Doing It in the Dark

Posted in Photography Tricks on November 7th, 2008 by MadDog
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Every dinky camera made has a flash built in. That goes for even the most expensive of the point-and-shoots. A big clunky external flash unit puts you squarely in the geek realm insofar as fashion goes.

However, most internal flash gizmos are next to useless if you want to create interesting photographs.

So, why not go with what you’ve got?

In most situations, with a decent camera, if you can easily read a menu, then you have enough light to take a photo without flash, if you remember only a few little things.

First, your camera is going to want to flash its flash. Don’t let it! Most cameras can be told, “Don’t flash, or I will smash your lens in!” You may not want to put it that strongly, but be insistent. You might have to abandon your principles and read the manual.

Next, if your camera offers you a more sensitive sensor setting (usually called ISO – whatever that means), then set it to its highest number. This will allow the camera to take a picture in low light conditions without having a horribly slow shutter speed. The less light, the longer the shutter needs to be open to let the light in. If you make the film (sensor) faster (more sensitive), then you don’t have to leave the shutter open so long. This helps with the next problem.

Try to find a way to brace yourself so that your camera moves as little as possible. Your shutter is going to be open a long time – possibly as much as a half-second or more (hopefully much less). If your camera moves, you’ll have a blurry mess. It works best to brace the camera itself against something relatively immovable instead of bracing your body and trying to hold the camera still. A lamppost, table, car bonnet or wing (hood or fender for Yanks), tree, or an extremely sleepy elephant will do.

When you’re firmly braced, press your shutter button to its first position, wait for the beep or other indication that it’s focused, then gently push it the rest of the way while trying desparately not to move the camera.

Remember, it’s okay if the people move a little, especially the hands and feet. The little bit of blur will illustrate the motion and make the photo more interesting. You just have to hold the camera as still as possible to avoid blurring the entire scene.

Here’s an example of a shot that would have been completely ruined by flash:

The Fun-House mirror trick

I’m having a little trouble with my legs. They seem to be getting shorter.

This shot would have been impossible with flash. The subjects are at wildly varying distances (inverse square rule, remember?). Also, flash would overpower the interesting things that light is doing in the scene:

Wedding preparations

I had the camera braced solidly against the kitchen door frame.

Here are a couple of shots from the Slippery Noodle Inn (Indiana’s oldest tavern) in Indianapolis. The entertainer is the finest harmonica player I’ve ever heard. He used to live in Melbourne. He bills himself as Harper. I’ll write more about him sometime:

Harper at the Slippery Noodle Inn

Aside from the fact that Blues Clubs and such don’t like people flashing cameras all about, these shots would have been throw-aways without the excitement of the ambient lighting:

Another shot of Harper at the Slippery Noodle Inn

I grabbed the two frames above with the camera sitting on the table with the front tilted up by a book of matches.

Here’s another shot from the Slippery Noodle Inn:

Blues at its finest - at the Slippery Noodle Inn

Flash? Forget it. The shot would have been worthless.

This frame was taken in a cabin up in the Vienna Woods. The primary lighting was the kerosene pressure lamp:

A cabin in the Vienna Woods

By using the available light I captured the moment exactly as I remember it.

In many places you are not allowed to use flash. Don’t despair. You can still capture amazing images.

I shot this one in the Reptile House at the Indianapolis Zoo. It was, as you can imagine, very dark. Only a small spotlight about as strong as a candle was shining on this snake. The snake wasn’t going anywhere fast, so I pushed my sunshade right up against the glass and held it there while the shutter was open for possibly two seconds:

DON’T wake up the snake!

So, if there’s not enough light and you don’t want to make enemies,


You can see some other posts where I’ve shown available light examples here, here, here, here, here, and here.

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