12 Tips for Better Nighttime Event Photography

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There’s no way around it: doing nighttime event photography is tricky. Festivals, ceremonies, parties, and parades involve fast action, difficult lighting conditions, and hectic environments. It’s no wonder that first attempts at nighttime event photography often result in blurry and unusable images. Fear not – this article will help you get up to speed.

12 Tips for Better Nighttime Event Photography

1.  Know the pros and cons of different lens types

Instead of telling you, “use a fixed focal length lens with a wide aperture,” I want you to maintain an open mind to zoom lenses. Prime lenses are my first choice for shooting nighttime events where I’m free to move and get close to my subjects. However, for events where I’m confined to the audience or press section, I need the ability to zoom, frame, and isolate subjects without moving all that much.

In this article, the example images are a 50/50 mix of fixed focal length and zoom lenses. Through this, you’ll see what is possible with each type. Although zoom lenses with wide apertures (i.e., a Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8) are often said to be ideal for nighttime events, they are extremely expensive pieces of equipment.

12 Tips for Better Nighttime Event Photography

A scene from the Keelung Ghost Festival parade on September 4th, 2017 – Taiwan. This is a solid example of a nighttime event for which I chose a zoom lens over a prime. I was shooting from the press sectionthe edge of a wide boulevard on the action side of the crowd barrierand I could only move from side to side, not towards the action. Therefore, the ability to frame shots using a zoom lens was crucial to me.

2. Focus on the interplay of shutter speed, aperture, and ISO

Because creating a correct exposure is a balancing act between various settings, the next step is to focus on the interplay between shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. Generally, you want your nighttime event images to be sharp; therefore, make a fast shutter speed your priority.

With a prime lens, select a wide aperture (try f/2.8) and increase the ISO until your test shots register a shutter speed of 1/125th or preferably higher. Shooting wide open (i.e., f/1.4 or f/1.8) will result in slow autofocusing and you missing your shot. Go higher to avoid these problems.

With a zoom lens, select the widest available aperture available (i.e., f/4.0) and crank the ISO up high. I usually select ISO 3200 and fire off some test shots of a moving subject. Using these settings in aperture priority mode, I was able to achieve a shutter speed of 1/640th for the image below.

12 Tips for Better Nighttime Event Photography

A costumed performer dressed as a Chinese god runs straight towards me – Keelung, Taiwan. 1/640th | f/4.0 | ISO 3200 | Canon 24-105mm f/4 L.

3. Utilize available light

For my style of travel photography, I rarely use a flash; I prefer the results from utilizing available light. It takes a great deal of skill to use a flash in a way that compliments your images rather than detracts from them. Therefore, I recommend saving it for a later, more advanced stage of your photography journey.

12 Tips for Better Nighttime Event Photography

Pirouetting gypsy-style dancers amaze the crowd – Keelung, Taiwan. 1/250th | f/4.0 | ISO 3200 | Canon 24-105mm f/4 L. I waited until these dancers were beneath a spotlight to utilize this light source and achieve a faster shutter speed.

4. Get close to the action

Get as close as possible without disturbing the event’s participants. For the image below, I was in Manipur, a remote Indian state on the border with Myanmar. I sat cross-legged just as the boys opposite me were doing, which was fine until the real fighting began. This martial arts demonstration took place after dark in a poorly lit pagoda. It was hard enough to focus my eyes, let alone my camera. I had to push my ISO to the limits, even though I was using a prime lens.

The ancient Manipuri martial art of Thang Ta. This was the most challenging lighting condition I have ever shot in.  1/80th | f/1.4 | ISO 25,600 | Sigma 35mm 1.4 Art. You read that right – ISO 25,600! Note the noise.

5. Ask your subjects to move

At nighttime events, I am always on the lookout for well-lit spots. I want a place with bright artificial light that I can utilize to increase my shutter speed. Once I’ve found both the spot and my willing portrait subject, I ask them if they would be kind enough to step into the light. This is the best method for capturing beautiful portraits at nighttime events without a flash.

12 Tips for Better Nighttime Event Photography

Girl of the Meitei ethnic group at the Lai Haraoba festival – Manipur. The temple where the festival was taking place was dimly lit; however, one corner had the light I was looking for. She agreed to move, which allowed me to achieve a shutter speed of 1/200th.

