Nightclub Photography Guide

“Hey dude, your clubshots are always sick. What do you use? like, bounce flash, or something more fancy? and ofcourse, loving the film”

First off, thanks!…

…It doesn’t seem appropriate to talk about club photos without actually having some of them in the response, so here’s some recent ones from the Cathouse.

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For nightclub pictures, I think it’s more down to a combination of lots of things rather than just gear or method – like how you deal with people – to get really good shots.

Focussing completely on the technical though, I use a wide prime lens – 20mm – on a Canon 5D body, so I get the full benefit. This way you don’t need to look through the viewfinder, and you catch a lot more of the stray light that is floating around in dark venues. (This could be totally inaccurate and made up by me mind you, but I’ve always had much better results with my 20mm than my 24-70mm at 24mm complete with lens hood)

Flashgun wise, I just use a Speedlite direct on the hotshoe, fired straight forward with no pomp or ceremony. Since you’re shooting people usually on a dancefloor, you don’t need to worry about any unsightly background shadows, and the light generally gives a nice even illumination over their lovely little drunk faces. I did used to use a lightsphere to diffuse it a bit, but it turned out to be fairly pointless indoors, and the weight of the thing constantly being on my flash was loosening the contact between it and the hotshoe, so it was given the heave-ho. It took a fair few blasts on full power to the face of punters before I finally gave in on that one..

I know that Ambrel probably used/uses bounced flash by the looks of it, but it’s never given me the results that looked any good, and when you’re intoxicated and stumbling about with a flashgun sticking out at odd angles and trying to not bash into people, it’s easier to just keep it in the standard position.

The trick for the whole thing really is to get the right combination of settings in-camera, and then the post-processing style for the look you want. I usually set the aperture at f9 – this means you get most of the people in bigger groups in focus when they all dive in in the orgy like way they tend to.

Shutter speed is important obviously to get the ambient, colourful lights, and you need to judge this depending on what they’ve got in the club. I always seem to hover between 1 and 2 seconds exposure, but it all depends on how frantic or bright or unpredictable the lights are. There’s nothing worse than having a 2 second exposure and have a yellow light swoop over and act as a second flash, ruining your picture. Even worse if you don’t realise till you get home.. and worst possible scenario if it was of two hot girls that you only took one shot of. This has happened far too often to be funny. If you watch where the lights fall, it can help you work out the shutter speeds a lot easier. I try to get people to stand so their backs are to where the lights are, that way the flash is the only thing really falling on their face, and you can leave the shutter open as long as you want. This doesn’t always work in practice though!

The real thing is to just keep shooting them – check out the EXIF data on pictures you like on Flickr and adapt the settings to suit yourself. I remember loving a photo of a girl in a fairly well-lit bar and using the details of how that was shot to springboard into what I do now… changing everything completely over months mind you.

I’ve developed all sorts of strange mannerisms and quirks that don’t have any real science behind them, but just work if they feel right.. like making the shutter longer than you know you’ll get away with, covering the lens with your hand after a second or so, and just uncovering and covering it quickly. I like to think this helps control the flow of light in the last few seconds, but in reality it’s probably just a nervous habit.

What a long-winded answer to what could have been just as easily a fairly simple response.. I do spend a ridiculous amount of time in these places with this type of photo though, so I’ve had a lot of time to think about the philosophy of the whole thing.

Hope some of that was useful!

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4 thoughts on “Nightclub Photography Guide

  1. Sweet article. I have just got into night club photography as a job. So its nice to see different views on it and how to shoot. I was a wildlife photographer before so its a bit of a change. Thanks though Nice pictures to.

  2. Hi,
    I do the nightlife photo stuff pretty often too )i belong to a filipino association so they have parties at community centers often). I still and trying to get it right after a few years though. Everywhere on the web they say use bounced flash. That is good for soft light, but when you want the background ambience, it would seem to me it would KILL it because of the light spread. I’m thinking next time of using a small softbox right on top (or none) of my camera (direct flash) but making it very very low power. The light falloff would be very quick and preserve the background ambient. This seems the best way to do it. Is this the way you do it also?
    Pat

    1. Honestly I don’t advocate bounced flash or a softbox for club photos at all. Bounced light has nowhere to ‘bounce’ from, and it’s a dead giveaway because of the shadows it creates on people’s faces (under their eyes/nose/etc). Soft-boxes/diffusers are bulky and just add weight to the flash, which can cause problems with the hotshoe. On top of that, it’s unnecessary. Softened light is for situations where you don’t want it to look like you’ve used a flash. In clubs, that’s impossible – the difference between the subject and the background is already so pronounced that it makes little difference. Because of those reasons I don’t use one – I just fire straight on, with the flash dialled down appropriately. Hope that helps…

      1. Yes, I know a small softbox on the camera’s hotshoe is potentially dangerous because you never know if you bump it against someone, it could bust the whole thing off. But, it does have softer light than bare bulb. It’s a risk. I suppose cutting the light way way down like we both agree on wouldn’t matter if it’s bare. Just enough to add basically a fill so you’re not getting alot of grain as when it would be pitch black sillouette.

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