Yesterday I had a random enquiry from a customer where I work (yes I have a day job) asking about shooting in nightclubs. Imagine his surprise when he finds someone who can go into great detail. I remember when I decided to contribute to social pages with nightclubs about 4 years ago, there was NOTHING out there to find out and learn about how to produce great shots.
I picked up a camera about 10 years ago, but I didn’t start to get into photography in a big way until I started shooting for nightclubs in 2007. Since then I’ve worked some 30 events a year in the next 3 years, and boy was it an experience! I’m in the process of collecting and fine tuning some 40,000 images into a collection I have dubbed ‘Clubland’, making a black and white pictorial and hopefully making a book from it. Fingers crossed for me. This year will see a big slowdown in the regularity of how many nightclub events I work, down to about once a month. Now I’m looking to move onto bigger things and a greater challenge.
A lot people have asked me to put something out there, helping future club shooters trying to make a name for themselves, without taking several years of trial and error to get there.
Getting a start
OK… so you love nightclubs, you love dance music, or you just want to get a foot in the door and get some experience in the field. What do you do? The first thing is to find your local media group or publication and volunteer. I will tell you right now, all your work will be for free, this is not a way to make a living. That said, there is a good chance you’ll get free entry and over time, some fringe benefits as well. Find an email or phone number of the editor of your favourite media mag or website, and offer your services. If they want to see some of your work, practice at your mate’s dance party. Only show your best work, less is definitely more. You’ll then be on a distribution list where events will come up every week. Start with the small gigs or the ones you’ll be most comfortable with (venue, staff, DJs etc) and put your name down with the editors.
It’s my personal opinion that people worry WAY too much about equipment. Yes, it’s important to have the tools for the job, but this is not a fashion centrefold. Obviously you’ll have an DSLR with you, you’ll need a lens (or maybe two), a nice big memory card and a spare battery. Get yourself an external flash hood, one that rotates 360 degrees. You can get away without one, but you’ll soon get frustrated after the first 5 or 10 events as you strive to improve your shots. You may also want to get some kind of flash diffuser, I’ll explain more about that later. Get yourself a lens that’s as wide as 24mm on a full frame SLR (18mm if you don’t), possibly as wide as 15mm if you’ve got the cash. If you’ve got a standard 18-55mm lens then that’ll do the job, but get a second lens that gives you some zoom up to 100mm, and keep that in the pack. If you can get a cheap 50mm (f1.8) lens, then get that too, they really come in handy.
At the event
Ask the organisers where you need to go and who you need to see upon arrival. Every nightclub is different so be prepared with a contact name and a phone number. There will typically be one head of security, a host with a clipboard, promotions manager, or club owner in some rare cases. The important thing is to announce yourself and be polite about it. Remember you’re in for free because you’re representing the people that got you in. If you have the opportunity to chat to the head person then do so, and leave yourself open to suggestions or special requests. If you keep them happy, then you’ll be invited back! Take some time to check out the venue, say hi to the bar staff and security, let them know who you are. Those guys will be your best friends if you get in a sticky situation, and you’ll get better access that way. Do not assume you can go everywhere in the club, if in doubt, ask. After a few visits and people start to get to know you then you can often relax the rules a little bit.
Alright, let’s go! Now everyone has a different approach, so there’s no hard and fast rule here. Just work how you feel comfortable. Make sure to get a variety of different shots, dance floor shots, close ups, portraits, DJ shots, action shots, and wide angle. Look for the people that want to find you, don’t chase people that don’t want to be photographed, you’ll know who they are. Signal or ask politely if in doubt. Of course you want to find the stylish or sexy people in the crowd, but shoot everybody, that guy that grabs you for a shocking shot may very well have a gorgeous girlfriend, who’s come in with five of her hottest friends. And saying no to a angry drunk is not good for your health. You can always delete the shot later. If in doubt, get closer. Sometimes you don’t have a choice but to shoot with a wide lens, but bare in mind, it distorts the face the wider you go, and no one likes a big nose or a massive head. So if you can, zoom in and step back as far as you can. Capturing the intimate photo is what will set you apart from everybody else. Thank them for being involved and show them the shots, after all you’re a little piece of entertainment for them, and everybody ends up having a better time.
This is most commonly asked question for me. The usual rules that your photography teacher taught you, go out the window. The only reason for this, is you’re in the most difficult conditions you can ever ask for. Once again everyone has a different approach, but here is what settings I like to use.
ISO – 400 to 1600 (typically 800)
Aperture – f3.5 to f6.0 (or you can just set shutter priority and let camera calculate)
Shutter – 1/20 to 1 sec for a dark room, 1/60 to 1/80 for a well lit room
If you’re using f3.5, then make sure your auto focus is bang on, otherwise only 1 of 3 people will actually be in focus. Go f6.0 for clear shots. By extending the shutter beyond 1/20 sec you’ll start to see streaking lights, this can add to the overall movement and colour to the shot, so get creative with it. Just imagine spray painting your picture with the brightest lights in the room. Just don’t overdo it, or things will look messy.
If you shoot at f3.5 or less, you run the risk of losing focus on everything
The most important element of club photography. Set your flash to Rear TTL or 2nd curtain flash. The flash will fire at the end of the shot giving light to the people in the foreground while absorbing atmospheric light behind them. Your external flash will create for flexibility for you. Try to bounce your flash off walls and ceiling to creative soft light and reduce harsh shadows. Messy punters will look even messier with harsh light on them. Be careful what colour the walls and ceiling are, if the wall is bright red, then this will put a red cast over the shot. Yes you can work the colour out of a RAW image, but it’s better to get it right first and save you loads of time later on. Treat your light like a billiard ball, the same angles on a pool table apply here, point straight up and it’ll come straight down, point at an angle and it’ll come down at the same angle. By popping a diffuser onto the head of your flash you create a wider spread of light, this can be useful if your ceilings are high, of a funny shape, or if disco balls and lights are in the way. Just remember if you use a diffuser, your shots will look flatter, so compensate by increasing your exposure time by 1 stop.
Now it’s time to go through them the next day. Some people shoot in RAW (like myself) but others will cut themselves some time and shoot in JPEG. RAW offers more flexibility with bringing exposure up and down, but the file is bigger and takes longer to batch process. Try to be selective with your shots, and make sure you adhere to the guidelines given to you by the editor. If you can’t cull the shots down to a select 20, then try getting to 60 first, then take a break and come back. Take the time to crop your shots, and remember don’t be afraid to get in close. Try not to produce the same shot twice, or have too many of one person. Yes I know she’s quite attractive, but you only need one of her for the social pages. Make sure that you get the shots up in a timely manner, it shows your professionalism and people will be looking for them right away. If you want people to check out your gallery, get them up by Monday at the latest. Timing is key, and people won’t wait.
So I hope that helps a few up and coming photographers get to know more about this very new and exciting form of photography. I’ve had an amazing time out capturing the essence of these club nights for quite some time now, and I hope that you get the same enjoyment of it as I have. If you have any individual questions, feel free to comment and I’ll get back to you. I’ll support these with images very soon. In the meantime check out my draft list of black and white photos for ‘Clubland’, and would also love to hear your thoughts.