Getting Great Light At Any Event

Getting Great Light At Any Event

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. 

JT Blenker's picture

JT Blenker, Cr. Photog., CPP is a Photographic Craftsman and Certified Professional Photographer who also teaches workshops throughout the USA focusing on landscape, nightscape, and portraiture. He is the Director of Communications at the Dallas PPA and is continuing his education currently in the pursuit of a Master Photographer degree.

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do you have a photo of your lighting set up? its really hard to imagine how these photos were taken. also what color gels are you talking? great stuff!

Yes please, more detail. More... More... More... BTS video would be awesome. This is a great article and I think all event photographers need more details and more data. Thank you in advance.

Nice images! So many questions though!
How do you know what gel to use to match the ambient if the ambient lights keep changing as they often do in nightclubs? How are you triggering your off-camera lights while maintaining an on-camera flash? How do I get that lovely bokeh while syncing with off-camera lights if I don't have HSS? How do you prevent tipsy or completely drunken party-goers from messing with your lightstands, either accidentally or intentionally? Also, don't you get weird shadows when club-goers happen to be between your subject and your off-camera lights, and if so, how do you mitigate that?

I thought this was going to be something enlightening, but I'm mildly horrified. "Use a flash" is tearing away all of the beautiful nuances of the challenging lighting all around you in the venue. Making night life shots look like studio shots is not serving these example images well at all, IMO. Leave the speedlight in the camera bag (in your car), IMO, and don't try to normalize the white balance. The jacked up colors and motion blur are part of the magic of the place.

You need a flash in a nightclub, but generally, yes that how I shoot as well. I value being mobile and the ability to move freely within the space, navigating through dancing, dynamic crowds. Having said that though, the drag-the-shutter approach is more or less the default and you see it everywhere for nightclub images. I can appreciate photographers mixing it up for a completely different look from every other nightclub picture. If I wasn't so lazy, I'd bring my strobes to the club as well.

I also work as the official photographer for nightclubs and they absolutely need clear good photos of patrons, performers, and decor of the club. The only time my clients want some blur is large crowd shots. Honestly, if I sent in photos like the one above I would get fired. I understand that this type of photo may be more reflective of your personal experience as a patron, by my club clients that pay me need something else.

I was not there as a patron. They paid me to come in and shoot there regularly because that's the style of photography they wanted to promote the nightclub. But I see how you tried to dismiss me as a patron.

You just need better control of your light. When I shoot in venues like this, I don't just fire off bare-headed flashes. They are all snooted or gridded, with gels to match the ambient so the end result still looks like the scene, only it's crisp with better definition. The bulk of the exposure is still ambient since I'm usually shooting between iso 1600-3200 with flashes at 1/64 or 1/32 power at far distances. Motion-blur is okay for certain shots, but certainly not the entire night- I would be mortified to deliver a collection of blurry images. If grip & grin is required, those images should be well-exposed- I think the examples above look rather flat and could have better shaping- his ratio of strobe/ambient is spot on, but I honestly think he could modify a hell of a lot better to make it look less flat.

You can get pretty similar looks with an on-camera ( or preferably on an L bracket ) bounce flash ( not direct at all ) and high ISO ( to capture the club's lighting ) too.

3+ flash setup in a club is well... "pretty sophisticated" or just "over the budget" of most clubs in my area.

Agree and disagree. If you are shooting in a LARGE club, on-camera flash is not going to be enough unless you really have your iso jacked up. strategically placed lights around the room will assist greatly in filling your background with something other than blackness. Control them with snoots/grids/gels and nobody will even know they are there. 4-5 external speedlights is not even remotely sophisticated in this type of venue, it's standard practice if you want good results. Zones come in handy here too if you are shooting multi-room/multi-floor night clubs.

Where I shoot ( latin party ) 1/125s, f/2.8, ISO 2500 is enough to get the background lighting perfectly and the subjects exposed properly with just 1/32 output on the SB-910 bouncing at the walls.

