About a month ago I started looking for volunteer work since it looked like finding a new job would probably be difficult until after the holidays and I was going crazy being at home all day with nothing but soaps and court shows on TV all day. While trying to find volunteer work like I've done in the past -maybe preparing or serving food for the homeless or cleaning kennels at the humane society I met a woman who was absolutely thrilled that I did photography. The dog rescue organization she worked for needed photography done for petfinder.com as well as for their own website, flyers, articles they'd send to the newspaper, etc. But her day-job needed a photographer even more!
It turns out she works for a local Children's Museum and they were so desperate for photography that with no volunteers they had bought a Nikon SLR, 2 lenses and a flash for staff to use. They were using it on Auto in a poorly lit environment and hadn't gotten the best results with it, as you can imagine (their flash was on Manual and they had no idea why it looked so bad when they used it!) But, they've had ongoing problems finding photographers to take photos of children interacting with their exhibits. In fact, they've been using some photos over and over in their promotional material and website for over 10 years and are SO happy to get a chance for some new photos to use! So, I went down there to talk to them about volunteering my photography skills and WOW! were they excited. (And I was scared to death!)
My first assignment would be to attend the volunteer holiday party to take photos of the donated food and door prizes to send to the donor companies as a "thank you" and to show how their products were promoted as part of the event. I was also to take candids of the attendees, set up shots of all door prize winners, and photos of a play that was to happen. I showed up with my 30D, flash, $5 cap diffuser, Canon 50mm f/1.8 II, Sigma 30mm f/1.4, and Canon 100mm f/2.8. Here's what I learned from that first shoot:
1. Shadows from flash: They staged the door prize winners right in front of a door and because I was shooting vertically, my flash was sticking out to the right instead of coming from above. This resulted in deep, well defined shadows to the left of each person even with the diffuser on the flash. (Bouncing the flash off the ceiling was not possible because the ceiling was bare beams painted a different bright color in each room).
Solution: Next time I'll take along my camera/flash bracket so that when I'm taking photos vertically the flash can still be coming from above the lens rather than from the side (which gave harsh shadows on walls behind the subject).
2. Lack of preparation / say: Everything was done in a rush at the party, so I didn't have an opportunity to think about positioning people away from the door to minimize their shadows. And I was only told that there would be a play "over there" later. Someone came and grabbed me just after the play started and the place I had scoped out to stand and take photos ended up being used by some dancers that were part of the play, so many of my shots contained the tops of the audience's heads because places for me to stand were very limited.
Solution: I'll ask if I can get there earlier to get an idea of what will be going on and so I can suggest changes to the room setup and decor to help with photography. For example, the place where they wanted door prize winners to stand -I would have moved a snowflake decoration that seemed to grow out of some people's heads and also put gaffers tape on the floor where I wanted them to stand so they wouldn't be so close to the door. Seeing any rehearsals for the play would have really helped as well, or time to talk to the people who organized it about the space they'd be using and possibly setting aside a place for me up front to take photos from.
3. Candids vs Set-up Shots: Candids are nice, but the set-up shots I took of most adults ended up looking better.
Solution: I should either jump in more and try to get shots set up (which is hard for me, I'm a little too shy for people photography) or find an assistant to do that.
4. Not remembering what I've already shot. One of the main things the client wanted was shots of the food table to send to the sponsor, Jason's Deli, who provided all the delicious food for the party. I only ended up with 4 photos! I started there, took a few photos, then got pulled away. And when I went back to take a few more photos of the food and found
the table to be a little messy, I decided (or more accurately "thought") I had gotten enough photos of the table before. When I got home and realized I had only gotten 1 decent shot and only 3 others I was mortified!
Solution: Next time I'll be sure to take a few breaks to review the shots I've taken to get an idea of how well I've been adhering to the client's wants while I can still do something about it!
5. Watch your focus! Many shots were not in clear focus. There were only a couple that are really as sharp as they could have been. Being in a very dim, cluttered, and cramped environment, I sat at about f/2.8 most of the time. I have my AF set on the "*" button on my Canon 30D. It's possible that in the time it takes me to go from the "*" button to the
shutter button to take the photo I moved slightly or the subject moved slightly and that resulted in less than sharp photos.
Solutions: Be careful to not focus before people are ready and smiling, but afterwards and right before taking the shot. I'm also toying with the idea of maybe putting focus back on the shutter button (half-press) so I can't screw it up next time. ...we'll see.
In the end, the client was happy with the shots, so I'm lucky that they aren't as picky as I am. But, if I can put all the lessons I took from this first shoot and apply them to the next one I think they'll be even happier.
If you have the equipment and knowledge to try something like this, I highly recommend that you contact some non-profits in your area. Humane societies, children's museums, etc all seem to need photographers to volunteer their skills. In return you get some great practice and often publicity when your photos are used in their printed materials. It's a win-win; I've learned a TON already. It's well worth stepping outside of your comfort zone for!