Tips for Shooting a Party


When my friends threw out the idea for the progressive party we had a few weeks ago, I immediately thought that it would be a fun event to photograph and post about. Now, event photos aren’t really my thing normally. People move around and get self-concious when you point a camera at them. Food, well, it just sits there. But I decided to give it a shot with that party. I was pleased with the post and photos but I have to say, I’ve been stunned by the response I’ve recieved.

Neighborhood Progressive Party

Clearly, these photos strike a chord with folks out there wanting to take photos at their own holiday (or otherwise) parties. I’ve received so many emails asking me about the lighting, and even have a conference call with a PR guy who was asked to take pictures at his upcoming holiday party. So, while I think its is straying a little ways away from my main topic here on Still Life With (being, well, not quite so still), I thought I’d share some of what I learned while taking these shots.

Let’s start with flash. Flash when used properly can really help your interior photos. By used properly, I mean diffused and almost always off of your camera. There are many, many people out there that know a lot about flash. I am not one of them. I don’t like being in front of a camera with flash, and I don’t like being behind one either. On the former, I have very light sensative eyes, so any flash photo of me is a terrible photo of me. My eyes are either closed, or worse… that weird half-open state that makes me look like a complete twirp. Lovely. When I’m using flash, I seem to always be over exposing, under exposing, waiting for the flash to recharge, etc. and I miss far to many moments. So, I don’t use flash, and then I never have to worry about it… no waiting for the flash to recharge, no worry about red-eye or closed eyes.

But Lara, if you don’t use flash, and it’s dark outside, where is the light coming from?
There are certainly parties and rooms where this isn’t the case… but if you can see well enough, then so can your camera. The trick is to make sure that your camera is taking shots as quickly as possible… so you need a fast lens (2.8 or better is what I’d recommend… I almost always use my 50mm 1.4 for this kind of thing) and a camera that can go to at least 1600 ISO. When you do this, you need to understand the trade-offs you are making. With a wide open aperture, your focal plane will be very small… so it’s important to take lots and lots of shots to make sure you get one with the right thing in focus… you won’t be able to tell until you look at the photos later.

Party at The Castle

Also 1600 ISO doesn’t create the cleanest photos… they will be noisy or grainy. In general, this just makes your photos look stylized, and it’s ok. If a shot is just far to noisy, try converting it to black and white… often it will look intentional and much better. I took the shot above in a pub in London after sunset. In black & white, it just looks cleaner and sharper.

Also, don’t forget about your white balance! One of the hardest things about interior lighting is that it creates all kinds of color casts, usually a dingy yellow that unfortunately comes across more sickly than warm.

Now that you have your camera settings ready for the party, there are some other things to keep in mind.

First, if you are hosting the party, and have some control over the lighting, try hanging little twinkle lights along the top of the walls around the room. They’ll create a nice effect in the photos, add just a little more light, and feel festive too.


Also, try taking photos from different angles than just straight on. Getting a little lower will help your viewer feel like they are right in the middle of the action. Or, climb up on a stool or chair and take some shots from above. I like to get photos of people doing stuff in the kitchen… making drinks, finishing up food, etc.

Keep light sources in mind when you shoot, and try to position yourself so that the main light source is off to the side of your subject when possible. Try to keep any big light sources out of the photo… if they are in the shot, your camera will expose for that instead of your subject and the subject will be too dark.

Get close, but not too close. You can always crop something out of a shot… you can’t crop it back in.


Finally, never ask someone to look at you and smile. Just take photos. Candid photos are so much nicer than posed ones. So, just keep your eyes open, and your camera at the ready. Make sure people have a cocktail, and soon they won’t even realize you are taking the photos… especially since you can now shoot stealthily without flash.

Once you’ve taken the photos, your work is about half done. Now you have to process them, and that will likely take a while. I’m able to get a lot out of photos taken in low light because I shoot in Raw. I can usually lighten the photos up quite a bit without degrading the quality too much in Capture One. You can do the same kind of thing in Photoshop, but it’s easier and you’ll get better results working on the Raw file directly.

The main controls I use in Capture One are the Exposure Compensation (EC) and Contrast Compensation (CC) on the Exposure tab. They apply some magical curves to the overall image and can do wonders in bringing out detail, and making blacks really black and whites really white. For the photos from my party, I stuck with a very high contrast look.

You might have noticed I also mucked with the saturation some. Most of these photos have been ever so slightly desaturated. This helps so much with skin tones, giving everyone smoother looking complexions. No one wants skin that is red and blotchy looking. By brightening and desaturating the photos… kind of the digital equivalent to the old film “pushing” process… everyone looks like they have perfect skin.

But before you spend a bunch of time tweaking your Raw files, I recommend checking out this set of Photoshop Actions by Mariah Gale. Mariah’s work is simply stunning… and if I ever wanted to do people photography, I’d aspire to be half as good as her. I bought the actions several months ago… I’m embarrassed to say that I’m in such a workflow rut that I haven’t tried them yet… but I’m definitely planning on putting them to some good use in the near future.

Hope these tips help you out at your next party! If you have your own tips you’d like to share, I’d love to hear them! Or, if you have other questions, leave them in the comments and I’ll try to get them answered for you.

Happy Shooting!

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0 thoughts on “Tips for Shooting a Party

  1. Thanks for the tips. Very helpful. I’ve shot one event and was a bit nervous when I saw the mixed lighting, but in the end it worked out pretty well. Practice, I guess, will increase the confidence.

  2. These shots are so lovely. I’ve been wanting an external flash and/or a new lens for my camera, now I’m thinking the lens is probably the better way to go. Thanks for the great tips Lara!

  3. I was really curious how you got such clean shots using an ISO of 1600! I’ll have to start messing around with RAW images.

    And I take it you didn’t use a tripod for these? Amazing. Great pictures.

  4. The 5D has a pretty clean 1600 to begin with… better than past Canon bodies. But there was definitely post processing involved as well.

    And no, no tripod on these (although I almost always use a tripod for food work…)

  5. Lara!

    I was just referred to your gorgeous blog by one of my flickr contacts (saying I was mentioned here)…and honestly, wow! Thanks for the props! If I ever wanted to do food photography I’d aspire to be half as good as you are 😉


  6. H – yep… just the 50mm 1.4.

    Hi Mariah – No, thank you for showing me how gorgeous self portraits can be. I’m always blown away when I see your work.

  7. These tips are excellent! I’m shooting a shower this weekend that is indoors with very little light. I’m scared to death. I will be using every one of these tidbits. Thank You!

  8. I’m shooting a party tomorrow, so these tips will come in handy!

    I know I’m commenting long after you posted this, but I’ve been exploring your site for the first time and am so glad I found you! Thanks for all the practical advice and inspiring photos.

  9. i almost fed up with indoor/party photography and prefer to just leave my camera at home than capturing bad photos! thank you so much for your help!

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