How To Take Club Photos

// September 28th, 2009 // Photography

I’ve been taking club photos for TillLate in London for half a year now, and I tried a few times at Club Illusion in Tartu, Estonia before that.  Early on, I remember struggling to find any good tutorials – as it turns out, the basics are pretty easy to understand.

What Are You Trying To Capture?

First up, consider why you’re taking the photo – to make the club look good:

f4.5, 1/4, ISO 800

For a straight club, make sure you are prioritising the following (in order):

  1. Hot chicks;
  2. Famous DJs (if any);
  3. People having fun (mixed groups, couples, interesting blokes);
  4. Cool venue.

What Kit Do You Need?

Very little, in SLR terms:

  • D-SLR camera with M(anual) mode and RAW picture format;
  • External flash with E-TTL (ie. an automatic mode);
  • Something to soften the flash – maybe a Stofen Omnibounce, or just a DIY bounce card.

You can in theory take club photos with a built-in flash, but you’ll look amateur and so will the photos.  Your choice!

f5.1, 1/10 second, ISO 800

Note that good flashes have Infrared assisted focus – they fire a red beam at the subject to work out the focus, which would take forever to find without the flash.  This is invaluable.  Make sure the focus assist works in Manual mode – for some stupid reason the cheapest Canons will let you use Manual or IR assist, but not both.  Ridiculous.

What Settings Should You Use?

Steal settings – track down club photos you like and read the EXIF data!  On Flickr, you find a “More properties” link it below the picture on the right:

How to find EXIF data in Flickr

To get started, all of my example pictures in this article include an overlay showing the settings.

Settings for People Photos

The first thing to realise – the flash only lights the people in the foreground. It simply isn’t powerful enough to light the room, and you don’t want it to!

f4.0, 1/6 second, ISO 800

If you just use the camera’s automatic P mode, it will expose for the foreground and the background will go black. To get that colour, turn to Manual mode.  Set a relatively wide apperture (f2.8 – f5.1) and a relatively long exposure (1/6 – 1/13 second) with a fast ISO (round 400-800).  Turn off any Image Stabilizer your camera or lens has, it will slow down focussing and gets confused by background movement in the longer exposure.

f4.0, 1/13 second, ISO 800

Your flash will freeze the foreground, whilst the longer exposure allows the background lighting to soak in and add depth.  Where possible, position the subject(s) between you and the lights so you maximise the spread of that colour.  Smoke, low ceilings, decorations and people in the background all provide surfaces to maximise that colour.

f4.5, 1/10 second, ISO 800

Remember to always show the photos to your subjects – always appreciated!

Settings For Crowd Shots

Don’t take every photo with the flash. You want a smattering of longer exposure pictures without a brightly lit person in the foreground – either pick up something solid like the DJ booth or just blur the crowd:

f4.0, 1/3 second, ISO 400

The beauty of digital is that you can just chimp away with different exposure lengths until you find something that works.  If you’re uncertain use the Info view of the photo to see the image histogram, which will tell you when you have a reasonable exposure.

f4.0, 4 seconds, ISO 800

Settings for Bar Pictures

Relatively long flash-less exposures can also pick out the neon often lighting bars:

f7.1, 1/5 second, ISO 800

Processing The Photos

Always shoot in RAW instead of JPEG – correct exposures are hard to hit when in manual mode with variable club lighting going off at random, and RAW gives you a much larger safety margin. You’ll need good processing software as well – I find Adobe Lightroom is pretty quick and easy whilst having a lot of power.

f4.0, 1/8 second, ISO 800

Don’t be afraid to crop out black backgrounds, and use tricks like adding Fill Light to pull out extra background colour which isn’t initially visible.

Finally, below you can see examples of my club photography improving over time – from the first shoot in Estonia to some relatively recent ones in London (the latest are here).  Practice really makes a difference – good luck!

Square Kiss Hair Girls Pucker Couple Feisty Face Scrunch Dancers Pole Dancing Blonde, Brunette Mine BJ Slowdance Look Me In The Eyes Fingernails Mirror Mirror Happy Clubber Illusion Green Smile Attitude Little & Large DJ Taps Couple Cyan Lights Purple Grrr Hmmm Smile Chicks DJ Pout Tiger Dancers Hand Stairs Red/Blue Green Three Card No Dancing On This Surface Hair Strobe Funky Chicken Green Pink Finger

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35 Responses to “How To Take Club Photos”

  1. Emma says:

    Thanks so much for such great advise, so many photographers just arnt willing to share their secrets. Very kind of you. Just wanted to ask, my friend and I are taking some pics in a nightclub for the next couple of weekends and I would like to know what lens you would recommend using. I am still using my 10d but need to invest in some decent lenses. At the moment I am taking club pics and nude’s in a studio. I dont want to buy loads of crap lenses, I would rather 1 or 2 decent, versatile ones. Can you suggest any please?
    Great photos by the way!!!

