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I was hired to photograph at a nightclub on Friday. I've never done this before, and I do not have any specification for the moment.

I'd like to be able to capture the atmosphere at the right moment, play with the lighting etc.

I assume I'll also have to take some shots of people gathering and have their face/costumes on photo to show them off for their friends on Facebook and the likes.

I have a default kit: Nikon D5100 with AF-S DX VR 18 - 55 mm f/3.5 lens

Do I really need to invest in some TTL Flash, and another lens?

I've read different advice from people, some prefer to use a flash, some rather not use them. What's the best choice in order to stay true to the atmosphere and mood?

Is using 800 ISO best, or should I go higher?

Would it be preferable to rent a lens for the night and go for a f/2.8?

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I've shot over 40+ night clubs world wide. http://bluenightphoto.com/gallery/full/3.jpg

Yes, you need a TTL cable and a TTL flash. Off hand flash works best. Just leave it on TTL move and have fun. A flash IS NOT OPTIONAL unless you have a decent full frame with fast primes.

Your lens you mentioned is fine. You'll likely be using the 17-25mm range alot~!

Learn how second curtain shutter sync works and practice using the flash before hand. Note: you may prefer first curtain sync like me. Don't use HSS, you won't need it.

Shutter speed with a flash should be SLOOOOOWWW(1/4 or slower is my fave shutter speed), the flash will freeze the subjects(your shots will be super sharp), but the slow shutter speed will allow the background and light to blur very nicely. Move your camera or zoom right after the shot to induce some extra light motion. Don't go crazy because it takes a long time to master....a newbie will just screw up his shots.

see below

http://bluenightphoto.com/gallery/full/ada-1.jpg http://bluenightphoto.com/gallery/full/ada-1.jpg

Bring extra double AA batteries for the flash.

Drink a little alcohol before shoot and you'll be fine.

Fisheyes are fun, the best deal is a samyang/rokinon/bower 8mm used...should be $160 on ebay. Don't blow your money yet....I went years before I ever bought one and it's not a requirement for clubs.

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It all depends on the light in the club. How much? What type(s)? how directional is it? The answers to these questions determine what approach I take.

In general I choose to shoot with one of the two following approaches:

  • Flash: A fast normal zoom. Something like a 24-70 f/2.8 (17-55 f/2.8 for APS_C camera). A small E-TTL flash either mounted on the hot shoe and bounced off the ceiling/wall or handheld in my left hand about 2 feet or so to the left of camera and aimed directly at the subjects. Sometimes I use a hot shoe cable (easier setup), sometimes a wireless transmitter/trigger (more flexible). Gel or use an orange or green Sto Fen omnibounce or similar cover on the flash to match the predominating color of the ambient light and try to use as little power as needed to allow the ambient light to influence the mood of the shot as well.
  • No flash: A fast prime lens such as a 50mm f/1.4 (35mm f/1.4 for APS-C). Crank the ISO up and worry about the noise in post. Don't be afraid to go up to ISO 3200 or even higher. Use the widest aperture you can that allows the depth of field you need. Try to compose group shots where everyone is the same distance from the camera.

The first approach. Canon 5D Mark II, EF 24-105mm f/4 L at 35mm, ISO 800, f/4.5, 1/60 second, 480EX II in E-TTL mode w/-2/3 stop flash exposure compensation.

Off camera flash

And the second approach. Canon 5D Mark II, EF 50mm f/1.4, ISO 5000, f/2, 1/50 second. Notice the lack of hard shadows. It wasn't nearly as bright as it looks in the photo. If I hadn't have been primarily shooting an act on the stage (and thus wanted to avoid flash and not even set up with one on the camera) I would have chosen the other approach to this shot. At this display size you can just begin to see a little bit of camera movement. The short duration of a flash would have frozen the subject and allowed a faster shutter speed.

Fast lens

Just because you use a flash doesn't mean you can't catch the mood of the ambient lighting. You do need to carefully balance the two by using only enough flash to light your subjects without killing the ambient. Canon EOS 5D Mark II, EF 24-70mm f/2.8 L at 32mm, ISO 5000, f/4, 1/60 second.

Flash balanced with ambient

Canon EOS 5D Mark II, EF 24-70mm f/2.8 L at 24mm, ISO 5000, f/4.5, 1/60 second Flash balanced with ambient2

Note: The first two photos were shot in the same club on different dates under fairly similar lighting conditions other than the first was not near the coolers behind the bar lit with fluorescent lights. As you can see, using flash sometimes allows you to preserve the mood better because you can let the ambient light in the background stay dim without leaving your subject too dark. But you have to really be careful not to use too much flash power!

