I always get a lot of questions on how to shoot in low-light party situations. This is one of the specific scenarios that require some higher end gear, as shooting fast action in low light is the real trick. In this blog post I’ll try to put down some ground rules, which are guidelines you can follow, whatever equipment you have. “How dark is dark” will determine if you can suffice with an entry-level DSLR camera, or that you’ll need a 7D/5D/1D to get things done.
Low light; where all camera and lens limits come together
Shooting in low light is one of the hardest things to accomplish from a technology standpoint. There are several factors involved in shooting in dark places:
- Available light. Logically, less light means more trouble as you may have gathered;
- Shutter speed. The slower you shoot, the more light will enter the lens. Downside of course, is that any movement from the camera or the subject will cause blur;
- Aperture. Put simply, the aperture blades in the lens open or partially shut. This controls the Depth Of Field (DOF). In very low light, we generally shoot “wide open” and live with the smaller DOF;
- ISO settings. ISO used to be the sensitivity of analog film to light. Today in the digital world, it is the amplification of the light received by the digital sensor. More ISO means more amplification, which in turn means more noise in the picture.
Here is where the equipment factor comes in. In this world of shooting “the person behind the camera” is still important as always, but you simply cannot go without decent gear here. In general, more expensive cameras will give you better high ISO capabilities. More expensive lenses will give you a better maximum aperture to let in more light.
What I use
As an example, what do I use myself for shooting parties in low light? As I can choose between my EOS 400D and my EOS 7D… Definitely my Canon EOS 7D. It shoots acceptable pictures up to 2000 ISO, where my older 400D stops at 400 or 800 ISO. As for the lens, I used to shoot with the Canon EF-S 15-85 f/3.5-5.6 IS USM a lot, mostly at the 15mm f/3.5 setting. I have used my 50mm f/1.8 II as well, but this lens is too narrow on a cropped body (like the 7D) for decent shots except larger-distance portraits like the example below. Recently I bought the Samyang 35mm f/1.4, which can do an awesome job here when shot at 35mm f/2 for example. However, it is fully manual, focus included, so I just might stick to my trusty 15-85 for now as you sometimes need to focus quickly and accurately, especially when your DOF gets smaller. On top of this: manual focussing gets harder as the lens gets wider.
The more optimized example (I’m dreaming of)
Could I have better equipment for the job? Sure! For even better high-ISO performance, a 5DmkII or 5DmkIII would do better. Combined with the Canon 24mm f/1.4 L USM, I’d have a killer setup. The lens is very wide (especially on a 5D series which have full frame sensors), and both the 5DmkII and 5DmkIII perform even better at high ISO settings over the 7D. Expensive set though, too expensive at the moment for me.
General tips when shooting low light parties
Now what we have all been waiting for; how to get the most out of your setup when shooting this type of event? First the list of hardware:
- Choose a wide lens. For cropped camera’s, I’d suggest a lens in the 10-15mm range. Preferably not 18mm, these last few millimeters really count in tight spaces (which is where you will find yourself!);
- Choose a fast lens. Also consider that you can use a lens that is too fast; if you for example use a 50mm f/1.4 lens at a three meter distance on a cropped camera, your DOF is only 19cm, which is in general not enough. The longer your lens is, the further you’ll need to stop down to get a decent usable DOF;
- Choose a camera that is capable of shooting at high ISO. EOS 7D or EOS 5DmkII or mkIII are good solid choices;
- Do NOT use a flash unless you REALLY know what you are doing. In general, you’ll ruin the ambiance with any kind of flashing. Ow yeah and it will get you kicked out of the club in most cases as well 🙂
Next, on the list of HOW to setup your camera and your position:
- Find out your camera’s upmost ISO setting. Not the highest, but the higest one that is of acceptable quality (higher ISOs will introduce noise in the picture). Some camera’s (like the 7D) will actually perform better when shot slightly overexposed (watch your histogram!) and corrected in post processing;
- Shoot in manual mode. The lighting is too erratic most of the time for the light metering to follow. In some cases, you could use Tv mode, but I would consider that fringe cases;
- Shoot with the lens wide open (aperture the smallest number possible). This will let in the maximum amount of light, but also limit your DOF (Depth of Field). Some lenses perform really poor wide open (like the Canon EF 50mm f/1.4) or your DOF will simply become too small. In those cases, up the aperture to the f/2 – f/2.5 range;
- For shutter speed, I’d try 1/30th at 10-15mm as long as you can live with the motion blur. I heard people claim cameras insert more noise as the shutter speed falls under 1/60th, and there appears to be some truth to this. So it may be worthwhile to try and up the shutter speed and up the ISO setting accordingly. This may render the same quality (but less motion blur!);
- Assuming you have a lens with an Image Stabelizer (IS), the IS will help against shake, but NOT against moving people. So if the background is steady but people are blurred, your IS works but your shutterspeed is too slow;
- Find a spot in a low position over the dance floor or stage, looking straight into any lights. Yes you will be shooting in against this light, but this is the most interesting place to be for cool shots with ambiance, especially when there is smoke as well;
- Time the lighting. Most of the time, the lights follow the beat. Wait for the brighter lights, adjust your camera in manual mode. Then wait for the next beat, and time your shooting.
