Capturing the magic of nighttime events through photography is like trying to catch fireflies in a jar: exhilarating yet tricky. Festivals, parties, parades, and ceremonies come alive under the stars, but they also bring fast-paced action, challenging lighting conditions, and bustling atmospheres. It’s no surprise that many first attempts at nighttime event photography end with blurry and disappointing shots.
Fear not! In this article, I let you in on a range of secrets to help you create breathtaking event shots, no matter the light levels. From equipment and camera settings to composition and preparation, I explore the tried-and-true approaches that’ll practically guarantee great results – even if you’re a beginner.
So if you’re ready to start snapping some gorgeous low-light event pictures, then let’s dive right in, starting with:
1. Know the pros and cons of different lens types
When it comes to capturing amazing photos at nighttime events, photographers often encourage beginners to use a prime lens. But while that’s certainly a great choice, I urge you to keep an open mind about zoom lenses. Let me explain why.
Prime lenses are my go-to for shooting nighttime events where I have the freedom to move around and get up close to my subjects. They offer superb image quality and wide maximum apertures, allowing me to capture stunning shots in low-light conditions. However, there are instances when I find myself confined to the audience or press section, unable to freely roam. That’s when the versatility of zoom lenses becomes invaluable.
With a zoom lens, you can stay in one place and capture a variety of shots. You can zoom in to shoot specific details, and you can zoom out to shoot the broader scene. Sure, a zoom lens may come with a drop in image quality (especially if your budget isn’t large), but the results are often worth it.
Let me illustrate this with an example. A few years back, I attended the Keelung Ghost Festival parade in Taiwan. It was a captivating nighttime event, and I found myself positioned at the edge of a wide boulevard, right next to the action but unable to move closer. I needed a lens that would allow me to frame shots and isolate subjects without physically changing my position. That’s when the power of a zoom lens became indispensable, and I was able to capture a variety of images, including this one:
So remember, while prime lenses are fantastic for maneuverability and tend to boast exceptional image quality, there are situations where the flexibility of a zoom lens is a game-changer.
2. Focus on the interplay of shutter speed, aperture, and ISO
Creating a well-exposed image in nighttime event photography is a delicate balancing act that involves adjusting various settings. To achieve this, it’s crucial to understand the interplay between shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. Your primary focus should be on capturing sharp images, which means that a fast shutter speed should be your top priority.
If you’re using a prime lens, opt for a wide aperture such as f/2.8. By doing so, you’ll be able to keep your ISO lower – though you’ll still need to increase the ISO until your test shots register a shutter speed of at least 1/125s (or preferably even higher). If your lens goes wider than f/2.8, you could widen the aperture further. But shooting wide open – at f/1.4 or f/1.8, say – may result in a too-shallow depth of field, so to avoid this issue, I do recommend going with a slightly higher aperture setting.
If you’re using a zoom lens, on the other hand, choose the widest available aperture, typically around f/4 but sometimes f/2.8. And crank up the ISO to a higher level, such as ISO 3200; that way, you can shoot at 1/125s or higher.
Thanks to a careful balance of a wide aperture, a reasonably fast shutter speed, and a high – but not too high! – ISO, I was able to shoot this next image at 1/640s. The file does have some noise, but not so much that the image is ruined:
3. Utilize available light
When it comes to event photography, I rarely rely on a flash. I find that utilizing available light produces more pleasing results. Flash often results in harsh, deer-in-the-headlights shots, and while it is possible to achieve good outcomes with flash, it requires a great deal of skill. That’s why I suggest saving flash for a later, more advanced stage of your photography journey.
Therefore, when you’re capturing events at night, keep an eye out for potential sources of available light. Streetlights are excellent options, as well as storefronts, neon signs, and even car headlights.
Of course, available light won’t be as powerful as a flash, so you’ll need to make certain adjustments (in line with my settings suggestions above!). Keep your aperture wide, your shutter speed reasonably slow, and your ISO high. As I mentioned in the previous section, finding the right balance between these settings will yield fantastic results.
4. Get close to the action
Capturing impactful images of nighttime events can be challenging. It’s easy to end up with bland photos that fail to convey the excitement of the event instead of truly thrilling images that encapsulate the event’s energy.
So what can you do to overcome this problem? Get as close to the action as possible without disrupting the event or its participants. Your images will capture a much greater sense of energy and intensity!
Take, for example, the image below. I was photographing a martial arts demonstration in Manipur, and it was only by getting close to the participants that I was able to get the result that I wanted.
And yes, the image is very noisy! The demonstration took place in a poorly lit pagoda after dark, and I could barely see. I had to push my ISO to the limits – even though I was using a prime lens with a wide maximum aperture – but I still like the final image.
5. Ask your subjects to move
If you want to capture stunning nighttime portraits without using a flash, here’s what I recommend:
First and foremost, keep an eye out for well-lit areas. Look for places with ample artificial lighting that’ll allow you to increase your shutter speed.
Once you’ve found a suitable spot, search for a potential subject for your portrait. Politely ask them if they would be willing to step into the light, then adjust your camera settings and take the shot. You may need to raise your ISO, but if you are in a reasonably well-lit environment, you won’t have to push it to its limits.
For this next photo, I was attending the Lai Haraoba festival in Manipur, where I encountered a young girl from the Meitei ethnic group. The temple where the festival was taking place was dimly lit – except for a corner, which happened to have the perfect amount of light. I approached the girl and asked if she would be kind enough to move into that area. Thanks to the added light, I was able to achieve a shutter speed of 1/200s and capture a unique photo:
6. Use burst mode to capture the action
Burst mode is a camera setting that allows you to capture a series of shots in rapid succession. The number of frames you can capture depends on your camera, but modern models typically offer at least 5 frames per second and sometimes even 20 or more!
