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Living with Photography: Shooting CES 2014

By Norman Chan

My goals for taking photos at this year's Consumer Electronics Show.

You didn't think that just because I'm at CES, I'd leave you a week without a new column, right? A promise is a promise, and I'm going to stay on track with this schedule. But yes, CES isn't just the first big even we're at this year to cover and shoot video, it's also the first opportunity I have to take some new camera equipment into the field and put practice to use. And even though the convention show floor hasn't even opened yet (Tuesday is its first day), this Living with Photography post is a commitment and reminder that I should take a ton of photos of the event. After press conference day and one evening event, I have fewer than three dozen photos stored on my camera. That's unacceptable. Norman, you will take a lot more. You must.

This will be the first CES that I have my Canon DSLR, along with that new 24-70mm f/2.8 lens that I got over the holiday break. That's a huge upgrade over the Sony NEX I carried last year, and also the most versatile camera body-lens combination I've had at any event, period. This is the kind of camera-lens combination that real photographers use to shoot weddings--personal expectations are high. And in my one day of using this camera at CES so far, several lessons have already come to light.

First is just how heavy this DSLR and zoom lens really is. One of you asked in our CES gear video why I didn't have a camera strap attached to the 6D, and the truth is that I've grown accustomed to not using a strap at all with the camera. I didn't bring the BlackRapid rs-4 on the trip, and planned on carrying the camera by hand during the day, switching between different hands and grips to keep my fingers from getting sore or stiff. Maybe it's for that reason that the 6D stayed in my Crumpler shoulder bag for much of the day. I have no idea how my hands will fare on the convention show floor tomorrow holding this lens all day. It makes me wish for one of those top-mounted handles that Joey uses on his video camera rig. If anyone has experience with those for DSLRs, I'd love to know about it.

The second thing I've discovered is how great the 24-70mm focal length range is for photographing speakers and stage presentations. The difference between 24mm and 70mm is enough to yield a diverse crop of photos from a single presentation: wide angle to see the entire stage when necessary (as in the Samsung press conference photo above), zoomed in enough to lock in on a single presenter (as in the above photo of Gabe Newell at the Valve press conference), and every focal length in between. I've been keeping the lens at f/2.8 the whole time to get as much light as possible in these dark press conference rooms, shooting on manual settings with shutter at 1/80sec and ISO cranked to 800. That's new ground for me, but I'm getting more comfortable with pushing ISO up to 1600 to still get usable photos on the full-frame sensor. It came in especially handy at the Valve event when taking photos of the prototype Steam Controller, shown below.

I also totally acknowledge that 70mm really isn't that much of a telephoto focal length, when some photographers using Canon's workhorse 24-105mm f/4 zoom that's effectively 168mm on an APS-C DSLR (1.6x crop factor). But cropping into a 20MP photo for web publishing does the trick.

This post is also a personal reminder to approach CES with new eyes, and to try to make the most of the opportunity to take some interesting non-product photos. The shots I typically take at this kind of product-centric event serve very specific purposes. They're photos of new gadgets and gear to complement articles (of which we won't have many, without a field reporting team this year), go along with our videos as thumbnails, or to pocket for future coverage. Every time I take out the camera, my mind thinks about where I could possibly use that photo for a future story. We may not be writing about LG's Flex smartphone shown at this morning's press conference, but I took photos of it to add to a personal collection of stock photos in case it's ever referenced or relevant. That's how my brain's been trained to think about event photography, and I want to move away from that.

Instead of just products and people, I want to take more photos of interesting moments at CES. One eye should always on the look out for something awesome or ridiculous, or just a striking scene that is unique to this experience. I suppose that's called photojournalism, and it's something that I don't have any formal training in or much experience with. Just like product photography, learning is done through a combination of practice and taking inspiration from others. There's nothing wrong with looking at other photographers' photos and wanting to emulate them. What's important is that you understand what it is you're trying to emulate; what is it about a photographer's style that resonates with you or that differs from how you normally shoot? Admiration should really be thought of as a form of self-reflection.

And right now, the tech photojournalists I admire the most work at Wired magazine. They're Ariel Zambelich and Alex Washburn, whose product and event photography I study with envious eyes and spark dozens of mental notes. (Alex Washburn's Comic-Con gallery from last year blew me away.) They're proficient in a language I only babble in, but it's one that I immediately get--anyone who's taken photos of more than a hundred different laptops and smartphones speaks it. (Come to think of it, this also applies to tech writing.)

So if it's not too late in the new year to make a resolution, I use this space to make one for the rest of this week: to come back from CES with photos that'll be worthy of that inspiration--one that I'll be proud enough to share with you guys. No pressure.