Alley in Pisa, Italy

by Lars Kotthoff

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I'm going to be photographing in a club setting. Imagine a foggy atmosphere, with a lighting nightmare: everything from strobe lights to colored spotlights and everything in between, both bright and dark. The atmosphere is very fast-paced.

I'm looking for tips on lenses, ISO settings, camera settings (I have a Nikon D90 if that helps), since this is such a difficult atmosphere, I want to go in at least having some sort of plan.

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Little bit of a broad question, unfortunately. Could you give us a full gear list of what you've got, or do you only have the D90? –  nchpmn May 1 '11 at 0:57
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I changed "club" to "nightclub", since there's already a few questions tagged with that for photo clubs — very different! –  mattdm May 1 '11 at 6:22
    
@mattdm Good point, thanks! :) –  SpikeX May 2 '11 at 12:55
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Beware of laser lights in a nightclub setting. Many eye-safe lasers are class 1M, where the M means they're fine as long as they're not viewed through optics which may focus the beam to non-eye safe levels. So such a laser could potentially damage your eyes if viewed through the camera, so if there are any lasers being used, you may want to check if they're class 1 or class 1M. If 1M, then consider using LiveView or equivalent. –  drfrogsplat May 19 '11 at 2:48
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Also worth noting that nightclub style lasers have damaged cameras in the past. gizmodo.com/5596508/laser-light-show-vs-dslr-sensor As far as I've looked, they're all 5Ds and were all damaged during video, so I don't know if it's a particularly sensitive sensor for laser damage, but be aware of the possibility of damage to your sensor (noting that LiveView would be equivalent to videoing, so saving your eyes might be bad for your CMOS sensor... though the latter is cheaper/easier to replace ;) –  drfrogsplat May 19 '11 at 2:51
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7 Answers 7

up vote 19 down vote accepted

It's at times like this that digital photography really out-shines anything you could ever do with film... because you're going to get a lot of missed shots.

Here's a strategy that's worked for me in the past: Get an external flash with TTL (very important) and an off camera cable. A mid-ranged zoom will be fine, it doesn't even have to be a good one, you're going to be shooting at f/5.6 or f/8 anyway. Don't use a 50mm on your D90, it's going to be too long. If you can get a flash bracket, that'd be even better. I know it looks a bit ridiculous, but putting the light off the camera is a god-send quality wise AND it will signal to the club goers that you are a serious photographer, not just some creep with a camera. That actually does make a big difference in how they react to you.

To start shooting, set your camera to Manual mode, What you want to do is to get up close with your subject, but keep the in the night club context. You don't need high ISO to do this, 400 will be more than enough. Drag the shutter a bit, 1/30 or 1/15 and keep your aperture around f/5.6-f/8, that should be more than enough with a crop sensor. This will let you freeze your subject (speedlites shoot at up to 1/10000s) while getting enough ambient light to keep them in a club setting. I'd stay on the wide-end of your focal range, that puts the viewer "in the middle of things", using longer focal lengths makes them feel like they're looking at something happening far away.

Resist chimping after getting the first few shots, spend time in the club shooting, you'll get a chance to check it all later. Shoot extra, you never know if someone shut their eyes. Just get in, pop pop pop, get out. Bring extra batteries. You might not be able to AF because the club might be just too dark, but if you shoot people from more or less the same distance at f/8 you probably won't need to.

Cool effects I've seen used: wide angles (10-22) with the flash set to a longer distance, that lights just the middle of the frame while creating a cool fall-off around it. Multiple exposures to tell a story in a single frame.

Oh, and do what Michael Bolli said - test it out on your friends at home first, but to be honest it's a pretty easy for of photography to get right. Concentrate on getting interesting looking people and situations over the technique tho, because nobody's going to care if a shot isn't perfectly lit as long as the content is great.

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Depending on where you live and the laws and the particular club you will be shooting at, you may also want to get permission from the club first. If you use a nikon SB-600 or upwards or similar flash supporting the Nikon CLS system, you can also avoid the need for a cable. –  Roland May 1 '11 at 14:39
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Yes to both those things, although I've found that with Canon's off-camera control system if you hold the flash behind the camera it sometimes won't fire. –  Jędrek Kostecki May 1 '11 at 16:42
    
CLS also requires a tiny bit of light from the on-camera flash for synchronization. On the D7000 at ISO 3200, f/2.8 this is enough to overexpose my hand at arms length. This will almost certainly be noticeable on your subjects. A SG-3IR works well to block this light, but you might as well go with a cable at that point to avoid line of sight issues (fingers blocking the IR sensor on the flash, etc.) –  Evan Krall May 2 '11 at 8:02
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I've done some metal concert photography and I go with a prime lens. Earlier I only had a 28mm 1.8, but next time I will go with a 50mm 1.4. Automatic settings don't work well, so I go fully manual; manual focus, manual metering, manual flash. Yep, unlike Matt's answer about not using a flash, I do have a speedlite with me. Swiveled up to the side and with a soft-box, and I manually set the strength , too. 1/32-1/64, aka fill flash. And I turn it on and off between shots, depending on the amount of smoke in the air and whatnot. I also move around like a ninja. I am very lucky that the concerts I shoot I am even allowed to crawl around on the stage itself, so I can get close to the drummer and shoot over the shoulders of the band and see the audience from their perspective.