I also shoot some flashless when they jack up the club's strobes for some colored shots at 1/125s, f/1.8, ISO 6400.

Gotta love Nikon's high ISO performance <3

Shooting anything more than a couple at 2.8 is risky. You will get away with it in a club, but apply this technique in a wedding and the couple will not be happy that half of her faces in all of her grip/grin shots are out of focus. So you close down to 4 or 5.6 and that's when you need off-camera to help (or keep from going to iso 4000)

of course you won't shoot group shots at f/2.8. At f/2.8 I only shoot two persons dancing together or posing for me ( close and at the same distance to the focal plane ).
For group shots I resort to f/5.6 and add some distance between the subjects and me to allow for more leeway for the autofocus occasional hiccup.

annnnd bump your iso up by 2 stops??

You have a very complicated lighting system that simply would not work in most of the big clubs I have worked at. Lightstands would get trashed by big drunk crowds every night and would be a security/insurance concern. Strong clamps may work if there are metal columns, but getting ladders to mount and unmount them every night will not make you a favorite with the staff. It can work better on a stage or DJ booth, but not for roaming photos of patrons. This could work is you had 2 assistants holding your flashes and roaming with you, but that is beyond the budget of most clubs.

Since ambient lighting changes constantly in clubs, its hard to understand the concept of gelling the main flash to match. I deliver 100+ of photos of patrons every night, and that would be a nightmare f I had to use a remote to coordinate external flashes. If does work when we do studio photos of the staff off hours, but not in the middle of a club with 1000 drunk club goers. Camera flash mixed with high ISO and ambient light is the right answer for me in a crowded environment.

For me, success for me in nightclubs is more about delivering the right gallery for your client rather than fancy lighting. My clients generally want photos of pretty club girls, big fun crowd shots, exciting shots of the performers, shots of VIP Bottle Service, and fun photos of the staff.

I routinely shoot in large venues like this and conversely, couldn't imagine going into it WITHOUT external lighting. I think you may be dramatizing the difficulty of integrating the lights. I don't use clamps, I use snap-ties, the same kind lowe-pro makes to tie stands to their bags- I use those to mount lights easily with basically any other club-lighting fixture (within reach), speaker stands, etc. Fairly easy for me to place 4-5 lights in secure areas. I shoot full-manual and there is very little reason for the lights to ever change from 1/64 or 1/32 power. My settings are pretty consistent all night. Sure, lights are flying around you in different colors, strobing, etc., but generally speaking, I'm around iso 2000-3200 with very low-power fill-flash and external flashes. They are zoned so I can quickly pick proper lights to give me back/side lighting on subjects I am shooting at any angle. And the lights assist GREATLY with overall sharpness and a punchy, polished result that puts me above my competition that usually just walks around lazily bouncing their flash (even though most clubs have black walls and ceilings)... Don't knock it till you try it- properly.

Hey Frank! I haven't found a solution that works for me for externals lights AND and on-camera flash, without also experiencing focusing issues in a dark environment. I tried it once as a second shooter at a wedding reception and failed miserably with a lot of missed shots because of focusing issues without my speedlight's focusing beam. What are you using to trigger and how do you maintain fast accurate focusing in the dark? Any further insight would be appreciated.

I have been using this technique since 2010. Originally, I had speedlights, quantums, placed around the venue (wedding, party, whatever) all with pocket wizards. If I had a rectangular room, there would be a light in each of the 4 corners. The opposing corners would each be on a channel, thus channel 1 would have corner lights firing at each other, and channel 2 would have the other corner lights firing at each other. Everything happening of course, was in the room, between these lights, make sense? I always have a speedlight ON camera. Back then, I additionally had a wizard strapped to the on-camera flash and connected to my cam via pc-sync. In that way, I had on-camera fill-flash, and the ability to trigger my edge/back lights and pick the channel based on which corner I was shooting towards. Make sense?

Now we can do the same thing far simpler with the advent of wireless triggering being built into most lighting systems. No need to dick around with pocket wizards. I use a flashpoint on-camera flash and it controls my off-camera AD200s, I have them zoned similarly like I used to do with my wizards.

