (see below) then you can usually just use auto white balance (AWB) and adjust it later in Lightroom, Photoshop or similar software.

Shoot RAW

The RAW format is basically an unprocessed 'digital negative' and contains the maximum amount of information captured by the camera's sensor. Like a photographic negative, RAW files require 'processing' in software such as Photoshop or Lightroom. Using this software you can make a whole host of adjustments to the image including lens corrections, colour temperature, sharpness, contrast and noise reduction.

Viewfinder vs. Monitor

When you’re taking photographs you have the option to use the camera’s viewfinder or the LCD monitor on the back of the camera (if it has one). Deciding which one to use is really a personal preference. Using the viewfinder helps you focus on what’s important in the frame and cuts out any extraneous detail. Holding the camera up to your eye also gives you an extra bit of stability.

Using the LCD monitor and holding the camera out in front of you can be useful for composing images, especially wide shots. It gives you a greater sense of the space and the people within it and helps you decide if you need to reposition yourself to get a better photograph. You become much more aware of what’s happening outside the frame and who’s about to enter it. When using this method you can begin to anticipate shots as you wait for people to move and align into a pleasing composition.

You need a steady pair of hands (or a stabilised lens) if you’re holding the camera out in front of you. Keep your elbows tucked into your body or lean against a wall or doorway to obtain more stability.


  • When you arrive at the venue familiarise yourself with the space and the lighting and adjust your camera settings accordingly (remember that the lighting can change throughout the day).

  • The event organisers may have a list of specific shots they require. Ask them for a schedule or running order and familiarise yourself with when specific things are going to happen.

  • Ask the organiser to point out to you anyone who doesn’t want to appear in photographs (see ‘Permission’ above).

  • Ask the organiser for a badge or lanyard so people attending the event know that you’re taking photographs ‘officially’.

  • Make sure you have plenty of memory cards, batteries etc and everything is charged and ready.  

Photography tips

Here are a few things to remember when taking photographs:

  • Generally speaking you should get a good selection of wide shots, medium shots and close-ups or details.

  • Take your time and don’t randomly snap away.

  • Consider each shot carefully and don’t be afraid to wait until a photo opportunity presents itself.

  • Dont't stay in one position, keep moving around the space. If you do find a good vantage point then revisit it throughout the day and select the best images from there later on. 

  • Keep compositions simple - keep things in the centre of the frame or use the ‘rule of thirds’. Remember you can always crop images later on in your editing software.

  • If you sense that someone is uncomfortable with you taking their photograph, smile and ask them politely if it’s okay.

  • Try to capture a variety of different moods in your photographs: excitement, dynamism, fun, joy, sincerity etc

  • Look for ‘moments’ to photograph: a smile, an exchange, a gesture etc.

  • Review your photos regularly and if you feel you’re missing something then concentrate on capturing that.

  • Don’t be afraid to ask people to move if they’re in your way. Again just smile and ask politely. People are quite courteous if they see you’re trying to work.

Photographing during the pandemic

You should not be undertaking any photography if you are displaying any symptoms of coronavirus (a high temperature, a new, continuous cough or a loss or change to your sense of smell or taste).

If you are okay to photograph then you should definitely carry out a risk assessment or get the venue/organiser to carry one out. The venue/organiser should follow government guidelines and monitor the number of people entering the venue. They should be implementing things such as social distancing and the wearing of face masks and have hand washing facilities and hand sanitiser stations in place.

When photographing, wear a face mask and keep at least two metres away from people and use a zoom lens to capture close-ups. Wash your hands regularly or use hand sanitiser and avoid touching your face.

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Julian Lister, November 2020