Avoid Flash

I saw a video clip of a professional photographer conducting a shoot of a Japanese pop star. The girl asked the photographer to take a picture with her pocket camera so she could send it to her friends. The photographer took the camera and had exactly one question: "How do I shut off the flash?"  That is a really good question and one that we all would do well to ask.

There are three problems associated with flash photography:  Having the light on the camera wipes out the shadowing that makes objects look three dimensional, you usually get an overexposed subject against an underexposed background, and using light from one direction is at best harsh and unflattering. In response, there is the argument that however imperfect, flash photos are better than photos that are too dark to see anything. Well, there is a valid point there. The goal is not to avoid using the flash entirely, it is to get better pictures by preferring natural light.

In the worst case, the flash blasts away most of the detail:

Oysters with flash  Oysters no flash

Eggs with flash (left) and Eggs, hold the flash (right). There was fairly good ambient light, which helped the flash picture in this case. Still, there is much better highlight detail without the flash.

Eggs with flash   Eggs no flash

Pros know how to use flash effectively in many situations. The use multiple flash units off camera, have flash units that can be bounced off walls or reflectors (held by assistants), and use multiple exposures to combine flash with natural lighting. They will, for sure, set up a tripod to make sure the camera is rock solid. These methods will produce the very best results consistently. This, however, is QuickShotArtist, where we are taking a picture of a restaurant interior because it would be nice to remember the restaurant, and, besides, we have nothing else to do until the food arrives. Sometimes we will get a good photo, sometimes not. In either case the meal will arrive so nothing significant is lost.

The first step is use a camera that gives you half a chance. For pocket cameras, that means a camera with at least an f2.8 lens. The lower the f number, the better the performance in low light. The maximum aperture decreases with zoom, so keep the lens at the widest angle. If you have an interchangeable lens camera, there may be an f 1.4 fixed-focus lens available for it. You might consider that.

Brace Yourself

Low light means longer exposures, and longer exposures are hard to hold steady. The anti-shake mechanisms in cameras can provide about one extra f stop of acceptable use. Instead of having 1/30 of a second as
Water glass camera rest
Use a water glass or a mug in lieu of a tripod.
the lowest useful hand held shutter speed, 1/15 becomes possible. that is a big help. Lighting in public spaces like museums is often bright enough for 1/15, but not 1/30. I smell a conspiracy there ...

With a decent camera, the next step is hold the camera as steady as possible. Look for something to brace the camera against. That might be a trash receptacle, a tree, or the corner of a building. Push the camera hard against the object so it won't slide around during the exposure. It is more important that the camera be steady than the image be framed with horizon straight. You can rotate the image in Photoshop later on, but there is not much chance of recovering from blur.

In restaurants, my favorite prop is a water glass. Put the camera on the rim of the glass, back far enough from the edge to keep the camera base from tipping. The rim is level and you can sort of pan around on the rim. The glass gets the camera far enough above the table so that the table is not cutting off half the shot.  Nonetheless, the water glass does not serve for shots looking down at an angle at the dinner plate.
You can get some improvement in hand holding by putting both elbows on the table. That is not as good as bracing the camera itself, but it may be acceptable.
I bought a tiny tripod for table top use. It was quite portable. Unfortunately, the one I had was too flimsy for most purposes. It did not have a tilting head, and being less rigid it was not as good as a water glass. No doubt someone makes an excellent small tripod, hand forged from titanium or something. The quality will be a trade off with the easy of carry. A pocket camera is more likely to be practical than a pocket tripod.
Gorillapod     Car window clamp
A Gorillapod is a clever gadget. It is about ten inches long and the legs can be wrapped around a pipe or tree branch. A car window clamp may be useful for telephoto shots of wildlife.

It there is nothing to brace the camera, one idea is to use a string with a 1/4" tripod eye on one end. A large washer is tied to the other end of the string.  Screw the tripod bolt into the camera, stand
w the tripod bolt into the camera, stand on the washer, and pull the string taught.  If you have power tools, you can cut or grind off the extra length of threads on the eye so that it cannot be screwed in so far as to damage the camera. Another improvement is to epoxy the wraps where the string is attached to the eye and to the washer so they won't come off.

Washer and eye   Camera w eye and string device

For hiking or walking around town at night, a walking stick that can be uses as a monopod may work. There is even a  high end monopod.

When all else fails get a tripod ... or give up and use the flash.

copyright QuickShotArtist.com