HOWTO take pictures at a club/bar/venue

Jamie Zawinski, who owns San Francisco's DNA lounge, has some practical advice for people trying to shoot photos in dark venues, bars and clubs. In addition to tips on composition and lenses, he's got a lot of good solid stuff on bar etiquette:
Stop standing still.
We know your photos are the most important thing in the world, but you're pissing off all the other customers by blocking their view with the enormous piece of gear you keep holding up. Especially if you're tall. Or have a ridiculous hat. Move around! Don't stand in any one spot for more than a minute. You will get a wider variety of photos, and you won't irritate the people whose view you're blocking if you weren't there long.

Also, keep your elbows tucked in. You don't have to hold your camera like you're impersonating a windmill. The less space you take up, the fewer people you will piss off.

Don't post photos where people look like crap.
This really should be obvious, but if a photo is unflattering or otherwise no good -- if the subject is making a stupid face, or the lighting accents their zits or whatever -- don't post it. Why do that to people? You're not Diane Arbus. Some photographers think "but people want to see pictures of themselves, so if I took it, I should post it!" but that's not actually true. For candid nightlife shots, people only want to see good pictures of themselves. If you don't have a good picture of them, you'll just make them feel bad.

Lose the giant watermark.
If you feel you must caption your photos, just put your name or URL at the bottom in a relatively small font. Especially do not use a huge transparent logo. It looks terrible and amateurish and it is distracting.

In my experience, the size of the watermark is inversely proportional to the quality of the photo.

Personally, I never watermark any of my photos, because it's not like anyone's going to go and get rich off of some candid shot I took of them in a club. I know other people are much more hung up on getting credit about such things, but try to be a little understated about it so that your desire for credit doesn't take a big steaming dump on the composition of the photograph itself!

Nightclub photography: you're doing it wrong.

(Image: JWZ: The Sounds)


  1. Disagree on the watermark. I’ve seen photos of mine go around tumblr without much in the way of attribution, so I started putting a small mark on it.

  2. Don’t post photos where people look like crap

    THIS. This should be on the cover of the manual that comes with cameras. When I take pictures, I take LOTS of them and only select the very best ones. That means about 80% of them get tossed, but nobody want to have a memento of themselves with their mouths wide opened, their eyes closed or their faces all contorted from speaking/chewing/moving.

    I don’t know why so many people don’t get that.

  3. Kidincredible, why would you care about attribution? Why bother?

    And please, stop taking photographs at concerts althogether.

    1. Maybe it doesn’t make a difference with concert photos. But why don’t you want credit? Why did you post with the name winkybb?

      1. winkybb is a made up name that I can easily remember and preserves some anonymity. I don’t need or want credit for anything I create, do or say. I post here occasionally because I enjoy the discourse and also feel some obligation to contribute (for what that’s worth).

        I post photographs online at Flicker all the time under a pseudonym, and with CC licensing terms. I do this as a means of off-site backup as well as easy sharing with friends etc. If anyone ever contacts me to use an image (about 4 or 5 tinmes a year) I nearly always give permission and request no specific attribution. The one time I refused permission was when someone asked to use an image to illustrate some publication espousing naturopathy or some other bunk. I (politely?) told them I did not want to contribute to the hoax they were perpetrating.

  4. Small watermarks are fine, but if I see a © before I can take in the actual image – you’ve just wrecked your photo.

    For me, this always brings up the question: Do you want to be the person that took that amazing photo – or do you want to *be known* as the person that took that great photo? In other words, when taking the photo, are you thinking about how cool people will think you are for taking the photo or do you want people to think the photo is great?

    Getting credit is nice, but if that’s why you take photos, you’re missing the point.

  5. I would disagree with the point about the watermark as well. Although I am not a photographer, it’s not that someone will get rich of your photographs, just that you’re more likely to not get paid for your efforts. That being said, there are other options available for protecting IP and it’s up to the owner to decide what works best for them.

  6. Also, and this really even shouldn’t need to be said but I keep seeing this happen, if the act themselves for whatever reason invites you on-stage for a mass groove-on, don’t pull out your stupid smartphone and start stalking pictures. Just get up there and dance and hope your friends still in the audience know enough to snap a few.

    When M.I.A. wants you to get funky, its time to get funky.

  7. I would also add that if you’re in a gang of people, and you’re all drunk, and you’re taking photo after photo after photo, and insisting that everyone in the group stop their conversation to pose for the photo, please stop. And if you can’t stop, at least turn the flash off before you blind everyone else in the bar who is just trying to have quiet drink. I hate digital cameras.

  8. I take tons of photos and never watermark. I guess I just don’t give a shit if someone copies and hands them out. I suppose if I had spent thousands on a super-fancy digital SLR, I might feel differently, but for point-n-shoot and iPhone snapshots? Who cares?

