How To Beat The Darkness in a Nightclub

The other night, my good buddy Mike Florio and I shot a concert (photos and video) for the band Mancie. It was a favor for my other friend, Andrea Fischman, who leads that band and is a fellow photographer. Andrea wanted me to do a couple of portraits of her, her friend and the band. This was at around 8pm at night, and it was super dark—perhaps one of the darkest venues I’ve shot in. However, I was able to beat the darkness with a single speedlite and by making the most of it by placing it in the right spots. Here’s how I did it and how you can figure out how to do this as well.

Gear Used

Canon 7D

430 EX II

50mm F/1.8

GoPro Ring Flash Adapter

Outside Photos

The band and I decided to do a couple of photos outside in the drizzling rain. Amazingly, my batteries in the flash died after one shot. I was able to find fresh ones inside: but these are examples of how flash could have saved these images.

Lesson learned: always bring charged batteries, bring spares, and using full 1/1 output often will KILL your battery life.

So we opted for natural light under some scaffolding in Brooklyn.

Here’s one original image that I honestly really wasn’t happy about. I’ve become so spoiled with using reflectors, multiple flashes, and my beauty dish. However I was able to turn it into the photo below in Lightroom 3.

Now the photo has a weird effect to it that looks pretty darn cool. It’s not at all professional and I’ll be the first to admit it. But it was the best I could do. The 50mm F/1.8 had lots of trouble focusing.

Then I decided to use the scaffolding another way. I asked the drummer and the other guitarist to climb up and flank Andrea and the bassist. Using the lines leading downward, this creates a really interesting image.

Here’s that edit using the same process as before.

And here’s another one. The photo on the left is unedited and the photo on the right went through Lightroom 3. I’ve still got problems with them though:

– If I had my 580 EX II (it’s in Paris with a friend right now) I would’ve been able to find a way to kill off more of the ambient light and illuminate the subjects just the way I wanted to.

– Ideally, I would have made this entire scene significantly darker with the scaffolding lights acting more as little spotlights and my two flashes illuminating the subjects accordingly. Canon’s E-TTL system would’ve done a great job of helping me to light this scene.

So with that said and done and everyone getting really cold, we headed inside.


When we went inside the Grasslands Gallery, we decided to shoot in the tiniest hallway ever. There was graffiti inside, garbage, moulding, electrical wires that looked like the place wasn’t completely renovated, it looked really crazy. I loved it! Though it doesn’t look like it in the following photos, the entire hallway was lit by one bulb in dish hanging from the ceiling. So I needed more light. To do this, I had to use wireless flash control and place the flash in just the right spot while balancing out the ambient light.

See the nice even frontal lighting on Anna’s face above? That wouldn’t have been possible without my 430 EX II being pointed up and behind me towards the very low ceiling (possibly 6 feet high.)

Here’s my edit where I cooled the white balance a bit and did some minor brightening in the white of her eyes.

See how Anna is brightly lit in the photo above? Once again not possible without the speedlite. The only area illuminated by the ambient lighting was the stairwell behind her. To achieve this shot, I placed the speedlight in some of the plastic electrical wiring hanging out around the ceiling and aimed it right towards the wall right next to it. That turned the entire surface into a large bounce surface which delivered the nice soft light on Anna.

You can tell by the shadows on her left arm from the top that the light was above her. This is also evident in the lighting on her leg against the wall.

For this photo, I asked Anna to lay against the stairwell. The only light illuminating her is the light from the bulb in the dish hanging from the ceiling that I talked about before. I wasn’t too happy with that. I think that the background needed more light so that I could see more of the graffiti in the background and so that we can get a better sense of the place. So I placed a speedlight a couple of steps above her and aimed it towards the area of the ceiling in front of her. That way the light would reflect back, hit her and hit the area behind her.

And that trick worked like a charm. Anna looks great, the shadows are much softer, and despite the compositional change we get a different feel from the image overall.

BTW: Anna was part of the music video we were shooting for Mancie.

Next it was Andrea who was to be shot on the stairwell. I really loved this pose. She was illuminated from the ambient lighting and a speedlight bouncing off of the wall camera right.

To achieve this perspective, I had to position her a certain way and I had to climb up a creaky old ladder. At that point both Mike and Andrea said, “Isn’t that a bit dangerous.” To which I responded, “Yes.”

To me, if you’re at least a bit scared or doing something a bit dangerous, your photos will translate into more exciting results.

Here’s the edit which really just added a bit more contrast.

Now this photo was all ambient lighting, which shows you just how the light was falling. Indeed, in the previous shot of Anna way back in the near start of the posting, her entire side facing me was dark. Since Andrea in the photo above was so close to the light, the shadows and the side of her closer to me are a bit more illuminated. While the photo above was a cool idea, I knew that I could mess with it more in Lightroom for even better results.

In the photo above, I added lots of film grain, raised the contrast, cooled the color temperature, and bumped the saturation up a tad bit. The effect makes for a damn cool photo.

GoPro Ring Flash

So it was Anna again and this time the 430 EX II was mounted on top of my 7D with the GoPro Ring Flash Adapter. After two tries, I got the image above. Because the area was so dark, she had a bad case of red eye and there are areas blown out due to my overpowering the flash. However, I see this look all the time in ads like those of American Apparel; and I like it.

Here’s the edit fixing her eyes. I didn’t do much in terms of color adjustment because I like the output that it gives me as opposed to the Orbis, which gives me a warmer output.

Here’s the image warmed up just a bit. See how her skin tones come out looking more lively?

With Andrea, I nailed it with pretty much the first shot. I told her to put her fingers in her hair and give me a face as if she was going crazy and wanted to pull her hair out. She thought it was fun and it worked out really well.

Then we tried it in a portrait orientation vs a landscape, and this was the result. Her boyfriend loved this.

So What’s the Point?

– If you place a single speedlight in the right place, it can make all the difference.

– A speedlite with the right flash modifier can make a huge difference as well.

– A good tactic is to take a quick photo of the area first and then figure out what areas you need to illuminate and quickly assess how you’re going to do it.

– You’re not done with your image when you shoot it. There is so much that you can do in the digital darkroom. Turn every image you shoot into your own piece of art.

– Don’t ever be afraid to get a bit dangerous

– Don’t be afraid of the light. Harness it and make it do what you want. To do this, you need to get out, shut up, and screw up.

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Chris Gampat

Chris Gampat is the Editor in Chief, Founder, and Publisher of the Phoblographer. He also likes pizza.