In either case be sure to save your files in raw format so that you will have control over the color when editing. In the second shot above there were very dim incandescent lights overhead, fluorescent lights in coolers behind the bar to the subject's left (seen reflected in the framed art), LED lights illuminating the stage to camera left (the magenta reflections on the subject's right sleeve, side of his face, and some of the bricks), and beyond the stage were large view windows looking out on a street lit with sodium vapor lighting. There would have been no way to get anything approaching decent color without being able to work with the raw data in post.

Addressing some of the specifics of your question:

  • The kit lens you have is too slow to use in a dark club without using any flash. So is just about any zoom lens, even a constant f/2.8 zoom. Some clubs are just bright enough to get away with f/2.8, but you will need to go way past ISO 800 to do so. You're going to have to learn how to do noise reduction in post.
  • Unless all of your photos will be taken at the same distance, you really need to be able to control the flash via E-TTL and Flash Exposure Compensation. Otherwise you'll miss most of your shots trying to adjust the flash power while the moment disappears.

  • If you are renting lenses go for fast primes. They're cheaper and better suited for a dark club. But you need to be able to visualize what field of view they give you and how much room you'll need to frame one person, two people, three people, etc.

  • You probably should have never accepted a paying assignment until you've shot the same kind of situation on your own dime first. No matter how much you read and get from others, you're going to discover a lot of how to shoot in such a challenging environment the hard way: by learning from your mistakes. Many of those won't be obvious until you are sitting in front of a monitor looking at them. The LCD screens on the back of cameras lie like politicians! If possible, get to the club a few days before the gig and practice! Then look at the results critically on a good monitor.

  • A 2.8 with IS as well will help (I've got a sigma which I rather like) but you still have to deal with subject movement. – Chris H Sep 23 '15 at 15:37
  • Which is why flash is usually the better option. – Michael C Sep 23 '15 at 16:20
  • I won't disagree but it does depend what you're trying to capture. Running handheld only and with a flash can end up rather boring in places that rely on limited (and possibly coloured) lighting. – Chris H Sep 23 '15 at 20:47
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    Even running handheld you can get the flash off camera and that helps a lot, especially if you balance the flash power/color with the ambient well. – Michael C Sep 24 '15 at 4:46
  • Is the Nikkor AF-S 50 mm f/1,8G, a good lens for what I'm looking for ? I think it has what I need but I am no expert. Also with this lens would it need any flash ? – Oscynth Sep 24 '15 at 9:03
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Since you say you want to capture the "mood" of people at the club, especially for purposes of them using your pictures as profile photos and showing to friends, I suggest you look into the "Jarvie Window" technique. Quite simply, it combines a ring light, ring flash, or ring flash modifier, with an ultra wide angle circular fisheye lens (I recommend the Sigma 4.5mm ƒ/2.8 DC for your body; I rented the Sigma 8mm ƒ/3.5 EX DG with my full-frame camera body). Using exposure settings around ƒ/8, ISO 200, 1/1000 sec., you get nice and bright subject with high background rejection.

I used the Jarvie Window technique at a club's anniversary party, and the subsequent day I shot a wedding reception with it as well. I have never had more fun shooting people. The technique itself became a party element, with people lining up to shoot and see the results.

I haven't processed the wedding and party shots yet, but here are a couple test shots of my dog Bob when I was practicing the technique:

Reluctant Jarvie Window model Not happy with the camera

My favorite thing about the Jarvie Window technique is that you can create lots of "depth" and dynamism by making it appear that your subject is climbing into or breaking into the lens/camera, like in the 2nd shot of Bob above. Note that is only achievable by using a ring light that has some physical separation from the lens (i.e., an actual airgap between the ring light and lens). This isn't possible with some ring lights that actually mount to the lens, sort of like a doughnut shaped "filter" that uses the lens's filter threads (but the entire light is outside the lens diameter).

  • Hey, thanks for the tips, I really like the style ! Though I still want to keep it simple, something people are used to. But I'll make sure to try it sometime ! – Oscynth Sep 24 '15 at 9:05
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I've never done that kind of photography but here are few things that I think would be interesting to have:

  1. Fisheye lens - would help you to get a lot of things / persons in your photos when your are really close to your subject.
  2. LED light - These are usually used when shooting video but could be interesting to have in low light situations as yours.

Your 3.5 will, in my opinion, not make it as it is quite dark in nightclubs. 2.8 or wider. I wouldn't recommend you to use high iso with your gear as it will produce grainy photos (I have the D7100 and over 800-1100 my photos aren't that great).

There are plenty of videos on youtube about that kind of photography you should find what you are looking for there.

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