  2. Tom Godber says:

    Lenses depend a bit on budget – the 50mm f1.8 is criminally cheap for the quality, and an excellent safe bet on a budget – everyone should own one really!
    Sadly the 10D has a crop sensor but can’t take EF-S lenses – the ultimate EF-S lens is the 17-55 f2.8 IS which I used to use for 90% of my photos (of any kind) on my 20D. I now use the 24-105L f4 IS, which is again awesome, a similar price, but not quite wide enough on a crop sensor.
    If you’re not up in that budget, I have a friend who used a 19-35 Tokina on his 10D for a lot of club photos and really rated it – though I’m not sure it’s still available in shops, might have to look on eBay.
    Other than that, probably the best site for Canon lens reviews is http://www.the-digital-picture.com/Reviews/
    Good luck!

  3. Emma says:

    Thanks so much for the advise, our first night doing club photography is tonight ( god help!). we had a practice last night and results were not impressive. Could not capture the nights atmosphere /lighting. Cheers for your help.

  4. Jay says:

    Thanks a lot for this. Great advice. I’m thinking of getting the 17-55 F2.8 but I notice that your bright neon coloured shots towards the end are taken with the 24-70L lens. Is the 17-55 able to take similar pics?

  5. How should I position my flash ? I usually bounce, But I keep hearing that it wastes more battery , should I direct flash ? Thanks for the tips!!!

  6. Tom Godber says:

    Jay: the more recent pics are with the 24-105 because I’m now shooting with a full frame 5Dmk2, which can’t handle EF-S lenses; if I still used a crop body, I’d still use the 17-55, amazing lens.

    Javier: bouncing does use more battery power, but it also produces softer more flattering light. There are a lot of ways to diffuse the light, from a bounce card to a Stofen Omnibounce (bouncing off walls is usually difficult in clubs…) – you should do it, the pictures will benefit. You can get a few hundred pictures from one set of batteries, shooting at higher ISO with a Stofen on.

  7. jack move says:

    definitely one of the best tutorials i have seen. breaks it down simple enough for a novice like me to understand. this tutorial should be published for a professional photography magazine! thanks!!!

  8. Joe says:

    Happy holidays Tom, Nicely structured tutorial for nightlife photography. A great deal of effort has been put into this mate. Never got the pleasure to meet, I’m Joe from tilllate london (projoesnaps) and was always a fan of your work, so was happy to see you sharing this little gem of info.

    I agree practice make perfect. (For anyone interested in getting into nightlife photography) Its a perfect environment to experiment with settings, techniques and develop your style. U gonna shoot anytime this new yr? else enjoy the holidays and hopefully bump into you on a social! Take care and Happy New yr! :)

  9. Steven Davis says:

    Thanks a lot. Are you using any gels at all, or just straight white flash?

    Also, if using a stofen, do you point at the subject directly, or bounce it somewhere? Or point up at like 45 degrees?

  10. Tom Godber says:

    Hi Steven,
    No gels at all – the club lighting is usually rotating through all sorts of unpredictable colours, and I’m looking to get the foreground people looking fairly natural with the temperature balance without caring what the background colour actually is – so the gel would be quite redundant, and eat into flash power/battery light. Though I could imagine that it could sometimes be useful, in some venues.
    The Stofen will usually move about depending on the enivronment, but in many clubs you have unpredictable walls and ceilings which aren’t any good for bouncing so I’ll tend to default to straight forward or slightly tilted up – the interesting lighting will come from the background environment, with the flash just ensuring the subjects are light enough to look ok. This will then only change if there’s a specific case for bounce that comes up.
    Hope that’s some help!

  11. Tom Godber says:

    Hi Joe,
    Thanks! I’ve had to take a break from club photos for a while as I’m swamped with other commitments, but I’m hoping to get back into it early Summer – hopefully see you then!
    Cheers, keep up the good work,
    Tom

  12. Javier says:

    Hey its me again, thanks again for this wonderful tutorial.Quick question’s

    How do you get so much ambient light with just the flash pointing straight?

    Also do you shoot in Rear Curtain Flash ?

