How I succeeded at event photography the first time

An organization recently asked me to do event photography for a high-profile fundraising event. I accepted, despite never having done it before. It went quite well. Here’s how I went about doing it the first time out.

Fundraiser event photography, Skirball Cultural Center.
Fundraiser event photography, Skirball Cultural Center.

“Can you take some photographs for us?”

The Development Director of a large non-profit organization asked if I wanted to take photos at a large-scale gala fundraising event, awards ceremony and dinner at Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, CA. I was intrigued. I had never tried to do event photography. Almost all my successes as a photographer have been doing long exposure night photography, a completely different genre.

I felt I should try something new. Learning different forms of photography often informs your creativity and keeps you more open to other possibilities. I asked some questions, negotiated a fair price, and it was on.

At this point, you might be thinking, “You accepted a gig to photograph millionaires at a high-profile gala fundraising event with no experience in event photography?” Yes, that’s exactly what I did. I had enough confidence to know that I could pull it off. But now, I had some preparation to do.

Finding out about the light

When doing event photography, it can be good to get different perspectives.
When doing event photography, it can be good to get different perspectives.

First, I determined what sort of lighting there would be. I would photograph from about 6–7:30 p.m. The lighting during that time would be a combination of intense summer sun with shade, later becoming mostly shade. I would need to constantly wander indoors and outdoors. In other words, the lighting was quite variable. This was a worthy puzzle to solve.

Using my night photography background

I did light painting during long exposure night photography, I had a strong foundation of how light shapes and controls an image. I had also done some night portraits using off-camera flash. This too would help. I’d think of it like light painting, only doing it much faster.

Fundraiser event photography, Skirball Cultural Center.
Fundraiser event photography, Skirball Cultural Center.

Flash bracket

After some thought, I purchased an inexpensive Stroboframe Quick Flip 350 Flash Bracket. While I rarely used on-camera flash, I felt this might work. 

Rogue Flashbender, Nikon SB-600 speedlight, Stroboframe flash bracket, Vivitar FCNIK Flash Cord, and Nikon D750.
Rogue FlashbenderNikon SB-600 speedlight, Stroboframe flash bracket, Vivitar FCNIK Flash Cord and Nikon D750.


First of all, I received only vague information about the room. During the rare times that I did use flash, I bounced it off a wall or ceiling. This produces a more pleasing light than pointing the flash at people and getting harsh, flat light and unflattering shadows, red-eye, and irritated looks. But could I do that here?

I also needed to walk indoors and outdoors many times. The light would change dramatically.

And finally, I wanted consistency in my lighting. 

I felt the flash bracket— although cumbersome — would provide this.

Balancing ambient light vs. flash

Generally, the concept of using a flash during these varied lighting scenarios is simple. You set the camera to expose for the existing ambient light. We all do this naturally anyway. The only difference is that you then use the flash to fill in the subject more. Hmm. Sounds like night photography with light painting to me, only done much quicker!

The aperture remains the same (more or less)

I knew that I wanted to keep the aperture at similar settings. This would create consistency in how softly the background would be in focus. 

Adjusting shutter speeds while the light from the flash remains constant

What is really fun here is that I could use a slow or quick shutter speed to determine the ambient light. However, my flash setting would light the subject by about the same amount. 1/50s? 1/200s? It didn’t matter. This made everything easy. 

Furthermore, even if I used a slow shutter speed, the instant burst of light from the flash would “freeze” the subject so that they wouldn’t be blurry. Cool!

Shaping the light

I decided I would point the flash straight up to reflect light off the ceiling. This would result in a nice even light from above.

Also, I would use a light modifier called a Rogue Flashbender Reflector to direct the light forward as well. I could bend this back or forward as necessary to determine how much light went forward. This setup gave me flexibility. It would also create catchlights in the eyes in almost any configuration.

Fundraiser event photography, Skirball Cultural Center.
Fundraiser event photography, Skirball Cultural Center.

Developing muscle memory

It’s one thing to know how a flash works conceptually. However, it’s quite another to do it. I wanted to achieve sufficient mastery so I wouldn’t need to think about it. The camera and flash had to be an extension of me.

I photographed items around the house two days before the event. The first day, I photographed some products for a Photofocus article. I photographed dark objects, bright objects and more. And I photographed my wife. I used darker rooms, brighter rooms, photographed near a window or doorway and photographed outside. 

The second day, I did all of the above, but wandered in and out of the house very quickly. I became quicker at adjusting or modifying my settings. I had developed muscle memory.

