How to take creative party photographs

Easy tips and techniques for incredible party and events photography.
A group of friends pose holding sparklers, laughing and facing the camera with their faces illuminated by the sparkler light. © AdobeStock

One of the best things about the holiday season is the lineup of parties and events that bring together friends or family for a chance to laugh, relax and catch up. Knowing how to photograph the celebratory smiles, sparkly lights and outlandish dance moves in a creative way will help you make memories to cherish forever.

With these useful party photography tips and techniques you'll not only get great shots that everyone will like and share, but also have images that do justice to your special moments and are beautiful enough to print and treasure.

1. Choose the best camera settings for party photography

A family group gathered around a 65th birthday cake in a dimly lit room, captured on a Canon EOS R100 with a Canon RF 16mm F2.8 STM lens.

If you want to capture group portraits in low light situations, selecting a slower shutter speed will expose the camera's sensor to light for longer. Taken on a Canon EOS R100 with a Canon RF 16mm F2.8 STM lens at 1/60 sec, f/3.5 and ISO 1600.

Whether inside or outdoors, parties often involve moving subjects, so it's important to make sure that your camera is set to the best party photography settings.

To capture the fast-paced movement of a dance floor without flash, you'll need to ensure your shutter speed is fast enough. Shutter priority (Tv) mode enables you to specify the shutter speed, while the camera selects the aperture and ISO for a correctly exposed image. A minimum shutter speed of about 1/160 or 1/250 sec is best for movement, although faster movement may mean you need to go up to 1/1000 sec. If you're in Manual (M) mode, make sure your aperture is relatively wide open (lower f-number) to compensate for the faster shutter. Start with Auto ISO, but if your image is too dark, try setting a moderate or high ISO, such as ISO 3200 or ISO 6400.

If the party is more of a sit-down gathering, Aperture priority (Av) mode enables you to select your depth of field. In calmer environments, you can assess your camera settings based on the light available. For example, a 1/80 sec shutter is fine for slow-moving portraits or group photos – it will allow more light to hit the sensor, giving you some leeway with your aperture and ISO values.

2. Try candid photography

Four partygoers dance freely, hair swishing as they move, with a DJ seen behind them through smoke.

A longer lens enables you to capture candid shots of your friends on the dance floor. A wide aperture means you don't need a flash, even when shooting indoors. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III at 1/160 sec and f/1.4. © AdobeStock

Posed images have their place, but if you want to capture natural expressions of joy at a party, shooting candidly is the way to go.

A zoom lens, such as the Canon RF-S 18-45mm F4.5-6.3 IS STM, will help you to frame more distant subjects, and allow you to shoot without it being too obvious that you have your camera pointing at anyone in particular. This lens also has a 4-stop Image Stabilizer, which will help keep your shots free from blur when shooting handheld.

Rather than using your camera's flash when shooting candidly, it's better to use a wide aperture and a moderate-to-high ISO setting to keep subjects sharp and focused. This way, the flash doesn't disturb your subjects, retaining a natural feel. For the same reason, you should turn off your camera's AF assist light.

Keep things candid by setting up a remote camera such as the Canon PowerShot PX, which intelligently frames and shoots photos and video automatically. Less intrusive than a traditional camera, it has the added benefit of letting you get on with partying.

3. Learn how to capture background and foreground blur

A close-up of lit candles on a cake, with the flames blurred and large circular bokeh in the background.

A lens with a wide maximum aperture such as the Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM can transform backgrounds into beautiful creamy bokeh. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM lens at 1/40 sec, f/1.8 and ISO 100.

A low-lit portrait of a woman against a background of distinctive white and pale blue circular bokeh.

Background and foreground blur is ideal for showing off your subject and giving your photos a dreamy vibe.

Whether it's a sea of twinkling Christmas tree lights or a simple candle, the festive period is full of pretty lights which, with the right setup, can turn into beautiful glowing globes in the background of your pictures. The Japanese word 'bokeh' is used to describe the aesthetic qualities of these out-of-focus highlights.

The effect is easiest to achieve when your lens is set to its widest aperture. This results in a very shallow depth of field, which allows you to be very selective with your focusing so you can make your subject stand out against a blurred background. An ideal lens for this is the Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM, which features an ultra-wide maximum aperture of f/1.8. But you can also get pleasing blurred highlights using smaller apertures such as f/5.6. Enhance the effect by increasing the distance between your subject and the background, or standing closer to your subject.

4. Lower your shutter speed to produce motion blur

A deliberately blurred shot of a drummer in action.

Changing your camera's shutter speed is one way to adjust the overall exposure of an image. It also has creative uses, enabling you to control the amount of motion blur (or lack of it) in your images.

While faster shutter speeds will help you to capture moving subjects sharply, an alternative approach is to use a much slower shutter speed to create movement in a scene with static subjects.

