Hack 31 Capture the Nighttime Mood and Leave the Red Eye at Home

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Shooting with flash indoors against a dark, boring background often produces overexposed subjects with red eye. But it doesn't have to be that way.

Built-in camera flashes are very convenient. But they can produce deadly results when used to take pictures of people in low-light situations, such as evening parties. Aside from the plague of red eye that turns your loved ones into otherworldly demons, there's also the nuclear look?where the subject appears to be standing next to ground zero, glowing beyond recognition.

It doesn't have to be that way. The easiest way to increase your success rate is to get an external flash; it's just easier to control the lighting that way. But for many people, that's not practical. So, in this hack we'll look at the options for the portable digicam, then talk about more advanced techniques with external flash. Let's start with taming the pocketable point and shoot.

3.4.1 Pocketable Party Shots

The people who design compact digicams realize that these cameras don't always produce great flash results at night. So, many of today's models have features designed to help you get better shots in these challenging situations. Some of these features work better than others. Here's a quick overview of what to look for and what to avoid:

Red Eye Reduction mode

Avoid using this setting. In theory, using Red Eye Reduction mode makes sense: shine a bright light in the subject's eyes before exposure to constrict the iris, thereby reducing the chance of reflected red eye. But it doesn't work out that way. Flashes are annoying anyway, and torturing your subject with additional flash before taking the shot tends to kill spontaneity. Plus, even after you do that, you'll often still get red eye. It's just not worth it.

Nighttime Flash mode

Use this setting for artistic shots. At times, using this mode might feel like trying to tame a wild cat: you think you're making progress, then it gets away from you. The thinking here is that the camera slows down the shutter speed, allowing you to capture background scenery beyond the flash range, yet the flash still goes off, illuminating subjects within 10 feet. And it usually works quite well. But things get crazy if you don't hold the camera really steady or if there's a lot of movement in the scene. So, you'll get some absolutely great shots with artistic flair, and you'll get some failures. But it's definitely worth experimenting with. This control is also referred to as Slow Synchro Flash mode (see Figure 3-4).

Figure 3-4. Slow Synchro Flash mode

Flash exposure compensation

Use this setting when the flash is too "hot." You can usually find this setting in the menu of options, and it allows you to adjust the intensity of the flash. So, if your subjects are consistently overexposed (too bright), then use flash compensation to reduce the flash's output. I recommend you start with a setting of -1 and go from there.

Increase ISO speed

You can use this setting, but remember to return to default settings when you're done. By increasing your ISO speed from 100 to 200, 400, or more, you're essentially increasing the sensitivity of your image sensor. The results usually include more background information (so you don't end up with a pitch-black backdrop) and an extended flash range (from 8 feet to 15 feet or more). Keep in mind that you will get a little more image noise in the higher ISO settings. This isn't much of an issue for 4" 6" prints, but it might be noticeable in enlargements, especially in the shadow areas. Also, remember to reset your ISO back to 100 at the end of the party.

Shutter Priority mode

If you're lucky enough to have this setting, try it. This is one of my favorite tricks. Essentially, it allows you to set any shutter speed you want, and the camera then adjusts the aperture and flash output to match. The default shutter speed in flash mode for most cameras is 1/60 of a second. If you switch to Shutter Priority mode, you can slow down the shutter speed to 1/30 or 1/15 of a second, and you'll notice a big difference in your shots. Those speeds are long enough to capture much more background information?such as twinkling lights, candles, and such?but not so slow that you get excessive blurring and camera shake. If you combine this technique with increasing your ISO to 200, you'll get some great results. This is a winner for party shooting.

To sum up these options, I'd say avoid Red Eye Reduction mode altogether. Try Nighttime Flash mode when you want to get artistic shots that show activity through blurred movement. Use flash exposure compensation in combination with any of the other techniques to adjust the amount of light your flash is producing. And, if your camera has Shutter Priority mode, start there with an ISO setting of 200.

3.4.2 Advanced Techniques

For cameras with hot shoes that accept dedicated external flashes, there are more options available. The two most important ones are bounce flash and flash on a bracket:

Bounce flash [Hack #42]

If you're good at playing billiards, you'll understand how to use bounce flash. You'll need an external flash with a head that rotates up and down. Instead of pointing the flash directly at the subject, you point it upward and bounce light off the ceiling so it rains downward, more like natural sunlight. The light is diffused (softer) and renders much more pleasing skin tones, without the ugly hot spots produced by direct flash.

Flash on a bracket [Hack #7]

This trick has been used by wedding photographers for years. You'll need an external flash, a dedicated flash extension cord, and a bracket that holds both camera and flash. The thinking here is that you raise the flash above the camera by six to eight inches. By doing so, you completely eliminate red eye and you move the shadows produced by flash-illuminated subjects downward and out of the frame. The setup is more bulky than carrying around a pocket digicam, but the results are consistent and professional looking.

As you may have guessed, there are a few tricks involved with using either of these advanced techniques, especially bounce flash. The first matter of concern is the surface off of which you're bouncing light, usually a ceiling.

This technique doesn't work well if the ceilings are too high. Ceilings that are 8 to 12 feet high are perfect. The higher the ceiling, the more powerful flash you need, because of the increased distance the light has to travel. Also, the color of the surface is important. As you may have guessed, white is best, because it's highly reflective and doesn't add a color cast to the light. Off-whites are okay, but they're not as reflective. Colored ceilings usually won't work; they absorb too much light and add a funky color cast to the scene.

Figure 3-5 is a good example of using bounce flash with a white ceiling that isn't too high. This technique produces natural-looking skin tones and avoids red eye. Notice a little bit of blurring in the left subject's hand as he motions. That's a result of quick movement combined with a slow shutter speed (1/15 of a second), which was used to preserve the ambient lighting.

Figure 3-5. Bounce flash with a low ceiling

An old newspaper photographer's trick is to rubber-band a business card to the flash head, making a little reflector. By doing so, you not only bounce light off the ceiling, but you also get a little kick light aimed directly at the subject's eyes. This adds twinkle and helps prevent the eye sockets from getting too dark.

Since you lose light when you use the bounce technique, use your most powerful flash and increase the ISO setting to 200 or 400. Check your pictures on the camera's LCD monitor to make sure they're not underexposed (too dark). I like to shoot bounce flash in Shutter Priority mode at 1/15 or 1/30 of a second. The backgrounds usually look much better at those settings.

For serious party shooting, such as wedding receptions, get a bracket that raises your flash above the camera lens. You'll need a dedicated flash cord to use this technique, and be warned: camera manufacturers usually charge US$50 or more for these accessories.

Once you have your flash mounted on a bracket, you can use any of the techniques outlined in this section, plus direct flash, and never have to worry about red eye or unsightly shadows again.