Nightlife Photography – How To Survive Shooting After Dark

Working in the nightlife industry as a photographer can be a lot of fun, but it can also be unnecessarily stressful and difficult dealing with the business side of things. I’ve talked about the technical difficulties of shooting bars and nightclubs before but I’ve never really touched on the logistic side of things. Of all the different types of photography gigs I’ve had, dealing with bars and clubs has been my biggest challenge as a business.

A lot of this applies to any kind of event photography, but shooting clubs and bars has it’s own subset of quirks and problems. It’s chaotic, fast paced and extremely unorganized. The turnover rate on of employees from bouncers right up to management is so fast that the people you dealt with last week may not be there this week. As soon as you develop a relationship with someone it seems they’re out the door and you have to start all over.

There’s always one person you officially work for; this could be yourself as a freelancer, a 3rd party promotions magazine or website, the venue owner, the venue manager, the promoter for that nights event and possibly the manager of some performer or celebrity if there’s one attending. The easiest situation is for you to shoot as a freelancer and then sell the shots to one or all of these people. By shooting for yourself you retain the commercial rights to the shots and can sell them to whoever you want. Sounds easy enough but this could mean a lot of leg work getting invites, press-passes, photo permissions etc. and freelancers are usually on the bottom of the list when it comes to getting any of these things done. It can take a lot of time and effort to build up the reputation and connections to grease the wheels and get yourself into an event worth shooting by yourself, and afterwards you still have to worry about turning those photos into a paycheck. If an event is big enough that people want pictures they’re probably going to send their own photog instead of hoping a freelancer shows up and gets the shots they want. 

This is the other way to get into the nightlife business: shoot for one of the interested parties I mentioned. Being hired to shoot an event for either the venue, a 3rd party, a manager or promoter will really help get you into the event with permission to shoot. I say help, and I mean it… you’d think being hired by someone involved with an event would guarantee you access and permission, sadly this is where the chaos starts and a rock solid contract becomes your lifeline.

Say you’re hired by a magazine, they’re paying you, they have shots they want and by default they’re going to have the rights to them. When you’re hired by a person or company to shoot an event, they automatically have the exclusive rights to those shots, if you want to sell your pics to anyone else you have to put it in your contract that you retain rights as well. Some people will be ok with a stipulation like that, others won’t.

Step One: get into the venue. Now hopefully whoever’s employing you will handle getting you on the guest list with a media pass, make sure of this ahead of time. Make sure it’s in your contract that it’s taken care of and follow up on the day of to make sure it’s done. If you show up and you’re not on the list and can’t get your shots, you want to make sure your ass is covered and you can still bill for the night. Double check your photo permission and any restrictions too, just because you’re on the guest list doesn’t mean you’ve got permission to take photos. And even if you have permission, there could be restrictions as to when, where and for how long you can shoot.

Step Two: figure out who to shoot. You’re either going to be shooting the crowd, the performer/celebrity/VIPs or both. I have no hard and fast rules for shooting the crowd, they’re different every time. My only advice is: don’t try to take someones picture if they obviously aren’t receptive and don’t take “crowd shot” jobs if you don’t have business cards. The first piece of advice is pretty self explanatory, taking pictures of people that don’t want it is a one way ticket to a bloody nose in a nightclub. As for business cards, I’ve tried doing it without and it’s not worth it, trust me. Most people won’t want their picture taken if they don’t know where the picture’s going to end up and/or they don’t get a copy. It’s almost impossible to give out website or email in a loud club, and writing it down on a napkin is going to make you look at best unprofessional and at worst like some creep who just goes to clubs to snap pics of girls. Having business cards to hand out, whether your own or from your employer shows you’re taking pictures in a professional capacity and gives your subject someway to track down their photo the next day. If you’re there to shoot the performer/celebrity/VIPs, get a shot list so you know who you have to shoot. The shot list should also be part of your contract, agreed to ahead of time. There’s nothing worse than handing in your pictures and hearing “Oh, you didn’t get a shot of what’s-his-face?”. It probably won’t block your paycheck (hopefully) but you don’t lose points for professionalism if you can say: “No, what’s-his-face wasn’t on my list”.

Step Three: figure out when and where to shoot. This is a must, if possible have an event timeline well in advance so you know when things are happening and again, confirm it when you arrive. Scout out good locations, ahead of time, if possible, where you can get the shots you need. Check your light levels, line of sight and possible shot obstructions. You want to be where you want to shoot well in advance of anything happening, you may only have minutes or even seconds to get your shot and you need to be prepared.