    Do you mess with any of the flash compensation or exposure values ?

    Thanks a lot man.

  13. Tom Godber says:

    Hi Javier,
    The ambient light comes from the long exposure – you need to get some coloured lights in the background, and then leave the exposure open long enough to let it seep through. The flash is much shorter and just freezes the action in the foreground… you can test this pretty easily, start by doing a P mode photo and the background will be black, then switch to Tv mode at the same speed, and slowly dial the speed down taking more shots to see the colour appear
    I haven’t bothered to shoot Rear Curtain Flash for club photos, it hasn’t ever been neccessary here…
    The flash compensation can make a difference – I wouldn’t say I have a consistent rule, I just shift it up and down after checking how shots are coming out.
    Cheers

  14. david says:

    thanks a lot this website really helped me! I was wondering if you had any good suggestions for an E-TTL flash for an olympus SLR?

  15. Tom Godber says:

    Hi David, glad the site is of use, I’m afraid I’ve no idea about Olympus gear but good luck searching!

  16. authhor says:

    Tom, I’ve been to many sites. This is a premier site for night photography based on simplicity, clarity, and comment response. You ought to publish this in Photography Magazine. I want to elaborate on your response to Javier’s ambient light question. You said ambient comes from long exposure. I take it long exposure meaning longer shutter speed? Typically, longer shutter speed leads to blurry picture; however, are you saying the flash freezes the picture even with the extended shutter speed?

  17. Tom Godber says:

    Yep exactly right – though there’s obviously a finite limit as to how long the shutter speed can be before the freezing effect of the flash breaks down, and you can see it often when eg. the outline of someone’s hair is blurry but their main features are sharp (hair on the sides of the head will receive a lot less light than the features facing the flash).

  18. Mark says:

    Hey, Tom. First off, thanks for posting this! This is exactly the type of advice I’ve been looking for for low light/ club photography.

    Now, I have been booked to take photos at my friend’s birthday party, and it’s going to be set in a very dimly lit restaurant. I went there last night to get a feel for the lighting and to take some test shots. I have a Nikon D40x (not sure how familiar you are with Nikon) and I am looking to get a nice external flash so that my pictures won’t look as dreadful as they did last night when I was test shooting there! I have never used an external flash before (have never needed one), and I just have the stock 18-55 lens for my camera.

    Can you please recommend a good external flash and a lens that will give me that nice “club” effect that all your pictures seem to have? He wants some posed, group shots and some candid, party shots all throughout the night. Also, should I use different lenses for large group shots?

    Please help! Thanks again so much!

    -Mark-

  19. Tom Godber says:

    Hi Mark,
    I’m afraid I’ve no idea about Nikon flashes but make sure whichever you get has a head that rotates, so you can bounce off the ceiling which will probably be very useful for the wider group shots
    Cheers,
    Tom

  20. Mark says:

    Noted. Thank you. Can you recommend any flash diffusers for this type of photography? So far, I have the Sto-fen omnibounce and Gary Fong Lightsphere II (clear). Also, I noticed that you left the setting of each photo up so that we can see them (thank you!!!), but I didn’t notice the setting of your Flash Exposure Compensation. It’s my understanding that the camera’s ISO, shutter, and aperture affect only the ambient light and the FEC of the flash mixed with the FEC on the camera affects the subject. Is my understanding wrong? If so, how? And if not, then could you list the FEC values for each photo?

    Hope this isn’t too much trouble to answer! Thanks so much for your time!

    -Mark-

  21. Jenny says:

    It took me forever to find what I was looking for. :x but I’m soooooooooooo glad to bump into your page. Like what Emma said,alot of photographers won’t share their secrets when it comes to this. Thank you so much for sharing :) I really appreciate this!

  22. Nina Silvestrin says:

    This is the most amazing tutorial i have ever read! Tom you are a god amongst mere men!

    can you suggest a flash for a canon 550D??
    and i’m a bit lost for the positioning of the flash… mounted on the top of the camera? or held? i’m a little clueless!

    thanks so much!

  23. Great article. I’m always looking for ways to improve my photography, and as I do a lot of club photography (I manage a DJ and have been in dance music for a while) an article like this is spot on.

    I’ve evolved from a simple Minolta DiMAGE 7 in 2003 when I first started club photography, to a the fully loaded Nikon D200 and SB-800 I have now.

    Another thing I’ve recently started experimenting with is shoot in RAW + JPEG, instead of just RAW. This is so I can use the Apple Camera Connection kit and either my iPad 2 or iPhone 4, to upload the JPEG images on the go. I’ve only recently started experimenting with this, so I’m interested to see how it goes.

