Nightlife photography has been the key to my success in more ways than one. In 2004, I was at a crossroads in my photographic journey, having photographed, at that time, all of the pictures that were floating around in my head. I was at that “What do I do now?” stage when I found that nitevibe.com, an Emagazine that focuses on the nightlife of San Francisco, was looking for photographers to take photos in clubs, concerts, music festivals and similar events.
It seemed like a great fit, because before I’d picked up a camera, I had been a DJ for 22 years. The opportunity was right up my alley! I put together some examples of nighttime shots I had taken on my recent travels and submitted them. To my surprise, I was hired. I became Nitevibe’s senior photographer, a position I held for over three years.
The benefits of club shots
Nightclub photography has helped my portfolio immensely by adding diversity. I learned long ago that I don’t like shooting flowers, sunsets, babies, mountains, animals, or elderly social functions. I knew that young, hip people were what I was interested in shooting, and well… young, hip people go to clubs and concerts, don’t they? Different people, weird people, colorful people and silly people all attend these soirees, and I was blessed to have had full access to all of them. It gave me a chance to glimpse their world through my camera. I also love shooting weddings, portraits, layouts and non-club events. When I began using the techniques I gained photographing nightclubs, it helped me think outside the box. Every client I’ve shown my work has commented on the edgy youthfulness it displays. Shooting nightlife photos also helps attract my target clientele: young, forward-thinking adults ages 25–45.
The lessons I learned
I realized the key to taking nightlife photos is all about anticipation and putting yourself in the best position to capture those moments. It is one thing to have the right equipment, but quite another to use it efficiently. I’ve spent many nights reviewing my photographs and figuring out how to make them better. David Hobby’s site, Strobist.com, helped me understand using light to my advantage. One important thing I realized is that blurry lights are just plain old blurry lights, but they become interesting when there is a face associated with them. Then the light becomes a living thing and the image becomes fluid and alive. The power of blurred motion tricks the eye by creating the illusion of movement.
Dragging the shutter speed creates just that. I use somewhere between 1/2 to 3 seconds. The aperture is almost always wide open and the ISO is from 50 to 1000, depending on the amount of ambient light and how much shutter drag I need. To add more blur after I feel the mirror slap, I often move my hand (shaking or dragging) to create a richer image. It’s like painting with light a la Jackson Pollock.
Capturing people who are oblivious to being photographed is also key. I don’t look at the subjects. I pretend I’m focusing on something else and shoot using my peripheral vision. My camera is either at chest level or just hanging naturally on my hand. It’s the off camera flash that I move in place before I press the shutter. Then I move quickly away from the subject and pretend my camera has malfunctioned. They never suspect a thing. The best tool for these “no look” shots is a wide focal length between 16 – 24mm and my trusty Canon ST-E2 transmitter, which emits a cross hatching red light to help the camera focus in low light. I also use it like a laser site to help me point the camera in the right spot (usually the face). The last critical tool is a lens that focuses quickly. Sometimes my finger is on the shutter button for a while, and I’m just moving my body accordingly to keep the subject within that focused area. When the time is right, I take the shot, a technique that has eventually become second nature.
I live in a low light world; it’s the most comfortable environment for me where everything is constantly changing: the lights, people, the mood, the sounds, and the intensity. I try my best every time I’m on an assignment to capture the soul and fun of an event. Yes, I take all the ‘look at me’ shots, but I primarily hunt for the details and the heart of the evening. There is one particular club in San Francisco where I’ve photographed over 100 times. To constantly challenge myself I always look for one great shot on every assignment, something I can use for my portfolio. Thinking that way helps my motivation and keeps me striving to get better.
