How to make clubbing pictures really trippy…
A couple of people have asked me how I get the effects that I do in my clubbing photos, with shimmering outlines, light trails, trippy pseudo-multiple exposures and so on; the ones that make you feel like you’ve fallen into a pit of acid, and generally show the night as quite a few people will remember it.
The technique is variously known as ‘shutter dragging’ or ‘slow sync flash’ and while there is no real secret to it and once you get the hang of it it becomes second nature, it does take a little thought and experimentation to get right.
I first discovered it more or less by accident, playing with my old Fujifilm A800 compact when I was out clubbing. Having read the manual and most of it just gone straight through my head and out the other side, I found a setting on the camera that said ‘slow sync flash’. This is designed, so the manual said when I looked back at it for taking night time portraits. I am guessing (the A800 being pretty much fully automatic) this setting prompts the camera to read the exposure from the ambient light and then just fire the flash regardless, unlike the normal flash mode where it will set a basic aperture and shutter speed to match the power of the flash – which normally just burns out the foreground and makes people look like they are in a black cave.
Anyway, I randomly settled on this setting and got some crazy shots like this, with light trails shooting around the subject, and odd double exposures.
Cabbage, Leeds. Fujifilm Finepix A800: 0.7s, f/2.8 ISO 200, Flash.
I played with this for a while, and then lost interest for a bit, as I stopped going out and taking so many drugs, and also concentrated a bit more on ‘serious’ photography when I bought my DSLR. I took it to a few clubs and gigs again, and experimented with not using a flash, partly because I had a swanky new 50mm f/1.8 mkII lens, and partly because I didn’t know how to use my flash very well, so everything I tried it with looked bleached out and rather pants.
I picked up the idea again, after reading an interview in a magazine – I can’t remember who, or what – talking about using a dragged shutter to shoot bands on stage to add a bit of a shimmer to the performers - he suggested 1/30s, F/8 ISO 1600 and minimum flash. I was due to go to Kendal Calling as a guest of Steve from Magic Lantern to do some shooting. I wasn’t obviously able to use a flash shooting the mainstage bands, but I tried the technique out in the Dance Tent where I was (ostensibly) on production and managed to get away with quite a lot.
China Shop Bull, Kendal Calling. Canon EOS 1000D: 1/30s, f/8, ISO 1600, Jessops AFD-360C Flash.
Obviously the same settings won’t work in all situations, and it is here you need to have a think about the science behind exposure.
For those who know all this, forgive me, but I will start at the beginning for the benefit of people who are new to the idea, and because reviewing this will help understand the concepts later on.
To expose a shot, you need to choose the correct interplay between three things: Shutter Speed, Aperture, and Sensitivity (ISO). The shutter speed is the length of time the shutter is open – so to freeze action (and avoid camera shake) you would make this as fast as possible and to blur action and show a sense of movement you would make the shutter speed slower.
The aperture serves two purposes. It changes the amount of light that actually gets in to reach the sensor and so works with the shutter speed to balance the exposure - i.e. if you want a faster shutter speed you can open the aperture to let in more light. But opening the aperture wider decreases the depth of field – it blurs the background. So if you want a nice blurred background for a portrait you open the aperture, and if you want to see crisp and clear for miles you make it smaller.
ISO is how sensitive the sensor (or the film) is. So if you have opened your aperture as wide as it will go, and your shutter speed is still too slow you can increase the ISO. And vice versa. What you need to know about ISO is that in general the higher it is, the more noise you get. Unless you shoot film, in which case it is grain that is increased, and (in general) noise looks nasty whereas grain can look nice in the right circumstances.
The thing to remember is that you can change one of these and so long as you change one of the others in the opposite direction the exposure - i.e. the amount of light that actually reaches the sensor is the same. So if you have an exposure of 1/30s at f/8 and ISO 200, it is the same as 1/60s at f/8 and ISO 400, or 1/30 at f/5.6 and ISO 100. I am not going to explain why f/5.6 is one stop away from f/8 when the others half or double – you’ll need to look this up as it would take up more space than I have.
