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Taking Pictures in Flash-Off Mode

If you're a sports fan, you've probably noticed that each big play at a night game ignites a thousand points of flash in the grandstand. Professional photographers joke about the phenomenon, because they know most of those pictures won't come out. They know that there's just no way such a small flash can light a stadium.

Alas, your point-and-shoot has no way of knowing that the subject is too far away to light. It just sees the lack of adequate illumination and flashes blithely away. It pumps out every particle of light it can muster, but just overexposes the heads of the people in front of you, turning them into hairless wonders. Distant sports action ends up darker than the mood of a losing quarterback.

What to do? Just turn the flash off! Don't be shy. Press the flash mode button until the LCD panel shows a lightning bolt slashed through by the universal "no" symbol — a circle around a diagonal line. On a few models you may get a moon and/or star (see Figure 1). Whatever the icon, the idea is that you're turning the flash off in dim light — oddly enough, in light that would otherwise cause it to fire automatically.


Figure 1: Typical flash-off icons.

Your manual probably calls this mode flash-off. By turning the flash off, you force the camera to take the picture by the artificial illumination of the stadium itself. So the camera must gather in as much of the existing light as it can.

Knowing how to turn the flash off is also valuable because at some events (circus finales, Ice Capades) you may be prohibited from using flash. This restriction is often the case at gymnastics competitions, for example, yet every dismount brings on a fireworks display of flash. These snapshooters probably don't mean to flout the rules. They just don't know how to turn off their cameras' flashes. And they almost certainly will be disappointed by their pictures.

Sporting events aren't the only occasions on which to turn off your flash. Here are some other times and places when and where you should also consider setting the flash-off mode.

  • When you're shooting far-away subjects that would otherwise automatically trigger the flash — a landscape at dusk, for example. More than a few cameras offer a landscape, or infinity, mode (sometimes part of the flash mode sequence) just for such occasions. Setting your camera to landscape or infinity mode tells it that it can't light the whole scene, so it turns off the flash for you — usually. If your camera is one of those wacky models that thinks its flash can light a landscape, firing anyway, turn off the flash yourself.
    Remember that a landscape or infinity setting also locks your focus at infinity. If you have things in the foreground, they may end up unsharp.
  • When the quality of light is an essential part of the picture that you want to create. Say that you're photographing the play of late-afternoon sun across rippling sand. You get in close, for an abstract effect. The light may be low enough to activate the flash in autoflash mode, especially if you're using an ISO 100 film. And flash will probably ruin such a shot by lightening the shadows — both big shadows cast by ripples and tiny ones cast by grains of sand — that provide its eye-catching sense of texture. Interesting, angular, atmospheric light is often low light, and low light is the flash's cue.
    If that's the kind of image you want to create, turn the flash off. And what if you forget? Problem is, you don't always notice the flash firing when you're outdoors. So if you think it did fire, turn the flash off and take another picture of the same thing.
    When in doubt about whether to use flash, shoot the subject with and without it. Doing so also gives you two shots for comparison, helping you figure out what works and what doesn't (see Figure 2). Please don't be frugal. Saving the cost of one more print is no compensation for a disappointing picture.

Figure 2: The flash fired automatically to brighten this shady shot, intensifying some colors but over-powering the soft light and sense of texture (top). Turning the flash off (bottom) preserved these qualities.
  • When you're shooting through a window. If you don't turn the flash off, the reflection of the flash may obscure or obliterate your subject. You can eliminate the reflection by pressing the camera right up to the glass as you shoot. Be warned, though, that doing this may cause the camera to focus incorrectly. The only way to find out whether your camera's focusing is thrown off by shooting through a window is to try shooting through a window, and to see how your prints turn out. If your camera can focus correctly, you're in luck. If your camera doesn't focus correctly, try wiping off a clean patch on the window. Better yet, just open the window.
    If you can't get right up to the glass, you can sometimes take a picture through a window with flash by shooting at an angle to it. This method is more likely to work if the window is clean. Shooting at an angle also lets you shoot into a mirror with flash without wiping out your subject.

Keep in mind that turning your flash off can introduce complications. If you're shooting in a dimly lit stadium, especially with a slower film (ISO 100 or 200), the camera may set slower shutter speeds to make up for the inadequate light. With some models, such speeds may be a second or more. These speeds make freezing a moving subject difficult. But just as significant, slower shutter speeds increase the likelihood that hand tremors (which you don't even notice) will blur the image.

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