Extravagaria V—Photographing Conferences (Advanced)

A Workshop At OOPSLA 2009

October 25–29, 2009

Orlando, Florida

Richard P. Gabriel & Kevin Sullivan

Photographing a conference is a serious matter. Major commercial conferences like TED and the O’Reilly conferences hire professionals to capture their meetings both for advertising and historical purposes. OOPSLA typically has a historically important set of people speaking and attending, and every OOPSLA holds the possibility of premiering a major new idea in computing. The problem with most professional photographers, though, is that they don’t know who to photograph aside from speakers and panelists—but we do. In this workshop you will learn and hone intermediate and advanced technical and aesthetic techniques for good conference photography, and you will practice these techniques during OOPSLA. Work will be critiqued using a writers’ workshop process to enable you to continue learning and improving after the workshop. Participants will be expected to attend a full-day of lectures and interactive learning activities as well as photograph Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday with short, early morning writers’ workshops on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday.

Main Theme and Goals

The desire to take pictures at conferences has grown dramatically with inexpensive digital photography and numerous outlets on the Net for photos—Flickr, Dropshots, Photobucket, Webshots, Ringo, and Fotki, just to name a couple. There is, however, a serious need for good photography at conferences these days. Plainly stated: Our pioneers are aging and for history’s sake, we must keep a record of these pioneers in their natural habitat.

In 2007, when Guy Steele and Richard Gabriel were preparing their keynote for the 3rd History of Programming Languages Conference, they were faced with the task of locating photos of 23 programming language researchers whose work they discussed and who has passed away. They found it next to impossible to find photographs of the individuals “at work”—at conferences, in the classroom, and in their labs. Further, it was not possible to find high-quality photos.

Today’s technical and scientific conferences are more lively, more colorful, and more fully represent the work of real communities than perhaps they have in the past, and capturing them, though not as important as capturing the technical content in archives, is nevertheless important. Great historical events are covered by photojournalists, and why shouldn’t technical and scientific conferences be part of that?

Conference advertising requires photos. Candid shots showing the social strengths of a conference, the range of people and events, and the ways technical content is presented are needed for advertising.

Most years, after the doors open at OOPSLA and until the actual start of the conference, a slideshow of past OOPSLAs is shown, and for many, this establishes the mood and context for the conference about to be experienced.

However, taking good photographs of a conference is not a matter of bringing a digital camera and snapping away. There are both technical and aesthetic aspects, and one can be good or not so good at those things.

At OOPSLA 2008 Kevin and I ran the introductory version of this workshop, and some of the results can be seen here: http://www.flickr.com/groups/cshistory/pool/

This year our goal is to step up one or two levels, asking the workshop participants to begin or continue their advancement toward being experts at conference photography. We will examine two possibly divergent approaches to conference photography—really just two ends of a spectrum. The obvious one is the perfect record approach, in which the goal is tack sharp, photorealistic depictions of the conference, especially its speakers and other dignitaries. An excellent practitioner of this is James Duncan Davidson who once was an important open-source developer (Tomcat and Ant) and now is a professional photographer, particularly of conferences. You can view his work here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/x180. This approach minimizes the presence of the photographer, though the photographer’s “fingerprints” can still often be found all over his or her photos.

The other is an artistic impression or interpretation of the conference, and can be called fine art conference photography. One purpose of this style is to add an emotional dimension to the photographs, based on composition, choice of subjects, point of view, lighting, and photoshop manipulations. The point to these choices is to highlight some part of the photo or to draw attention to it, perhaps in a particular way. Unusual Photoshop manipulations—harsh light, half sepia, cold light, etc—can bring out the humanity of the subjects, add a comment about the setting, can make you gaze at some parts of the photo, or make you want to look away. The photographer here is acting both as a photojournalist—being careful to not misrepresent what actually took place at the conference—and as an artist, sort of like a court sketch artist or even like Picasso with his painting, Guernica.

One way to think about the two styles is that one is like newspaper journalism and the other is like creative nonfiction—in the first, you are being totally faithful to the facts and in the second, you are using the techniques of fine-art photography to present a true photographic story.

For some samples of the fine-art approach to conference photography look at the Squaw Valley set here:


Activities and Format

Note: The workshop is a full day on Sunday, October 25, 2009 + short (about an hour) photographers' workshops on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday mornings before OOPSLA starts—that is, early.

