Sunday 23 April 2017

Photographing a Toastmasters' Competition


A member and photographer's view on photography and photographing a Toastmasters Competition. I present a (hopefully humorous) perspective on competitions from a photographers view and follow with solutions and actions to help other members who are entrusted with the photography at their events. The article includes a note on permissions and rights.


Photography at events is a bit like giving birth (so I hear, and obviously nowhere near as painful and without the longer term commitments). You swear you'll never go through with it again but for some reason, amnesia sets in, and when you are asked to photograph at another event, you blithely accept, having forgotten your past resolution.

Darren, fellow Toastmaster from the Huntingdonshire speakers, and one of this years regional competition organisers, had actually found a cunning solution as a past photographer - he asked me if I would care to step in for today's event in Wyboston Lakes, as he had his hands full. The venue was located in the Training centre, set in the beautiful grounds of the complex. Great conference facilities (and outstanding kitchen). As a Toastmaster myself, I was looking forward to the competition too.

Now, with the event still fresh in my mind, I thought that before the amnesia sets in again, I'll give you a rundown of what to look out for if you are entering such an innocuous space and event as being the photographer for your Toastmasters' competition.

I'll tell you a bit about the challenges and then give you some solutions.

The challenges of photographing a Toastmasters' Event

You have been asked to photograph the event. You agree. On the day you arrive at the venue a bit early with your camera. Great! The event organisers can tick off a box, give you a program and send you to the room where the event will be taking place

Room lighting

The Theory

Cameras need good light. In an ideal world, your event will take place in a large venue, with a high roof, with lots of lighting that can be dimmed, a stage that is covered by a series of wide spots and lights that illuminate the speakers well from the front and all sides. Imagine a television studio for a live sitcom or a larger theatre or town's entertainment venue. Yes, this dream can be realised when you are at the top end of the competition scene - but then the organisers would hire a professional photographer as part of the overall budget and you could simply enjoy the show!

The Reality

The event is a conference facility, often part of a training centre or hotel, or a lecture theatre. The room will be large enough for the event and one wall is dedicated to the speakers and a projector screen.

The first thing to check on entry into the room is the artificial lighting. Like many facilities, it is most likely to have "even illumination" of the whole room using fluorescent strip lighting behind decorative panels across the whole ceiling, parallel to the speaker's end. To the human eye it looks well lit. But watch a person's face whilst they cross a room from the photographer's perspective. It goes like this: backlit in shadow, faintly lit, demon face, backlit in shadow, faintly lit, demon face. Demon face being the effect you get when holding a light directly under your chin, or in this case, directly overhead.

What's more, during a presentation, the lights over the audience may be dimmed, with the speaker lit from above from one row of lights. If the presentation uses an overhead projector, the speaker will be in the dark too.

Then there is the fact that fluorescent lights can flicker at 1/50th or 1/60th of a second. So if you use a shutter speed faster than 100th of a second with fluorescent lights, you get pictures that are alternately light and dark.

The Speakers

At non-toastmaster events, the average speaker is usually petrified of the audience, seeks the security of a lectern, and is therefore static. If you are lucky, the venue might even have a spotlight on the lectern. Photographically this is an ideal solution. Use a tripod, aim and fire.

Sadly, Toastmasters and other competent speakers are not so accommodating. There is the probability of body language with exuberant and unexpected gestures. The speaker is likely to roam up and down the presenting area and even forwards and backwards relative to the audience (backlit in shadow, faintly lit, demon face, backlit in shadow, faintly lit, demon face). They will turn their heads from side to side to maintain eye contact with the audience, and even contort their features to reflect mood, in addition to unexpected expressions when photographing someone speaking. In short, they are unpredictable and a photographic liability. Unfortunately, this is an unavoidable aspect of photographing a Toastmasters' event.

The Audience

The audience is passively looking at the speaker as they listen. The speaker is fine as they have eye contact. The audience is fine, because they are actively listening. You are not fine. Your photographs of a passive audience not looking directly at the camera looks like a sea of total boredom. Fortunately there is a solution, given further below.

The Awards

Competitions inevitably have awards. The participants, the runners up and the winner will be called up to roaring applause from an enthusiastic Toastmasters audience. They will shake hands with the presenter and stop and pose with their certificates and prizes to be photographed! That is the theory, anyway. 