The day of the event

I arrived two hours early. I love arriving early. I love to walk around, look at where I would photograph, determine the light and take a few photos of décor details. 

Fundraiser event photography, Skirball Cultural Center.
Fundraiser event photography, Skirball Cultural Center.

I spoke to the marketing director. She gave me some advice. “You’re not creating art. If the lighting isn’t perfect, it doesn’t matter. What matters is getting the photos of the people.”

I had already heard this advice. However, I must say, it was reassuring to hear this. This was probably especially true for me since almost all the photography I do is for creating art. She pulled me to photograph some prominent people several times. I made certain they were well-lit but took comfort in the fact that they didn’t need to be.

Creating fun

Fortunately, at gala fundraising events, most people want to have their picture taken to show they were there. They expect it. We as photographers can have fun, engage people, be friendly and act like we belong by being confident and dressing appropriately. This is what I did for the next 90 minutes.

Photobombed at event, Skirball.
Getting photobombed by the CEO. And he enlisted one of his buddies for this one! The combination of very bright light and shadow can make photos like this very challenging. Flash photography helps even out the subjects quite a bit.

In fact, several of us had quite a bit of fun. The CEO kept laughing and photobombing me for fun. Another guest invited me to sit at his table. If I had any more fun, I might have felt guilty for getting paid. And all of this also creates more intimate, fun and memorable images.

Fundraiser event photography, Skirball Cultural Center.
Fundraiser event photography, Skirball Cultural Center.

The day after

I had set the final images’ delivery time and method beforehand. All of this, the hours, the general approach to photography and much more need to be set with the client prior to the event.

I prefer “under promising and over delivering.” The client and I had agreed on a time to deliver the photos. I delivered them 24 hours beforehand, completely finished and professionally processed.

How I processed the photos so quickly

Fundraiser event photography, Skirball Cultural Center.
Fundraiser event photography, Skirball Cultural Center.

I could have still delivered the photographs before the deadline using Adobe Lightroom Classic. However, I had read about Imagen in Photofocus. They describe themselves as being able to dramatically speed up workflow using “AI-powered batch photo editing desktop app for Adobe Lightroom Classic workflows” for both Mac and PC. 

To my utter delight, this worked quite well. I submitted almost 100 photos. In the time I walked to the kitchen to get a drink and return, Imagen had finished editing. More importantly, the photos looked great. Although I would have felt more than comfortable delivering the photos edited by Imagen, I tweaked them a little more. I also cropped and straightened them. But Imagen saved me hours of editing (I wrote about my experiences here). The client was very happy with the quality of the photos and the quick turnaround time.

By the way, Imagen offers free editing on your first 1,000 photos (1,500 if you use this link). 


Head on over to the Ken Lee Photography website to purchase books or look at night photography and long exposure prints and more.  My books are available there and Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Target, Booktopia, Books A Million, IBS, and Aladin. If you enjoy the book, please leave a nice review, thanks!


Night photographers Tim Little, Mike Cooper and I all use Pentax gear. We discuss this, gear, adventures, light painting, lenses, night photography, creativity, and more in this ongoing YouTube podcast. Subscribe and watch to the Nightaxians today!

Ken Lee Photography Facebook Page (poke your head in, say hi, and “like” the page if you would, uh, like)

Behind the Shot video podcast – interview February 2020


How We Got the Shots: Five Photographers, Five Stories – Night Photo Summit 2022


Ken Lee’s Abandoned Trains Planes and Automobiles with Tim Little of Cape Nights Photography
Conversation about night photography and my book with Lance Keimig of National Park At Night

A Photographer Captures Haunting Nighttime Images of Abandoned Buildings, Planes, and Cars in the American Southwest – Business Insider by Erin McDowell
A Photographer Explores Southern California’s Desert Ruins – Los Angeles Magazine article by Chris Nichols



Valentine’s Day: Sally’s Bordello, Gold Point, Nevada

3326-2014-07-13-0037-170sf8iso200-sallysbordello-kenlee_goldpoint-1000pxPlease click on the photo to view it larger and more clearly!  Thanks!

