Well, one of my first regular jobs as a photographer was taking photographs of drunk students in Newcastle’s nightclubs. It worked well for me because, at the time, I was also a drunk student and it meant I got to go to the clubs for free. This has its own pitfalls (and I’ll talk a little about that toward the end of the post) but for now; here’s how I do it.
First off, when I talk about nightclubs I’m assuming an environment that’s largely dark and lit only by coloured, roving spotlights or similar. Any environment where the only light is non-white, and constantly moving, counts. I’m not claiming that this is the only way to shoot people in this sort of environment but these are the techniques I use and the things I look out for. Hopefully this’ll be useful and will help you improve your club photography.
**** Update: This has fast become one of the most visited pages on my site and is on its way to being the most-read nightclub photography tutorial on the internet! =) I always respond to comments (eventually!) and there’s some good advice and knowledge in the comment section, so read through that too.
I don’t monetize this site in any way, I hate annoying ads as much as the next guy, but if you find this tutorial useful, or an answer to one of the comments proves helpful, then I’d love it if you would buy me a sandwich to say thanks! ****
Now, on with the good stuff.
When I first started I was using a Fuji S2 DSLR and shooting at 3 megapixels. These days I’m using a full frame 21 megapixel Canon DSLR. In the past I’ve also used the Sigma SD10 and SD14, which are possibly the most difficult to work with in these conditions but nevertheless, the techniques remain the same.
The upshot is that a DSLR is essential if you want to do a good job – but it needn’t be a top of the range camera.
In fact, when it comes to gear, you need to realise that it is in constant danger in a nightclub, so cheaper stuff is better. Use your backup DSLR, use a kit zoom with a variable maximum aperture (3.2-4.5 or similar), and use a cheap flash.
As far as lenses go, I like to shoot with a medium-wide zoom like a 17-40mm, although I know others who use wider lenses such as a 14-40mm or 10-20mm. Anything in that range is good because it allows you to photograph large groups as well as couples despite being in a crowded environment. Of course, the lens you use comes down to personal choice (and budget).
An external flashgun is essential too: the on-camera flash will not suffice. I prefer to mount the strobe to an off-camera bracket with a synch cord, for stability, but you can also use it mounted directly to the hotshoe.
It doesn’t matter what type of flash you use; you don’t need TTL functionality and you don’t need loads of power with this method. Its a good idea to use a flash with infra-red focus assist capabilities though (or simply strap a mag-lite to your flash bracket so your lens has enough light to focus with).
Its also a good idea to use a Sto-fen omnibounce, or similar attachment, to soften and disperse the output from your strobe. I really love the Demb flash diffuser as it gives more control over the light and gives consistent results regardless of the size of the club (or the height of the ceiling – which is an important factor when bouncing the flash).
Most of the settings I outline are just that – outlines; you may get better results using slightly different values in different venues and you may even have to adjust settings for different scenarios within the same venue but I’ll give you the ballpark settings and the theory behind them so that you have a better idea what to play with.
Okay, here’s the clever part =D)
The challenge is to capture as much of the ambient light as possible in order to convey the feeling of being in a club. We want to capture the vibrant, neon lighting rather than just have well exposed faces against a dark background and we also want to expose the subjects (drunk students) properly too.
We want to avoid this:
And aim for this:
Here’s how to do it:
First off, you want your flash on manual mode not TTL. Set it to 1/4 or 1/8 power depending on your style and the venue. You also want to set it to slow-sync or rear-curtain sync. The reason for this is that we’ll be using a slow shutter speed in order to make the most of the ambient light in a club and we want the flash to fire at the end of the exposure so as to freeze our subjects at the last possible moment (but not so much that it overpowers the ambient light, hence the low power setting). Freezing the subject at the end of the exposure rather than the beginning also makes any blur trails caused by movement appear more natural.
Next, you want to set your camera to manual, put the ISO at something speedy but not too noisy (with my Fuji that was ISO400-800, with the Sigma’s I could never go above ISO100 but with my Canon 5D MkII, anything between ISO200-1240 is fine. I wouldn’t recommend taking a 5DII into a nightclub though). Its too easy to simply ramp up the ISO if you’re struggling to get the exposure right but you lose image quality that way, so I’d advise against it. After all, you never know when you might need the pictures – or what for.
Sure, the clubs only use small, lo-res jpegs on their websites but one of the photographers I work with has had a book of his shots published and whilst you probably won’t notice artifacts or noise at small sizes, you will if you ever choose to print them. You don’t need to shoot RAW though, large JPEG is fine.
I already mentioned using a cheap lens with variable maximum aperture. If you’ve followed that advice, then whack the aperture fully open. If you have a better lens capable of wider apertures, you still will want to set the aperture at f/4.5 – 5.6 because there needs to be some depth of field present to account for the fact that your autofocus will struggle in the lighting conditions and with moving subjects.
