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.
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.
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 section—the edge of a wide boulevard on the action side of the crowd barrier—and 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.