Taking photos at discos and parties / Digital Photography

I’ve learned since trying for a long time now to take high quality candid shots of people dancing at discos that it’s really quite difficult to capture the atmosphere of the event.

Even with professional level equipment it represents quite a photographic challenge.   After all it’s dark and people do tend to move around a lot when then dance (how dare they!) – which is a combination most digital cameras, even some expensive ones can’t cope with too well without using flash, resulting in blurry or grainy photos.

If you use the flash then you tend to light up the room to the extent where the party atmosphere is somewhat removed from the pictures, you can’t see the disco lighting for example.

What can you do to get round these problems?

On a simple compact camera without manual functions, not a huge amount unfortunately.

You may have a “party” mode which will bump up the ISO value (equivalent to film “speed” on a film camera) and use the flash.  This will help stop blurring, but as high ISO’s tend to lead to grainy photos, it will be a trade off.

Sometimes a bit of blurring helps to convey movement.

Use the flash as this will help capture your subjects, perhaps try sticking some tissue paper over it to soften the light and reduce harsh whiteness, particularly on faces of people when they’re posing.
If you are taking pictures of people who are posing and still for you, try using slow sync flash if you have this as an option on your camera.  This uses a slow shutter speed which will help bring up the atmosphere (disco lighting etc) of the background and the flash to light up your subjects well.

If you do use this mode though, make sure you tell the people not to move for a while after the flash has gone off, otherwise they will be blurred due to the slow shutter speed, and also this works better with a tripod to reduce handshake.

Slightly techy stuff..

On a camera with manual functions you can do quite a bit more to help the situation.

When I’m shooting candids of people dancing I use M mode (fully manual) on my camera.

I use a fairly slow shutter speed, usually between 1/15 and 1/30, to bring up the background look and feel of the event and set the aperture on the camera as wide (lowest F number) as it goes to let more light in (on a DSLR the aperture setting will depend also on the lens you’re using and the depth of field it gives).

I usually set the ISO as low as I can get away with.
Without using the flash, this combination would result in blurry images due to movement of the subjects so I also use the flash which serves as a faster shutter to freeze the action as the flash speed is always lots quicker than the shutter speed, this also allows the camera to reduce the ISO to avoid noisy images.

I set the flash to second-curtain or rear curtain sync, this produces much more natural looking pictures with any ambient light trails behind the object because the flash fires just before the shutter closes.
I usually vary the power of the flash depending how close the subjects are to me, if they’re quite close I knock the power down a little to stop them being whited out by the flash and allow some more of the ambient light to show up.
These settings result in nice images with little to no movement blur but also some feel of the ambient lighting effects in the room.

Notes about flash

For a lot of my early shots I was using a hybrid camera that could not control an external flash so I was using the pop-up flash on the camera.
This worked ok but was not ideal as it gives harsh direct lighting so I used a pop-up flash diffuser to help diffuse the light and help stop harsh shadows and highlights on people’s faces

For the last couple of years I have been using a DSLR camera that can control an external flash so I use an external flash with the light angled to bounce the light off ceilings or walls rather than direct flash, this also results in much more natural looking images.

What about composition?

Composition of the pictures is of course very important. It is no good having a perfectly focused, well exposed, wonderful photo of lots of people’s backs. It will happen of course, dancing people, unaware of the camera, will shift position from what they were when you framed the shot, before you push the shutter button. That’s where digital cameras are great, there’s no penalty in snapping away hoping for a great shot, but it saves a lot of time later if you take some time to think about how the picture will look. When I first started I used to delete more than ¾ of the shots I got, until I came up with the best manual settings and started getting better at framing the shots I now save at least three quarters of the shots I take.

Get in and around everyone, change position frequently, I find it’s best to handhold the camera as it gives much more flexibility. Fill the frame with people, unless there’s a particularly ornate structure in the building that makes the photo look good, it’s generally the people that are the interest points in the shot not walls or large areas of empty floor. Make people fill at least 2/3 of the frame, this can also be done by cropping off unwanted bits later, but it saves time if you use a bit of zoom or move position to get right in there on the camera.

Look for intimate moments, funny moments, facial expressions or anything that gives a focal point for an image. Wide views of lots of people with their hands in the air are great for giving a good idea of the atmosphere of the party.

Be aware of backgrounds – it’s very difficult in these circumstances as these won’t be formal posed shots, but for example if there’s a reflective surface behind people, like a window you may get the flash reflecting harshly off it. This is particularly the case when using built in or pop-up flashes. It’s not the be all and end all as you can still get a nice shot, but it would have been better with a non-reflective background or using an external flash set to bounce off the ceiling rather than directly at the subjects.

I hope this has been helpful. Happy Snapping!


You can view some of my disco photography at my gallery site http://www.photographybycarmen.co.uk