6. Use continuous shooting mode

Once you have nailed your settings in combination with the available light, I recommend that you set your camera to continuous shooting mode. Take a look at the image below. I took five similar shots within fractions of a second of each other, and could then select the image with the best composition, facial expressions, and lighting when I was back at home.

Children’s rollerblade display team at the Ghost Festival parade – Keelung, Taiwan. 1/250th | f/4.0 | ISO 3200 | Canon 24-105mm f/4 L

7. Observe, anticipate, and shoot

Another technique is to spend time observing the event. Look for patterns in movement and people that would make the best subjects. Try to compose the shot you want to take in your head. Next, get into position and select your settings. Anticipate what is likely to happen and be ready when it does. Finally, shoot away.

12 Tips for Better Nighttime Event Photography

Ladies performing a dance for the Lai Haraoba festival – Manipur, India. The dance involved moving slowly in a circle for one hour or longer. I was able to observe full rotations, anticipate exactly where to stand for the best view and light, and then shoot when the ladies came back around.

8. Frame using the environment and set the scene with the background

This is a valuable technique for increasing the visual interest and storytelling elements in your nighttime event shots. Be on the lookout for environmental features, which could also take the form of other people, to frame your shots. Take a look at the example below.

The younger Manipuri ladies watched their elders’ intricate hand movements to check if their own were correct. To communicate this detail, I framed the shot from behind the two oldest women and used their heads to frame the younger ladies looking back at them.

9. Move and use your feet

Your legs are your zoom when you’re using a fixed focal length lens. Throw yourself into the action. Crouch, climb and run your way to finding interesting angles and available light. In the image below, I left my seated position among the crowd, stood below the stage looking up at the priest, and composed the shot.

12 Tips for Better Nighttime Event Photography

Hindu priest performing the Ganga Aarti ceremony – Varanasi, India. 1/125th | f/1.4 | ISO 1250 | Sigma 35mm 1.4 Art

10. Interact with your subjects

Get the attention of your subjects and make eye contact before raising your camera. I remember waving, smiling, and shouting “Ni hao!” to the performer in the image below, which led to a series of interactions and photo opportunities.

12 Tips for Better Nighttime Event Photography

A performer at the September 4th Ghost Festival parade in Keelung, Taiwan interacted with me directly after I initiated contact. 1/125th | f/4.0 | ISO 3200 | Canon 24-105mm f/4 L

11. People expect to be photographed. Don’t hold back.

This isn’t street photography. The protagonists and guests at your event, particularly festivals and parades, probably expect to be photographed. An exception to this would be religious ceremonies, which require extra sensitivity on your part. Ask permission from someone in charge, and if someone asks you not to photograph them you should absolutely respect their wishes.

12 Tips for Better Nighttime Event Photography

Taiwanese lady marching with members of her organization in the Keelung parade. 1/400th | f/4.0 | ISO 3200 | Canon 24-105mm f/4 L

12. Research your location ahead of time

Finally, pick an event ahead of time and research it. Consider attending on two different nights with two different sets of objectives. This is what I did when I attended the Ganga Aarti ceremony in Varanasi, India. The first night, I used a 35mm prime lens and focused on close-up action shots and portraits. The second night, I shot the ceremony from a boat on the Ganges using a 24-105mm zoom lens.

12 Tips for Better Nighttime Event Photography

Walking across tightly-packed boats on the Ganges, this boy used his thumb to brush colored powder onto the forehead of anyone with 10 rupees to offer – Varanasi, India. 1/50th | f/4.0 | ISO 3200 | Canon 24-105mm f/4 L. Note the lower shutter speed, which ended up not really mattering. Through spot metering off the flames and utilizing available light, I was able to come away with not only a usable image but also one of my favorite shots from two months in India.

Conclusion

Put these 12 tips for better nighttime event photography into practice soon. Why not look in your local newspaper and check for events that you could attend this week? Don’t forget to share your comments and images below.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Ben McKechnie is a photographer, writer, and editor. His work is driven by a fascination in people, and the relationship they have with their culture. Currently to be found editing, photographing, and eating his way around beautiful Taiwan. Check out his most recent work on his Website, Facebook page, and Instagram.

  • Andy V

    Thanks for the tips, nice post. I particularly like the point about “Shooting wide open (i.e., f/1.4 or f/1.8) will result in slow autofocusing” I never realised that was the case and has caught me out recently at a cycling event (missed half the shots I wanted).