  9. Other point about concert photos: hundreds of other people are also taking photos. Take just a few and crowdsource the rest.

  10. Very true! There’s more bullets in the link, definitely worth a read. What resonates most with me is his commentary about flash, the most over-used and ill-used feature on cameras. I’ve taken photos at every Penny-Arcade Expo concert… and without a doubt all my best shots were taken without a flash. There’s nothing like getting the ambient lighting of the moment into the shot. High-speed is a must, as is high-aperature glass.

    One year I rented an f/2.0 200mm monster… it resulted in fun, up close, spontaneous, and action pictures, but carrying around an extra 6lbs of gear for the weekend was painful. The bokeh was worth it, though.

    Apologies for the metafilter-style post. :)

  11. Move around? Good luck getting a good position at a crowded venue once you leave your front space.

  12. What photographer would want credit for making images with watermarks? That’s the question “O NOES PEEPLEZ ARE STEALIN MAH WORKS” watermark-using philistines never answer.

    Regarding the club-venue-show photos: leave the iPhone, Droid, whatever, IN YOUR POCKET. I want to see the band, not a tiny, incredibly bright image of the band on your smartphone, and on the smartphones of the twenty other people directly in front of me. Quit ruining the live experience for your low-res crap photos, folks!

  13. I bookmarked/pinboarded this page because the tips are so spot on. I used to do a bit of concert photography, sometimes with the luxury of the photo pass, sometimes not. I wish anyone with a DSLR has to read through this before entering a dark venue.

    The “post 30, not 300” rule applies to photography in general. I see friends in my Facebook stream that think they are hotshot with a DSLR (newbies or ones that just never learned) so they post literally 300 pictures for one day’s event, with more than half of these shots near repeats of each other. So. Annoying. It kind of guarantees I’ll scan through them and not care, versus if you carefully picked your best 20 for me to peruse.

  14. This doesn’t sound like good advice for high energy events like raves or anything with a mosh pit. Getting in close could get your gear destroyed and you would have to be pretty close to get pictures of individual members with a 50mm. Also, can’t you set the author of the picture within the metadata thus eliminating the need for a watermark?

    1. Are you kidding? My favorite part about shooting a concert is being all up in the crowd pushing my way through to get a new angle AND keeping my equipment from becoming more than one piece.

      One time, I brought my tripod, extended everything as far as it could go, and got shots from the ceiling standing on anything I could find that would support my fat arse :)

      Its been way too long since i’ve had time to do that…. :: sigh :: :(

  15. I made a decision early on that I wouldn’t put a watermark on my photos until they were good enough to be “stolen”. And when the local newsweekly (a for-profit publication) used one of my photos in-print and online without permission, payment or attribution despite the fact that the EXIF data was intact *and* my name was part of the image’s filename…I realized it was probably time to start.

    Even so, I keep them small, subtle and always in the corner. I agree with JWZ’s observation on the relationship between watermark size and photo quality. People with big watermarks tend to be overcompensating for…something.

    1. “I made a decision early on that I wouldn’t put a watermark on my photos until they were good enough to be “stolen”. And when the local newsweekly (a for-profit publication) used one of my photos in-print and online without permission, payment or attribution…I realized it was probably time to start.”

      What would have happened if that image did have a watermark? Do you think they would have called you and set up a deal to pay/credit you? Or do you think they would have simply used another image resulting in a lot less people seeing and enjoying your photo? I’d wager the latter. And because this outcome is obviously more superior than the newspaper using your photo, you’ve decided to ugly up your photos going forward to ensure it will happen more often.

      Yes, it may suck that someone uses your image for their profit, but the likely alternative is that they use someone else’s photograph for their profit, not share the profit with you. Now if you have some ideological reason to truly hate this particular newspaper, I could understand. So did you?

      1. A for-profit publication using my work without even attaching my name to it is not a superior situation as far as I’m concerned. It certainly doesn’t help me get paid or build a reputation as a photographer.

        In this particular case, the subject matter was quite unique, so odds are they would’ve either contacted me to license the photo or used no photo at all. If you want to give away your work without credit just so more people see it, more power to you but that doesn’t interest me much personally.

        Truth is, plenty of people pass around my photos with a watermark on Facebook, etc, so clearly people don’t have a problem with my (very subtle) watermarks. As long as my name’s attached, I don’t mind these usages at all.

  16. JWZ–Website design, you’re doin’ it wrong. Ouch, bright green text on a black background? Too irritating; won’t read.

    1. SoylentG–Website critique, you’re doin’ it wrong.

      You clearly have no idea who JWZ is and why he chose those colours. Have a look at Wikipedia, then google for images of pre-1990 terminals.

