Shooting a Poker Tournament at Casino Estoril, Portugal

If you’ve been following the Brutally Honest guy on social media lately you may have noticed that I’ve been uploading a lot of content related to tournament poker, such as the following montage:

high roller day - montage
Capturing a major poker tournament is exciting!

That’s because I’ve landed a photography gig at the local casino, to manage their social media feed.

In this blog post I’ll go through my experiences and provide you with some tips should you have a similar opportunity!

Finding a Niche

I wrote in my book as well as an earlier blog post (How to Make $500 a month with stock photography) about the importance of eventually specialising within a photography niche.

Ideally, this should be within an activity that you find interesting, have easy access and is in demand. Try to brainstorm laterally…if you enjoy bowling, why not pitch a photography/videography job…if you enjoy playing darts…if you work at a gym or pet shop…loads of opportunities!

Poker Photography Niche

In my case, this is obviously tournament poker…which is a popular mental “sport”. Certainly part of a trend since it’s grown rapidly in popularity mainly due to rise of online poker and the televised World Series of Poker.

Damian Nigro, Professional Photographer & Poker Player

A friend and fellow “grinder”, Damian Nigro, has specialised within poker photography and gave me some tips.  He’s a professional cash poker player and moonlights as a poker photographer. Seems like a winning combination – you can see his The-Rounder.Net blog and pictures here.

Main event-14
Poker is like chess with money at stake

How did I land this poker gig?

I’ve never photographed poker in my life (outside the occasional discreet iPhone pic) since it’s not like I can just go into a casino and start shooting with my DSLR…let alone with a mobile phone. Even if I got through the doors, security would escort me out in no-time…with no warning. Ok maybe one warning.

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Here’s me “reaching the final table”

The gig didn’t come out of the blue. I’ve been a regular at Casino Estoril’s cash tables for a little while and inquired into the opportunity when I saw Damian Nigro shooting a small tournament with a DSLR and zoom lens.

After a few handshakes and meetings, I pitched my expertise and followed up numerous times with the poker boss…then waited, then followed up again and waited again. Persistence, persistence…fortune favours the brave

Eventually, I hit my draw (to put it in poker terms) and I was contacted to capture one of the Main Events, as well as smaller side events (over 5 intensive days). Tournament schedule was 16:00 to 3am on most days.

Making my own luck

In other words, had to make my own luck. Where many would have given up, I persevered and glad I did, since I was finally given the green light to shoot and issued with a magical Press Pass! If you’re struggling to land yourself gigs, it can be down to giving up too quickly…so keep at it!

press pass
Press pass is the nuts!

Photographing Poker: Difficult low light conditions

Even before I started the gig, I was aware that the general lighting inside poker room is pretty poor, which potentially lead to all sorts of technical issues. Why not use a flash? During game play that would be a bad idea as it would be extremely distracting to the players.

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Challenging lighting situations give rise to all sorts of issues such as motion blur, noise…but can also present opportunities for more artistic work

Therefore, one has to improvise. I intelligently brought along my trusty F2.8 lens and shoot at almost wide aperture and some ridiculous ISO levels (unless I’m using a tripod).

It’s the way it was under these conditions…even if it leads to grainy results. Needless to say, this opportunity has made me a better photographer under difficult indoor lighting conditions. Another string to my bow.

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Reaching the final table of a major poker tournament is a thrill. This image was captured at using the 10mm ultra wide angle lens
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Low and harsh lights present opportunities to use shadows to create a certain mood

Poker photography is about capturing emotions

Poker is a highly emotional game of predominately skill with some luck involved (especially in the short-run). Some players show lots of emotions and as a poker photographer it’s my job to wait and capture such moments. Often the cards, chips and game itself is secondary.

poker is pain
Poker is a highly emotional game. In this case, I was looking to capture emotions associated with pain, frustration, nervousness, etc

During the early stages of major tournaments there were literally dozens of tables running at the same time. My job is to scan the room and look for “characters” and observe.

Main event-13
Ultra wide shot of the busy scene…meanwhile, I’m scanning the room and looking for “characters”
Main event
Like a good 3-bet pre-flop, isolating the character (using post-processing)!
characters
Some characters!

Poker photography is about capturing interesting perspectives

Space is tight as players are sitting literally inches from each other. It can be difficult to get the right angles, but also presents itself opportunities when using selective focus/bokeh to tell the story and capture the moment.

Since I’m shooting at almost widest aperture, the depth of field is extremely narrow and can provide for interesting perspectives.

dealer downtime-3
Using selective focus to capture and freeze the action were challenging in low light

Poker photography is about storytelling

Poker is a game with a start, middle and finish. Isolated moments are OK, but ideally you’ll want to tell the story from start to finish, such as what led to a critical moment and perhaps what will happen after. So, I’ve turned some of my shots were turned into short montages to tell the story.

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Pre-flop, flop, turn, river…fist pump!
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Storytelling using selective focus

Storytelling with timelapses

15 minute timelapse at the final table of the Main Event…and then there were three…..

Storytelling with videos

My videographer colleague in the tournament expertly put together some videos and I learned a thing or two about his equipment and workflow! Here’s an example of one of his videos.

Poker as Stock Photography

As mentioned on a previous post, it’s important to always look for stock photo opportunities when working with clients, this one was trickier than usual. Main reason was because of the sheer number of identifiable people and logos. Sure, I could submit as editorial but that would go against professional integrity.

Therefore, during down-times, I was looking for some spots that I could capture very very out of focus background, or very generic images of cards and chips to upload as stock. I think I did OK…here’s some examples:

poker tourney
Keeping things generic to avoid problems, image on the right was deliberately blurred as for nobody to be identifiable, On left, any mention of the casino or brands was carefully cloned out

Honey Shots

Even though we live in a #metoo time of politically correctness, the Brutally Honest blog is all encompassing. The truth is that shots of beautiful young women are popular…and since poker is played predominately by men, the casino is more than happy to feature such shots in their social media!

beautiful poker
‘Honey shots’ of a massage therapist (left) and poker dealer (right) are part of the game and generate a fair number of likes, comments, shares on social media (I don’t make the rules)

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Conclusion

I loved this opportunity and from discussing the results with stakeholders, there’s a strong possibility I’ll be recalled for further work. Nevertheless, there’s a certain restless in me when I see poker players winning…since I am, by nature, a poker player and extremely competitive.

So, perhaps instead of making the news, I’ll soon be the news…at the final table of a major tournament…

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All in from the Brutally Honest Guy!

About Alex

I’m an eccentric guy on a quest to visit all corners of the world and capture stock images & footage. I’m determined not to waste my life away as a corporate drone and have devoted five years to making it as a travel photographer and freelance writer. I hope to inspire others before it’s too late.

I’m proud to have written a book about my adventures which includes tips on making it as a stock travel photographer – Brutally Honest Guide to Microstock Photography

Check out my new photo review service, where I’ll help take your images to the next level and get them sold regularly!

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