Saturday, October 18, 2008

Flash Off Mode-Or How To Get Away With It In Low Light

The following article discusses a function that applies only to the A200/300/350. (Hey, they also deserve their own exclusivity from time to time ;). If you don't own one of those cameras but a A100/700/900, you can still read to learn some tricks you may not know.

The usual solution.

Here is a scenario for you:

You're on vacation out of your country, you take a guided tour that takes you to a famous museum or church in the place you're visiting. You're well equipped with your Sony Alpha DSLR and set to take pictures of the place.

When you arrive to the museum/church, you start taking pictures right away, but you notice the pictures are coming out dark or poorly lit, so you resort to pop up your flash and shoot away.

But as soon as the tour guide or the museum/church guard notice the strobe light, they tell you its forbidden to take pictures with flash or at all. The worst case scenario is that your camera is taken away from you while you're going through the place and returned to you at your departure.

The usual problem.

Usually museums and churches (or similar places) are lit with soft lights or even candles in some churches. Almost every museum/church in the world prohibit visitors to take pictures with flash or at all. The no-pictures-at-all approach is to prevent visitors to fire the flash accidentally or in purpose.

The human eye has no problem dealing with soft light, you can see well in it, but the camera can not. The reason for this will be explained in an article soon.

Back to the tour, so you've been told you cant use flash inside the building, lets assume that the guard who told you this wont take away your camera.

Since you cant add that extra light the camera needs to take the picture properly, you wont get any visible shots unless you stay behind the group to take shots with a slow shutter speed to allow the camera to gather enough light or you raise the ISO to get some speed back.

Ah-ah, the tour guide tells you that you cant stay behind, you need to remain with the group or else you'll make the guards nervous and possibly risk they ask you to leave for good.

So you cant stay behind and take your time, and the tour guide is going rather fast through the place so you cant switch to Manual Mode and take the pictures with your own settings or you aren't used yet to use manual modes; you rather let the camera handle the situation since you're not that experienced yet shooting under low light conditions.

To do so, you'd have to leave the camera in Auto mode. But guess what? In Auto mode, the camera will ALWAYS fire the flash in a low light situation!

So, this comes down to two scenarios:

1.- Miss the chance to take pictures of the place you're visiting.


2.- Use Flash Off Mode.

What is Flash Off Mode and it's purpose. .

Flash Off Mode is a mode found only in the Alpha 200/300/350.

The reason for this is because those cameras have an in-built pop-up flash that can be either controlled by you or the camera. In Auto mode, it will fire when the camera thinks its necessary and it will pop it up automatically if the flash is in its down position. In other modes you can use it if you think its necessary by pressing the little button below the flash on the left side.

The A100/700 have also an in-built flash, but those are manually raised. Its completely up to the user whether the flash is used or not. The advantage of this is that the flash wont raise and fire on its own even in Auto mode. This is why these cameras don't have the Flash Off Mode.

The A900 doesn't have an in-built flash at all and uses only dedicated flashguns, so the lack of this mode is self-explained.

The Flash Off Mode is Auto's brother. It is an automatic mode, but it will NOT fire the flash.

The purpose of this mode is to get you out of hard situations like the visit to the museum/church.

The main difference and the reason for it.

As previously mentioned, the main difference between Auto and Flash Off modes is the fact that the flash wont be fired in Flash Off. Besides that, it acts just the same as Auto mode.

So why its an extra mode needed to prevent the flash going off?

The Auto mode does everything for you, you just need to point and shoot.

Since you're leaving the decision of what settings to use to the camera, the camera will determine what is the best way to get a properly (according to itself) lit shot.

If the camera determines that the aperture and shutter speed it has selected wont work with the light available, it will pop up the flash in order to increase the light available and use a shutter speed/aperture combination that wont require keeping the shutter open for 1 or more seconds.

The camera will always determine if the flash is needed or not in Auto, and will always raise it when it thinks its necessary.

The slight problem is that you may want to have the camera in Auto but don't want it to fire the flash at all. This poses a problem, since the flash is electronically and manually controlled.

In Auto mode, the camera will raise almost all the time the pop-up flash, unless its REALLY bright. I still haven't seen a museum or church that is so bright on the inside that the Auto mode will think "Flash is not needed here, plenty of light to work with". And probably that will never happen.

The good news is that in your Alpha 200/300/350, you can still use Auto mode without flash and getting away with it, and that's the reason for Flash Off Mode. To provide the benefits of Auto mode but without the flash.

Flash Off Mode will override the camera's impulse to raise the pop-up flash and let you take pictures in low light while just pointing and shooting.

How to invoke it and notes of use.

To use this mode, just switch your Mode dial from Auto to Flash Off, that's the icon with the flash icon crossed inside a circle and voila, you're ready to go.

This mode is useful even in situations of plenty of light, because sometimes you may want the shots a bit underexposed in order to preserve detail or certain bright subjects. If the flash is fired, it may just blow out the picture completely. This mode is also useful if you're at a party or event and want to take pictures of people without the flash burning their retinas.

However, this mode was considered mostly for those situations in which you CANT use the flash, such as the museum or church.

When shooting in low light, the camera will select a slow shutter speed (will take longer to take the picture in order to allow more light reach the sensor) a big aperture or raise the ISO, but it will tend to select slow shutter speed most of the time.