You’re looking for a shutter speed slow enough to allow the play of light in the club to illuminate your background but not so slow that your subject is too blurry. Yes, the rear curtain flash will freeze your subject but if the shutter is open for too long, there will be too much ghosting. I find that 1/6th of a second is pretty much perfect. For brighter clubs you may need a shorter shutter but I tend to stay between 1/3rd and 1/8th.
So you’re looking to avoid this:
And achieve this:
That’s the skinny: 1/4 flash power, slow sync, camera on ISO400, aperture 4.5, shutter 0.6.
One thing I forgot to mention; bounce the flash, don’t aim it directly at your subject. Some clubs have really high ceilings, which is why I like the Demb Flip-It flash Diffuser. (I am not being paid to mention them btw!)
I find that the pictures look best if you stay at the edges of the dance floor and shoot with the dance area behind your subject. There are a number of reasons for this.
Firstly; it means the club lights play on the background while your subjects are largely silhouetted, so any subject movement during the shutter lapse is minimised because there’s less light to transmit it to the camera. This way you can keep the flash gun set quite low and use it to expose for and freeze your subjects.
If you shoot on the dance floor, the moving lights create strange ghosting and detract from your subject, whereas if you shoot from the edges, you can time your shot so that the moving lights are sweeping the background and making it look colourful and interesting.
Secondly, whilst on the dance floor, you are constantly being swamped with dry ice, which wipes any contrast out, makes the shots look dull and makes it difficult to focus. Dry ice smoke in the background looks great and atmospheric but put it between your flash and the subject and you may as well not bother shooting.
Dry-ice in the foreground (on the dance floor):
Dry-ice in the background (edge of dance floor):
Thirdly, in the midst of the dance floor, your gear is more at risk from flaying limbs and alcohol spillages. Not to mention the fact that in certain clubs you will be being constantly tapped on the shoulder and poked in the ribs as people try to get you to take their picture even while you’re busy taking a picture of someone else.
Its still okay to take pictures on the dance floor but it can be more challenging to produce optimal images using the settings I’ve outlined.
Aside from the that, the rest of the ‘technique’ comes down to being confident and happy. If you want people to pose for a picture, you need to be confident enough to go up to them and ask them to pose and you need to be up beat and smiley about it.
Tips & Tricks:
When navigating the crowd, keep the camera held up high above your head – this helps keep it safe and it also makes you more visible.
Make use of mirrors – try not to get yourself or your flash reflected but use them to capture more ambient light and make the place look bigger.
Sometimes, getting the light from the flash reflected in the mirror can help add more life to the shot. Just be careful on where you position yourself so as not to be seen in the reflection.
When you’ve taken the shot, give everyone the thumbs up with a big smile and walk away. Do not check your LCD screen in front of the drunk students otherwise they will want to see too and then everyone who’s picture you take will want to see the screen. – This means it takes twice as long (at least) to do your job and your camera spends that much more time around beverages and drunk people who want to touch it.
Obviously, find somewhere quiet and check through your images throughout the night, just to make sure they are turning out how you like and to find out how many good ones you have.
Don’t forget to shoot for you – sure, get a bunch of ‘squeeze-together-and-smile’ shots for the club to use on their website or, god forbid, to sell as keyrings if you must – but don’t forget to get creative and take some shots you can be proud of.
If you have an interesting image but the lighting is bland. Try converting it to black and white. If the image is strong enough, it may look better without the colour information.
If you can get some nice shots with the club’s branding or the promoter’s/night’s branding in the background, then that will keep the people who are paying you happy too!
What should I charge?:
As I said at the beginning, shooting nightclubs can seem like a sweet deal when you start out: you’re getting into the clubs for free – if you make friends with DJ’s and management, then you may also get some free drinks – and you’re getting paid too.
I would urge you not to let the ‘perks’ sway you into accepting a low rate of pay. You are trying to make money from what you do after all, and while the attraction of the perks wears off eventually, the damage to the market and your reputation as a photographer does not fade as fast.
I’ve heard talk of companies employing photographers to take photos and sell keyrings on a commission only basis. If you find yourself in this situation, you’re being taken advantage of. Unless you’re a fantastic salesman, thats not a good move (even if, in the short term, it makes more money) IMHO.
When I first started, it was 2006 and I was charging £30p/hr. That may seem steep to spend an hour producing 40 pictures but you have to factor in the late hours, the time spent editing and resizing the shots and the fact that your gear is expensive and needs to pay for itself (and the insurance) somehow.
I wouldn’t recommend charging any less than that. In most cases, I advocate for charging by the image or by the project and these days, if I shoot clubs at all, I charge £1 per image – the club decides how many images they want and I decide how long I want to spend shooting. Unfortunately there are others charging a lot less, creating a race-to-the-bottom effect, which ends up with everyone working for pennies, or for free, and this just kicks the bottom out of the market – try not to be one of them.
Having said that, club photography is usually an entry point for student photographers; there’s always a steady flow of students to take your place and club owners are more concerned about quantity than image quality these days, so you’ll need to decide if you want to compete with them in order to keep the work coming in or if you’re ready to move on to more lucrative work and let someone else cut their teeth at nightclub photography!
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