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SLR camera settings for nightclubs and low light venues

Posted on Aug 27, 2009 by Paul White

Every photographer eventually finds themselves in a dark place (nightclub, concert, bar ) trying to get some cool photos.  But we gethome only to find all our shots were under exposed or over exposed.  This isthe time when you realize that you didn't spend grands on your camerabody to take pictures in AUTO mode.  After trial and error and readingmultiple blogs, and forums, I have found the perfect settings for greatnightclubs photos from your SLR camera.

The camera I am using is a Sony A700.  Any Sony Alpha Camera should be able to do this, so even if you have an A100 you will be fine.  However the higher end models A700, A900 will handle higher ISO a little better.  Here are the settings you need

Turn your dial to Shutter Speed Mode "


Next we manually set your

Shutter Speed to 1/10

Manually adjust your ISO to a comfortable level. In my case I went with

ISO 800

Make sure your flash is on ( either the built in one, or an external flash )

Why these settings?

One of the biggest problems with shooting in nightclubs, is the lack of light, and your subject matter is not usually still.  This makes it hard for your camera to detect how much light is available and how far you are from your subject.  So we lock in Shutter Speed and ISO values.  Now the only thing the camera needs to detect is how wide to set your aperature. 

Why the long Shutter Speed if we are using a flash?

The problem when you use a flash in auto mode, is your camera will use a faster shutter speed. This causes your subject to be almost over exposed, and your background ambient lighting will be dark. By using a longer shutter speed it will soften our subject matter, and bring out the ambient light more.  Remember the goal when shooting nightclubs is to capture the ambiance of the club. 


I will try some real nightclub shots at a later date, but for now I used Pepe in the kitchen.
The Lens I am using for both shots is a fixed Sigma 30mm F1.4

This first photo shows how my Sony A700 reacts when I put it in auto mode with an Sony HVL-F56AM flash
The camera auto set itself to 1/60 second, F2.8,  ISO 800, notice how the background is all dark. This was taken in my kitchen with the lights off.  The only lights were from my office down the hall.

Sony Alpha Auto Photo

The second shot is when I use "S" mode and manually set 1/13 second and  ISO 800 with the same flash. The camera then auto set the aperture to F1.4.
In this one notice how the background is blurred from the wider aperture, and the light from my office can now be seen reflecting on the tile floor. This is what it looked like to my eye as well. This technique is also called dragging the shutter.  The flash will freeze the action ( Pepe ) while the longer shutter speed will let all the ambient light in

Sony Alpha Shutter Speed Mode

Next time you are having trouble taking nightclub photos, try these settings.  Or experiment on your own.  I am still amazed by the number of photographers who are scarred to make a mistake.  Its not like the camera uses film, and your Memory card can probably store over 1000 photos.

Article Update 2/27/2010

Why use Pre-Flash TTL and not ADI Flash for better photos

After a few rounds with my Sony Alpha 700, I noticed something else in the camera settings that was causing bad photos.  If you goto the menu, there is a section where you can adjust Flash Control.  The two options are ADI Flash, and Pre-flash TTL.  These are both Autoflash options.  What you want 95% of the time will be Pre-Flash TTL.  ADI Flash is only good for situations where you have lots of reflections.  Naturally any reflections are going to throw off the light sensor.  Unfortunately when I turn my camera on ADI seems to be the default, and I always have to manually set it to Pre-Flash TTL.

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PmP Team | Sep 19, 2011 4:45 PM
Great and helpful article!
clark w. griswold, jr | Dec 17, 2012 6:44 PM

your shots are incredible~! I guess that comes with experience.

My son is in a band and in the high school theater. I tried my best to shoot the show this past weekend (The Wedding Singer) and, I guess they turned out OK. What is the secret to the settings~? No flash and manual focus made it a challenge for a novice~!

I have a Nikon D90 and I have played around with the settings. I think I was on Manual and I was hovering around F7.1 with slight adjustments here and there. I had to bring the shutter speed way down to let the light in. I think I may have forgotten (or don't know how to) adjust the ISO. The movement made the pix blurry.

Is there anything you can recommend for future theater shows and bands in dimly lit venues~? I would assume that the settings would be the same here.

anything you could offer would be appreciated. advice, links to helpful websites, etc.


cwg, jr

Paul | Dec 18, 2012 10:26 AM
Hey Clark,
To freeze the movement without a flash you have to use something around 1/60 second or faster.  Then open up your aperture as far as you can.  I frequently shoot at F2.0 or F2.8.  Somtimes for the background fading effects I will even shoot at F1.4  Then once you have these settings in place start turning up your ISO until the shots start to come out.  You don't need to manually focus.  You can still use autofocus, thought depending on how much light is available your camera might hunt for focus, and not get a lock.

Just keep in mind unless you are shooting with a Full Frame Camera.  Your ISO is likely to be very noisy once you push it above 800.  I now shoot with an Sony a900 Full Frame.
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