    Can I also ask – if you move to continuous shooting mode is it a good idea to either shoot only RAW or JPG and not both as you will get a better number of frames per second if you reduce the amount of data to be stored ? This in turn gives you more choice of the number of frames taken ? (This depends of course on the specification of your camera etc)

  • Hi Andy, for some reason my response posted as a regular comment not as a reply in a thread. Check it above. Thanks!

  • Lisa Weaver Weigand

    Thank you for this helpful post! I’m barely past a beginner level with my DSLR learning. I just ordered 1000x memory cards, to assist me with my new 50mm prime lens. I will also look to switch to the continuous shooting mode if I’m not there already.

  • Grace Mercy

    Hi Ben,thanks so much for the tips.I have always had challenges with night photography thus ending up with blurry pictures .This article is very very helpful

  • Hi Lisa! I’m really happy to hear you found the article useful. Sure, you can never go wrong with a top-notch memory card, it will last you for years! It’s good to have something to grow into. Also, fast memory cards with large capacity are perfect for shooting HD video. Do you have any plans to experiment with that at all?

  • Hi Grace! Thank you for the feedback, it’s much appreciated. I’m so glad to hear you found the tips useful. Would love to see some of your nighttime event shots after you’ve taken some, don’t forget to post a link here or send me a message on my website/facebook. Cheers!

  • Alvie Morris

    I’m a little confused. In the article, you stated that you shouldn’t shoot wide open due to slow autofocus, yet in every photo where your settings are listed you are shooting wide open.

  • Hi Alvie! Yes, the advice about wide open and slow autofocus was specifically for shooting in nighttime conditions with a wide aperture prime lens. Wide open would be f1.8 or f1.4. When you shoot at these wide apertures, the focal place is extremely thin. The first photo above shot wide open at f1.4 (the martial arts demo in Manipur) indeed was an example of a time where the autofocus was painfully slow, but I had no choice, the light conditions required a very high ISO and maximum aperture. The other photo at f1.4 (Varanasi Hindu priest), the fact I shot wide open was countered by the bright spotlights. In nighttime events with fast action, shooting wide open with a prime lens can result in slow autofocus. One more thing, I never use full autofocus. I set my camera to always autofocus on the centerpoint, then use the back button method to lock in the focus and compose the shot. This means I rarely miss my focus. Is there anything else I can help with?

  • Alvie Morris

    I think you may have misunderstood what I was saying. What I meant was, if I’m using a l with a maximum aperture of 1.4 but I stop it down to 2.8, it will still remain at 1.4 until the shutter is activated, At which point the auto Focus has already locked. So it would seem to me that aperture would happen no affect on auto focus.

  • I see what you’re saying now. I will revise this point. There is a relationship between these wide apertures and the autofocus system at night, but I’ve worded it wrongly. Thank you for the input.

  • Grace Mercy

    Definitely will.Cheers

  • Excellent!

  • Mark

    Out of interest, why do you use Aperture Priority and not Shutter Priority?
    You state

    “With a prime lens, select a wide aperture (try f/2.8) and increase the ISO until your test shots register a shutter speed of 1/125th or preferably higher.”

    Would it not be simpler to target the shutter from the off and decide whether it is ISO or depth of field that you are willing to sacrifice to get the shot?

  • Thanks for the question. I don’t use auto ISO in tricky light conditions with fast moving subjects. Actually, I never use auto ISO because I prefer to read the light and select it myself. I know my camera body’s limits and that it produces beautiful relatively noise-free images up to ISO 3200, anything over that I do not like the quality of, so I do not want to surrender control and risk it being forced too high. I often use shutter priority mode, but I’m more inclined to use it when I have a specific shutter speed in mind. When my priority is just the fastest shutter possible in tricky light conditions with fast moving subjects, I prefer to set a high ISO and a reliable aperture that is not wide open at f1.4 because I find such a thin focal plane doesn’t mix well with fast moving subjects when I’m shooting in quick succession. I’m aware that selecting a very fast shutter speed in shutter priority mode will automatically have my camera switching down to the next fastest speed that’s possible in the moment, but then I don’t want to surrender control of aperture for the reasons I’ve already stated. I stand by my reasons because I’ve developed them from experimentation over the years and from advice from various mentors. It’s totally fine to disagree, this is just what works for me. As you know, there’s more than one way to get a correct exposure in a given light condition. Cheers Mark!

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