From 2010 for almost three years I was the official photographer for a club night called Freaky Electronique, run by my good friends Ash Wiggins and Jon Pigrem. As it’s turned out, the club and my event photography abilities grew in parallel at a similar rate. What was at first quite a difficult task slowly evolved to become an opportunity to explore seat-of-your-pants portrait shooting and dealing with and keeping drunk people happy.
Sure enough it was a process of trial and error. Lot’s of error.
My first hurdle was getting that slow shutter look (where all the lights in the background make lines) with the subject nicely illuminated and sharp in front of said lines. This part is actually nice and simple (room depending): 8th of a second shutter with the flash firing on the ‘second curtain’ (at the end of the shutter duration), ISO to taste. Possibly the handiest tip I’ve picked up is from the awesome flash photography blog of David Hobby, which is to treat your shutter speed as a way to control the light in the room and your aperture to control the impact of your flash. The ISO seems to end up affecting a bit of both as an overall exposure control.
This slow-shutter approach does need some kind of defined lights in the background to look good though and obviously won’t work outside in the sun.
Eventually I noticed the look could be improved/exaggerated by simply wiggling the camera during the exposure. Again, this is limited if there are no lights in the back ground to turn into squigles, but it helps make the whole picture a bit more dramatic.
Once I had this basic set up sorted I found it difficult to overcome the horrible orange look of most venues with little and/or rubbish lighting. For months I struggled with this and tried to get the blue bleached out look by bringing down the saturation of the red channel in Photoshop. Though a lot of these pictures looked quite good, they did seem quite flat and didn’t have the ‘punch’ of bright vibrant colours that a night club should have. After a while some people even started telling me they thought they looked dead in previous pictures!
Unfortunately I didn’t overcome this with any one step, more so it was a gradual process of adhering to the create, share, feedback, review flow chart with particular attention paid to the last point: review.
Probably the most effective step I took was to turn up my flash to overpower the venue lighting almost completely on peoples faces. So as to keep people from being bleached out I just closed the aperture down a bit so I ended up around 1/8 on my flash and f/9 or f/11. With this set up peoples faces were almost entirely lit by my flash with a nice colour and the horrible venue lights made up the back ground.
For some reason I didn’t really notice until I shot in a venue with much nicer lighting how the quality of light from a flash is soft when you are up close and becomes harder/harsher as you move further away.
So my current set up is to shoot with the flash quite powerful, the aperture quite small, the shutter varying from a 3rd of a second to a second and a half (depending on how much light and movement there is in the room), the ISO at 400 or 800 for monitoring purposes and as close as I can get to peoples faces.
I’ve found people are more friendly the bigger club and the more official I look. I used to wear a t-shirt with the club name on it and a big picture of a camera on the back which really helps distinguish me from an over-zealous party goer. It’s also handy having a big SLR with a battery grip, flash and bounce card. I’m yet to try a ring flash but this would probably also put people at ease in approaching me for their photo. Usually I can get one or two pictures of someone before they’re ready to move on and continue enjoying their night but about once per event I would get someone who will never be happy with their picture and keeps asking for another and insisting that I delete all the previous ones. I’ve not yet worked out a perfect way to deal with these people, but insisting that this 7th photo really is the last one and just leaving it at that seems to work OK.
I like the idea that some people who perhaps don’t have any nerdy friends that are into photography might go along to a club night, have their portrait taken and it turn out to be the nicest/flattering/most fun picture of them to date. With this in mind I didn’t skimp on the teeth whitening, spot removal and general beauty retouching in Photoshop.
If you’re interested; here’s loads more event/club photos.