The reality is that these are emotionally charged moments, as I have experienced myself. You get so taken up with the surprise, relief and joy of having been called up, that it all happens as if in a dream. You go up, shake hands and accept the certificate, show it modestly/triumphantly/ecstatically (please delete according to your personality) and leave the stage in a delirium of happiness - before the photographer has been able to get that great photo of you. 

Furthermore, as a photographer, you suddenly find that the backdrop to the presentations is distracting - perhaps it is an emergency exit sign, or the overhead projector is still displaying the last presentation's slide on a white background behind the presentation so everyone is silhouetted or has an image of text projected over them. With yesterday's event, it was the ultramodern lectern, supported on a metallic spiral and illuminated red from within (red immediately draws the eye away from other objects in a photo).

The Anticlimax - Processing the pictures

The event was a success, the organisers breathe a sigh of relief and everyone goes back home to reminisce on a great event and relax before having to think of the next one. 

Except for the photographer. You have to download all the images, check that at least a reasonable proportion were OK, edit them, and then make them available - ASAP, before the memory of the event passes.


Before the Event

Be part of the event organisation

  • Ideally, the photography should be part of the event planning team right from the start
  • If this is not possible:
    • Get more feedback from the event organisers on:
      • The location and 
      • What they are looking for re photography BEFORE the event. 
  • Make the organisers aware that they need to let people know:
    • That photos will be taken
    • Establish the ground rules of what and who can be photographed and what not (see later in document about rights)
    • Get a program for the day
  • Check out the venue in advance, so you are aware of its pros and cons for photography


You will need:
  •  A good camera that:
    • Will take pictures at high resolution (suggested minimum 3000 pixels by 2000 pixels or 6 Megapixels)
    • Can work in low light, with noise reduction
    • Has a good autofocus.
  • Lenses or capabilities for normal and telephoto photography.
  • Fill in flash or bouncing flash options.
  • Spare batteries - and a charger! If using a high end smartphone, take a power source with you. 
  • A memory card that will last the event (several hundred pictures). 
  • A tripod is always useful, so take one along in case of eventualities.
  • Good photo editing software.

On the day


Arrive early and touch base with the organisers on site, to find out whether plans have changed and to obtain the final program. It is also useful to find out who is conducting the key roles of Toastmaster, Workshop Speaker etc for the different parts of the program, with a view to chatting with them.

The Venue

  • Check out the room for lighting, audience area and speaker areas.
  • Look at the backdrop behind the speaker area to find your best angle for most photos without distracting background.
  • Try to ensure you can get as much lighting as possible for photography, without affecting the proceedings too much.

Camera Settings

I personally find it much less disruptive to an event if you can take pictures without flash most of the time. I do use fill in flash for the awards. For pictures without flash:
  • Set your camera to a higher ISO, make sure high ISO noise reduction is on, if you have that option. 
  • Adjust your camera's white balance to the rooms lighting to get a good colour correction. Your camera manual should tell you how to do this.
    • If you change rooms, adjust the white balance for each room before continuing with photography
  • Your shutter speed should be the highest you can get, taking account of the lighting.
    • Take several test pictures in short succession of a random scene in the room. If the pictures differ in brightness, your shutter speed may be too fast and you are capturing the flicker of the lights. Reduce your shutter speed to 1/60th second or less.
  • My personal preference is to use the telephoto lens (70 mm - 300 mm equivalent) for informal shots of the speakers and audience, as they are less aware of the camera.
  • I use my normal lens for head and shoulder portraits and for the awards.

When you can and cannot photograph

There will be event rules about when you can photograph. For example, at the competition day I was at, photography was not permitted during the actual competitions, but was permitted at the workshops and other times.

Photographing speakers

Try taking several photographs of the speaker and see how they look on replay. Some are simply hard to capture because they are too active, both in facial expression and body movement. If you cannot do them justice in full flow, approach them later and take a head and shoulders photo or two at under good lighting. Facing a bright window but in shade works well for me as this gives even lighting that flatters the subject.

Where it looks as if you can get good photographs of the speaker in flow try the following:
  • In mid speech - this can give expressive pictures of face and body language.
  • In speech pauses - the speaker may stop and smile or have another expression held long enough to get a good sharp picture.
  • Under changing lighting. If you have a speaker under strip lights, they do give you an opportunity to get effects such as:
    • Even (but dim) illumination.
    • Strong highlights and shadows accentuating facial features.
    • Backlit highlighting of profile.
    • Silhouetting against a projected image.
  • It is better to take fewer good pictures than snap all the time.
  • Also aim to get a separate Head and shoulders picture after the talk in good lighting.

