Learn flash photography | Club shots

[Update 2008-01-2: RAW package with club-shots for download!]

To get good pictures in bad light condition is easy if you know how to do it. This guide will show you one, easy way with the help of an external flash. You can use your on-camera flash but results will probably not look as soft and as pleasing. It works the same way though.  This guide in swedish.

Preparation. All things written here works for most Nikon / Canon / whatever branded flashes / SLR cameras (even advanced point and shooters). I use the Sigma SD14 + a EF-500DG. I like it because of colors and sharpness. You need a flash where you can twirl and rotate the head.  (see picture below)

my flash

Set the camera in Manual mode (M) – aim the flash straight up and turn the head as seen on the above picture, you should have the white side of the paper aimed at the person you’re photographing. (see abetterbouncecard.com – Mine is heavily inspired by this one). You can use A mode as well and let camera control shutter speed but I like to be in charge.

Aperture. Now I tune aperture to F1.6. I use Sigma 30mm almost wide open so that shutter speeds are durable at ISO100 – if your lens is slower you might consider ISO400 – 800 or even higher – if not you will have to stand still for a second or two just waiting for the shutter to close. I also use F1.6 so that main subjects become sharp and background soft and cozy. See background on below picture.

Locatelli Friday

Shutter speed. When you decided you aperture it’s time for your shutter speed. Now don’t look at the speed itself, look at the under / over exposed information +-0 thingi – you see this in your view finder. The higher this number is, the brighter the background is. The lower – the darker. Darker means faster shutter speed.

Fill light. The main subjects will be more or less the same whatever you select and is controlled by the TTL. I’m often down to -2 or even lower because I want main subjects to stand out a bit more (see picture below).


Above picture was a misstake and I used in camera Jpeg. I suggest you use RAW in order to get the most out of every picture. Click for higher resolution.

I always use ISO100 – this to get punchy living colors and perfect sharpness down to pixel by pixel level. You never know what you might wanna do with these pictures and it’s always nice to be able to print really really big.

Assist light. Whatever flash you use – a good assist light is of great importance. If you have it, it will work automatically. Without it you can forget using fun lenses such as the 30mm. remember that at F1.6 focus is extremly narrow and it’s cruzial that focus hits the eyelash and nothing else. (Focus on the eyes to get the most pleasing results. Lucky for us ladies paint them for us!).

Experiment. If you wanna go wide you can use a lens such as the 10-20 and shoot at F4 and 2-8s – that will give you cool colors and fancy dancing, you need to be quite stable though seconds are loong time and  don’t bring a tripod.

Also try to hold still for a moment and the quickly move away, that’s what I did to get this blue trike above her face. (below picture) Shutter speed 1.6s at ISO100 and F1.6.

Lounch(s) Saturday

White Balance / LCD. I use Sun White balance on the SD14 because it gives the most pleasing results on the LCD. And this is VERY important. If it looks bad on the LCD you will not get an OK from the person. Doesn’t matter how good you’re in the computer since they don’t know that. Later I adjust colors in my raw developer, SUN WB is a great starting point. Sunlight and flash is very close in temperature.

Good luck!

Articles including lots o photos and some more info:

About Carl Rytterfalk

Welcome to my blog! I'm Carl Rytterfalk, a swedish photographer who loves everything that is interesting in the world of photography. In 2002 I fell in love with the three layered Foveon sensor and has since then been an addicted user of Sigma cameras. Though I use Canon and Nikon as well. :)
This entry was posted in 30mm 1.4, All, Flash, How to. Bookmark the permalink.

31 Responses to Learn flash photography | Club shots

  1. Scotsman says:

    First of all I want to say thank you for this guide but I think Sigma should be thanking you too. It’s thanks to your original nightclub pictures that persuaded me to go out and buy the Sigma SD14. I had seen the Sd14 at a great price of £499 plus £200 cashback at Jessops over the Christmas period and was considering buying it but I’ve been saving my first Dslr purchase for when I can afford the Fuji S5 which is considerably more expensive. So with this in mind I was hesitant in buying the Sigma because I still want to buy the S5 at some point and didn’t really want to invest in two sets of lenses. However that price kept eating away at me so I had to consider how I would use it and what lens I might want to invest in if I were to buy. I decided after much consideration that although up until now I’ve mainly been into landscape photography I’d like to get into more portraiture photography specifically when enjoying music in an intimate venue or nightclubs – so with this in mind I decided I’d most likely buy the 30mm F1.4 prime.