Set a shutter speed of around 1/10 sec or 1/20 sec if you are shooting handheld, and make sure a static (or relatively static) subject is clearly visible in the scene. It's useful if your lens has built-in Optical image stabilisation (IS), like the Canon RF 35mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM, as this will help to keep your images sharper at slower shutter speeds. Some cameras, such as the Canon EOS R7 and EOS R6 Mark II, have In-Body Image Stabilisation (IBIS). This physically moves the camera's sensor to compensate for any movement when not shooting from a fixed position (such as a tripod). This type of IS will work with any lens.

If you're using a tripod, you'll be able to use far slower shutter speeds to achieve this effect. Trigger the shutter using a wired or wireless remote release, the Canon Camera Connect app or the self-timer mode.

5. Capture light trails on the dance floor

A young woman at a party throws her arms back amidst colourful light trails.

Long exposures are ideal for turning ordinary scenes into magical images. © Tetra Images/Getty Images

By controlling when your camera triggers the flash during the exposure, you can capture colourful light streaks that convey the spirit of the party in a creative way, while keeping the subject sharp. Select a slow shutter speed of about a second, and choose between first-curtain or second-curtain sync mode in your camera's flash options menu.

First-curtain sync is the default option on most cameras. It fires the flash at the start of the exposure, and records any blur in front of the subject. Second-curtain sync fires the flash at the end of the exposure, recording trails of lights and other details behind the subject.

6. Light up your party photos with flash

A smiling family poses on a sofa in front of a gold inflatable 'Happy Birthday' banner in a party photo captured with the Canon Speedlite EL-100.

Using a flash to bounce light off walls and ceilings helps to create natural looking party photos. Taken on a Canon EOS 800D with a Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM lens and a Canon Speedlite EL-100 at 20mm, 1/200 sec, f/5.6 and ISO 400.

If you do use flash, make sure that it's set up in a way that will flatter your subjects. If you're using a Speedlite flashgun, instead of pointing it directly at whatever you're trying to capture, angle it towards the ceiling so that the light is bounced towards your subjects. Not only will this produce a more natural illumination, but your subjects will be more comfortable with this too.

The Canon Speedlite EL-100 can swivel both horizontally and vertically, allowing you to select the perfect bounce angle. It also features an automatic mode, which will select the best settings for you based on your surroundings, so you can simply focus on getting the shot.

An alternative way to get great results from your flash is to use a diffusion cap or a small soft box over the flash head. This will spread and soften the output of the flash, helping you to get more naturalistic skin tones while freezing the action.

7. Focus on the smaller details

Two bejewelled crowns, one larger and one smaller, against a background of large circular bokeh.

Dinner table centrepieces, wall decorations or baubles hanging from a tree all make great subjects for atmospheric party photos. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 135mm F1.8L IS USM lens at 1/5 sec, f/5.6 and ISO 400.

Remember that party photography doesn't always need to be filled with people. Focusing on the smaller details can still be effective in conveying the mood and sense of occasion.

If you can't get close enough to your subject with the lens you're using, consider a lens with macro capabilities, such as the Canon RF-S 18-150mm F3.5-6.3 IS STM (in MF mode) or Canon RF 85mm F2 MACRO IS STM. A relatively wide option, meanwhile, such as the Canon RF 35mm f/1.8 MACRO IS STM, will enable you to get close while still allowing you to capture more of the environment to give context.

8. Shoot multiple exposures

Some EOS R System cameras, such as the Canon EOS R10 and Canon EOS R8, offer a multiple exposure mode. This takes multiple photos and overlays them, for an artistic effect. As this is all done in camera, there's no need to use editing software.

There are four multiple exposure modes to choose from based on your lighting and the final result you want, although you can simply choose to shoot using 'Average' exposure control to let your camera work out the correct final exposure for you. You can also choose to only shoot two exposures, or layer multiple different shots for a hyper-surreal result.

9. Play with perspective

A group of partygoers lean forward to hold sparklers together. The photograph is taken at the height of the sparklers, looking up at the people's faces.

Getting up close to foreground subjects such as decorations or sparklers enables you to create background blur. © AdobeStock

Add visual interest to your party photography by getting creative with perspective. This can be as simple as moving your camera higher or lower, but don't be afraid to take verticality to extremes, shooting upwards from the floor or down from ceiling height for a bird's-eye view. Shooting from high or lower angles is easy when you're using a camera such as the Canon EOS R50, which features a flip out vari-angle screen. It's also great for fun selfies.

Vary how your images are framed using doors, windows or staircase balustrades and look for shiny surfaces or water to capture the reflections of the party, or to include yourself in shot in a creative way.

Light-altering materials can change the aesthetic of your images – shoot through still transparent liquids such as drinks to capture refracted light, which distorts size and proportions. Shooting through textured or frosted glass can create a striking blurred effect.

Play around with all these techniques, have fun and don't worry if it doesn't work out – it's all about experimentation.

Written by Matt Golowczynski & Peter Wolinski

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