And yes, I would never go into a dark venue like that and solely rely on the off-camera lights WITHOUT a flash- I will agree with you on that, that it would be difficult- not only for the focusing issue, but you NEED fill in these instances.

Anybody doing club photography with mirrorless? My main reason for not going fully mirrorless for club and event photography is that they af assist light on the hot shoe flash is disabled. I have shot in some really dark clubs and having the af assist light has saved my ass.
I used a a6500 sor one event and had issue focusing in low light.yes it has a on body af assist light (lil orange light) but when you put certain lenes on it blocks the light and that orange light is not as subtle as the red grid from a hot shoe flash. In my research i have been told to shoot with primes because mirrorless cameras focus better at fast apertures. 2 thing i wouldn't personally shoot a whole club with just one prime (i like my 17-50 and 24-70s) and i wouldnt be shooting with my aperture wide open the whole event.
I feel like theres not alot of convo surrounding on camera flash and mirrorless cameras. If you google something like a7rii af assist light you will see other people that have issue focusing in lower lit environments. I know there are cameras like the a9 and a7riii but i dont know to main club photographers trying to drop 5gs on a camera and i dont know to many that need 42mp (yes i know theres a apcs mode🤗
I added a few samples of my work.

Good god I hate speed lights and lighting set ups. Don't misunderstand me, I am not knocking this article or it's author. I just don't get it. I have been watching videos and reading articles on lighting and flash for months and can't figure mine out or how to apply all these techniques at all. For that reason, my speed light has remained largely in the bag. I have a friend that brings his hand held speed light with soft box connected to the camera via cable to parties and clubs and gets great shots. One simple item. All this other stuff seems overkill, and, to be honest, I don't see the dramatic difference everyone is talking about between one method and the other. Is the complexity of the setup part of the fun because a lot of us are gear nerds, or is it actually worth screwing around with all that stuff? Several people have mentioned their "competitive edge" over the competition that the owners like. Sorry, but the owners have no clue what you are talking about and couldn't spot the difference between one technique and another. Are there hot girls? Can you see that people are having fun? Does it look full? That's all they care about. This conversation reminds me of DJs having similar arguments. I play vinyl! I like to bring it a pair of Traktor Kontrol f1s to augment my sets with a lot of loops and samples! Man, nobody in that club knows what you are doing and they don't care either. Is the dance floor full? That's all the owners care about. Not what kind of gear you are using or what kind of competitive edge you think you have. But hey, more power to those of you that figure this shit out. 4-5 lights plus on camera flash and my ass is sitting home trying to figure out how to get my girlfriend to even show up in a shot using my speed light in any mode! :)

Sorry to burst your bubble Daniel, but of course it makes a difference. And no, all the event photographers you know who use a lot of off-camera lights are not just a bunch of nerds. You may not understand their practicality if you routinely shoot WELL-LIT events. Of course in that case, they are an extra, OPTIONAL effect that you may not be interested in using.

However, if you are working in a VERY DARK room, then how on earth can you not understand the practicality of off-camera lighting? Okay sure, you can get by with bouncing your on-camera flash with no other lighting right? Well what if the venue is covered in black walls/ceilings/mirrors? You aren't bouncing jack. Take it a step further, what if the venue is HUGE? What if you need to show depth in your work beyond what your poor on-camera flash is able to expose? Then you need off-camera lights.

Don't let your unwillingness to learn external lighting convince you that it is all just some mass conspiracy by a bunch of nerds. I recommend to learn your light.

Below examples are ALL supplemented with off-camera flash from various weddings I have shot, including one with the flash uncropped so you can get an idea of what they provide. There is another one in the opposing corner of the dance floor. Without it, only the dancing couple would have been exposed with the otherwise dim room completely dark and other subjects (out of range of on-cam flash) totally underexposed... And with all the other wedding details, off-camera lights can add so much dimension/shape and allow your work to stand out and shine above your wedding guests' iphonography