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:
For a straight club, make sure you are prioritising the following (in order):
- Hot chicks;
- Famous DJs (if any);
- People having fun (mixed groups, couples, interesting blokes);
- 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!
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:
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!
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.
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.
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:
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.
Settings for Bar Pictures
Relatively long flash-less exposures can also pick out the neon often lighting bars:
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.
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!