Capturing Tech Leaders and Innovators at Leeds Digital Festival

By Maddie Armstrong

Leeds Digital Festival has brought together individuals of all sorts of expertises, across two weeks packed with enlightening events taking place through all of Leeds city centre. From small auditoriums to vibrant cultural hubs, hundreds of like minded individuals have gathered in spaces to network with one another and celebrate the digital world. 

Last week on Monday we visited BJSS to shoot minister Paul Scully during his conversation with CEO of Tech Talent Charter Debbie Forster, as well as an earlier roundtable. Mark and I focused on getting shots of the real talk that was happening as others intently listened: often dipping between pairs of shoulders for some gentle foreground filler while shooting candids of the conversation in the meeting room, followed by wider shots during the fireside chat to bring the whole room together. Plenty of natural light spilled into the room thanks to the glass walls, enabling us to get some generously-lit shots without needing to compensate.

The same, perhaps, could not be said for my shoot at Digital Bites last Thursday. Digital Bites served as an opportunity for young innovators with less speaking experience to get up on stage and present insight and tips across different avenues of digital marketing. The talks were often slightly stuffed with forced extroversion and millennial humour, and the more visibly nervous of speakers relied on the presentation screen to display quotes and famous memes (internet jokes) to more engage the audience. 

The seats of this small venue were filled and there were about 100 digital marketers in attendance. The event offered free Merlot, or, for those who were driving, soft drinks nestled in an ice bucket, as well as a water dispenser at the back of this small, dimly lit room. Occasionally the courageous individual would scuffle to the back table to get themselves a drink as quietly as possible - something quite difficult to achieve considering the circumstances. As there was only one way to walk from one end of the room to another, each latecomer was subject to a walk of shame, and often ducked to get out of shot. 

The lighting and layout of the room left little to work with in terms of interesting and dynamic shots. For each young speaker that jogged down to the front, I was praying they’d stand under the one lone spotlight amidst the otherwise gaping blackness of the murky lighting setup. Aesthetics, of course, are not tech innovators’ No.1 priority when it comes to gathering together in a small auditorium to make connections and share industry tips. However, it would’ve increased the small crowd’s engagement to the speakers were they actually visible. Most of the shots needed plenty of work in post to bring down the harsh white highlights and bump up the overbearing shadows. 

But that’s not the only obstacle we had to overcome. Even at a fairly slow shutter speed, the room was so dark that my Canon’s ISO had to compensate greatly - leaving me with a screen of grain so harsh it looked like the room had a mosquito infestation once those shadows were lifted. Sometimes you’re left with nothing but a justified confidence that you can, and will, save the image in post. Bless Photoshop’s AI-powered denoise tool Enhance, which took several minutes at a time brushing away the crumbs of some very gritty images and transforming them into a smooth, polished picture (but not too smooth, lest we get carried away). 

I also made sure to add a notch of saturation to make the most of connective3’s colourful backdrops. This is, after all, an exciting event for those in attendance, so the images should encapsulate its vibrant atmosphere. With a touch of clarity and vignette, the focuses of the images are drawn back into the centre, allowing a viewer to feel more like they’re part of the audience in the foreground.

Sometimes a photography job is easy. Sometimes the lighting is just perfect; there’s a perfect harmony between sufficient illumination in the background and spotlight on the subject, and you’re in a stunning auditorium with space to run around from all four corners. Sometimes it’s the opposite, and you’ve got a lot of work to do. But what isn’t affected by lighting or setting are people’s genuine moments. Photography is the art of pausing time, and as long as we’ve captured something real and effective, no matter how much “saving” the image needed, then we’ve done the job right.

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