Photographing nightlife is a tricky mistress. Much like nightlife itself. You can prepare and have all the right gear, but ultimately you need to know what you’re doing if you want to get anything worth looking at. Some people aspire to capture the sort of “let’s all have fun” images that make any house-cat of a person feel like they could own the night. Those images are beautiful, difficult to capture, and often times very useful for marketing yourself as a nightlife photographer. Those images, however, are not what I’m here to discuss. I’m here to discuss the grittier side of it all.
I am not a nightlife photographer. At one time I wanted to be and was even accepted to do a university sponsored fine-art thesis project on the subject. These days, professionally, I do other things. I have nothing against nightlife work, but at a certain point I realized I had a similar outlook toward action sports photography: I’d rather be participating in the action than glorifying the action though imagery.
That doesn’t mean I don’t carry a camera when I go out. It just means I use the camera I do carry when I go out as an extension of my experience rather than a bases for it.
Through images I captured at a full moon party in Guatemala, let me offer the best tips I know for capturing the sort of night most attendees won’t remember.
1. Curb Your Judgment
You’re not photographing to laugh at the girl in the clown getup. You’re photographing to celebrate the girl in the clown getup. Remember, this is advice for photographing parties you’d be at regardless. These are people you’d be around anyway. What kind of a-hole judges the people they’d surround themselves with for fun?
In a recent interview, nightlife photographer Kirill Bichutsky said, “In the end, I know that all of the people I shoot are helping me. I’m not using them to get popular. I would never be a dick to the people that help me expand my brand.”
Celebrate the people around you and bring them up with your imagery. If you take an interest in someone for a few photographs, it’s important not to weird them out or make them feel awkward. There are plenty of people at nightclubs with cameras making people feel weird, don’t be one of them. Be the person who makes the party better and hypes up the fun.
2. Play To Your Strengths
Get into the thick of it and rage, if that’s what you’d be doing anyway. It’ll only lead to better images. The more you support people loosening up, the better the images will be. If you’d be wasted and jumping into some extra curricular party substances, then do that. Don’t do what you don’t do. Be who you would be regardless of the camera. If you’d hop behind the wheel of a boat bringing 50+ people to an island party, and you convince the driver in broken Spanish that you can park the thing, do that, having a camera on hand is a bonus.
If you’re a hyper social party-goer, play to that. Photograph the goings-on of a socialite. If you’re a wallflower, that could lead to some interesting imagery. Your eye is what makes you a unique photographer and no one can replicate your eye and what you find interesting. Having a camera might even stretch your comfort zone and get you out of that despondent wallflower act. That’s not the worst thing in the world.
3. Make Friends In High Places
DJs, bartenders, boat drivers, drug dealers, dancers, strippers, bouncers, you name it. If they are controlling the crowd, you want them on your side. If you’re in a club, start talking to the bouncer before you shoot a single image. It could make or break your night. If you’re at a house party, ask the owner of the house if he or she is alright with you shooting. Let them know it’ll make their party look more legit. Hand them a beer or give them a pull of a Vodka bottle — a show of good faith goes a long way. When the late night fun starts, you’ll want friends in high places, which leads me to my next point…
4. If You’re In Too Deep, Ask Permission
Have you found yourself in a situation that is all around uncomfortable, but begs to be photographed? Now you’re wondering if they’ll notice the flash popping. I know exactly where you’re at and I can promise you, they will absolutely notice the flash popping. Everyone in the room might be buzzed, but they will notice, and unless you ask beforehand, it’s gonna get weird.
No one really wants pictures of them acting shamelessly in someone else’s hands. They may currently be half naked, covered in body paint with a fist-full of illicit substances in front of their nose, but these people might be running for president one day. Ask. Avoid the drama.
Simply holding up the camera and saying “cool?” might be enough. Don’t bring too much attention to it, but ask. You may get denied, too. If that’s the case, you’re gonna have to set your sights elsewhere. But it’s better to be remembered as the respectful kid than the pain in the ass photographer.
Of course, none of this will matter at all if you don’t…
5. Bring Your Camera
None of these images would exist if there wasn’t a camera around. It’s all as simple as that. Bring something you’re comfortable with. Don’t bring a top of the line DSLR. Bring something that can get banged up a bit, something that might get overlooked. For a night like the one here, I had a Fuji x100s with an SB-30 flash. It’s compact and quality. No one would think to steal the set up, but it shoots quality images. Now, it’s important to remember that your camera might get damaged or a flash might get left behind. You assume that risk when you bring your gear to a party.
Simply having a camera with you might lead to much bigger career endeavors; Kirill describes the night his career got started, “One night, I got really drunk and went out into the crowd with my camera and started taking photos. People wanted to know where they could find them, so I created a website.”
You may have to sneak the camera in or lie about working for the club, but in the world of photography, there are many different kinds of professionals, and nightlife might be the calling you’ve been waiting for.