    Of course I’d also need a flashgun able to bounce off the ceiling and was considering the Sigma again, mostly due to price I’m afraid. It was then I logged on to dpreview to see if I could see any reviews or threads on the flashgun and came across your images from your first night and I was blown away by the quality. Of course the best thing was that it ticked off the boxes SD 14, 30mm F1.4 prime, Sigma 500 series flashgun – so my hesitant stance evaporated and I ordered the SD14 the very next day.

    Unfortunately I don’t have an Apple computer so I can’t use Raw developer – but hey can’t have everything in life. I’m assuming with a bit of work PS or Lightroom may be used to get similar results. But anyway my point is drifted, which is to say Sigma should have you on commission. Keep up the good work!

  2. Wonderful! I really hope you’ll love it as much as I do. If there is any questions don’t hesitate to write. The user group isn’t that big yet and we need to take care of each other. :D

    About Mac only Raw Developer , the latest Sigma Photo Pro 2.3 is NOT bad. You can download it from http://www.sigma-sd14.com (in case you didn’t know). You should also give Darkroom a try. Fun software.

  3. spalbird says:

    I believe Sigma knows what good reputation Carl brought to them. Thanks for the review:) You could have mentioned about the importance of the AF assistent light. Now i am waiting for a 3rd party flash guide, useful for my Nikon SB-28 in auto mode, or DSGs Metz 54 :D

    For some pictures I would have liked a little less flash power, e.g. the 3rd picture here in the row. I don’t know how this would be in practise but I could imagine that with complete manual flash settings you have best control, which would mean that you would have to care about distance, back ground levels and manual exposure settings at the same time.

    Of course, that night club theme is a rather academic application for me, but I enjoy it anyways…

  4. What is your white balance set at? Flash (I’m assuming) or otherwise…

  5. Acually I’m using Sun WB on the SD14. I think that gives a better start and looks much better on the LCD and that’s what people see and agree to. :) Then I bring up the temp slightly in the raw converter. Most of these are converted using Raw Developer.

  6. Spalbird! I added a little something about the assist light. Thanks for the tip. It’s very important and should not be forgotten.

  7. Ruvy says:

    Carl, this is great stuff. The link you have provided earlier to this guy who shows how to cut and set the paper as well as your take off on that are very inspirational. I have tried it already several times and it works just great. The only restriction I feel with my l7-70 lens is that I do have to get too close to the subject to get enough light from the flash

  8. sun WB eh? I’ll have to give that a try. Thanks again!

  9. komar_kzy says:

    Thanks Carl! Great manual! Scotsman I have a little hit for You. If you have a little knowledge in IT you can actualy run MAC Leopard on intel or even amd with a little of luck. I’m running Leo on my C2duo based on Asus P5W DH Deluxe. Works great! ;)

  10. Pingback: Learn flash photography | Club | speed camera

  11. Scotsman says:

    By the sounds of what I have been reading I might be making much use of that user group Carl.
    I might have to look into that Komar. Thanks.

  12. Chuck Lantz says:

    Carl: Thanks for taking the time to experiment and publish this great information. It’s a real time-saver. I was wondering why you advise turning the flash head sideways, rather than head-on? Is it to center-concentrate the light, or … ?

  13. Hi Chuck! It’s a good idea to use a wall if you have one. Not always possible though. And in the middle of everything I like things to be simple. :D A wall could give great results or terrible depening on distans and color and amount of people in front of it.

    Thanks a bunch. :)

  14. Packman says:

    Here’s one I took with two remote flashes, ambiant, and blacklight

  15. Packman! Nice work, strange fellow. :D

  16. Packman says:

    Let me add one thing about bounce photography.

    Size matters. Distance too.

    Softness as it relates to light is all about light coming from a larger source. A bounce that is 2 inches is about the same as a bounce that is 4 inches. You really need something larger that a foot or 3 feet to make any significant difference than a 6 inch bounce. I come from the motion picture world as a grip. We use diffusion all the time and size does matter. A 2 foot size diffusion at 4 feet subject difference is equal to a 4 foot diffusion material at a 8 foot distance (maybe even at 6 feet because of the inverse square rule)

    The reason a small bounce card on a camera gives any lighting effect is because a direct flash strobe light acts almost like a pinpoint coming from the element in the flash head(with a minimum of diffusion coming from the mostly clear lens on the head of the flash unit). So a four inch bounce card is about ten times the size of a direct flashes point of origin.

  17. Thanks Packman for the clarification and the information!! What are you using for your consert shots? I wanna know much more about this. :)

  18. komar_kzy says:

    Scotsman, You might want to check this out:
    1: Leo Flat IMG http://www.mininova.org/tor/1014949
    2: Insanely Mac Forum (X86 section)

  19. Packman says:

    Most of my nightclub photography is done with hard light. The edgy stuff I do lends itself to harsh shadows.