Just in time for Valentine’s Day… 😀

One of the old mining cabins of Gold Point in Nevada. I lit the interior with a speedlight with a red gel to give the feeling of someone still working long nights. It took quite a number of tries to get this just the way I wanted it to feel. All colored light work was done during the exposure, and is not a Photoshop creation. I stayed here for two nights, photographing the town, enjoying the beauty, and eating delicious food that Herb and Sandy serve. I loved this experience, and hope to return someday. These ghost towns and mines are a part of our rich history, and I am fascinated by the stories they still have left to tell. And these voices seem to whisper a bit more at night.
Title: Sally’s Bordello (3326)
Photo: Ken Lee Photography
Info: Nikon D610, AF-S Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8G ED lens at 14mm, 236 seconds, f/8, ISO 250. 2014-07-13 00:37. I used an LED flashlight and SB-600 with gels to light paint. All colored light work was done during the exposure, and is not a Photoshop creation.
Location: Gold Point, NV, USA
Una cabina minera de edad en el pueblo fantasma de Gold Point en Nevada.
Título: Sally’s Bordello (3326)
Foto: Ken Lee Photography
Info:. Nikon D610, AF-S Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8G ED en 14mm, 236 segundos, f / 8, ISO 250 07/13/2014 00:37. He utilizado un flash LED y el SB-600 con geles a la pintura de luz. Todo el trabajo ligero de color se hizo durante la exposición, y no es una creación de Photoshop.
Lugar: Gold Point, NV, EE.UU.
#night   #nikon  #kenlee  #goldpoint  #lightpainting  #nightskyphotography  #desert  #nevada  #ghosttown  #miningtown  #cabin


Equipment:  Nikon D610, Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8 lens, Feisol tripod.

You can see more of these photos here  on my Ken Lee Photography Facebook Page (poke your head in, say hi, and “like” the page if you would, uh, like), on 500px, or my Ken Lee Google+ Page. We discuss long exposure, night sky, star trails, and coastal long exposure photography, as well as lots of other things, so I hope you can join us!

And you can go to the Ken Lee Photography website, which has more photos from Ken Lee.  Thank you very much for visiting!


Featured Photo – The Door of Perception: Joshua Tree

The Door of Perception:  Joshua Tree

“Be an opener of doors for such as come after thee.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

The Door to Joshua Tree
The Door to Joshua Tree

Desert art.  A lot of people use old doors as fences out in the desert.  Seems appropriate. During sundown, I especially liked the way the sun glinted off the broken glass. But I also liked the philosophical possibilities that doors in the open impart.

“There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception” – Aldous Huxley

Sundown. I wanted to capture the light of the setting sun, but also catch the detail of the glass with my speedlight.

This photo was taken with a Nikon SB-600 Speedlight Flash off-camera (wireless) since we were facing the setting sun, and it would have been extremely dark otherwise.

“A small key opens big doors” – Turkish proverb

Equipment:  Nikon D90, 18-200mm VR Nikkor lens


Photo Tip of the Month – Fill Light To Reduce Contrast in the Mid-Day Sun

You’d be surprised how many people will ask, “Why are you using a flash? There’s plenty of light!”  Here’s how flash can help your mid-day photos.

Wagon of the Old West

A photo of a Wild West wagon, using a fill light to minimize the harsh contrast of the mid-day sun. Nikon D90, 18-200mm VR Nikkor lens, 18mm ISO 200 F/6.3.

You can’t always shoot photos during the “golden hours” (early morning, just before sunset).  And you may not always want this. Sometimes, you want to capture the look of something at mid-day.  But as anyone who has shot knows, this can create harsh light and harsh contrasts, particularly with subjects that are in the shade, as shown below:

Wagon with no fill light as an example

Our Wild West wagon with no fill light as an example of how mid-day sun can create harsh light and harsh contrasts in photos, particularly with subjects that are partially in the shade. Compare this with the other photo which uses the fill light.

So, what to do?  Use a flash as a fill light.

For this photo, I used a Nikon SB-600 Speedlight Flash in wireless mode.  I placed it down on the ground, just out of frame on the right side, facing up at the wagon, with a Sto-Fen Omni-Bounce OM-600 Flash Diffuser Unit to diffuse the light.  I like to use off-camera flash because I have more control over what area of the subject my flash lights (and if shooting portraits, it’s a great way to avoid getting demonic red eyes!).  Here’s another look at the photo using fill flash:

Wagon of the Old West

Have another look at the photo of a Wild West wagon, using a fill light to minimize the harsh contrast of the mid-day sun.  Nikon D90, 18-200mm VR Nikkor lens, 18mm ISO 200 F/6.3.

Equipment:  Nikon D90, Nikon 18-200mm VR II Nikkor Telephoto Zoom Lens, Nikon SB-600 Speedlight, Sto-Fen Flash Diffuser.