Podium Photography

How to Get the Best with the Least

First of all, are you sure you have to? Shoot people at a podium, that is.

Pictures of people speaking at a podium or from the pulpit are usually pretty boring, and nothing you might learn here is going to change that.

Is there some alternative that would make a better picture and still illustrate your story?

Let's say your bishop is going to address the issue of children and poverty. Most of your readers already know what the bishop looks like. Wouldn't they be better served by showing photos of programs serving children in need or by a frank look at the problem as it exists in your area?

But, Susan Whozit is coming all the way from Wheresville to speak at Annual Conference and we HAVE to have a picture of her talking, you say.

Well, if you gotta', you gotta'. Here are some tips to help you make the most of it:

Work with the light that is already there

Newspaper photographers have a saying, "If you can see it, you can shoot it." While it's not always that simple, don't overlook the light that's been provided for you. You needn't automatically reach for your flash when you move indoors. Many churches, meeting rooms and conference halls have some kind of light shining on the podium or pulpit.

If you have an adjustable camera, use your "fastest" lens, opened to its widest f-stop. (You're looking for small numbers like f/1.7 or f/2.8, not f/8 or f/11.) This will help you make the most of the "available light."

Meter off something that is close to "middle gray." Your light meter thinks it's always looking at something that reflects about 18% of the light that hits it - "middle gray."

A bishop in a black robe standing in front of a big, dark room doesn't reflect nearly as much light as middle gray and will fool the meter into overexposing. (On the other hand, white clothes and a white background create the opposite problem, fooling the meter into underexposing.)

You need to find something that is about middle gray that is in the same light as your subject to take a meter reading from. This might be a plant in front of the podium, the podium itself or someone in a light gray suit.

If you get to the meeting early and the light is not going to change, you can go up to the podium and make your meter readings without getting in anyone's way. Then, when the action starts, just go with your predetermined exposure and ignore the meter.

In a pinch, you can meter off the palm of your hand (held in the same light as the podium) and open up one f/stop or use the next slower shutter speed. (Your hand reflects about twice as much light as middle gray and you need to compensate for it.)

Me and my shadow

There will be plenty of times when using a flash is your best or only option. Flash has several advantages. It provides a known and predictable amount of light. The light is the right color (same as daylight). And the short duration of the flash helps eliminate motion blur.

Flash photography also has its limitations, though. A built-in flash, or one attached to your camera and pointed straight at the subject leaves an ugly shadow of the subject on any nearby wall or other background surface. This "me and my shadow" effect is at its worst in the vertical pictures typical of podium shots.

If your flash is built in, you're stuck. But if it is a separate unit, get it off the camera. An extra-long, coiled synch cord will allow you to hold the flash at arm's length above the camera. This will let the shadow fall on the floor, out of your picture.

Many flash and camera makers offer specialized, off-camera cords for their "dedicated" units that preserve all automatic functions. Ask your camera retailer.

One of the best ways to deal with flash photography, if your equipment and room layout permit, is to use bounce flash. When bouncing, your flash is aimed at the ceiling instead of the subject. This softens the light, helps eliminate shadows and lights a larger area more evenly than on-camera flash.

If you can use the bounce technique your flash will have a tilting head, allowing the flash tube to be aimed up, rather than straight on. In theory, the light will go up, hit the ceiling and spread soft, even light over a large area.

There are several things to beware of when using bounce flash:

  • You are asking for a lot more light output from your flash when bouncing. The light must travel to the ceiling and back before striking your subject. In a large ballroom or church sanctuary with high ceilings this may exceed the effective range of your flash. Many bounce-capable flashes have a "confidence light" that indicates if the bounce provides enough light. Try a test shot and if the indicator comes on, there is enough light.
  • Bouncing works best with white or light colored ceilings. Dark colors absorb more light than they reflect and may not provide a suitable bounce surface.
  • Bounced light takes on the color of the bounce surface. This is not a problem in black & white, but if you are using color film and bouncing light in a room with a purple ceiling, expect purple people.

Magic bullets

For those times when flash is just not an option and the existing light is really dismal, try some of Kodak's "magic bullets", T-Max P3200 film.

This super-fast black & white film can be rated at exposure indexes of 1,600, 3,200 and beyond, allowing existing-light photography in places where it would otherwise be impossible. (Typical color print film has an exposure index of 100, 200 or 400.)

The key to success with this film is careful handling and processing. It would be a good idea to try a couple of test rolls before using it on an important job.

You will have to get the film at a professional-grade camera store. And you'll want to make sure it is fresh. The same thing that makes this film so sensitive to light also makes it susceptible to fogging from environmental factors. Buy only as much as you think you'll use relatively soon. This is not something you want to have kicking around in the trunk of your car for a few months. Load and unload this film indoors, in subdued light.

You will have to take the film to a professional photo lab. This is not a job for the 1-hour lab at Wal-Mart. It's designed to be "push-processed", hence the "P" in P3200. What this means for you is you will have to choose a film speed and then tell the lab what speed you used.

Again, prior testing is the key.

Quiet, please!

It is sometimes difficult to make photos of people at worship without feeling like you're intruding. But these photos are an important part of the message of the church. Don't be intimidated into giving up. As my friend and veteran United Methodist Church photographer John Goodwin told me when I voiced these same concerns, "Without pictures of people in worship, this might as well be a meeting of the Elks Club."

There are some things you can do to minimize your impact on an event: Try to dress like everyone else, or at least unobtrusively. Don't carry so much equipment that you "clank" when you move around. If your camera has a motor drive, turn it off. Ditto for the flash, if at all possible. Try to anticipate the louder parts of the ceremony and use them to mask the noise of your camera. (A shutter that sounds like a cannon firing during a moment of silence will get lost in the collective hissing of "tressspasss againssst ussss.")

Pay attention to the background

The background can be a source of important information about your picture and provide a sense of context, or it can be a distraction. It's up to you to move around and see how different vantage points affect the background.

If you're in a sanctuary with beautiful stained-glass windows, back up and look for a way to include them in the background of your photo.

If you are in an ugly gymnasium, you might want to move in closer and isolate your subject from the background.

As a general rule, wider lenses tend to emphasize the background and longer lenses tend to minimize it.

Watch that microphone!

It is very distracting in a photograph to have a microphone right in the middle of somebody's face. If you are lucky and have a dynamic speaker who takes the microphone in hand, you can wait until they lower it briefly and get a good clean shot.

If they are stuck behind the podium, try moving around to the side. This will move the microphone out, away from their face.

Try these hints. Hopefully, they will provide you with at least acceptable results. Happy shooting!

Mike Dubose is the official photographer for United Methodist Communications. He travels around the world recording on film stories of people, places and events. You may contact him at UMCom in Nashville, (615)742-5150, e-mail: mdubose@umcom.org.

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