There are a lot of reasons I started to take photography seriously, but the biggest had to have been my love for taking pictures at the bar I work at here in Illinois. It's a small but distinguished pub, with a wonderful crowd and even better staff. I used my old Pentax DL to take pictures for them and their website (Oscars Myspace) and to my amazement it was very enjoyable fighting the drunken crowd to snap a few shots. It's much different taking pictures in a bar and enjoying being at a bar, but both experiences are very enjoyable in there own merit. Back to the whole reason this paragraph started and my serious venture in photography spawned because I wasn't satisfied with the pictures I was taking in the harsh conditions of the bar, even though everyone else was all googly over my work. I would look endlessly into the work I'd create and make a scene about how bad it was in my mind and tell myself I can do better. Today I have the tools and the knowledge to take those better shots in the harsh lighting environment that is a bar and have a few shots and the techniques I use to help sift through the crowd and also to get the employees involved.
The first and most important aspect of taking shots for a bar is to know what they want to show and 99% of the time it's the same thing. What is it, well it's best said in the words of my boss, "we need pictures of people having a good time!" Sounds simple right? Not so much when there is 200+ people shoulder to shoulder and at f1.4 the shutter speed is a whopping 1/3 not too mention that white balancing is an art in itself with halogen lightings, christmas lighting, neons, fish tanks, natural light light bulbs, etc. You name it most bars have it for lighting and it can change drastically from one area to another. I myself love a clear shot of my subject and leave everything else out, while others love to mix the ambient light with the strobe they carry and thats fine too until you see how hard it can become. My next experiment is to go out one night and try to mix my lighting with what is available and compare, but for now I bounce flash to keep it simple in such a hectic area.
Getting through the crowd with your gear is quite difficult at times, but I've learned the rule of keeping it simple really helps. I keep a bandanna wrapped around my left wrist to use as a sweat wipe or in super hot bars a headband to keep sweat off my camera and out of the eyes. I also only carry an extra memory card, my sigma 28 1.8 (in crowds this is great and it doesn't have much distortion) and my flash attached with white card extended and flash pointed at 90 degrees. My reason for the 90 degree turn is that I want my light to not distract too many other people and when you shoot in a crowd pointing it right at your subject will also be pointed at the people behind them and to the sides which is quite annoying and have found that the straight up position is best if you don't want to disturb other patrons.
To get those "people enjoying themselves" shots I rely on the staged shot because most people will go, "wow they do look like they are having so much fun being their with their friends." I also try and snag a few people without their knowledge, but it's hard when you are no more than 5 feet away because of traffic so I take what I can get and run. When lighting is really bad and I speed is essential I crank the aperture, boost the flash and set the camera to manual focus and eyeball things as best as I can and hopefully the higher aperture and flash will give me a semi sharp image that looks good medium sized or on the net.
I hope some of these techniques help the aspiring bar photographer out there and believe me I'm no expert, but I've been doing this for about 2 years and have had a lot of compliments on the work and can honestly say that it's no picnic out there some nights.
I'll leave you with the final shot here of two staff members having a great time: