How to take dinner party and event photos that don’t suck

Dinner party table setting
Dinner party table setting

By Paula Wethington

Have you ever been assigned to “take photos” at a dinner party, dance, convention or reception?

Whether your assignment is that of a journalist, internal communications officer, social media manager or a family historian (and I’ve been in all of those roles!), the challenges are similar. You want photos that can actually be used for whatever digital, video and print media project you are working on. You want photos that are portray the event or the people involved in an accurate but professional way.

You want photos that don’t suck.

Your success on that will depend on knowing what to shoot, when and how in this setting.

Assuming that one of your cameras, or perhaps your only camera, is a smartphone, first read this post at HubSpot: 17 tips for taking pictures with your smartphone.

Then based on the number of times I’ve handled this task for family scrapbooks, internal communications and newspaper assignments, here are some photography tips I can share that are specific to such an event:

Before you arrive

  • Make a list of photos you want to take and what print, digital or video formats they are needed for. This will help you keep track of what shots you need to get while the event is still in progress.
  • Arrive after the room setups are done but before the guests show up. You need time to look over the layout and lighting, take pictures of the decor and perhaps introduce yourself to the emcee or committee.
  • Charge and pack extra batteries for whatever camera or cell phone you are taking to the event. You really should assume that any available electric outlet will already be in use by the catering or event staff, and plan accordingly.
  • Assume that you will not have access to wifi and that cell phone connections will be iffy. If you expect to do live posting such as live tweeting or Periscope, make arrangements to get the wifi password ahead of time or bring a hotspot device.
  • Find out if there is a designated hashtag for the event or location that you should use as you do the social media postings.

Images to NOT take

  • Avoid the urge to take “candids” of people eating or drinking. It’s simply not a flattering photo to have your mouth wide open while you hold a forkful of food.
  • Do not take photos of half eaten food or dirty dishes. Aim instead to get as many photos as possible before the food arrives. I recently saw a terrific photo of someone speaking at a podium during an event (this is not an easy shot to get), but in the same photo there were dirty dishes on the nearby banquet table. Yuk!
  • Avoid taking photos of guests holding alcoholic beverages unless you ask permission. They might not want those photos taken or shared even in cases where the event is after hours or they are clearly old enough. You can illustrate alcohol or guests in other ways, see my list of “images to take.”

Images to take before the event

  • If you have a reason to showcase the alcohol (such as with a wine or beer tasting), take closeups of bottles in the ice bucket, the arrangement at the bar, the menu board, or drinks as they are about to be served. The bartender or host also might be willing to pose as he or she mixes a beverage.
  • Walk around the reception space after the setups are done but before guests arrive. Get close-up photos (along with video if you are working in that format) of the table setting, registration table, greeting sign, centerpieces, flowers, event program, auction items, gift basket raffle pieces, awards, the cake before it is cut, dessert table, backstage as musicians are warming up for the performance, auditorium seats, architecture of the space, and the decor. These visual details become “B-roll” for broadcasters who need images while a voice interview is being played, secondary images for print media editors who may have spots for three or four photos, and a range of choices for a digital media editor who is looking for galleries or Instagram source images.
  • Ask the speaker to pose for a head and shoulders “mugshot” style photo before or after the program, or get a photo of him or her greeting guests before the event. This is your emergency photo, as you may not be able to get a decent photo at the podium due to the stage lighting or where you’ll be allowed to sit or stand during the presentation. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in THAT situation.
Appetizers
Appetizer table at a wedding shower

Images to take during the event

  • Seek out tight, small group photos of two to four people. Think “selfie” as your inspiration. Let people pose and smile for the camera. They’ll be happier with the image and more likely to let you to use it for publicity purposes.
  • If you aim for a journalistic style of photography, feature one person at a time. This focus will help prevent the photo from being too busy or distracting.
  • If possible, set your camera to “no flash” and turn off the shutter sounds. A flash really doesn’t work well in a setting where the main subject is 5 feet in front of you and there is a huge dark room behind them. People do become more self-conscious and pose with cues that a camera is focused on them, even when they see you taking photos. Yes, turning off the flash means some photos will be too dark to use. This is why you get “setting the scene” photos early and focus on close-ups of people during the event.
  • Take a wide angle photo of the room or audience before or early in the event if lighting permits. You might be able to stand on the stage wings, backstage, in the balcony or in a corner to get this scene.
  • When honorees gather for a group photo, line up with the friends and family and take a picture. It may not be the artsy photo you wanted to take home from the assignment, but it might be one you end up using anyway.
  • Get a range of both horizontal and vertical photos, and consider the third setting of square images if your camera permits that. This sounds obvious, but you’ll be glad to have  a variety when editing and selecting photos for your project.
  • If you are shooting video, know ahead of time whether you need vertical or horizontal for the intended format and hold the camera appropriately.
  • If you are tempted to “zoom in” with the basic camera setting on a smartphone, stop. This feature will result in less quality resolution when you print or post that picture. Instead, get physically closer to the photo subject or scene. (Next time, pack a professional-quality camera with a zoom lens or acquire an actual zoom lens for your smartphone.)
  • If you see something interesting that could make a good photo, even if it doesn’t fit that assignment, take the picture anyway. I picked up a fantastic Instagram image of guitars backstage at an event I attended at a junior high school auditorium. I assume the guitars were waiting for a class or perhaps another performance, as they had nothing to do with the event that day. But it made a great shot to add to my collection.

Photos to edit or delete

  • Any image that is too blurry or dark to see clearly who is in the picture should not be used.
  • If you have multiple images that are similar, pick the best one to submit or post.
  • Experiment with two or three filters on Instagram for each image. I usually go through the entire menu before deciding which one is best suited for the scene.
  • Crop the images tighter if you run into situations such as where half of a person is in the corner.
  • If a photo is just not flattering of someone, don’t use it. You did take enough other photos to submit for the assignment, correct?

I tweet about social media topics at @WethingtonPaula and happily post event photos on my Instagram page.

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Author: Paula Wethington

Paula has over 10 years experience working in a variety of digital and social media formats on behalf of a newsroom; and over 25 years total working as a reporter at newspapers in Ohio and Michigan.

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