Top 3 Tips for Photographing Cocktail Parties

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  By Jonathan Ma
Top 3 Tips for Photographing Cocktail Parties

Have you been invited to a cocktail party, either as an attendee or as a photographer? These parties usually consist of mixed drinks served at a social or business gathering. Sometimes weddings actually have a cocktail hour that precedes the wedding reception. Cocktail parties are a lot of fun because usually, the attendees are happy and relaxed. This makes the subjects comfortable and at ease. Candid and posed photos are both great options for these types of parties. One of the challenges of these parties is the low light atmosphere of indoor venues where these parties are usually held. We’ll address this potential issue in the tips below.

Here are the top 3 tips for photographing cocktail parties:

  1. Bring the proper lenses and a portable flash unit
  2. Capturing natural and candid portraits
  3. The VIP rule

Preparing with the Proper Equipment

What will you be needing in your photography bag during a cocktail party? It’s always a good idea to visualize or even better, scout the location in advance of the day of the shoot if possible. This will help you to understand the unique lighting situation, various angles that may be good to shoot from, and see how large or small the venue will be. Preparation is key because it reduces stress while enabling you as the photographer to be in the right frame of mind mentally as well as having the right equipment for the job. Let’s take a few extreme examples to give you an idea of what equipment would be needed in each scenario: 1) a dimly lit and small bar, and 2) a daytime party that’s hosted outdoors.

In scenario 1, a dimly lit venue would require low-light lenses and camera bodies that perform well in low-light conditions. Examples would be any f/1.8 or faster lens, and a full-frame camera body that has high image quality at high ISO settings. On the Canon lineup of SLRs, a Canon 6D with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 and Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM lenses would be a great setup. If you want to just bring one lens, the Canon EF 17-40mm f/4.0L USM lens is a great option too, but it’ll need to be paired with an off-camera flash such as a Canon Speedlite 430EX.

For scenario 2, the amount of available light will be much higher. If you’ll be taking photos for a daytime party outdoors, the easiest solution would be to bring any camera body along with a highly rated zoom lens such as the Canon EF 17-40mm f/4.0L USM lens. This lens enables you to have the flexibility to change the focal length at a moment’s notice – therefore not missing a moment that otherwise might have been lost due to having to change lenses. Since there is plenty of daylight outdoors during the daytime, there is no need to bring a flash for an event like this.

Capturing Candid Portraits

Cocktail parties are great events to take naturally candid photos due to the relaxed atmosphere. Sometimes the party will be to celebrate a milestone or event. At other times the party will be a social gathering of people with common interests. Either way, the photographer just needs to blend in the background to start taking candid photos. A lens with a long focal length such as the Canon EF 85mm f/1.4 USM lens is great to have for parties. They allow you to take photos without awkwardly interrupting conversations or accidentally photobombing other people’s photos. Just stand back and observe a few groups at a time from a distance. Look for a good compositional angle then take a photo of the current moment. Then wait for a few minutes for a joke to be made, a handshake or hug is given and then continue snapping.

The VIP Rule

This rule is common knowledge but often times forgotten about. Every cocktail party will have a VIP (very important person) or multiple VIPs. Be sure to do your homework before the party. This means asking what the schedule of events will be. It’s also good to know if there will be any special appearances, presentations, games, or contests during the night. Armed with this knowledge, you will be ready when you see the VIP(s) make any special announcements during the night.

Happy shooting!

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Jonathan Ma

Jonathan Ma is a freelance writer and professional photographer. He grew up in the beautiful Pacific Northwest of the United States. The natural beauty that surrounds this area has helped him to learn to appreciate art and photography. Jonathan's favorite styles of photography are nature and sports photography. He enjoys learning and teaching others what he knows.

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