Party Photography

—-Nikon D300s + Nikkor 10.5mm f/2.8 at f/5.6, 1/80 sec ISO800

One question I’m often asked is something like : “How do I get sharp photos when taking pictures of my friends dancing indoors? What lens should I get for this purpose?”

Well, in most cases, the answer has less to do with your lens and more to do with whether or not you’re using flash. Just so happened to have hosted a dance party last night at my house, so I took the opportunity to demonstrate what I mean, using a variety of lenses and shutter speeds, and of course, my hot shoe flashes. The dancing took place in my living room at night, which means no daylight pouring through the window to give me f-stoppage. The room is lit by two floor lamps, providing, I dunno, just about f/0.1 inside. Seriously though, even using my fastest lens, I ‘d probably squeeze out a shutter speed of about 1/80th shooting wide open at f/1.4 at ISO3200 in this room. Ouch…not nearly fast enough to stop action under these conditions.

—-Nikon D300s + Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 at 11mm f/5.6, 1/125 sec ISO800

Freezing motion in bright day light out doors is relatively simple, right? You can easily hit say 1/640 or 1/1000 and higher, even stopped down, effectively freezing motion. Can’t really do that in a room like this. There’s simply not enough ambient. Using flash lets you shoot at lower shutter speeds and still freeze action.

Wait a minute! How is it that you can freeze motion with low shutter speeds when you use your flash? Another question I get asked a lot. They key, again, is in the pop of light you’re throwing at your subject. The shutter may be going at say 1/80 or even 1/15, but that flash is hitting your subject at like 1/1500th, fast enough to freeze them in their tracks. If you want to imply motion in your dancing shots, you can drag the shutter at around 1/10 to 1/15 (make sure you camera is set to rear curtain sync):

—-Nikon D300s + Nikkor 10.5mm f/2.8 at f/5.6, 1/15 sec ISO800

Or select higher shutter speeds to freeze them completely:

—–Nikon D300s + Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 at 14mm f/5.6, 1/80 ISO800

Another note: you gotta go manual exposure in scenes like this. Throw your camera into aperture priority, for instance, and it will select what it thinks is an appropriate shutter speed to expose the scene. Well, you’re pointing your camera at darkness, which means it’ll select shutter speeds that are far too low. Use shutter priority and you camera will open up your lens to its maximum, limiting your depth of field options. For the entire night, I dictated the shutter speed and aperture and let the camera’s intelligent flash system work its magic. Worked well in this case too because in such a small, dimly lit room, almost all of the light is coming from my flash units.

Another question I get asked: “My lens doesn’t have VC/VR/IS. Can I still get sharp shots with it?” Yes! None of the lenses I used last night are stabilized:

—-Nikon D300s + Tokina 50-135 f/2.8 at 95mm f/5.6, 1/80 sec ISO800

—-Nikon D300s + Tokina 50-135 f/2.8

—-Nikon D300s + Tokina 50-135 f/2.8

—-Nikon D300s + Nikkor 10.5mm f/2.8

It’s important to remember that neither lens nor sensor based image stabilization systems help freeze subject motion. They only help reduce blur induced by small movements caused by the photographer hand-holding the camera. They key, again, is the flash.

Of course, when people are standing still, it’s even easier. =)

6 thoughts on “Party Photography

    1. Thanks!

      I’ve been wanting to pick up some radio poppers actually, but as of now I do all of my wireless control via line-of-sight, triggering the remote units with either my pop-up or on-camera flash unit. Really easy to do in a small room with white walls. The commander pulses are bouncing all over the place and can hit the remotes even without line-of-sight.

  1. Thanks again! As always, your information is very thorough and clear! I’m just curious, it seems you used two flashes correct? I’m sure it was nice to have your wall’s so close to the blast’s of light. Additionally, how many flashes would you use for, say… a wedding reception, which is usually pretty dim and white walls typically not so close to people dancing and the ceiling some-what high. I always have a hard time with flash photography, not sure how much, or how little, first curtain or second. Thanks for your help.

    1. Thanks Danny! Good questions.

      Yes, there’s a second off-camera unit in the room as you’ve noticed. Its purpose is not to hit the walls, however. I have it zoomed to punch the light through the dance floor where the people are. I’d use the same exact set up if I were shooting during a wedding reception. These hot shoe units have lots of power considering their size. The second strobe you see in the shot is firing at less than 1/64th of its full power, so there’s plenty more oomph for a larger venue.

      The difference with a larger venue is that you have to rely more on the interior ambient to show environment around your subjects. Using a higher ISO and dragging your shutter at, say, 1/30 or 1/15 of a second should help in this case. If your on-camera flash supports TTL, you can just let it take make the power output decisions for you (today’s TTL systems are very sophisticated), making any +EV or -EV inputs as you see fit.

      Also don’t stress about whether or not to use rear or front curtain. I just leave my camera on rear curtain all the time. Doesn’t make any significant difference at higher shutter speeds, but once you dip down to 1/30 and below or so, it really helps keep motion blur behind your subject where it belongs.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s