Switch Off The Flash on Your Digital Camera...

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... and enjoy much better photographs!


I've lost count of the number of times I’ve been out at a  club or pub or other indoor event and seen people taking photographs — these days usually with a digital camera — and almost always with the camera's flash on. And I’d bet my bottom dollar [or should that be euro?] that ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the resulting photographs are awful.  And why is this?


  • Well, for a start, your subjects, who seconds previously were looking so sexy and seductive in the subdued lighting of your surroundings, that you felt the urge to reach for the camera in the first place, now have all the femme fatalistic charms of a rabbit caught in the headlights of an oncoming juggernaut — yes, there's nothing quite like a blinding light full in the face to turn even the otherwise most photogenic of persons into a white-skinned zombie with glowing red eyes and the startled expression of someone who's just had an ice-cube unexpectedly inserted into their underwear.
  • And for seconds, what the glare of the flash does for your subjects, it also does for their surroundings.  the sight of your true-love's silken skin glowing in the soft light of the candle on your table, as the far-off neon light throws fiery blue and red sparks from their eyes, may well inspire a wish to preserve that special moment for ever.  But by the time you've drenched the scene in several hundred watts of camera flash, your intimate ambient surroundings will have all the romance of a motorway service station burger bar.

In the old clockwork days of film photography, taking acceptable photographs in low-light conditions required expensive wide-aperture lenses, fast film speeds and complicated darkroom calculations to produce decent prints [I know — I was there!] but modern digital cameras are so much more light sensitive than film cameras that you don't need any special equipment and you certainly don't need a flash to take acceptable and occasionally even great photographs, in the kind of low light conditions that would have been nigh on impossible with a film camera.


Setting your digital camera up for low-light photography involves changing a couple of settings,   but it's nothing too onerous. 


  • First of all, take your camera off "automatic" mode and set it to "manual". This will allow you to adjust the individual settings needed for low-light photography.
  • Turn off the flash.  Most cameras have a button which allows you to set the flash in different modes — Automatic, Red-Eye Reduction [Yeah. right! ——like that works!], Always On or Always Off.  If yours does then select “Always Off" for the flash
  • Adjust your “Film Speed" [Obviously this is a misnomer as digital cameras don't have film.  The terms dates back to the days of film cameras, when different speeds of films were rated by how sensitive to light they were — the higher the film speed, the better for low light photography].  Finding the film speed or ASA setting on your particular camera may take some searching — and it's beyond the scope of  a general guide like this to include camera specific instructions — but this setting will be a number usually followed by "ASA" or "ISO" [eg.  100ASA, 400ASA etc].  Your camera may well have this set to “Auto" by default.  If you can find a film speed or ASA setting, set it to the highest available.  This will have a slightly detrimental effect on the image quality [it will be 'grainier' at higher film speeds] but it will greatly increase your camera's ability to cope with low light situations.
  • Adjust your "exposure compensation".   When taking pictures in low light, your camera has to keep the shutter open for longer than when shooting in daylight.  This is to allow time for enough light to reach the  sensors in the camera to produce an image.   With these slower shutter speeds, it is easier to make blurred photographs, for the simple reason that the shutter being open longer means that there is more chance of you [or your subject] moving while the photo is being taken.  
Fortunately you can use exposure compensation to make the camera use a faster shutter speed,  therefore reducing the chances of you blurring your photograph.  On the default settings, every time you take a photograph, your camera lets enough light in  [ie. keeps the shutter open long enough] for everything in the photograph to be exposed as if it was outside in daylight. Remember, the camera is dumb.  It doesn't know you're sat in the darkened, smoke filled, grubby corner of a sleazy pub.  It's been pre-programmed to make its shots as bright and clear as possible.   So if you take a night-shot [without flash] using a digital camera, the camera will keep the shutter open for a-g-e-s [relatively speaking] until everything's as nice and bright as possible.
Exposure compensation is a way of telling the camera to either overexpose [ie. make the image brighter than it normally would] or underexpose the photograph [ie. make the image darker than it normally would].  If we're taking a picture at night, we're thinking ‘Film Noir'.  We're thinking ‘Chiaroscuro'.  We don't want the dumb camera trying to lighten everything up so it comes out as a drab, muddy grey. So tell the camera to keep things nice and dark by underexposing by between one or two stops.
As with the film speed setting, the location of the exposure compensation setting will vary from camera to camera.  What you're looking for is a sliding scale which will look something like "-2...-1...0...+1...+2".  By default it will be in the central zero position.  Try sliding it down to '-1' or even '-2' if you want real atmospheric lighting!


And that's about it.  You're now ready to venture forth and photograph the nightlife, without blinding those around you.  The only other tip I’d give, is to remember that, even with everything setup as above,  your shutter speeds will still be longer than daylight photography, so stand as still as possible, brace yourself against a wall or rest the camera on the back of a chair if possible, to minimise blurring.


That said, a low light photograph will always be grainier than one taken in 'standard' lighting. There will be a tendency for fast moving objects to blur and maybe you won't be able to read the small print on the poster on the wall in the background, but so what! your photo will have  ten times more "atmosphere" than those horrible "rabbit in a car's headlamps" flash photographs everyone else takes. 


All the pictures in this article were taken on a relatively cheap digital camera with the flash turned off and the settings adjusted as above.  and finally, just to prove you really don't need that flash. here's a photograph taken in almost complete darkness, with the subject illuminated only by a UV light...

So what are you waiting for?  Turn that bloody flash off and get out there and stop being scared of the dark!

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