Getting started with Nightclub Photography


On my first night in Bristol, I got a job shooting photos in a huge nightclub and had such high hopes, only to be handed a camera with no external flash, told to shoot on auto, and to sell prints and keyrings from a lanyard of samples I had to wear around my neck. Not what I call fun, and hardly photography either. I was a walking sales rep/photo booth. I didn’t learn what I have through shooting on auto and hoping for the best. Since then I’ve had loads of interesting and varied jobs and thankfully nothing so blatantly sales based! Anyway, here’s my guide to everything you need to know to get started in basic nightclub photography.

Equipment: what do I need?

Obviously the first thing you’re going to need is a decent SLR camera, I use a Canon 550d for most night work, but you’ll be fine with any entry level SLR from Canon, Nikon, Fuji etc. The kit lens that comes with all of these cameras is usually fine for nightclub photography, but if you’ve got the money to invest its worth taking a look at getting a quality zoom lens, look for a wide lens with a low aperture.

You’ll also need a good flashgun that can keep up with being used for a fair amount of time. I use a Canon 430 exii Speedlite which you can pick up for around PRICE. They require 4 x AA batteries and for me, standard batteries will last me one night, maybe two if I’m lucky, so I’d recommend investing in rechargeable batteries. I have two sets on the go at the moment, and the money you save long term is so worth it.

Unless you’re lucky enough to find a job where you just have to take the photos, then they’ll need to be edited and for that you’ll need a fast computer or laptop that can run Adobe Lightroom, Adobe is currently running a subscription service that gets you Lightroom, Photoshop, online storage and a few other apps for under a tenner a month. There is other photo editing software out there, but Lightroom is the best if you want to edit large quantities of RAW images (I’ll be going into why that’s important later!)

Experience: how to get off the ground?

With any type of photography it can be hard to get paid jobs right off the bat with no experience, so at first you can either offer your services for free or in exchange for something, look for new businesses opening who might like some press shots, practice portraiture on friends, for experience with live stuff I would shoot photos at events you’d usually find yourself at, for me at the time this was drum and bass all nighters and bands at the O2 in Bristol. I’d track down event organisers on Facebook and ask if I could exchange free photography for free entry and most of the time, it works! Once you start to develop a portfolio you can use this to start going after higher paid work. 

Technical Settings

First off, you should be shooting images in RAW format. Shooting RAW versus JPEG just means that when it comes to editing, we can do a lot more with the file without damaging it. A JPEG image is basically flat, so if you raise or lower the exposure too far it’s going to look terrible, because the file has no information for those colours at those extremes. With RAW files, the exposure and other settings can be changed significantly without changing the quality of the image itself. Once you see the difference, you’ll never go back.

I keep my aperture between f4.0 and f7.0, so I know that if I autofocus correctly, the subjects will be in focus and the background will be just blurry enough. The shutter speed is always variable, as I use it mainly to control the amount of light coming into the camera, usually I’ll be between 1/30 and 1/80. I usually set ISO according to how much ambient light I’m dealing with, if its super low then I’ll bump the ISO but if its a brighter lit environment then usually I’ll stick to 400.

Keep in mind that these settings are for shooting fully manual in terms of your camera settings. Its totally fine to shoot in Av mode too. Av mode means you can set the camera to stick at a certain aperture setting, and the camera will automatically adjust the shutter speed for you. This runs the risk of the shutter speed going to low and blurring your photos, so if you shoot this way then keep an eye on your settings, and boost the ISO or lower the aperture to combat the problem.

It’s best to keep your flash in ETTL (evaluative through-the-lens) mode. This means that the flash will determine the right amount of light needed every time you take a shot. If it is too bright or low, you can manually adjust the brightness of the flash or use your exposure compensator on the camera. 

Shooting Etiquette

When shooting in a nightlife setting you want to get mainly pictures of people, easy enough, just approach groups or pairs of people and ask if they would like a photo! When framing the shot, focus on the face and while holding the focus (either half pressing the shutter button or using back button focus*link?) move the camera so that the subjects fill most of the frame.

It’s important to always think about what direction to shoot from, as you want to avoid things like faces in the background, messy tables and empty bars, which is going to make the club look bad. Pay attention to what is going to be in the background!

Generally you want to match your content to the vibe of the venue, so if it’s a posh cocktail bar, then a photo of a person with a drink spilt down them is hardly acceptable. However if it’s a venue known for its edge, then it’s probably expected. Don’t be afraid to direct people, at the end of the day you’re there to get a quick photo and let them get on with their night, so ask, direct, take the shot, thank them and move on. 

Another thing you want to watch for is gaps between people, they make photos look empty and weird, so ask them to move closer together. People look better grouped closely together instead of awkwardly shoulder width apart. Make sure you can see everyones faces if it’s a big group, check on the back of the camera to make sure all eyes are open. I once had four people blink at the same time! Sometimes if people are seated at a table (not eating! don’t ever ask people who are eating for a photo!), then you can move two people from one side behind the others, instead of shooting down the table and getting a weird angle on everyone. 

As a photographer, it’s really important to understand your surroundings and understand where the line is in terms of what you can or cannot photograph. Most people when they go to a nightclub nowadays will expect the place to have a photographer. However, if a group of people or and individual does not want their picture taken, you have to respect that. 

Dealing with ambient lighting

You’ll also probably be shooting in a variety of lighting situations depending on the venue, so here’s what to do in a few situations:

  • CONTINUOUS LIGHTING

If a venue has continuous lighting (bright lights on all the time) then use a shutter speed at least above 1/60 to avoid blurry faces. Your flash also wont need to be as bright in this situation, as it’s only to fill in shadows on faces, not to light the whole shot, ETTL flash mode will take care of that for you.

If you find your photos are coming out too bright or too dark, then either control the flash power by stopping down, or adjust shutter speed to control the ambient light. If the faces look totally blown out (white) but the background is ok, then the flash is the problem, if its overall a little too light or dark, then shutter speed should fix the issue. It’s the balance of these two factors that determines the strength of the foreground and background exposure.

  • MOVING/FLASHING LIGHTS

In my opinion this is the best kind of place to shoot in if you want to get fun, colourful pictures. If the room is mostly dark then you can start to use slower shutter speeds, leaving the shutter open longer meaning the ambient light literally ‘paints’ colours through the image. This can be a great way to fill in an otherwise dull background. 

So thats it for my guide on getting started with nightlife photographer, hopefully now you know what equipment you’ll need to get your hands on, how to chase your first jobs and how to behave when shooting! I hope to come back to this topic to talk about how to edit club photos, but that is an article for another time, in the meantime, happy shooting!


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