Nightclub photography tips

all photos courtesy George Papastergis

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Nightclub photography tips 

provided by courtesy of photographer George Papastergis

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George Papastergis

Elocin photography


Todo Bien


Amphitheatre Club


nightclub photography tips

The Broken Balkenz Fest at 7sins club in Athens

For most people, nightclubs mean music, dancing, drinking and above all - having a good time.

Good nightclub photography will capture the essence of all these things.

However the combination of low level and pulsating multicoloured lights and subject movement make for very tricky exposure control.

Rely on auto exposure with flash and you are likely to get a brightly lit subject against a very dark background.  Turn off the flash and the result is likely to be a lot of motion blur of your subject - especially if they are dancing!

The solution to the problem is explained in some detail by professional club photographer George Papastergis

Night Club photography - Equipment needed

At Todo Bien in Rhodes Old Town 

A digital SLR camera - preferably a full frame model is recommended - although any camera which permits manual control over exposure will suffice. (George Papastergis used a Nikon D610 for the photos on this page)

You will also need a speedlight flash unit that can be mounted to the camera via "hot shoe".   The flash unit doesn't have to be particularly hi-tech as it is going to be used in manual mode (rather that TTL , High speed sync etc)

For optics, a wide angle often gives the best results - typically with a focal length of around 20mm (when mounted on full frame body)

Nightclub photography Tips 1 - Using Flash

At Todo Bien latin bar - cafe in Rhodes Old Town

There are no "fixed" settings for nightclub photography. However there are certain principles to follow which lead to some typical starting settings from which adjustments can be made and final ideal settings be dialled in.

The idea is that the background elements of the shot will be recorded by exposing for the ambient lighting conditions and the subject (which will be in the close foreground) will be exposed by the flash.

1. Exposing for the background.

Set the exposure mode to manual. This is essential as the background lighting is likely to be constantly varying due to the club light show and this will fool the cameras metering system.

Set aperture to around F5.6 (even if you have a "fast" lens with larger aperture capability) - this will ensure depth of field is not too shallow and thus be more forgiving on exact focussing  - which is likely to be challenging in the low light conditions.

Shutter speed will need to be relatively long. Around 1/8th to 1/4th of a second is a good start point. Don't worry if this results in slight motion blur and/or camera shake as this is ultimately only going to be evident on the background elements of your shot - and in fact can actually add dramatic effect which compliments the shot.

ISO will also need to be quite high at around ISO 2000.  Whilst this may result in some "noise", using lower ISO will necessitate in either larger aperture or even slower shutter speeds - both of which will have a greater adverse affect.  On most DSLRs - especially if you use a full frame (such as the Nikon D610 used by George Papastergis for these photos) the noise levels will be acceptable.

The motion blur and camera shake evident on the elements of the shot out of range of the flash actually add rather than detract to the overall effect of the shot - giving dynamism and feeling of action.

Flash Exposure

The main subject of the shot (for example the barmaid in the above photo) are exposed primarily by the flash. This "freezes" any movement and thus eliminates both motion blur and camera shake - only accurate focussing is required to ensure the subject is "sharp"

The on camera speed light should be set to manual and the power set to a low setting. As low as 1/64 or even 1/128th of full power. The flash head should be angled at 45deg and the integral wide angle diffuser screen used as well as the bounce card.  This will limit the range of the flash to the immediate foreground and thus only effect the subject. Using such a wide angle lens (around 20mm focal length) means that you will be very close to your subject - probably within 1m distance and thus the flash does not need a lot of power.

Angling the flash head and using the diffuser and bounce card help soften the harshness of the light and thus help it blend in with the rest of the shot.

Dancing in the streets at Todo Bien  Only the primary subject (in the orange vest) is exposed by the flash. All other elements are from the cameras manual exposure settings

Nightclub photography tips 1 - other technique factors

Focussing in low light can sometimes take a few moments - even if using the af assist beam from the speed light.  This can result in the shot being miss-timed - especially if your subject is dancing!

It is therefore a good idea to prefocus in advance at the distance that you plan to take the shot.

You may wish to do this by separating the focussing from the shutter button by using the rear af button

By pre focussing in this way  - the shot will be taken instantly the moment to press the shutter button.

Framing the shot.   When using a wide angle of view at such close range it is possible (with practice) to frame your shot without needing to either the optical or live view viewfinders. Simply hold the camera away from your face and point at the subject when the opportune moment arrives.  This adds spontaneity to the shot as your subjects will not see the shot coming and "pose"  (or indeed try and hide as camera shy people tend to do).  Don't expect every shot taken like this to yield a great result - but with practise you will learn to quickly and surreptitiously frame your shots!

A great example of a candid shot snapped at the spur of the moment - before the barman can react and "pose" which in this case would have detracted from the style of the shot.  Taken at Todo Bien

Pre focussing and shooting without peering through the viewfinder adds spontaneity to the shot.

Nightclub Photography tips 2 - Shooting WITHOUT flash

Sometimes, especially if you want the entire scene to be the subject of the shot you may wish to use only the ambient light for the exposure.

In this instance you will want to eliminate (or at least significantly reduce) motion blur or camera shake and this will require the use of faster shutter speeds - which in turn may necessitate larger aperture and/or higher ISO settings in order to still record sufficient light.

0.4 sec at F3.5 and ISO 4000

Camera settings when not using Flash

Typical camera settings when relying on ambient light are as follows:-

Shutter speed - 1/25th Second

Aperture - F1.8  - F3.5 (although smaller apertures can also work well - see the photo above which used F5.6)

ISO Up to 3200 (which is where using a full frame camera really comes into its own in terms of maintaining acceptable noise levels at high iso settings)

Nightclub photography techniques 3 - composition

To avoid every shot being in the same style - get creative with your composition. 

Try extra high or extra low rather than eye level viewpoints and occasionally use a 50mm prime lens with very large aperture to give shallow depth of field.

Sometimes focus on other details in the club (such as the dj's record deck.

It is this creativity which sets apart the good "technical" photographer from the truly great photographer who understands how to convey the essence of the nightclub through the medium of photography.

The tray of drinks appears to "float" in the air - a very clever and interesting composition which really conveys the club atmosphere 

Giving attention to other details - such as the dj's record deck

an extreme low level viewpoint adds interest and creativity to the full set of photos used to convey ambience at a venue - at Todo Bien

"Chill out"  An equally important part of the club scene cleverly portrayed in this composition

Nightclub photography - acknowledgement

Many many thanks to excellent photographer George Papastergis for taking the time to share his nightclub photography techniques and provide all the example shots on this page.

George is currently studying photography in Athens and works on behalf of Elocin Photography

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useful links from Nightclub photography tips 

go to JARGON BUSTER digital photography terms explained

George Papastergis

Elocin Photography

Todo Bien


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