For club work I recommend a full format camera and use two Canon 5D’s, (one stays in the car), and fast wide angle lenses. These are critical because they enable me to take group shots up close. Most of the time the club is crowded, and you can’t back up, so shooting a group with a focal length between 16mm to 24mm is key to getting a good photo. A wide angle lens is also best for taking atmosphere shots. To get the full scope of a club, you have to shoot wide. Any combination of a 16-35mm f2.8, 35mm f1.4, 135mm f2, 70-200mm f2.8 and a fisheye works best. It’s also important to get the flash off the camera any way you can; it’s critical for creat- ing images that stand out from the rest. I use a ST- E2 transmitter to help get those “no look” candid shots, and two 580EX II flashes (one stays in the car) off camera. I use a quarter cut CTO (color temperature orange) on all my flashes to turn my flash into a tungsten temperature, which flatters the human skin much better than a bare bulb flash. I’ve found that getting the flash off camera is more important than using fast lenses. However, using fast lenses comes a close second; an f2.8 is great but f1.4 is better. I also like to bring an off-camera flash cord because nightclub strobes wreak havoc when the transmitter is trying to speak with the flash.
Best kind of clubs/events
Find work in the best clubs in your town, because not all clubs are the same or exciting―BELIEVE ME! I find the electronic music scene that plays non- radio (underground) dance music offers the best subjects to shoot. Events like raves and electronic music festivals are my favorites. Generally the people who attend those events strive to be unique and hate being considered the “norm.” I love that in them! (That’s where I met my beautiful wife.) I try to stay away from clubs/events that play hip hop and mainstream dance music; the people who attend those events, in my opinion, are boring and predictable from a photographic standpoint. They all dress alike, look alike and have the same atti- tudes. I wish I had a dollar for every guy who posed in that “I’m a weekend thug” pose and 50 cents for all the insecure women who said to me, “I don’t like that picture, take another one.” The only thing remotely interesting in these clubs is the B-boy dancers (talented hip hop dancers).
Do’s and Don’ts of shooting a club/music event
DO get there early so you can find good parking and you can check out the “lay of the land” (catch the manager before he gets too busy to pay you). DO find out who is the evening’s entertainment and what time they go on, so you can place yourself in the best position to shoot them. Find out where they’re going to enter and exit. Sometimes big name talent won’t let photographers get close, so you just have to go for it when they enter the club. DO make friends with the head bouncer and manager. They can help you get into the places you need to be.
DO work sober. This is self explanatory. I dare anyone to try to shoot for 12 hours on any drug and be creative and professional. DON’T focus on the same old stuff! Look for di- versity! There’s nothing more boring than a gal- lery of a thousand shots of the same hot couple or entertainer.
DON’T submit your photos without editing them first. If you have images that are similar in com- position, move them around or maybe flip a few horizontally to make a better viewing experience. DON’T show people the photographs you’ve just made of them; you don’t need approval for any photo you take. Also, it’s always the beautiful girls who tell you, “I don’t like it! Delete that and take another!” Just say, “thank you” and move on. DON’T shoot anything until the manager pays you!
What to look for when you first arrive at an event
First I look at the light: where it’s coming from, how it moves, how it changes and the rhythm of the changes. All of these things direct me how to work with it. A faster lens comes in handy, especially in those clubs that have minimal lighting. You can get great background detail in the lowest of lighting situations with fast lenses. A lens with an aperture of f1.4 or better is best.
Then I look at the people: the unique people, the pretty people, the drunks, the entertainers, the celebrities. I try to figure out the best time and angle to shoot them. Avoid rushing to take a picture of someone. Figure out the best background, and turn your subjects around if you need to. To me there is nothing more boring to look at than a person with a black background.
The last piece of the puzzle was incorporating the abundant talents of Suzanne Sease (suzannesease. com) who helped to create the right branding and marketing that maximized the potential of our work. I am also in debt to the skillful and talented people at livebooks.com who helped create a website that showcases our unique style. I don’t know any photographer who hasn’t struggled with building a professional and unique portfolio. I’ve just spent the past four years creating nightclub photographs that do just that.
Product Resources: Camera: Canon 5D MKII; Lenses: 16-35mm f2.8 L, 35mm f1.4L, 135mm f2L, 70-200mm f2.8L, 15mm f2.8 fisheye, 100mm f2.8 macro; Tripod: carbon fiber monopod; Lighting: 580EX II, off camera flash cord, ST-E2 trans- mitter, an Ecover bottle (used as a diffuser for flashes); Software: Lightroom 2.0, Photoshop CS3; CTO gel.