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Exhibit Photography
We just bought a new exhibit, and we'd like to document its presence at various industry trade shows. What options do I have in terms of photographers who will understand the nuances of shooting on the show floor?

Booth photos are an excellent marketing tool to add to your arsenal. They can be used for everything from promoting your presence at upcoming shows to entering exhibit-design/marketing competitions to showing shareholders where the marketing dollars are being spent. Granted, you don't need to photograph every booth you own at every show you attend. But particularly at large shows, those where you have a significant presence, or events where you're launching a new product, booth, or marketing strategy, it's a good idea to take at least some kind of photos to document your presence.

To help you determine which type of photographer is right for you, here's a primer on the three basic options.

In-House "Expert"

When you're trying to determine if an in-house photographer will do, first figure out how you plan to use the resulting photos. If they'll be used as a promotional marketing tool (maybe in direct mailers or on the events page of your company's website), your best bet is to hire a professional. Not only do most trade show photographers have the right equipment, such as light meters and ladders, but they've probably worked with and around show-management and union regulations. Plus, they probably know what's required to obtain after-hours show-hall access to photograph your exhibit free of people. And of course, they should understand the unique nuances of the trade show floor, including everything from dim lighting to blinding glare to the simple fact that it's difficult to effectively capture the entire exhibit in a single shot.

If, however, you want to use the photos for internal purposes - maybe to show off the new property to management or even train your booth staff about messaging or traffic flow - you probably don't need a professional. However, there are several things to consider before you ask in-house employees to photograph your booth.

Obviously, you need to make sure the in-house photographer is aware of the odd nuances described above, and that he or she understands the importance of high-resolution images as well as a variety of broad perspective and detail shots. But if you plan to assign the photography task to someone already attending the show, remember that this extra job will likely interfere with his or her intended role at the show. On the other hand, if you plan to bring someone to the show for the sole purpose of shooting the booth, you'll also incur additional travel costs, and you may be better off financially by hiring a professional based in the show city.

What's more, even if someone within the company has worked as a professional photographer - say a wedding photographer, or maybe he or she shoots advertising-quality photos of your products - that doesn't necessarily make him or her a qualified to photograph your exhibit. Again, the trade show floor is a unique place, unlike any other venue, and as such, it requires special lighting, metering, and framing techniques that the majority of professional photographers just haven't mastered.

Official Show Photographer

Show management will usually provide access to an official trade show photographer as part of the exhibitors' space-rental agreement. Review the show-services form for show-specific information.

Show photographers typically take a documentary approach. That is, they will take shots that record your overall presence, as opposed to framing specific areas of the booth to highlight your exhibit design, product displays, signage, etc. Plus, they don't usually provide extras, such as additional lighting, light diffusers, and overhead angles.

These photographers usually contract with exhibitors to take a specific number of shots and perspectives. Their equipment typically includes a tripod, an on-camera flash, and maybe a small ladder. They often work alone, or perhaps with one assistant who might also have a handheld flash. On average, they spend 15 to 60 minutes shooting your booth, depending on the number of other jobs they've
arranged at the show and their specific agreement with you.

Since the show photographer likely has a long list of exhibits to shoot during the show, and a limited amount of time in which to obtain those shots, I refer to this as a "run and gun" style of photography. You get high-quality, straightforward shots, but you don't get a ton of images, and your time with the photographer is limited.
Nevertheless, if you simply need high-quality, high-resolution "record" style shots, trade show photographers are a godsend. They're usually efficient and professional, and they make their living on the show floor, so they understand its nuances. What's more, they cost considerably less than almost all independent photographers.

Independent Photographers

There are millions of professional photographers to choose from, but sending anyone but a trade show photography specialist to a show is asking for trouble. Sure, a wedding photographer or portrait specialist probably has a lot of the equipment required. But again, the unique challenges of a trade show floor can turn even the most seasoned general photographer into a greenhorn.

Typically, the independent trade show photographer will work with you and show management to set up a photo shoot before or after show hours. He or she may also request that venue lighting be restricted or shut off entirely to put other exhibits in the dark and block them out of the photos. Independent photographers often have a considerable amount of equipment, including tall ladders, additional lights, diffusers, meters, etc.

On average, they spend two to four hours setting up shots and photographing your booth. Prior to the shoot, you and your photographer will discuss the type, number, and variety of shots you want, and you'll get a customized shoot to fit your needs, as opposed to selecting from a list of pre-made packages.

Clearly, independent photographers generally provide the best quality and variety of shots among your three main photography options. However, these benefits come at a price. Not only is an independent photographer your most expensive option, but you may also incur his or her travel costs. As with any type of commercial photography, services offered, and therefore pricing for those services, will run the gamut. It's hardly an apples-to-apples comparison between a show photographer's limited offerings and the wide range of services you can contract for in the commercial market; however, you can expect to pay at least double for the independent photographer, and the sky's the limit from there.

So before you sign on the dotted line with a top-notch professional photographer - or you entrust one of your salespeople or product specialists with the "exhibit-photography" job - make sure your needs match the type of photographer you want to hire. Make the right match, and you'll end up with appropriate exhibit photos that can be used for anything from internal show reports for management to external marketing purposes.

- Patrick St. Clair, owner, St. Clair Photo-Imaging, Henrietta, NY

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