How to make better Party Photos

Years go when I was staff photographer in Atlanta, we used to joke that a trained monkey could make a good picture of a burning building, flames blazing through the roof or a pretty sunset but it took real talent to make good photos at life’s everyday events.

I was tested at one of those everyday events Saturday and needed to produce a nice set of pictures. It was a party for my friend Cory to celebrate his retirement from the Navy after a distinguished 25-year career. For a photographer these things can be tricky. There was lots of laughing, good food and drinks but the setting was not that visual. All the non-photographers would say what a great location it was, that’s true, but it wasn’t visual. Pro shooters always hope for a location that is so visually loaded it’s easy to make great shots. We call that shooting fish in a barrel but its rare you get lucky so most of the time you’re forced to use your experience and skills with the camera.

Lets breakdown the thing you need to master to make great photos at a party or similar event. Things like this almost always require the shooter to use on camera strobe and that can be pretty ugly if you aren’t careful. I try to use a diffuser on the strobe to soften the light. There are all kinds of these things but I’m currently using the Lightsphere.

In a pinch I’ve used a white plastic coffee cup or even a sheet of white paper folded in half. The bottom line here is you need to soften the direct strobe light with something. The party had one great thing going for it and that was really nice available light. If you location has good ambient light, then you can use a slow shutter speed to supplement your on camera flash. If you want to make great party photos this is the part where you need to start paying attention.

By mixing flash and a slow shutter speed you can dramatically change the look of your photos .How does that work you ask? I approach the photo like this. I know the on camera flash can light things right in front of the camera but the light is only going to be coming from one direction making the photo flat and one dementia. I use the slow shutter speed to unlock the available light that’s in the room and make it work for me. The first thing I do is open my lens up to around F2.8 or F4 and set my ISO to around 400. I then check the meter to see what the light levels are in the room. The photo of Cory’s parents listening to him make a short speech was F.2.8 at 1/8th of a sec. The on camera flash lights the people in the foreground and the ambient paints in the ceiling that warm yellow color.

My advice is to do lots of testing to see what works for you. Normally, I HATE to see people constantly looking at their cameras LCD screen (it’s called Chimping) but this is a perfect time to chimp. Shoot pictures at different shutter speeds and see which combination works best. If the subjects are moving too much they can get a funky motion blur thing and that might be bad for you or it could be the coolest photos you’ve ever taken. That the fun part, all the camera technique in the world is worthless if you don’t make an interesting photo. I’m not charging my friend to shoot his big event but I still approach the assignment like it was. As a re-covering photojournalist I still look for the same kind of photos I always did. A few nice photos of the main speaker, then I turn the camera 180 degrees and get the reaction shot. For me these are the most interesting photos. Don’t stay in one place too long and work the whole room. I make sure I get photos of as many different people as possible. When possible I’ll try to get an overall shot showing the whole room or venue and I’m a sucker for a good overhead photo. Some times you can find just the right spot to get a high angle view and the photo look spectacular

Party on…

Cory’s parents are beaming as they listen to him make a few remarks at the end of the evenings ceremony.

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