      1. Just because someone wrote half of XEmacs doesn’t mean he knows shit about making a nice-looking website.

        Christ, next I might start asking Richard Stallman to give me fashion tips.

        1. I’m not saying it’s a nice-looking website; I’m saying it’s obvious to anyone familiar with the guy and his culture why he picked those colours, and they probably approve of the choice.

          It’s like you were criticizing rappers for their oversize clothes.

  17. God I hate it when someone tries to tell me what I can and cannot do. And there’s nothing worse than a photographer attempting to tell other photographers what they can and cannot do. This article goes against all tenets of free creative expression. Just for that, I’m going to make all my transparent watermarks 500% larger – so there!

  18. Regarding watermarks…

    There are a number of tools that can add invisible watermarks to photos, including Adobe PhotoShop.

    These watermarks can be revealed with similar tools, and are useful when you want to be able to prove a photo is yours without destroying the composition with a visible mark.

    I do this for photos I put online, not for the credit, but for copyright. I certainly don’t mind if my photos are reposted and viewed, but I once found one of my photos being used to sell makeup on a commercial site, which I was not cool with.

  19. I’ve been shooting clubs for well over a year now (Here’s one of my Flickr photo sets for an example). I never watermark my images – because if you think you’re going to make money doing club photography, you’re smoking crack. I do it because it’s fun, because it’s a challenge, and because my friends are performing on stage.

    It’s gotten me a lot of good skills, a reputation as a good photographer, and a number of friends. I did not, however, make a dime. Ever. Being jealous about photos you took for free is a great illustration of hubris.

    And seriously, if you don’t know how to use a flash, leave the m*f*er at home and stop with the “nuke-em-till-they-glow then shoot-em-in-the-dark” school of photography. I’ve been tempted to give people a Quantaray suppository when they keep pointing the thing directly at me and firing off 6 full-power shots in a row. Thanks, a**wipe, now my night vision is shot again. Like the last three times you did that in the last half hour.

    The *most* important thing, though, is to avoid being a creep. No upskirt shots, no cleavage-and-nothing-else shots, no stalkeresque 40-shots-of-one-girl/guy posts. Oh, and 300 photos is absurd – I take 400-800 in a night, and post less than 100 for the biggest events I’ve covered. Edit that crap.

    1. photos you took for free

      As opposed to photos one pays to take? What would those be?

      Re: posting too many photos: 300 Facebook shots seems crazy large, but we’re not talking about a well-curated Flickr stream, say, less still an artist’s book or a gallery. Amateur work is, well, amateurish, and perhaps to be celebrated (or at least understood) as so.

      1. I was more referring to paid gigs vs. doing it for fun / as a favor for a friend. There are almost no paid club shooting gigs – I make my photo money doing other shoots. Professional association meetings, ad work, weddings, concerts, etc.

        It’s cheaper and easier for a club owner to let a few kids come in for free, and dig through the 600 or so images that 8 amateurs shoot for that one picture that you can use on an event flyer than deal with a pro who is going to want cash and be a stickler about publication rights.

        By the time you go to a club as a “photographer”, you should know at least a little about what you’re doing, and I’m always forgiving of someone’s first club shoot. It’s when you see the same people out there, week after week, doing the same lame crap every time, that you start to lose tolerance for them. Amateur is not an excuse for sucking.

  20. “stop standing right at the front of the stage.”

    I agree with this one but for different reasons. I’m sick to death of going to shows and instead of seeing bands forced to see the idiot with the camera all night.

    I really appreciate the bands that only allow photos for the first 15-30 minutes.

  21. One technical note: the article makes it sound like f1.4 and ISO 800 or 1600 with a 1/80s exposure time is some sort of magic formula. Based on my experience with taking picture of bands, 1/80s is way too slow. Musicians on stage like to move their bodies around, not to mention that their hands will move while they play their instruments. Unless you are intentionally trying to introduce motion blur into the shot go with 1/100s minimum. Faster is better. 1/80s is fine for portraits of people who are standing still (posing) for you.

    You probably don’t want to shoot at exactly f1.4 either. Photos will look much better if you close the aperature at least a little bit. No lens looks its best at its widest open aperature, and you rarely want the very thin depth of field (translation: almost everything will be out of focus) you get from a wide open 50mm lens.

  22. Just because you can TAKE 999 snaps of the same event doesn’t mean you should POST 999 snaps of the same event. Spare the internets and impose some self-restraint: FILTER what you post so that only the most interesting shots make it.
    And NO blurry, off-frame, murky or bleached photos (unless, of course, you intended to go for that effect and have the technical chops to pull it off).

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