The trade-off is that, with slow shutter speed, camera shake is more prone to be recorded, making the final shot look blurry. The trade off of a big aperture is that less of your subject is in focus. The trade-off with high ISO is that noise is increased.

In photography its a guarantee you will be always trading a setting to get another one. Either you bite the bullet and choose a setting or you don't get pictures at all. Think of the following when shooting under low light circumstances.

Benefits of slow shutter speed: It will allow you to take a properly lit picture of your subject without the use of flash or raising the ISO, keeping the noise levels controlled.

Downsides of slow shutter speed: Longer time required to take a picture. Camera movement is recorded while the shutter is open, requires that you hold the camera very still or you use a tripod/monopod. If camera movement occurs, picture will be blurry.

Benefits of a big aperture: It allows more light to pass through the lens, it will help to increase the shutter speed if required, picture wont need a long time to be recorded.

Downsides of a big aperture: Less of your subject is in focus, the risk of overexposing the shot is increased if the user doesn't know aperture value changes well enough.

Benefits of high ISO: Sensor becomes more sensible to light, requiring less of it to take a picture. Shutter speed can be increased and/or aperture can be closed down to have more of the subject in focus. A high ISO and a fast shutter speed wont take a long time to take a picture.

Downsides of high ISO: Noise levels are increased, this translates in color blotches all over the picture, even in places where no color is seen. Loss of detail and focus sharpness can also be lost as a result of using high ISOs.

Work-arounds for these issues:

Slow shutter speed:

Use a tripod/monopod: There are light and cheap available, as long as it keeps the camera steady, it will help.

Lean against a wall or in your knee: By doing this, you make your body more stable and you can hold the camera better to reduce shake. If you're standing, grab the camera's grip with one hand and support the lens from below with the other one, lightly tuck your elbows against your body. If you're kneeling down, hold the camera as mentioned and place the elbow of the arm holding the lens over your knee.

Use the SuperSteadyShot function: By using SSS, the camera will compensate for camera movement by moving the sensor the other way in order to keep it still. This will allow you to reduce the speed a few more seconds. Keep in mind that how good it works depends on light conditions and lens used (and how much you move, if you rattle like a dry leaf, it wont do much).

Use the self-timer: You can set the camera on a steady place and set the self-timer to 2 or 10 seconds. Press the Drive button (the one with a clock and several squares in line) and look for self-timer option. This will give you time to set the camera and avoid hand shake of being recorded.

Use a remote control: You can use this or this one to release the shutter without touching the camera.

Use a cord: (You need a long piece for this to work) Wrap a piece of cord or string around the lens and then stretch the string or cord down until you can step on it to make it tight. The tension this will create should help reduce the shake. BE CAREFUL NOT TO STRETCH THE STRING TOO MUCH OR MAKE IT TOO TIGHT OR YOU WILL DAMAGE YOUR LENS.

Use editing software: You can take a picture with fast shutter speed and try to fix it using photographic editing software, but be careful, if the picture is too dark, there may not be any information recorded to bring back.

Bite the bullet: Increase the ISO or/and open the aperture of your lens as much as possible to gain shutter speed.

Big aperture:

Use editing software: You can use photographic editing software to artificially focus the areas of your subject not in focus or to fix the light levels if your picture came out overexposed or underexposed.

Bite the bullet: Increase the ISO or/and reduce shutter speed in order to close down the lens.

High ISO:

Use editing software: The most common technique used to remove noise from pictures, is to use photographic editing programs and/or dedicated noise removal programs. They will remove almost or all of the color blotches and bring back the lost detail.

Bite the bullet: Increase shutter speed or/and open the aperture of your lens.

Closure and a truth revealed.

Now you know whats Flash Off Mode is and the use for it.

I'm sure that you aren't too pleased to have to trade something in order to get something else when shooting in low light, but that's how it is. Trade-offs are inherent in photography as problems are to life. The advantage you have is that now you know what options you got and the advantages/disadvantages of them.

And if you think that tradeoffs stop with enough light, you're wrong. Tradeoffs never stop occurring.

If you still wonder why museums or churches (or similar) are so poorly lit and wont allow you to take pictures with flash, the answer is simple:

Flash light burns paintings, metals and stone. Obviously they will not catch fire with a flash, but think of this:

A flash strobe is a sudden burst of light, intense light. If you place a sheet of paper, a piece of metal or a stone (especially if its porous) in the sun for a long time, they will turn dark, dry and their colors will be lost. The paper will become easier to crack or rip as well.

The same happens with flash, except that its a sudden burst, not over a long time. Sure, if you fire your flash once, nothing will happen with the picture or statue, but think of all the people who think the same, its a big number. Imagine a painting that its seen by a lot of people in one day, if all of them take 1 picture with flash of that painting, that will accelerate its decay. Think of how much people have a camera and visit that museum of church, if 300 people shot daily a painting with flash, the picture would be rendered useless and beyond repair within a year or less.

Light is a form of radiation, its intensity its a ratio of how fast it accelerates decay in matter.

Thats why museums and churches use low output light bulbs or candles to lit the area, it protects the contents inside them. If they used 100 watts lightbulbs and allowed flash pictures, the damage to the objects in display would be accelerated and maybe repairs wont fix the damage suffered.

There will be museums/churches where you wont be able to even turn your camera on, and in those cases there is not much you can do but to enjoy the place with your own senses.

But for those that will allow pictures with no flash, you can get away with it by using Flash Off Mode in your A200/300/350.

See you next time.

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