SNAFU – Secret Life Of An Event Photographer


The acronym that describes the life of a professional photographer, particularly one who specialises in event photography. Don’t know what it means? Well, keep on reading, and I’ll reveal what it all means in due time, and why it maintains such a close relationship with the event photographer.


First up, let’s take a look at the typical work that event photographers do. Covering events generally means recording anything and everything that happens during an event. It can be as simple and informal as covering a birthday celebration or an office Christmas party; or it can be as complex and full of adrenaline as a sports photographer covering the finish-line of the Olympics 100m sprint, or a photojournalist covering the crowning moment of the recent 2015 Miss Universe pageant.

What I’m trying to say is that shooting events can be really unpredictable, just like in this video.

While the organisers would most probably have the schedule down to the smallest detail, and to the strictest time allocation, they may or may not choose to share it with you. Many times, photographers are expected to “play-by-ear”, and just go along with it as things unfold. And this is where experience comes into play. Believe it or not, sometimes, a highly experienced event photographer would probably have a better read to the situation than the organisers themselves.

Be Prepared

I remember my old scouting days, as a primary school student. The scout’s motto that has now been stuck to the back of my mind – Be Prepared. I didn’t really know what it meant back then, but as I eventually left the scouting movement, and went on with my life, this motto really did come in very useful. Be prepared for anything and everything.


Thank you, Lieutenant General Robert Stephenson Smyth Baden-Powell, for all of the knowledge and skill taught to me through the scout movement.

Back to our story – as most professional photographers would have started off shooting events, before going into their own chosen niche in the profession, I too started this way. I had more than my fair share of shooting weddings, opening ceremonies, product launches, annual dinners, etc. And if I learnt one thing from all these event shoots, it’s to expect the unexpected.

Expect The Unexpected

As a professional in any field, you’re expected to master the use of your tools. In my case, the total control and intimate knowledge of use for every individual piece of my complex (and often expensive) photographic equipment.

Then you also have to be prepared for any piece to fail, and at the most inappropriate time. Flash units may fail – have a secondary flash unit available and on standby. Primary lens may fail – have a second lens available, and move to the appropriate distance to maximise the focal coverage. Rechargeable batteries for the flash units may fall flat – have back up alkaline batteries on standby. Rechargeable battery unit for camera may fail – have a second fully charged battery on standby. Walkie-talkie fail – either cover your partner’s portion of the shoot as well, or develop your own hand-signals so that you can communicate with your partner over the distance and/or above the ambient noise at the event.

Hmmm… Is That All?…

Not quite… That’s only the technical part. You also have to be prepared for the unexpected events unfolding too. Wrong beauty queen crowned (the video example above) – continue to cover, and shift emphasise on the next subject. There may be power outage, or lights out for the VIP march in – plan out your secondary walk-path to have whatever ambient light to assist your vision as you move about, as well as to enable low light focusing. Weather change for an outdoor event, party to move to alternative indoor venue – quickly scout out layout and shooting plan. Last minute slot in of an unexpected lucky draw – switch emphasis to alternative subject.

And that’s only a small part of what I have personally experienced. I’m sure other photographers experienced in event shooting will add on the list with their own unique encounters too.

So the moral of the story is – Expect The Unexpected. And always Be Prepared for the unexpected to happen, then adjust your plans accordingly. You’ve always watched Hollywood movies depicting the need to switch to a Plan-B. But in real life, it’s more like preparing for Plan-D, or -E, or even -F.

It’s sort of like you know and expect that things are not going to go according to plan. You might as well incorporate the unexpected into your plans. That way, when things do go awry (believe me, it will), you won’t be caught off guard.

Origin Of The Acronym SNAFU

Nobody really knows where the word originates, but most experts agree that it has its roots in military operations back in World War 2. The acronym SNAFU stands for Situation Normal, All F**ked Up.

I guess military operations back then (and maybe since then too?) are always expected to not go the way that it was planned. And things not going according to plans are the norm rather than the exception. So what has a military term got to do with photography?… Everything!…

Based on my own experience alone, I have yet to come across an event, any event, whether an informal and private small event, or a highly organised and high-profile public event, that actually goes according to plan. It’s like you know not everything will go according to plan, and something, anything, will just fail to go according to plan. And that is considered to be “normal”, hence the word SNAFU.

Is SNAFU Really That Normal?

Oh yes it is. In the world of event photography, and sometimes other niches of photography too. You won’t regret being over-prepared for any shoot. Even in the relatively mundane fashion shoot in the comfort of an air-conditioned studio, there’ll always be SNAFU, like blowing a flash tube in the middle of a shoot, a model who decides not to show up for the shoot, stylist decides to change the theme of the shoot at the last minute, and a whole lot more.

So what do you do when SNAFU happens? And how do you cope with it? Well, first and foremost, keep your head calm. You’ve already expected it, and you can calmly shift over to Plan-B, and inform the relevant people of the changes. Then proceed to execute the pre-planned Plan-B.

Of course you can’t expect things to go as as the original plan. So make sure the client knows that SNAFU happened, and knows not to expect the result from the shoot as per the earlier agreement.

Is There Anything Worse Than SNAFU?

You bet there is. When things screw up, as you expected that it will, you can calmly switch your plan to accommodate it. A piece of cake. Thanks to Murphy’s Law, you know that if things can go wrong, it will go wrong.

But when things go horribly wrong, when you have one SNAFU after another, then it’s time to break into sweat. This moves the situation one step higher, and it’s called TARFUThings Are Really F**ked Up.

And when the proverbial sh*t hits the fan, and the whole situation is no longer salvageable, it’s called FUBARF**cked Up Beyond All Recognition. Nobody will blame you for walking out form a FUBAR shoot, as nobody will be able to handle a FUBAR anyway…

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