How to Photograph a Boardgaming Event

A couple weeks ago I brought a rental camera to a local Unpub Mini, a boardgaming event that focuses on players coming together to playtest games from local designers. Here’s a write-up of what I learned. (photos on Flickr)

What’s there to know about photographing boardgames?

While there’s plenty of great ‘product’ photography of boardgames — I’m in love with the boardgame piece arrangements that beautifully display the components of games — photographing boardgames in action is a different story.

The first challenge is simple: boardgames are flat on the table but the people playing them are sitting up. You can choose to focus on one or the other, but I found the best pictures were ones where you could clearly see the game and the people playing it. I’ll talk more about the angle later, but positioning and angle were tricky to get right and vital to getting a good shot.

That said, don’t neglect close-up shots of the game to help show it off! This one of Pick & Roll is a favorite of mine.

The second challenge is one most event photographers will be familiar with — it’s crowded! You want to get photos of the people playing the game, but you don’t want the people behind them (and the people behind them, and the people behind them, and…) to be in focus or it will be distracting. This is a matter of balancing your aperture size and setting the right focal point.

The third challenge is something that surprised me a little: people don’t always look happy when playing a game. They may be simply concentrating on their next move, but you’ll end up with a photo of them dourly frowning at the game. What worked best here was waiting until something interesting happened that made people smile or laugh or talk to each other. Some games are less social than others, so this can take some patience.

Someone in Valley of the Mammoths had just flicked a game piece off the table. Timing is everything!

What worked

Taking photos from a player’s seat: If you take away one thing from this, as someone showing off a boardgame or as a photographer, it’s that the “player’s eye view” is one of the best angles you can take. The photos that came out the best were ones where there wasn’t a full table and I could situate myself directly behind one of the chairs where a player would be. It’s close enough to see the boardgame and at a great angle to see the other players.

Using the longer lens: You’ll note that in the last paragraph I said I was behind the empty spot on the table. I had brought a lens that simulated a person’s average viewing distance (35mm for you photography fans), but it turned out that being a couple feet further back made a big difference in terms of being unobtrusive. I definitely still got noticed — my camera’s noisy shutter made sure of that — but I had a lot fewer people physically turn around to see what was going on. Unsurprisingly, I got better candid shots when people weren’t distracted.

Actually being a player worked great too! Just, uh, don’t forget to take your turn.

Moving distracting elements: Soda bottles, signs, hats — all sorts of things make it onto the table that aren’t part of the boardgame. They are distracting and can seriously detract from the final picture. It takes practice to notice these things before you see them in post-processing, but scooching an errant hat or bottle out of the frame can make a big difference. Just remember to put stuff back!

What didn’t

Wide-open aperture: In my attempt to get dynamic-looking photos, I often opened up the aperture to get a very small area in focus and blur the rest of the photo (as low as f/1.8). These shots didn’t look bad on the camera, but I ended up ditching most of the more ‘dynamic’ photos in post-processing. This technique might work better on a lens with a better blurred look (i.e., bokeh). Boardgames that have interesting components that stand up on the table can also look good like this, but at that point you’re taking a glamour shot of the component and not the boardgame.

This super-dynamic shot of Access was at f/4.0. Anything lower than that would have too little in focus.

Not giving yourself space in the frame: I brought a higher-resolution camera than I’m used to using (full-frame vs crop sensor, if you’re wondering), and I’ve gotten used to not being able to do close crops in post-processing without losing quality — especially with pictures taken indoors. Because of that, one of the most frequent mistakes I made was getting too close to take a picture and leaving important stuff out of the frame. There were many cases when I wished I had backed up a little bit more rather than getting half a person in the frame.

Getting between players: Due to crowding and space issues, I tried a few pictures where I was shooting through the space between two players. It didn’t work. It really just didn’t work.

This shot of The Dragon & Flagon is one of the very few shots taken between players that made the cut.

Not taking breaks: The event ran from 1pm to 8pm and many people started early. I arrived at 12:30pm and by 2pm I wanted to crawl into a corner. Had I interspersed the photography a little more with sitting down and playing a few games, I would have been a lot less miserable and probably gotten better pictures. Event photography takes a physical and mental toll — I definitely should have at least packed water.

Not reading up on the games beforehand: I knew many of the designers and their games being shown at this event, but I made the mistake of not reading up on the ones I didn’t. Not all designers have table signs or business cards, and I had to chase down info for any boardgame whose name didn’t make it into the frame. Next time I‘ll definitely take a reference list with me. That will also help me avoid another minor problem I had: I took some shots of published games because they were being played in the same space as the event. Whoops!

Some Games Look Better Than Others

I did my best to give each game at the event roughly the same amount of attention. But in the end, I got a lot more good photos out of some games than others. This was certainly partly due to human error, but at the same time, some games just photograph better.

What can I do to make my game photograph better?

Make your components easy to read and colorful: Game designers are encouraged not to worry about the look of their prototypes while designing, and for good reason — it’s time you could be spending on designing the game. That said, having the cards and other components stand out from the table helps a lot in photos. Large colorful elements are great (think colorful card borders, you don’t need to get fancy), but even if your components are black and white you can still use large, bold text to create cards that stand out.

Lightspan is literally hand-written but still looked great with creative use of colored markers.

Make a table sign: Table signs are a great vertical element that help give your game presence on the table. Including your name is also a great way to help forgetful photographers credit you when posting photos of your game online. I’ve presented at these events, and I totally get that once you’re finally done prepping the last-minute changes to your game the last thing you want to do is make a table sign, but it really helps!

Pencil Park doesn’t have big flashy components, but a great table sign made for a great photo.

Sit down. Many designers prefer to stand while presenting and watching their game to save on chairs and to make it easier to reach across the table to handle components. There’s nothing wrong with that, but for photography specifically, it can make the framing very tricky. It can also be distracting if you’re in the background while players are playing the game. If you are standing during a shot it’s really no big deal, but from my perspective as a photographer, I’d rather take a photo of your face than your belt!

Thanks, everyone!

Overall I had a fantastic experience photographing the Unpub Mini. When photographing crowded events I often am keenly aware of how much space I’m taking up and how distracting I am to people — frankly, I feel obnoxious. But everyone took the photography in great stride (almost — I’m really sorry, girl who hid behind the table sign!) and everyone I spoke to was encouraging and enthusiastic. I hope you enjoyed the photos and maybe even learned a bit from this report. Thanks for reading!

And for goodness’ sakes, Daniel, quit blinking in every shot I take of you!

Hey wait, what can I do if I want to use one of those photos?

If you’re a designer or publisher and I took a photo of your game, contact me @vmearl on Twitter! The default licensing on Flickr is for the public; I’m more than happy to extend commercial licenses to designers. It’s your game, after all!