- In general: Don’t underexpose your images. You will have the urge to underexpose in order to be able to use lower ISO and higher shutter speed, but don’t. Most cameras generate most high-iso noise when underexposed;
- Shoot RAW. This will capture all sensor information, and give you more “headroom” to fix things in post processing.
These lists should get you started. As you go along, you’ll probably find out you want other equipment (I have this all the time!). Plan carefully, photography is expensive. I know very little people that actually make money out of shooting these kind of events. If it is just a hobby, be careful on what you spend; you probably won’t sell them for glossies anyway.
Some final thoughts on equipment you may consider
You do not always need to break the bank to get some equipment that will “work” in this kind of shooting. As for cameras, even a Canon 550D does quite a good job at shooting high ISOs, and it is available at decent prices right now (as it has been surpassed by the 600D and the most recent 650D).
As for lenses, you could consider the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II. Very cheap lens, but optically not bad at all, and has a pretty big maximum aperture. Quality is pretty good from f/2.5 up. Problem with the 50mm lenses on a cropped body though, is that I do not consider them to be wide enough for this type of shooting except for shooting details.
What you’d really need is a fast lens in the 14-35mm range. Unfortunately all these lenses are either manual, expensive or crappy. Before considering a lens, always read reviews on the lenses (I like www.photozone.de a lot for this).
The “affordable” lens tip list for party shooting with some indicative pricing:
- Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II (EUR100) – Very cheap 50mm lens that produces quite nice results when shot at f/2.5 or higher. On cropped bodies a bit too narrow though;
- Sigma 50mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM (EUR400) – Better than the 50mm f/1.8 (not surprising at 4 times the price), but useable straight from f/1.4. Beware the tiny DOF at this setting though. Like the previous one, kind of narrow when used on crop;
- Samyang 14mm f/2.8 IF ED UMC Aspherical (EUR300) – This lens is manual. As you are shooting manual in these situations anyway, it is just the manual focusing you need to worry about, which frankly is a pain for fast action (but this lens has a VERY nice price). Optically the lens is great, except for some weird distortion which in general is no problem for this type of shooting;
- Samyang 24mm f/1.4 ED AS IF (EUR650) – A perfect lens for this type of shooting, apart from the manual focusing like the previous Samyang lens. Very “fast” lens (wide aperture). Very useable on both cropped and full frame bodies;
- Samyang 8mm Fisheye f/3.5 (EUR290) – This is a true fisheye that works only on APS-C (cropped sensor) cameras. It is not very fast, but it is SO wide it does capture a lot of light (beware not to shoot your own feet!). Manual focus, but as the lens is so wide you can normally focus once and shoot happily without ever adjusting. Beware of the fisheye effect though: can be very cool but know what you get into when buying this lens.
I haven’t included any of the wider Canon L lenses, as they are very expensive. Still, they make the perfect choice as they are optically on par with the Samyangs, but do add an important feature: autofocus. Canon lenses like the 14mm f/2.8 L, 24mm f/1.4 L and 35mm f/1.4 L are all great choices when you have the budget (think over EUR1250 for any of these).
If you are obsessed using flash
First of all, I never recommend to use flash in these situations for various reasons. I’ve decided to add a little thought on using flash if you cannot help yourself 🙂
You are hardly ever allowed to use flash in clubs. If you are allowed (make sure!) to use a flash, you will most of the time find there are no surfaces you can use to bounce off. That means direct flash (which is ugly in general). So maybe, just maybe you could use a little fill in flash, but direct on-camera flashes are a nuisance to the “victims” being shot in such a dark environment, so I would never recommend that.
The best (and only?) option would be to have a direct flash off-camera. You’d need to use a cable (in a club, yeah right 😉 ) or rather a wireless triggering. Even if your camera supports the popup to be master (like my 7D), you will still flash directly into people’s eyes as the popup flash uses flashes to trigger the remote flash (so this triggering is not really usable).
As you can see, a lot of trouble for a little help getting more light. As soon as the flashes become too powerful you loose the ambiance anyway. That is why I always answer “DON’T use flash”. If you know how to use your flash in those situations, you won’t be asking the question how to shoot parties in low light 🙂
If you are set on using a remote flash (and have the stuff to do it), consider putting it behind the scenery on the ground, 45 degrees up. That can give cool effects, especially when there is smoke. Don’t we worried about flashing directly into your own camera; that works wonders in fact.