Photographing the Audience

I prefer to photograph individuals or groups of an audience using a telephoto lens, as they are less aware of you and act naturally.

As mentioned above, the standard appearance of an audience on camera is misinterpreted as boredom, because of lack of eye contact. Some actually close their eyes to concentrate of listening, which looks as if they are sleeping.

My tip is, wait for an audience reaction to the speaker and then photograph. To do this, scan the audience in the first minute or two of the talk. Select one or two subjects which you can frame well without them being aware of you. Wait till there is an audience reaction and take a picture or two. Also see if you can get a track of four or five audience members in a particular view, so you can capture a group response. You can quietly move around to a different location and repeat the process. As a photographer you are endowed with a magical ability to do this with impunity if done with respect.

Many Toastmaster speakers do workshops where the audience is asked to work in twos or threes. These are great opportunities to wander around and take casual photos.

The Awards

Photographically, the awards present you with a dilemma. You need to photograph the handovers of certificates and prizes, but these are also times when the audience will react strongly and at predictable times for photography!

If you are confident in rapidly changing your viewpoint, you could try both. I took the decision that the receipt of the awards was most important.

You are at the mercy of the person or persons giving the awards here. You can try talking to them in advance to advise/coordinate how this is best done to get a good picture. With a good compare, the process is remarkably easy (Michelle Chester, I love you!). If people are moving off too fast or there is something that does prevent these important pictures from being their best. Politely interject and ask for the change. Done with authority and respect, this is again facilitated by the magic mantle of being the photographer.

Always take several pictures - you can then use the one where no-one blinked or had a strange expression!

After the Event

  • Immediately upload your photos on return from the event and do not delete the images on the memory card. you now have a backup in case one fails.
  • Go through the photos and delete the ones that are unflattering, unsharp, or the poorer of several of the same scene or individual.
  • Crop the images to remove extraneous clutter if possible and to nicely frame the subjects.
  • Adjust contrast and colour.
  • Remove any image noise if feasible.
  • Sharpen slightly.
Most images will be used online or printed at a conventional photo size e.g. 15 cm x 10 cm (6' x 4'). An image size of 2000 pixels along the long edge is more than enough for these purposes and will save you upload time and file space.

I photograph at 6000 pixels x 4000 pixels, edit the pictures and export them at 3000 pixels by 2000 pixels. These are the pictures I upload to my Google Photo albums at the default size best for web sharing of 2000 x 1536 pixels.

Sharing the Pictures

When you are all set and dome with editing, upload your pictures at a convenient size for sharing according to the wishes of the event organiser. Sometimes, pictures are to be shared privately, through a unique link. At other times, they can be displayed publicly.

The Onus is on You: A Note on Permissions and Rights

When your club asks you as a member to be the photographer, they may not be fully aware of, or thinking about permissions and rights of the images. These rights are however important. In many cases the photography and sharing occurs without this awareness and without any problems.

However, if you have been asked to photograph at an event, you have a certain responsibility to ensure that these different rights are protected.

There are a range of rights to consider, which should have  been (but rarely are) agreed in advance. These may differ slightly from country to country.

  1. The photographer automatically has the copyright to the pictures they have taken.
  2. The event organisers have the right to limit the use of photographs taken at their event.
  3. The event venue has a right to limit the use of photographs taken at their venue.
  4. Individuals photographed singly have the right to ask for their picture not to be taken or used.
  5. Parents control the rights of their children re photography and can ask for their picture not to be taken or used.
Without making things too complicated all round, what should you do?

I recommend that you ask the event organisers in advance to:
  • Check that it is OK to take photographs at their venue for their use.
  • Check that at during registration for or at the event, it is made clear that photographs will be taken and how they will be shared. If individuals do not want to be photographed, to make themselves known to the photographer or organiser.
    • That this excludes being photographed incidentally in a group (say of the audience)
  • State how the photographs are to be used/shared after the event.
Since you are taking the pictures on behalf of the event and as a Toastmasters' member, don't be precious about your copyright. You are doing this for the team. (I believe that the Toastmasters rules expressly forbid members from financially profiting from the activity)

Whatever you do, you will ALWAYS have the right of attribution - that is, to be recognised as the photographer if you so wish, but whether you insist or not, that is your personal decision.


Being volunteered to do the photography at a Toastmasters competition is a challenging task, but ultimately rewarding! I gave some tips on difficulties you might encounter and offered solutions to help you overcome them, based on my own personal experience!

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