With the aim of making my blog as useful and as interesting to you guys as I can, I recently asked what you would like to see more of here, and ‘how to’ guides won hands down. So I have decided to start off with a re-vamp of an old guide I originally wrote for www.talkphotography.co.uk on the topic of nightclub photography. Although this is a nightclub photography guide, the techniques used can also be put to good use for parties, functions, wedding receptions etc.
If you have an event that you would like me to cover, please contact me via
Firstly, a little background to myself. I have been working in nightclubs and bars as a photographer for around three years and it all started at a vintage Volkswagen show up at Santa Pod Raceway. Aside from concours show cars and quarter mile drag racers offering plenty of photographic oportunities, the evenings carried on the festivities in the way of a couple of marquees for night time entertainment. After far too many beers round the bbq, it seemed like a great idea to take an expensive camera into what was essentially a rave.
Fortunately I walked away from that without anything expensive damaged, but also a load of shots that I was rather happy with.
From there I got into a few small bars, working for mates (not to be paid) etc to build up experience and eventually I got the opportunity to work in a nightclub working as their resident photographer.
I was there for a couple of years working three nights a week and have built up a good rapport with the staff and regular revellers. I am currently working reguarly at Bar29, a classy underground cocktail bar in Southend on Sea. My photos are used for the clubs website, their facebook page and for general advertising. Customers are also able to purchase prints and keyrings both on site and through my website.
This article will cover the technical side of how to actually use your camera, as well as some tips on what to photograph and ways of working that will be helpful to you. Though I am not going to go into the business side of things, who you should or shouldn’t work for, how much you should charge etc, that is entirely down to you.
I am simply going to go through everything that I believe is relevant, based on what I have learnt and picked myself from working in this environment. Some of it may be teaching you to suck eggs, some may not so take from it what you will.
There is nothing new or different to how you would set up for a shot anywhere else, you just tend to take things to extremes a bit more inside a nightclub which I find actually makes life easier.
Different people have their own take and opinion on how it should be done. Most will use flash, some prefer not to.
99% of my nightclub work is done with flash, so if that’s not your bag this may not be much use to you.
The essential kit you are going to need is…
- A camera (I did say I may teach you to suck eggs.) Any camera will do, I started off with a Canon 400D myslef. But as you will see later, the better the iso handling of your body, the easier things become.
- A lens. Something in the standard kit range, 18-50mm ish is fine, but having a selection of lenses to choose from will give you more options. More on this later
- A flash gun.
- A uv filter. Sod any possibility of it impairing image quality, at some point someone WILL grab/hit/spill beer on you or your camera.
- And finally, although not related to the photography itself, earplugs will be important if you work in lound nightclubs reguarly. Look after your ears!
Your choice of lens will largely be dictated by the environment that you are thrown into. As you will be mostly photographing people, it is worth reffering back to the basics of portrait photography, a longer focal length tends to be more flattering, where as a short focal length will have the effect of distorting perspective, widening peoples faces and noses. Take a photo of a girl in a club and make her look fat and there is no chance she is every going to have anything good to say about it, no matter how technically brilliant your shot may be. So it sounds like a long lens will be best, but this isn’t always practical, or the best way to go.
In a busy club I actually prefer to go wide. The 10-20mm range is great on a crop body (17-40mm ish on full frame). My reasons for this is a) because in a busy club you cant always step back to capture all you want in one frame, and b) smoke. Smoke is made up of solid particles floating in the air which will reflect light from your flash back at you. The more distance between the lens and the subject, the more light is reflected back to the lense which greatly impacts on image quality, reducing contrast and clarity.
The style and look that you want to convey in your shots is ultimately up to you, but the main thing to keep in your head is that decent nightclub shots are all about capturing atmosphere. And for me, that means ambient light, and lots of it.
There are two shots below, neither are particularly special (and deliberately so), one without and one with ambient light in the background. Which one makes you feel like you are in a club?
You are going to be shooting in manual mode. Now I know some people are wary of manual mode and prefer to stick to either aperture priority, or shuter speed priority modes, but there really isn’t anything to it that you beed to worry about.
My first job when walking into a new club will be to set up for ambient light (though still do this with the flash attached if using ETTL).
Every club is deifferent. Some very dark, other very bright, this may differ around different areas of the same club, so keep it in mind.
The amount of ambient light will be controlled by the camera. Mainly ISO (but also shutter speed and aperture to a lesser extent as you will be keeping these within quite a tight range). Where as your subject exposure will pretty much be purely down to your flash.
The club where a lot of the sample shots in this guide are taken from is very dark with colourful lighting over the dance floor, so these settings I find suitable for that, different venues will require something different.
I will typically have iso at around 1000-1600.
While I’m are at it, I will give you my basic ranges for shutter speed and aperture. We’ll go into why you may want to change these later.
Shutter speed between 1/5th -1/20th.
Aperture between f4.5 – 5.6
Once you are happy with the ambient light, then start looking at how your subject is exposed. Either dial in some flash exposure compensation if needed, normally +ve, or set the flash level manually.