The workshop is broken into 3 parts: lectures and group learning; taking photos; and engaging in a writers’ workshop style critique of the work produced.

The lectures and group learning take place on the first day of the workshop—preferably Sunday. During this time we will talk about the tricky parts of conference photography, such as the poor lighting conditions (and how to fix that), requirements to not be intrusive, and composition challenges, as well as some of the more advanced photo-editing techniques that will give your photos either that polished professional look (tack sharp, perfect balance and density, and deep, rich colors) or a personal, eclectic, or edgy look à la Chase Jarvis (inky, harsh, and overly contrasty: http://www.chasejarvis.com/).

Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday are for taking pictures—lots of them. Participants and the workshop leaders will be expected to prowl the conference taking photos. Participants can work together, alone, or with the workshop leaders. Impromptu lessons might come into play.

Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday mornings—early, before the conference starts—are for group critique of the 1 or 2 best photos produced by each student the previous day. The writers’ workshop style of critique will be used, as is commonly used in software patterns conferences.

Throughout, we’ll expect workshop participants to teach their particular expertise—we don’t assume that Kevin and Richard are the best photographers in the group. The purpose of the workshop is to spread knowledge and skills from everyone to everyone.

An upload site (Flickr) will be available for participants to display their work. We might request a flat screen in the Courtyard area for continual display of work in progress.

If feasible, an additional end product of the workshop will be a collection of physical prints.

Participant Preparation

Participants will need to have a DSLR camera, a laptop running Photoshop (full Photoshop, not Elements) or Lightroom, and all the means necessary to upload their photos to their laptops. They should have a thorough understanding of how to operate their cameras, and if not expert in all its capabilities, they should bring the manuals for their cameras; they should be facile with (but not necessarily expert at) Photoshop (or Lightroom).

One or more lenses with focal lengths from wide to telephoto (e.g. 24mm–200mm equivalent on a full-frame SLR) is recommended. A fast lens capability (e.g., f/2.8 or faster) is strongly recommended for indoor shooting. A flash is recommended, preferably an external flash (rather than a built-in).

A tripod or monopod would be useful.

There may be an optional reading list.

Each participant should come prepared to teach the group about what you consider your best skill or knowledge.

Post-Workshop Activities

Further processing of the photos on the upload site is the main activity. Depending on interst, there may be further online workshopping of the results, especially the photos taken on Thursday. The results of the workshop will be made publicly available.


Richard P. Gabriel holds a Master of Fine Arts in Creative writing. He has been the semi-official photographer for OOPSLA for the last 2 years. He learned the basics of photography as a child and was his year’s yearbook photographer in high school, specializing in surprising candid shots. Throughout high school and college he filmed high school football teams for coaching staff (movie film), along the way learning how to change film in a cherry picker during a sleet storm alone in between plays without missing any downs. In between he has been an avid but sporadic photographer, the last few years gaining experience and skill with digital photography and Photoshop. He introduced the writers’ workshop to the software patterns community, has written a book on using writers’ workshops in a variety of writing and non-writing situations, and has developed his own workshop leading style which he has taught to others for 5 years. Some of his recent conference photographs have appeared in CACM, in an Italian software magazine, and as the cover of a book of poetry. He uses a Canon 5D Mark II and a Canon A2E (film camera).

Kevin Sullivan is Associate Professor of Computer Science at the University of Virginia. His photography has appeared in such artistic publications as Software Engineering Notes. He has photographed conferences and surroundings including AOSD, OOPSLA, ESEC, and ICSE. He has been learning and practicing (digital) photography for several years. He generally aims to produce physical prints, often black and white, in 16" x 20" and similar larger formats. His photographs are usually of people or of special spaces. He uses Canon DSLR camera bodies and lenses as well as old Olympus manual-focus lenses, and he prints on larger-format Epson printers.

Admission to the Workshop

Admission is by invitation only. The main qualification is to be interested in taking quality, creative photographs of your colleagues along with a willingness to learn and explore. Please email to the organizers (extravagaria <at sign> dreamsongs <period> com, but no spaces) the following:

We will accept people into the workshop as applications come in, up to the day of the workshop if there is room. We can admit at most 20.

Although you must register for the conference, once admitted to this workshop you will be granted "press" access to all sessions and conference rooms.