  24. Al says:

    Hi Tom, what’s your opinion in the various metering modes (i.e. evaluative, partial, center-weighted average and spot) that can be used in club photos? In your own experience how’s the best result achieved? Thanks

  25. Alex says:

    Hello, again thanks for great tips. I used to take a lot of club photos using 550d+chinese cheap flash, holding it in a hand and pushing it’s button every time half second after i push the capture button on the camera. Although it seems really strange setup,sometimes it could give really good results, mostly because cool lightning effects based on the positioning of the flash. But one thing for sure was too bad – the AF, as you mentioned before the red light of the good external flash is super important and without it i had to fire flash several times before taking a picture only to adjust the focus. For now, im thinking to improve my skills by getting more descent equipment. First of all i’m thinking about which camera to use – full frame or crop? I know which advantages has full frame over crop cameras, such as color tone and high-iso resistance, but does it have the significant difference talking about the club photography, where iso hardly exceeds 800 limit(using with external flash) ? I have no idea about choosing the flash, i would like to ask you advice, i guess it will be suitable for both 50d and 5dmk2(im thinking between this two camera’s). Which one is perfect for club and has really good RED focus light?
    And the last question i have is about the WB. Which settings do you use ? Do you manually setup the white balance or you use some preset, such as FLASH or maybe even keep it on AWB?

    Thanks for answer, really appreciate your help.

  26. Tom Godber says:

    Hi Alex,
    Probably a bit late for you, but – 50D should do fine for club photos, but 5Dmk2 is a simply awesome camera. Sensibly, you’d be better off using the difference in price to get a 50D + good lens.
    As for WB, I shoot RAW and auto, and worry about it when processing in Lightroom :)
    Cheers

  27. [...] How To Take Club Photos | masochismtango Sep 28, 2009 … I've been taking club photos for TillLate in London for half a year now, and I tried a few times at … [...]

  28. What about using higher Iso settings. Would this allow me to avoid relying on my flash as much.

  29. Tom Godber says:

    High ISO can help increase the battery life of your flash – it won’t need to fire as fully to allow the sensor to capture the scene with equivalent light – but it’s not an outright replacement for flash. With only high ISO, you’ll get the background colour, but the foreground will be darker and likely blurred – you need the flash to “freeze” the foreground.

  30. Nices photos ..I shoot photos for clubs but you’r is very good…and nices color..

  31. The site was extremely helpful in decoding the overwhelming features of a dslr. I feel much more confident now! lol

  32. Ali Zain says:

    Hi, Nice tutorial … I just wanted to ask what setting should i keep for the photos for printing in the magazine, as these settings looks good for web/facebook page or website. Thanks !

  33. Alex says:

    hello, very nice article here! congrats and ty for teaching us! I have a few questions…i use a canon 1d mark III for clubbing photos, but the clubs in Romania have poor lights, and light movement, no decent atmosphere…i have the 17-40 f 4.0 an 580ex2, my question is i really need the 17-35 or 16-35 f 2.8 to capture more light and more ppl in the shoot? 50 f 1.8 is great but narrows the frame…what metering should i use and why? first or second curtain for flash? i also used canon 70-200 f 2.8 I no is , very good results…ty in advance…

  34. maria khan says:

    helo friends
    I am not professional,i have just nikon D70 or 18-105 lens,I am crazy for taking pictures without FLASH like DISCO PARTY events where we just want look lights colors in pics instead then FLASH PICTURES,so pls advice me that what i can do,.my friends also sale nikon D200 with same lens so can i get this cam for taking this type pic or if i can effort so may in feauture i can get FULL FRAMEcmea like D800E
    anyhow pls guide me what can i do for take this type pics or what camera i neet
    1-CANON 5D MARK II
    2-NIKON D800E
    pls guide me what cams from both i can get or sugest me exact lens
    thanks

  35. Tom Godber says:

    Ali – these settings are fine for magazine prints if you keep the photos at high resolution, just don’t turn up the ISO too high to control the noise.

    Alex – if there’s not enough colour in the background I’m afraid the lens choice isn’t going to help much – you could try extendingt the exposure to drag the flash more, but there’s a limit to what it can do!

    Maria – I don’t know Nikons well but a 5Dmk2 is more than capable of doing this, it’s a great camera but you could buy a cheaper one and save more for lenses which will make a hugh difference too! If you’ve friends with Nikon get one too, then you can borrow kit :)

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