Photographing strangers while out in public is one of the biggest challenges that any photographer has to face, regardless of whether you are a beginner or a professional. It can be really scary to walk up to someone you don’t know and ask for a photo—and it can be even scarier to get that photo without that person’s permission.
Now, photographing people (or anything, really) at night is a different kind of challenge. Put those two things together and that you got a pretty big hurdle to overcome. Today, we’re going to talk about how to get over that hurdle.
Besides the hurdles of photographing strangers and getting your settings right in low light situations, there are a lot of subtle factors that you need in mind whenever you're photographing night life. So let's start out with a definition of what exactly I mean when I talk about “night life.”
Night life is essentially the stuff that happens in your city after the sun goes down. When we think of night life, we usually think about clubs, bars, busy restaurants, outdoor gatherings—with or without alcohol, but almost certainly adults only. Night life is what people do when they’ve got a babysitter watching the little ones at home.
Now there are a lot of reasons why photographing night life is a challenge, but one of the big ones is because not all people caught partaking in night life activities particularly want to be photographed. This means that besides taking photos of strangers, you might also conceivably be photographing hostile strangers. So the first things that you absolutely must keep in mind when you set out to photograph night life is your own safety, the safety of your equipment and the privacy of your subjects.
Some particularly daring street photographers will use the “approach the subject, take the photo and walk away” technique of photographing strangers. If you are very daring, you could do this too, but it's not really a technique that I recommend for night life photography. The reason why is because people who are out at night in the city aren't always engaged in activities that they would particularly like to be made public. One very obvious example of this is alcohol consumption. You know how they always tell you that you should never allow drunken photographs of yourself on social media? Any such incriminating photographs can come back to haunt you even years after they were posted. Potential employers, potential boyfriends/girlfriends, even potential friends could conceivably find those photographs and decide just based on that one single mistake of a picture of that they would prefer not to be associated with you. Yes, it's true, people will judge you based on something someone put on social media 10 years ago.
This is almost certainly what’s going to be going through the head of the strangers you encounter in alcohol-induced stages of partying. So although in the US (laws in other countries may vary) it is legal to photograph anyone in a pubic place regardless of what they’re doing, it is never really a good course of action to approach someone who has obviously been drinking and take their photograph without first asking permission. When in doubt, ask yourself whether or not you would appreciate having your photograph taken in a similar situation. It doesn't matter if it's a situation that you would never ever get yourself into in a million years, just try to put yourself in that person’s shoes and answer the question of whether or not you’d want that particular moment to be made public. If the answer is no, don't take the picture.
If you're very bold you can simply ask the person if it’s OK to take a photo of them. Now if they're intoxicated enough, they may not even remember having giving you permission, so don't take advantage. As a general rule it's probably best to avoid very inebriated subjects in general, permission or no.
Another thing to keep in mind is the safety of your equipment. Now there are some nightclubs that attract a shadier sort of person, and there are some nightclubs that don't. As a general rule, try to avoid the former and to stick with the latter unless you’re traveling with a group of friends and can be sure of your safety. You don't want to walk into a scary looking biker bar with your brand-new $3000 DSLR, as you may find yourself leaving without it at some point in the very near future. And if you do shoot in sketchy places—or anywhere, for that matter, make sure that you keep your camera on your person at all times. Don’t bring a bag of accessories or extra lenses along with you, and wear your shoulder strap cross-body instead of simply on your shoulder. Don't spend a lot of time in any one location, since this can draw unwanted attention to you. Better to walk in and grab a few photos and go before anyone has time to make evil plans.
Now that we have discussed safety, let's talk about settings. Most nightclubs and other after-dark establishments keep the lights inside very low. This presents a special challenge if you want to take pictures inside, so you’ll probably benefit from some special equipment. Don’t use a flash (onboard or otherwise) for a couple of reasons—one, because it will completely change the ambiance of the setting, and two, because it will draw unwanted attention to you and even possibly spoil everyone’s evening—no one likes to have a flash constantly going off while they’re trying to enjoy their dark little corner of the bar.
Veseria - The Stage by Flickr user Sean Molin Photography
Instead, turn up your ISO. You may even have to turn it up really high—think ISO 3200 or even 6400. Now, depending on your camera’s manufacturer you will get varying degrees of noise in an image shot with those very high ISOs, but frankly I think night club images and other photos of after-dark activities benefit from a little noise. Noise can have a very photojournalistic or gritty feeling to it, and that goes along well with the city after dark.
Another thing you may find you need to have is a fast lens. I recommend a 50mm prime, which is a very low budget way to get a very wide aperture in a lens. For a little more than $100, you can get a 50mm prime lens with a maximum aperture of f/1.8, and for a couple of hundred dollars more you can get one that goes as wide as f/1.4. The drawback of course is that you’ll get very limited depth of field when shooting at these apertures, but you’ll also be able to get very clear, motion free images in really low light without ever having to resort to your flash or a tripod.
One thing to keep in mind when you’re using large apertures is that you should always make sure that your subject’s eye is the sharpest part of the image. To do this, you may need to use single point AF, which is the mode that lets you move the focus point around in your viewfinder using the joystick on the back of your camera. Make sure you place the focus point right over your subject’s eye, press down halfway to lock focus and then all the way to make the exposure.
Some point and shoot cameras can also go pretty wide, so if you have one with a large maximum aperture that might be a good choice for photographing night life. Sometimes it’s best to sacrifice a little image quality in exchange for the ability to take pictures under the radar. A DSLR is pretty hard to miss, but a point and shoot camera can be easily concealed in a pocket or a purse. I think you’ll find that you get more natural looking photos when you’re not carrying a huge DSLR around, so if you feel more comfortable with a compact camera go ahead and use one. And don’t worry so much if your photos seem less refined—that’s OK with this sort of image because your goal is not to capture intricate detail but to capture the mood of the people and location you’re photographing. Your shots can be a little noisy, they can even have some motion blur—what matters is that they inspire some sort of emotion in your viewer.
Black and white
A lot of street photographers convert their images to black and white. I also like black and white because it goes back to that photojournalistic look that pairs so well with these types of images. When you exclude color from an image, your viewer can focus more on shape and form and on the intangible elements of the scene, such as a person’s laughter or the mood of the event. And the great thing about shooting black and white in the modern era is that if you don’t like your results, you can always convert back to color.
Bar du Belgique by Flickr user gato-gato-gato
Remember that you can have some fun at that bar or nightclub too—don’t be afraid to have a drink and enjoy the music. Besides ensuring that you have a nice evening out, engaging in the fun will help you blend in. And photographers who blend in tend to get better photographs.
- Don’t photograph people in compromising situations
- Ask permission
- Go with a friend
- Keep your gear on your person
- High ISO
- High maximum aperture
- Single point AF
- Black and white
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