Sal Sessa is an event photographer—which means that on any given assignment he could be called on to tackle performances, presentations, portraits, sports, exteriors, interiors, groups, even the occasional food shot. When we spoke with him our first thought was that there aren't too many photographers who handle the wide variety of images that are all in a day's work for him.
Then we had a second thought: of course there are.
There are countless photographers who face just such an eclectic mix on any weekend, any vacation, any holiday, any family outing. In fact, chances are you're among that legion of jack of all trades photo enthusiasts who are in it for the pure pleasure of turning the eventful moments in your life into lasting memories.
Sal's versatility and his confidence come from his experience as a photojournalist. "It prepares you for anything," he says of the time he spent shooting for local newspapers. "You throw your stuff in the trunk, get in the car with your list of things to shoot that day and go get it." He learned to be observant, to work quickly and creatively, to think on his feet and solve problems on the run. And when he solved them, he remembered how he did it; and when he made a mistake, he remembered how not to make it again.
Sal turned to event photography about 20 years ago. "Back in 1990 there were no 'corporate event photographers'—no category or catchphrase," he says, "but I saw an opening. There seemed to be some potential for working with corporations and companies. There were a ton of events in Dallas, and a lot of corporations constantly having conventions, meetings, trade shows. I figured they must need a photographer, and I wanted to become that guy." Long story short, he did.
Along the way one of the most important things he learned was to show up at the gig fully prepared for anything. "When I shoot an event I bring more with me than most photographers," he says. "I don't want to get caught short without the right gear. I bring three camera bodies, six lenses, four Speedlights, studio lights, light stands, a tripod and bags of batteries. Everything is in two cases on a rolling cart. No matter the size of the event, I always carry the same stuff; better to have it and not need it. At the event, I get a six-foot-long table, park it in a corner and lay all my gear out."
Next comes familiarity with the gear. Simply, you have to know it so well that you don't even think about it, and that kind of knowledge comes only from repetitive use. "Repetition builds confidence," Sal says, "and people admire and trust a photographer who has confidence."
Depending on the job and the needs of the client, Sal will take one of two roles at an event. "Sometimes the organizers will want me to be a fly on the wall," he says, and in that case he'll work the edges of the event and capture his images from an observer's vantage point. "But sometimes they'll want me to move around and shoot, to get more into the action. It can depend on the size of the room. If it's a large room with, say, 5,000 people and a big stage and it's dark, I can get away with running around a little bit. In a small room with a hundred people...well, every time I move I'll draw attention to myself."
Small room or large, Sal will almost always be accompanied by his tripod. "It's easier to put the camera on a tripod and keep it there," he says. "It's stable, I can easily frame the picture, I can pan a little, tilt a little, use slow shutter speeds—and I'm not holding the camera all the time."
But it's balanced by his favorite thing: "A client who says, 'Do what you want to do, the way you want to do it.' "
The accompanying pictures sum it all up—the variety of images Sal is called upon to produce, the range of subjects and circumstances, the diversity of locations and the always be prepared, always be in control attitude that's as constant a companion as his rolling cart of photo gear.
Tips for Photographing Your Special Events
Bring It. Not all of it, not the way Sal does, but you know what gear you like to work with—and especially which lenses do the job for you. You might take a tip from Sal's special liking for the way his 24-70mm f/2.8G and 70-200mm f/2.8G range from wide to far to cover most situations.
Vary It. Every event is a sequence of smaller events, a collection of big gestures and small details, so get wide shots and tight shots, near shots and far shots. And remember to turn the camera to add some vertical views to your coverage.
Light It Up. Nikon Speedlights are automatic and practically intuitive. Practice ahead of time so you can quickly bring them into play to fill in shadows, add a touch of light just where it's needed and create dramatic, effective lighting. And you don't have to bring a light stand for off-camera shots; surely there'll be a friend or family member to hand a flash to.
Work the Room. Take what's offered by the scene and the situation. If you can't easily direct people away from a distracting background, make it work for you as part of the graphic effect; or use a large aperture for the shallow depth of field that'll blur it.