No flash? No problem!

At almost every school event that I attend I always have people ask me to take photos of their family members or students because they are not allowed to use their camera’s flash during the event and don’t know how to adjust their cameras. Some of them have their own digital SLR cameras but only shoot in auto mode. If this has happened to you, don’t stress. There are several things you can do to shoot in low light and still get good photos.

Concert or Stage Settings

Generally, using flash photography is frowned upon in an auditorium because it distracts the performers. First, adjust your ISO to a higher number. This raises the sensitivity of the camera’s sensor. The image will appear to have more light. The downside to doing this is that your digital image will have “noise”. This is the slight speckling/color distortion that you may see. Since the action on the stage may not be moving quickly like a choir concert, you can also slow down the shutter speed. This will allow more light to enter the camera for a longer time. When you slow down the shutter speed it is very important to keep the camera very still to avoid camera shake distortion. If I don’t have a tripod available you can always use the seat in front of you to help stabilize the camera. If you don’t have anything to prop the camera on, try to hold your camera with your elbows squeezed in tight to your torso. This will help reduce the possibility of camera shake.

Sporting Events

Unlike concerts and recitals that may have slower movements, sporting events require a faster shutter speed. Most gymnasiums that I have been to do not offer NBA quality lighting. This can make getting a great action shot very tricky. Generally, the slowest I would shoot at a basketball game would be 1/500. Increasing the shutter speed will reduce motion blur, but it also reduces the amount of light that enters the lens. To offset this problem, open the aperture as wide as possible. I sometimes shoot with my 50mm 1.8/f lens during games so that the lens is allowing as much light as possible. Because this lens is only 50mm I “zoom” in post production by cropping the image accordingly.  If you do this, I recommend shooting in fine mode with a large format. This allows you to keep a high resolution image when you crop. This is another time when you can bump up the ISO or shoot in Auto ISO. The higher the ISO the more noise will appear in the digital photo. (There are software programs that you can buy as Photoshop Plugins that will help reduce the noise in post production). When possible, shooting with a tripod or monopod at a sporting event will help stabilize the camera and result in better shots.

If you only have a kit lens available, do not zoom it out to the longest setting. This will reduce your aperture. Shooting at the shortest zoom setting will allow a wider f-stop. Again, crop/zoom in Photoshop later.

Final Thoughts

Anytime I am going to shoot without my flash, I take several trial photos before the event starts. You may seem silly shooting an empty court or stage, but you will feel worse if you miss a great opportunity because your settings weren’t adjusted. Adjust your camera in the environment that you will be shooting in. When I first got into photography, I would study photographers like Scott Kelby and write down the settings that he suggested. When when I got to the location, the camera settings would need to be tweaked. My inexperience at the time left for a lot of trial and error.

If you are a yearbook sponsor and trying to train novice photographers to shoot school events, I suggest having them take a few shots in auto mode with the flash disabled. Use the playback feature to see what settings the camera used. Then switch to either shutter or aperture mode and start with those settings. Make adjustments from there. Genearly, I do not recommend letting first year photography students shoot in manual mode until they fully understand camera settings and adjustments. Learning photography is a game of trial and error. Teaching someone how to balance settings can be as difficult as telling someone how much salt to put on his food.

If you are shooting an outdoor/low light sport such as baseball remember to check your playback images periodically. The lighting at the beginning of an afternoon/early evening game will certainly change as the field lights come on and the sun sets.

Don’t be afraid to experiment with your settings. In my opinion, investing in a digital SLR camera and not learning it’s capabilities is wasting money. If you want to shoot in auto the entire time, just stick to a less expensive point and shoot camera. When you experiment, you may find that you have to adjust settings in Photoshop or Lightroom later. That’s ok, but do not rely on those programs to make you a great photographer.


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