Getting great light in an event setting whether inside or outside is a tough shoot. You have to understand exposure, people are moving sometimes erratically, ambient light is moving over your subjects randomly, and you still have to create sellable imagery. I photograph several nightclubs in Dallas, TX regularly and the imagery I’m creating is their marketing for new patrons. What I have to show is an inviting and fun environment whether it’s packed or not and where people will want to spend their weekday and weekend nights, and let’s be honest, their hard earned money. This lighting isn’t tough to do, but takes some thought to execute as you move throughout a room or outdoor area.
First off, I’m a speed light guy. They are easy lights that work well and do what I need them to do in a nighttime environment. They are also light and small overall and you can attach them nearly anywhere. You also can afford to have a light get busted (if they’re a third party) and not be in the hole too bad. Some caveats that I have, I shoot Canon and I use the Canon 600ex-rt flashes on camera. They focus faster and more consistently with the infrared beam than my Yongnuo 600ex-rt flashes. I primarily use the Yongnuo flashes as slaved flashes in radio transmitter mode so I can change the output whether I’m closer or further away. I also check with the venue about options for either mounting a flash on a stand or using a clamp in an area that is inaccessible and won’t allow a flash to drop on someone.
Whether you’re inside an event space or outside, you are either using or competing with the ambient lighting. I prefer to use the ambient rather than compete or remove it from the scene, therefore I will gel my on-camera flash to the ambient lighting. Having mixed lighting can be interesting, but using the ambient lighting to act as a fill for ratio on a subject's face is what I prefer. This also will make your lighting a step above the the photographers who don’t gel and reduce your editing time in post because mixed lighting can make skin look irregular or darker in saturation that a simple gel and rubber band fix.
Those off-camera flashes can be gelled to the lighting in the area as well or gel them to complementary colors to the scene or each other. I do each depending on the venue and what look I’m creating for the event. It also allows me to be completely different from one shot to the next at the same venue. With Halloween only a few weeks ago, I was shooting the same clubs several times in one week and I think you should be delivering different images for each venue simply because you get called back for more work more often. When setting up lighting, I prefer to be in a three-light triangle arrangement outside and at least two lights at 90 to 120 degrees from one another if not three lights again in a triangle at about 120 degrees from one another. This simply gives me options from rim lights to accents on subjects as well as the scene itself, or as a main hard light with an on-camera fill or vice versa. Lastly, I start these off-camera lights at 1/128 or 1/64 power and raise or lower them due to distance or what I’m attempting to do with the lighting for a subject or as an accent in the setting.
If I have neutral walls around me, I can bounce light onto a subject. This essentially makes a huge light source, and therefore very soft light. I prefer this way of lighting as it complements men and women well in an event setting. Many times the subjects will ask, “Where was the flash?” Just be careful with having someone close to where you’re bouncing the light. They probably don’t appreciate being blinded. Just like any other scenario, you do have to keep in mind of skin tones. I usually keep my on-camera flash in TTL but if I’m exposing for a skin tone that is naturally darker, I will need to underexpose by a stop or stop and a half. Our metering is always to make skin grey so be mindful of your audience so you are not blowing out skin tones.
Another option you have is to make the ambient lighting a major component of the scene and bouncing lighting in for a more unique image. I personally really like doing this and the clubs dig the look. Again, we are making our flash a much larger light source and it is also softer in comparison to our very small lights on and off camera. I’ll usually pose a woman, especially if they are dressed up for an image like this as it has a very good impact as a promotional image.
With this set up I now have the option to have gelled complimentary or tertiary colors that work well with none, one, two, three, or all four flashes (including the on-camera flash) at a time for lighting on subjects. I can backlight with a single light for a subject and add in the main light on or off camera, or I can add some additional lighting for an accent in the scene. Also, if I didn't gel, I now have a ratio of lighting on faces no matter what direction I am positioned. These can all be done inside or outside and with nothing more than gels, light stands, and flashes. If you're beginning your off camera lighting journey, then these may be very new ideas to start trying out. They can work very well and give you some very cool and commercial looking imagery that will set you apart from other photographers. It’s all about how well you understand lighting and being able to work and think quickly. Let me know if this is similar to how you set up for your event photography or if you do something different.