Photographing Dance Floor Light Trails

As a wedding photographer you need to wear lots of hats. Not literally of course – I don’t mean rocking up to a wedding donning a trilby, fez and Panama combo (although that would look…somewhat interesting…), but you need to be able to photograph a variety of situations in a variety of ways.

For example, take the dance floor. In the past I’ve photographed dance floor action by bouncing a single on-camera flash off the ceiling or the wall behind (which is great if the venue has a low white ceiling or walls, which isn’t always the case), or setting up two or three off-camera flashes in various corners of the dance floor (which is fine if you have plenty of space, but not so good if people start tripping over them. Thank God for liability insurance…)

A third technique yields some funky results, and this is achieved by firing an on-camera flash in combination with dragging the shutter. The action is frozen by the flash, and any ambient light (DJ lights, fairy lights etc) is captured by shooting with a slow(ish) shutter speed.

So how do we achieve this? As a certain animated meerkat once said, simples…

1) Use manual mode for full control / a low ISO / small aperture

For the dancefloor photos below, I shot them in manual mode at ISO 200 and stopped the lens down to f11. This achieves two things – it means the shutter needs to be open longer to capture the ambient light trails (which gives you that sense of movement – more about shutter speed below), and it also helps with your focusing…

2) Use manual focus

Focus on your subject(s) initially using autofocus, and then switch to manual focus. This means the lens won’t continually hunt in low light, and combined with your aperture of around f11 means that your subject will be in focus (unless you radically change position, or your subject(s) sashay off to the opposite side of the dancefloor).

3) Use manual flash / front curtain sync

I’m a bit of a purist and a control freak, and don’t like machines (or people, for that matter) dictating what I do. That’s why I always use a manual flash compared to TTL – I set the ambient exposure first (for the light trails) and then adjust the flash power manually to taste.

Some flashes have front / first-curtain sync, meaning the flash will fire when the shutter opens (compared to when it closes, known as rear / second-curtain sync) – using front-curtain sync means the action is captured as soon as you open the shutter, leaving you free to capture the light trails. Using rear-curtain would mean you’d capture the light trails first, but would then need to ensure your camera is aimed at your subject when the shutter / flash fires (which is a bit trickier).

4) Adjust shutter speed

There are no hard and fast rules for this, but I’d aim for around 1/2 or 1 second exposure to start with. You can adjust this to taste if your ambient exposure is too much, so have a play around.

5) Shoot!

So, you’ve set your aperture (f11 in this case), your ISO (200) and shutter speed (1/2 to 1 second), focused on your subject by using autofocus then switched to manual focus, and have taken a test shot of the ambient light. Do this by opening the shutter and moving your camera across the light source (DJ lights etc). Once you’re happy with your light trails, turn the flash on, decide on your composition, photograph the dancefloor action then move your camera across the ambient light source to capture the light trails.

You’ll get some very strange looks, but don’t worry. The photographs below were taken at a recent 18th birthday party, and some of the guests looked at me very strangely during some of the group shots when the flash fired before I moved the camera swiftly off to my left / right. I think they were wondering if I’d actually photographed them at all…

6) Things to remember!

i) What you’re effectively capturing are two exposures. Make sure you’re happy with your light trails first (by setting small aperture / low ISO / shutter speed), and then adjust your flash power to taste.

ii) Watch out for light trails cutting through people’s heads! This may be a little difficult to avoid (unless you want to ask the DJ to move to the other side of the room, or you fancy moving all the fairy lights yourself), but it’s something to be aware of (you’ll see at least one example below where this happened).

iii) Try zooming the flash in for edgier results – this will give you a spotlight effect which (in my opinion) looks more “photo-journalistic”.

See what you think…

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