Hopefully that all makes sense. I am now going to add a spanner in the works – the flash. The way that flash photography works is that in general the flash exposes the subject primarily, rather than the ambient light. Often the shutter speed is too fast for the ambient light to have much of an effect and it is the aperture that is used to work out the exposure – the flash will reach a certain distance at a certain aperture and a certain ISO. Old manual flashes will tend to have a table on the back, and you matched your aperture to the ISO and the distance to the subject. More modern flashes can work in this way, though usually with different power settings and an LCD which tells you how your settings match up, or they can work automatically, using a light sensor to assess when enough light has hit the subject.
Essentially, what you need to do is balance the settings so that the flash exposes your foreground (i.e. a DJ, a pretty girl dancing) correctly, and the rest of the settings expose the background. This is actually more common than it sounds, but often what a photographer wants to do is allow the hue of the ambient light warm the scene, or expose to allow some of the room to be lit but not use a super bright flash which will blitz out the subject. But in this case, what we want is to allow some movement of the lights, or the dancers or both.
So, the settings you use will depend on the effect you want – a brief shimmer, or a crazy trail and multiple exposure effects. Lets have a look at how to do it.
First think about the ISO. If, as in the shot of China Shop Bull, above you are shooting a band and want to expose the background and keep the shutter speed reasonable you will want the ISO high. If not have it as low as you can, 200 or 400 is a good level to use.
Katty Grooves, Sunrise, Leeds. Canon EOS 1000D: 4s, f/8, ISO 200.
Now think about your shutter speed. For the shot above I just wanted a slight shimmer, and 1/30s produces that. For a bit of a motion blur, a trail from someone’s arm when they are dancing, try 0.5 to 1 second. Or you could go the full extreme like in the shot of Katty Grooves, above, where I set the exposure to 4 seconds and waved the camera around in front of a UV spot to get the crazy streaks through the shots.
Now the aperture. I like to use f/8 as a starting point. Blurring the background through limited depth of field is not really the effect I am after. The shot will be busy in the background, but the subject will stand out, and in general your vision has a pretty good depth of field and the aim of this is to make it look real. Sometimes I will open this to f/5.6 if, for example I am close up to a DJ, as this will let me use a less powerful flash right in their face.
Take a test shot, it doesn’t matter what of, just the ambient light. I have given some starting settings as there is pretty much NO way your camera will be able to meter accurately with all the light crazily flashing about. How does it look – too light, or too dark? You need to change something – think about what is most important for the shot you want. If your shot is too light and you want to keep the long shutter speed then drop the ISO, or make the aperture smaller. Or vice versa…
Glow Tent: Kendal Calling. Canon EOS 1000D: 1s, f/8, ISO 400.
Now to set the flash. Keep this manual too, the auto metering is also likely to be confused by the lights, though I will set mine Auto if I am tired, lazy, or had one too many beers… Think about how close your subject is. If you are up close to a DJ with a wide angle lens this might be 1-2m. If, like the shot from Kendal Calling below you are in the pit in front of a crowd of a couple of thousand you might be looking at 6 meters or even more. On most flashes you can set the ISO and Aperture (or it may even read it from the camera) and the display will tell you the distance as you flick through the power settings. If your power settings won’t reach the right distance, you will need to adjust either the aperture or the ISO. And obviously think about how that affects your background.
Here is where I will give you an slight bit of relief – it is mainly the flash and the shutter speed you need to get right. The background is affected less than you think by a stop or so of over, or under exposure. It will normally take a few shots to get things looking right. Once you have found a nice setting, the only thing you really need to look for is the flash power, depending on how close you are to the subject, or if you chnage the shutter speed for a different effect.
Of course, you may look quite silly waving a camera around, but if you have a good long speed, wave it at the lights, keep it still in certain places and so on you can the get some crazy, almost multiple exposure effects like this:
Hypnocoustics, Sunrise, Leeds. Canon EOS 1000D: 2s, f/8, ISO 200.
Now that was fucking trippy….