There’s something about a dimly bar that gets my muse excited. The old guys hunched over their beers, talking about the weather. The tattoo-covered dudes confidently working over the pool table. The colorful ladies, often wearing their most eye-catching clothing and makeup…For most people, it’s the highlight of their week.
Whether they are kicking back, cutting loose with friends, or dancing the night away, everybody wants to have a good time, and everyone has a story.
But photographing in bars and nightclubs is tricky.
Some clubs don’t allow flash photography. There are lots of “distracted” people, who might spill their cosmo on your DSLR. Not to mention, you’re dealing with low light, moving subjects, and the unpredictability of photographing strangers who are probably under the influence of alcohol (or other drugs).
And who can blame someone for not wanting their photograph taken after they’ve had a few. I’d definitely had to “untag” myself from some Facebook photographs after friends took my photograph with a sheen of sweat on my forehead and dazed look in my eye.
But some of my favorite photographs that I’ve taken have been taken in bars. You can take beautiful images in bars, too, without getting into a fight with a wannabe tough guy or having your camera jacked by a DSLR pick-pocket.
Over the years, I’ve taken my treasured Nikon into countless dive bars in roughneck cities like Baltimore, Detroit, and New Orleans…as well as upscale spots in Washington DC, New York, and San Francisco… and in those adventures, I’ve learned a few things about how to take great photographs in bars and night clubs.
1. Pack the Right Equipment
If you were out to see your favorite DJ, and he showed up with one of those little boomboxes and a mixtape that he made in the early-2000’s, the show would probably not be as cool as if he had all the huge speakers, fancy turntables and monster headphones that you need to throw a good show.
Well, the same goes for a club photographer.
But you don’t need much. Here are the two things I use:
- A DSLR camera: DSLR cameras can work magic in low-light. There are a wide assortment of settings to help you get great shots without having to bring a heavy tripod or flashgun. If you have a non-DSLR camera with a “slow flash” option, then that works too. It just limits your options to only flash photography. Plus, the phone on your camera might work, too, (especially if you’re reading this in 2020 :)), but you’ll gain a ton by using a high-quality camera.
- A wide-angle lens: There are lots of affordable low-light lenses. Look for a low focal length (approximately between 10mm to 28mm) and a low aperture (that’s the F-number). For example, I use a zoom fish-eye lens, the Tokino 10-17mm, F3.5 – 4.5 lens. The fish-eye effect is fun in party situations. Also, the wide-angle (the 10-17mm) lets me get a photo of the entire scene in tight spaces. Plus, it lets in a decent amount of light. But there are lots of options depending on the type of photographs you want to take.
A flashgun is another tool to consider. Many photographers swear by it because you can take a wider range of shots. But you can always use the flash on your camera, too, and without a flash gun, you’ll blend in more and have less equipment to worry about.
WARNING: Thankfully, in the years I’ve been doing this, I’ve never had anything happen to my camera…but if something did go down, I wouldn’t be surprised. It’s a risk to shoot in any crowded place, not to mention one where most people are in an altered state of consciousness. So, if you’re very protective of your camera, then maybe this sort of photography won’t be your thing…or you could get a camera that you wouldn’t be devastated to lose.
2. Learn Low-Light Shooting Secrets
Without a tripod, you’ll be free to explore and not have to lug around a hefty piece of equipment. But it’s challenging to take photos in low-light situations. However, most DSLRs can take acceptable shots in light that would never work with most films. I like the darkness, too, because it seems more natural and adds a mystery that you feel when you’re actually at the bar.
To set up your camera for low-light, try this:
- Set your ISO to 1600+: Many DSLRs go up to 3200, 6400 or even higher, but you’ll need to experiment to see how much noise shows up in these settings.
- Brace yourself: Lean your elbow on the table, stand against the wall or rest on anything solid you can find.
- Stick your camera on something: Use the table, the bar or your girlfriend’s purse as your DIY tripod.
- Get a stabilized lens: Some lenses have stabilization built in as a feature, and it works pretty well to make clearer images.
3. Start Slow…With Friends
Have you ever been relaxing on the couch in your living room, when someone burst in and started snapping your photo without your permission? Course not, right? And if they did, you probably wouldn’t be too happy.
That’s sort of a silly example, of course, but for some people, sitting at the local bar stool is their second home. For others, they just don’t want someone sticking a camera in their face when they are trying to relax. Or are suspicious about “what you’re doing” with it.
So start slow. Walk in, enjoy yourself, take some photos of your friends, and slowly work into photographing strangers.
4. Anticipate Photogenic Moments
Things move pretty fast in a bar, so you’ll have to learn to anticipate photogenic moments. Maybe it’s the pretty girls dressed in pink, dancing to their favorite song. Or the tattooed roughneck wins a tough game of pool. Or the DJ plays a song that gets the whole place rockin’.
And you’ll miss it, unless you’re in the right spot ahead of time with your finger on the button.
So look for three things:
- Backgrounds: Maybe you want a blank background? Or maybe there’s a cool mural or sign?
- Subjects: Look at the face and the clothing. For someone, maybe you want to get tight on his face, and with others, all the pink girls might make a good background to another shot.
- Events: What’s happening in here? Is there a DJ rocking it? A dude at the bar who’s full of character? A bachelorette party?
Then watch as your favorite subjects move in front of the backgrounds you dig, as something interesting is about to happen…now, click.
5. How to Ask Strangers (Without Getting Clobbered)
A lot of people are flattered to have their photograph taken by a stranger. And considering how much time and effort we put into our appearance, especially if we are going out, then it makes sense why. But there are some people who will be offended, upset or even confrontational. Especially in a bar, where many people feel the need to be impressive or tough. But if you can approach people in a trustworthy way, then your odds of getting a great photograph go way up.
Brandon Stanton from the Humans of New York is good at this. He’s already taken thousands of photographs of subjects on the streets of New York City. He has an effective one-liner to get the conversation started, too.
He simply walks up and says, “Can I take your photo… just like that?” In this video, he says it works, though, because of his body language.
For bars, here’s my simple process:
- Treat them as a person: When I’m shooting, I talk to everyone. Nothing big, just small talk about whatever’s happening. I’m curious about people and wonder what people are into, so this naturally leads to conversations.
- Just a fun guy: I just try to be a nice, fun person, helping everyone have a good time. So, when I…
- Simply Ask: When I simply ask someone, it’s like we’ve already had a connection with them. We’re like micro-friends. 🙂
Or… just go for it. Shoot first, apologize later. Most people won’t mind, and you’ll quickly learn how to calm a total stranger. 🙂
Now, it’s your turn. What helps you take photographs at bars and nightclubs? If you have an enlightening strategy or just something little that works for you, please share in the comments. Or if you have a question, let us know how we can help. We’ll try to answer you personally.