Examples:

funny angle from stage

Action motion

Great colours

Drummer closeup

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Adding up to other answers, To get some unique shots follow these:

  • Flash off and use club lights creatively
  • Use slow-sync flash method to get the dance of people frozen(with blur).
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I shoot photos at a nightclub and I may not be the best at giving advice as I could consider myself an advanced amateur. I shoot many photos at night and that is actually mainly what I do as far as photos go. Here is some of the advice I can give you.

TTL flashes are gold, but they don't produce consistent photos as the lighting changes constantly, but if you don't use one there will be too much grain and the photos will have VERY poor exposure in most cases unless your using a f/2.8 lens or faster.

Set your exposure to a few seconds or between 2-5 seconds. Why? Because if you use the flash and set it off it will freeze them and then the longer exposure will bring out the darkness in the background and make it look lively.

Trial and error is a big thing, you will make mistakes but that can be combated by taking a lot of photos.

Expect mixed reactions when the camera is going around, anything from running away scarred to complete excitement.

Make sure you have plenty of batteries for both the camera (CHARGE YOUR BATTERIES BEFORE HAND) and the flash batteries or keep battery packs for the flash charged as well.

Also keep your iso between 640-1600, anything over 1000 might be too harsh but use that and keep your iso between f/2.8-f/9.

Have fun and good luck :)

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See this, by Mozilla-hacker-turned-nightclub owner Jamie Zawinski. It is awesome:

Nightclub photography: you're doing it wrong.:

You may be unsurprised to learn that I have opinions about nightlife photography.

I'm not the world's greatest photographer, but I take a lot of photos in nightclubs, and I spend a lot more time than that sifting through other people's photos.

This means I see a lot of crappy photos, and I see a lot of different people making the same mistakes over and over again. So here's some advice for those of you shooting inside a nightclub that I believe will dramatically increase the quality of your photos.

Most of this is aimed at people using SLRs with real lenses, but some of it will apply to smaller cameras too.

The indivdual points are:

  • Stop using your flash.
  • Stop using a zoom lens.
  • Stop standing at the back of the room.
  • But, stop standing right at the front of the stage.
  • Stop standing still.
  • Look around first.
  • Stop checking the back of the camera after every shot.
  • Stop posting every damned photo.
  • Your first shot was the best shot.
  • Don't post almost-identical photos.
  • Don't post the photo you almost got.
  • Post big photos, not just oversized thumbnails.
  • Don't post photos where people look like crap.
  • Lose the giant watermark.

And each of those is backed up by a short (or long, in some cases) highly-opinionated and entertaining paragraph. Of course, it's a rant, so it's not exactly what one might call fair and balanced, but it's still great stuff. Really, you should go read it all. A lot of this is good advice for many situations beyond nightclubs too.

(I'm marking this answer community wiki, since this isn't really an answer, let alone my answer; just a pointer to someone else's article which serves an answer.)

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I've done quite a lot of club photography, and a fair deal in other dark places like theatres.

Personally I'd recommend not using a flash. A flash completely changes the atmosphere: yes, flashes let you capture the people, instantaneously as they were, (probably posing for your camera...), but you won't capture how it felt to be there.

Shooting without a flash is difficult. You need steady hands, a camera with decent low light performance (probably a CMOS sensor rather than CCD) the D90 is great in this respect, plenty of patience, and you need to be prepared to deal with noisy images afterwards.

Some tips:

  • get to know your camera really well: in particular how to adjust exposure compensation and ISO as quickly as possible in the dark when you can't see anything. (On the D90 get used to using the menu buttons as modifiers for the adjustment wheel without having to look to see which one you want). Also, get used to using the focus lock button!

  • practise using all the available light: try taking photos on the street at night, using only the illumination from street lights. In very low light you can still easily take sharp pictures if the subject is in silhouette against a light source, for example.

  • don't fight the dark Your photos are going to be dark, because the club was dark! Don't fight this, but make sure that there is still interesting detail: very rarely can you fill the frame with light.

  • experiment, and try lots of things: Don't just take the same sort of photo all night: move around and capture as lots of angles and subjects

  • use a wideangle lense, and learn to shoot without looking: if you don't have to have your eye to the viewfinder you can capture lots more angles, and catch things faster than if your camera is glued to your face.

  • enjoy yourself: It's no fun taking photos if you're not taking part in the party :)

(P.S. my favourite lens for this -- and most other things, to be honest -- is the 10.5 DX fisheye ;)

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It was a toss-up between your answer and the one I accepted - thank you both for the info! –  SpikeX May 2 '11 at 13:32
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Maybe the most important thing is a flash w/ TTL. ISO depend on the amount of surrounding light: People photos in clubs look best, when there is some background/fill light. So if it's dark, you maybe have to go until ISO 800. The other thing is the exposure time. With a flash you can set that from 1/100 to 1/20s or even longer (still depending on the amount of surrounding light).

A flexible zoom lens in the standard range is probably best: 24-70 on a full frame and 17-55 on a crop camera like yours.

If you haven't done much with a flash yet, try it on your friends/roommates/etc before going out. People in clubs won't stand 20 minutes in front of your camera, until you get the right shot.

And last but not least: Experiment!

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+1 good suggestions. I think a nice hotshoe flash with a diffuser will help a lot. Another possibility for lens choice would be fisheye, but that is for something nonstandard. A wide or super wide, far open would be very useful though. –  BBischof May 1 '11 at 0:15
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