How much flash you use is down to you, what if any diffusers you use and your own personal style. Some people may like natural, more true to life skin tones, I prefer to slightly over expose as it has a smoothing effect on skin, where as others in my opinion go right over the top.
That’s your ballpark settings sorted. Now lets move on to how you may want to adjust them from shot to shot.
Control of settings to achieve a desired result
Iso as we have covered is your main control for the ambient light levels, so that is pretty self explanatory. I’m not too worried about pushing this too high because as long as your overall exposure is correct, you aren’t going to see any noticeable noise as you are only going to be supplying small images.
Should the club want you to supply some specific shots for large posters etc you may want to drop the iso and think about what to do to compensate, but that’s not worth worrying about now.
Shutter speed I tend to keep quite slow anywhere outside of the dance floor where its darker, this again lets you pull in some more ambient light.
When you move onto the dance floor where there is often a lot more lighting, you may find you want to increase the shutter speed a touch, especially if strobes are going off.
You can also play with much longer shutter speed, up to say a couple of second and do something with light trails, twisting the camera, zoom bursts etc.
Fast shutter. It’s crisp, clear and no hint of motion blur or camera shake.
Long shutter. Lots of funky goings on with the lights. But you can easily start suffering with undesired blur of the subject, light bleed and things generally just get less predictable.
Aperture I keep to a minimum of f4. I don’t go any lower as the dof is too shallow. I’ll keep this for 1-2 people, and increase it as the number of people, and thus depth of the subject, increases.
For larger groups you will also want to think about upping your flash power.
Larger aperture. The dof is too shallow, you can see the barmaid at the back is not quite in focus.
Smaller aperture. You can see there is a difference in depth between the guy at the front and the one at the back, but all are in good focus.
Just remember, as you change one setting, something else will need to change to counteract it and keep the overall exposure consistent. Ie, if you increase your aperture for a crowd shot, you may want to use a longer shutter speed to compensate.
Regarding the flash, some use it bare, some like to use a bounce card, some use other modifiers. I choose my flash style depending on the venue and type of night. For example in a wine or cocktail bar, I may use a bounce card, bounce the flash off a wall/ceiling, or one of my favourite modifiers, the Gary Fong Light Sphere. All of which produce an even, flat, almost shaddowless lighting which is very flattering on peoples faces. These can be used either on or off camera.
In a club with a grimey dubstep night on, I would be looking to convey that same grimey feeling in my photos. In which case I like to use the flash bare and off camera so that it can be positioned to create stark shaddows and contrasty pictures.
You can even turn the flash off all together and just use the lighting available in the club for some shots.
Here are a few examples of how different lighting styles suit different venues.
On camera – diffused
Off camera – bare flash
No flash – Using nightclub lighting
What to capture?
That’s the technical stuff pretty much taken care of, now lets think about composition of shots and what to actually capture. I try to keep an eye out for anyone doing something interesting or out of the ordinary because it’s all to easy to get shot after shot of people posing for the camera, and that gets real dull real quick. Try to approach groups cutting some shapes on the dance floor, or downing some shots at the bar. Get in quickly and catch these people before they clock you, because as soon as they see a camera they will stop what ever they are doing, group together and pose.
300 odd photos of people all stood in a line smiling wears thin pretty quickly. This i find is more of a problem in the more commercial clubs where punters are attracted to you like bees around honey.
In (what i call) real clubs, the customers are there for the music and often take no notice of a photographer.
Another simple tip, but one which is worth keeping in mind is if you are in a dark spot of a club, turn your subject to face away from the dance floor. Even if the dance floor is a long way off, there will at least be something there to throw some colour into your backgrounds.
Take a look at the shots below, which are more interesting?
Sure the posed shot is pretty nice, and as much as you try they will probably make up the bulk of your set, so getting other types of shots will be important to break up the monotony for someone viewing your images.
There is plenty else to capture beside the customers. DJ’s, PA’s and entertainers are also really important, decent shots of these will be like gold for the promoter.
DJ EZ & MC Kofi B
Further to those, not every shot has to have someone in it. Club décor, logos etc are all good. Anything that adds a sense of atmosphere or have promotional uses are all good.
A logo for a particular night.
Close up or detail shots.
Décor from a themed night.
One thing I find that the clubs hate in an image is dead space, so i try to crop tight, or arrange groups to avoid this.
The processing and editing of your images is another big area where you can put your stamp on things and show your own style, so this is really for you to experiment with and see what works for you.
But just on a very general note, I use lightrooom for all my processing and editing. It allows me to quickly scan through all the shots taken in a night and pick out the keepers. I can then apply a preset of alterations, make individal tweaks where needed and crop. All the final images can then be resized, bordered, watermarked etc in one opperation ready to hand over tot he club.
Now I think that should be enough to cover the basics. Spend some time getting to grips with that lot and you will soon be able to achieve great results in whatever situation you find yourself in.
I hope this is of help to at least someone out there, and if you have any questions, comments or anything to add, please do add a comment.