Samsung NX1000, 16mm, F2.4, 1/30s, ISO 800

With year end comes Christmas lightings, and one of the ways to capture the Christmas spirit – literally – is to roam the shopping belt of Orchard Road where the decoration lights glisten.

If you carry a consumer compact camera and want to capture the lights, here are some tips I’d like to share.

Switch Off Your Flash
Flash is useful to light up a near object, like a person. It cannot light up the entire street or the sky. So if you attempt to capture the street scene with flash, you will find that your foreground will be lit up unnaturally while the background will look darker. Try by turning off the flash and shoot again with steady hands.

Samsung NX1000, 16mm, F2.4, 1/20s, ISO 250

Adjust Exposure Manually
For many compact cameras, when you turn off the flash and let the camera meter automatically, the image might turn out overexposed, or blur. This is because the camera thinks that the scene is too “dark”, which is correct. However, you wanted the dark to be dark. So, if you camera has a function called EV compensation, then you can adjust down the exposure by selecting a negative value of, say -1. Different cameras meter differently, so play around with this to get the optimal exposure.

Samsung NX1000, 16mm, F3.5, 1/30s, ISO 400

My favourite method is to set the shooting mode to Manual, which means you decide the aperture and shutter values. My usual settings are 1/30s, f/3.5, ISO 400. Anytime when you feel that the exposure is not bright enough, reduce the exposure by 1 step (1/15s -> 1/8s -> 1/4s, etc.).

Samsung NX1000, 16mm, F2.4, 1/13s, ISO 100

Manual Exposure + Flash
Now that you have achieved the best exposure value for shooting the night lights, you can add the flash to shoot portraits. Here’s a tip: adjusting the shutter speed manually DOES NOT affect the exposure of the person lit by the flash. It will however brighten up the background. The catch is not to select too slow a shutter speed or else your background will be blurred.

Samsung NX1000, 16mm, F2.4, 1/20s, ISO 640, Flash

Help with “Dummy” Camera
If your compact camera is unable to do any of the above, all is not lost. Use the SCENE mode to work around. Find a Night Scene mode and use that. The results may not be consistent, but well, if you are serious about capturing better night scenes, then you would have to invest in a better camera. Look for one that lets you adjust exposure manually or shoot in M mode.

Happy Lights-Shooting
Over the years, camera manufacturers have been improving their camers to make them more consumer friendly. Some cameras have over 30 preset SCENE modes to cater for every scenario, but they all boils down to the control of depth of field (aperture) and speed of capture (shutter) to achieve proper exposure. Once you understand how camera works, then you will know how to overcome some shooting challenges and achieve more pleasing images.

P.S. if you have missed the year-end festivities, fret not. You can use the same techniques to capture any night light scenes.


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