    I’ll try to use two remote flash heads. One hand held an arms length to my left or right. The other i’ll use as a crossing backlight opposite the one I hold. For the back light i’ll put it on the floor or hang it off something in the room (trying to hide it directly behind my subject) or sometime I get someone to hold it. If i’m in a smaller room or theres anything bounceable i’ll use a hard key light like I described an arms length to my side and then the other I’ll bounce as a soft fill light.

    The other major thing is that I’ll drag the shutter to get a soft ambient fill, usually .5 to 1.5 seconds exposure time. I set the apperature to between about f/8 for my flash at about 6 feet to f/2 at 20 feet.

    I do have a couple different 1×1 foot soft box attachment for the flashes but they only soften (i.e. wrap light arround the subject when the flash is at most 3 feet from the subject and that is often too close so I don’t move them much.

    A friend recently started using a a thin white 3 foot long tube wraped arround the head. I havent seen the results but I do imagine that at a distance of up 6 feet this should create a nice soft wrap if held horizontally. It’s just a strange and unweildy thing to have to carry, but i’m gonna try it eventually.


  20. Nice Carl! This is really helpful. It lets your think about flash in a different way. I have blogged it on my website.

  21. Scott Greiff says:

    Great guide. I had a lot of fun yesterday (not!) trying to deal with taking pictures at a convention where the ambient light was so strong that it really precludes you from dragging the shutter too much. Shooting at 1/15 sec. really introduced blur because the ambient light would burn a ghost image and the temp would make the flashed image look like crud.

    I have no one but myself to blame for not experimenting enough. Next time! :)

    – Scott

  22. Scott! Sometimes you need something much stronger! :) That’s when you bring your ProFoto AcuteB 600r and a ring flash! :D At least I would like to bring one if I had.

  23. Bob Dodds says:

    Sigma 30mm at f1.4 looks sharp.

    I tried Gary Fong whaletail diffuser on Sigma 500, puffer on built-in. Not bright enough for ISO 100 and 21mm lens.

    Wax paper gives enough diffusion for an 8″ Clorox bottle bottom used as bounce reflector. Wax paper will need help from an intermediate lens for straight flash diffuser. I’m trying for the best of both worlds as far as direct light and bounce or diffusion. Packman’s explanation is helping me to understand widening the light source evenly, and then aim to lose as little light as possible while widening evenly. Unfortunately the easiest ways of widening the light source evenly also throw away a lot of light. Karl’s bounce card works as well as anything I’ve seen, in terms of efficiency, which is the problem.

  24. Artur says:

    Thanks mate this settings really works and i’v made same bouncecard works nice . You can check http://www.flickr.com/photos/arturf/

  25. itime@dp1 says:

    great idea,thks carl share this wonderful experience~
    we always get surprise from here.LOL

  26. I’ve just been reading your article and was wondering if you can help me with my setting for taking photo’s in bars/nightclubs that have different lighting in various parts. One of the bars I have taken photo’s at has one end fairly bright and other end quite dark with the middle part sort of a transition area between the 2 ends.

    The equipment I use are:

    Olympus E-410 DSLR camera
    Olympus Zuiko Digital 35mm f3.5 Macro lens
    Sigma 18-50mm f3.5-5.6 DC lens
    Olympus FL-36 flash gun

    Out of the 2 lens the Sigma 18-50mm f3.5-5.6 DC lens is my main lens that I use when I go out taking photo’s in clubs and bars

    You can see some of the photo’s that I have taken on my FaceBook group: http://www.new.facebook.com/home.php?ref=logo#/group.php?gid=45358251081

    Any help you can give me would be appreciated.

    Thank you

  27. Pingback: Elinchrom Ranger Quadra | day 2. | Carl Rytterfalk Fotografi

  28. Hi Carl!
    Just another really interesting post of yours! Really nice colours and depth of field with that prime lens! I’m having an assigment like yours next week and I was wondering what flash settings did you use with your EF 500 super: I would shoot with your same equipment, apart from the lens, which in my case would be the 20-40 EX f/2,8 or the 50mm 1,4.
    I have tried using the Super in TTL mode but didn’t get really close to your results: how the hell did you set up your flash? :-)

    I thank you so much in advance and warmly greet you from Italy.

    • I’m not sure how you do in order not to get pleasing results.. But, Perhaps if you show me a shot or two then I can advice more easily? Remember, try to aim so that the background behind person in question is lit / has lights of some sort – and that the person you’re shooting is in as much darkness as possible. Now, find a person who is willing to let you play! Then you can experiment some before jumping to the next.. :)

  29. Post writing is also a excitement, if you be acquainted with afterward
    you can write otherwise it is difficult to write.

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