Step Four: Be where you need to be. You’ll probably be competing for space and time with other photographers so you want to stake your claim to shooting territory as early as possible and park yourself there. You may be there a while with nothing to do, bring a bottle of water and something to do; I love my E-Reader for times like this. It helps to have an assistant or a friend with you that can save your spot if you need a bathroom break or need to grab shots elsewhere, but whatever do make sure you have your spot. Pee on it like a wolf, I don’t care, but be prepared; every other photographer there needs their shots too and it’s a cut-throat business. At the same time, be professional, there’s going to be photogs pushing and shoving to get in your way and the ever-present last minute arrivals that think they deserve a spot at the front too. And unless the event actually has tiered priority for photographers, don’t fall for the “I’m shooting for BLAH Magazine, so I can boot you out of where I want to shoot”. Unless they actually have a special pass that gives them priority placement, every photographer’s equal. I’ve had photogs try to bully and intimidate their way the the front after showing up five minutes before showtime, be firm and polite, but stand your ground. Not everyone’s like this, and by staying professional I’ve been able to form loose alliances with the other prominent nightlife photogs in the area. We watch out for each other’s spot, trade off shooting times and even share shots afterwards if any of us miss something; doing what we can to protect each other from the less considerate and amateur photogs that don’t know how to behave at an event yet.

Step Five: everything goes to hell. This isn’t a maybe. Every event I’ve ever shot has had something go wrong that was completely out of my control. It seems like events have a certain critical mass at which the number of organizers, managers and staff start tripping over each other and hurting more than they help keep things running smoothly. It’s like a horrible, horrible game of telephone, at the top you have hopefully one person, but most often a “committee” that’s in charge of the night. The committee doles out instructions to the next layer down, sometimes the instructions are just worded different but sometimes they completely contradict one another. By the time word gets down to the people you end up dealing with everyone’s got a different idea of how to run things and they all think they’re the ones who have it right. The bigger the event the bigger the SNAFU, this is where your rock solid contract comes in. The wording is going to change from event to event, but basically you want it spelled out for everyone that you’re going to do what’s reasonable for you to get your shots, outside of which it’s not your problem.

One biggy is the times you’re contracted for. You got a timeline ahead of time, throw that out, it’s going to be useless. The event is delayed in starting, it always is, you’ve now lost time in which to get your shots or it means more standing around time. You were told the event would be from 10pm-midnight and quoted, say $200 for two hours work, but the celebrity who was supposed to show up at 11pm doesn’t get there till 1am and it takes you till 2am to get your shots. You’ve now worked double the time you thought you would and your hourly rate is only half what you expected. Your contract should specify how long you’re paid to shoot, if things take longer either you’re going home or getting paid for the extra time. Otherwise you’re going to be stuck working a lot of unpaid hours.

Another thing that’s going to throw a wrench in your plans is any celebrity management or agent. The venue can set whatever photography rules, restrictions or permissions it wants, but the celebrities themselves usually have a veto in their appearance contract. I’ve waited in my spot for hours only to be told “sorry, not pictures tonight” from an agent when the celebrity finally shows up. Not much you can do except have it in your contract that you get paid whether you’re allowed to shoot or not.

Step Six: You’ve got your shots, now what? Assuming everything goes well enough that you get your shots, you’ve now got to deal with delivering the shots and getting paid. If you’re hired by someone they’re the ones that get the shots and they’re the ones that pay you, but everyone else is going to want a piece. Like I said before, unless you specify otherwise, your employer is the only one with rights to the shots, and the only person you can take money from. Other people will try and get you to send them shots: the venue, the celebrity, the promoter and even other people attending and they’re not going to understand why you can’t just give them the photos. It’s hard enough to get a pay check out of someone who legitimately needs your photos and you need to be able to politely explain: A) yes my photos are “just computer files” but they have a monetary value and B) someone else already has paid me and has the rights to them, so I can’t just give you them… I especially can’t take money for them. Selling images that someone else owns the rights to is not just unprofessional, it can land you in a lot of legal trouble or industry black lists.

I’ve also adopted a policy of not submitting my shots until a check is in hand or on the way. This isn’t because I’m convinced that everyone’s going to stiff me, but holding out on delivering the photos can light a fire under the butts of whoever’s in charge of making your payment happen. Once they’ve got the shots there’s a lot less incentive to getting you a check quickly and it can be put on the back burner. I’ve had to badger companies for months to even find out if someone’s looked at my invoice. Sometimes there’s legitimate reasons for delayed payment; some companies only issue checks to freelancers once a month. I’ll relax this rule if an employer’s dealt fairly with me for quite a while, but over all it’s just a good business practice to get into.

Nightlife photography sounds like a lot of trouble, but a well written contract is your shield. Venue managers can be your biggest source of headache. Like I said, the turnover rate is pretty high, you can be dealing with people that are pretty new to their job and the turnover rate is high for a reason, they’re not always the most organized or professional people. Look for places where the manager’s been around a while, I’ve got a few I keep going back to because I know they’re on top of things. It can be a very rewarding experience and you can make some great contacts if you plan ahead and keep your ass covered.

  • Christian Bodden

    I am beginning to think that with some bands and musicians knocking out a few bootlegs of their tunes and flogging them outside the gig might get the message… After all, it’s only a digital file!

    Good article!

  • Palesa Diale

    I will have my first shoot next week, this article has helped a lot to prepare for it….thank you!! 🙂