When you’re dealing with fast-paced action, burst mode can make a major difference. It’ll enable you to freeze those split-second moments that are impossible to track with the naked eye. Although using burst mode will give you quite a few files, you can later sift through them to find the perfect photo, making the additional effort well worth it.
For this next scene, I used burst mode to capture five similar shots within a fraction of a second. Later, I was able to choose the one with the best composition, facial expressions, and lighting from the comfort of my home.
7. Observe, anticipate, and shoot
When you find yourself struggling to get those perfect shots at an event, slow down, take a deep breath, and try a different approach. Instead of rushing around with your camera, take a moment to observe the movement unfolding around you.
By carefully watching the patterns of movement and people, you can identify the best subjects. Then you can visualize the composition you desire and how you can achieve it.
Once you have a clear vision in mind, it’s time to get into position and adjust your camera settings accordingly. Anticipate what is likely to happen next and be prepared to capture that decisive moment when it arrives.
Take, for example, the dance performed during the Lai Haraoba festival in Manipur, India. The dancers gracefully move in a slow, circular motion for an hour or longer. By observing their rotations, I was able to anticipate the perfect spot to stand, taking into consideration the optimal view and lighting. When the dancers came back around, I was ready to press the shutter and immortalize this enchanting moment:
8. Include environmental details
If your nighttime event shots are feeling a little dull, it could be because they lack context and storytelling elements. To bring a bit of life to your photographs, consider stepping back and incorporating interesting details into your compositions. Look for significant background features that can enhance the images, and think about framing your subject with relevant foreground details.
Let me share an example. For this next photo, I observed a group of younger Manipuri ladies closely watching their elders’ intricate hand movements to ensure their own were correct. To capture this meaningful detail, I framed the shot from behind the two eldest women, using their heads as a frame for the younger ladies gazing back at them:
9. Move and use your feet
Event photography, especially when capturing action, revolves around movement. Your subjects will inevitably be in motion, and you should be, too! It’s the key to capturing striking images that truly stand out.
Don’t be afraid to crouch, climb, or even run to create captivating shots and make the most of available light. For the photograph below, I abandoned my seated position among the crowd, positioned myself beneath the stage, and looked up at the priest to compose the shot.
Pro tip: Movement is especially important when using a fixed focal length lens. Rember, with prime glass, your legs become your zoom. Dive right into the heart of the action!
10. Interact with your subjects
When it comes to nighttime event photography, some photographers prefer to adopt a candid shooting style, capturing authentic moments without their subjects’ awareness. While this approach can result in compelling shots, there are advantages to engaging with your subjects before raising your camera.
First, initiating interaction can lead to better photos. By connecting with your subjects, they may feel more comfortable and confident, allowing their true personalities to shine through in your photographs.
Second, engaging with participants can help you relax and remain focused on the task at hand rather than being consumed by nervousness. I vividly remember a memorable encounter during one of my shoots, where I waved, smiled, and enthusiastically greeted a performer with a cheerful “Ni hao!” This simple interaction opened the door to a sequence of lively exchanges and abundant photo opportunities, such as this one:
11. Don’t be afraid to get in people’s faces
When it comes to nighttime event photography, capturing the essence of the moment is key. Many street photographers prefer to maintain a distance from their subjects, but in the context of events, such as festivals and parades, a different approach is often needed. The guests at these events usually expect to be photographed, so don’t hesitate to get in their faces for some truly impactful shots.
In other words, while it’s important to capture images that provide valuable context, don’t shy away from immersing yourself in the action when the shot demands it. By getting up close and personal, you can convey the energy and emotion of the event in a powerful way.
Of course, it’s still crucial to be respectful and considerate, especially at religious ceremonies. If you’re photographing a sensitive event, be sure to exercise caution when shooting and always seek permission from someone in charge. And if an individual asks you not to photograph them, honor their wishes without hesitation.
Bottom line: Getting in close will allow you to create compelling images that truly capture the essence of a nighttime event. Embrace the opportunity, but respect boundaries, too!
12. Research your event ahead of time
No matter the event in question, make sure you always do your research! That way, you can ensure that you’re well-prepared and equipped to capture the best shots. Take the time to gather information about the event, and if possible, have a conversation with the organizers to gain valuable insights.
By understanding how the event will unfold, its scale, and the timing of key moments, you can plan your photographic approach more effectively. And if you have the time and flexibility, consider attending the event on multiple nights, each with a different set of objectives. This strategy will boost your chances of capturing outstanding shots and add variety to your portfolio.
This two-night approach came in handy when I photographed the mesmerizing Ganga Aarti ceremony in Varanasi, India. During the first night, I opted for a 35mm prime lens to focus on close-up action shots and captivating portraits. On the second night, I shot from a boat along the Ganges, using a versatile 24-105mm zoom lens to capture the essence of the ceremony from a different perspective.
Nighttime event photography tips: final words
Well, there you have it: Plenty of tips and tricks to level up your nighttime event shooting. You now know how to brave the tricky lighting, capture the action, and much, much more!
So remember what I’ve shared, go forth, and capture the magic of nighttime events. Embrace the challenges, refine your techniques, and unleash your creative vision. With persistence and a keen eye, you’ll be able to produce stunning images that tell the story of these captivating moments. Happy shooting!
Now over to you:
Which of these tips do you plan to use first? Do you have any nighttime event photography tips we missed? Share your thoughts in the comments below!