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I have a Nikon d3100. I recently shot a 16th birthday party. It's my 4the or 5th party and I've noticed the young people like it very dark. So much so, looking through the lens is like having your eyes closed.

I had a conversation with the D.J. who claimed to be a photo-bug as well, and he said shooting fast in the dark can be done. I was telling him that my flash just can't keep up with a "sports setting" on the camera. He seemed to think I needed more practice and that in his "club" experiences, he was able to catch really fast candid shots in the near darkness of clubs.

My questions:

  • Is it possible to shot at very high speeds in a room with virtually no light using a regular speedlight flash?
  • If more higher end equipment is necessary, what type and brands?
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related: What are some tips for shooting in low light? –  akram Jun 26 '12 at 16:06

3 Answers 3

  • If you're using direct flash, then any flash should 'freeze' the action pretty sufficiently, but it may look like crap.

  • I'd advise not using the auto sports mode - try to set the settings yourself so that you know what the camera should be doing. Switch to A mode, open aperture full up, ISO 800, but then set auto-ISO to go up to 3200 with a shutter speed of 1/125th. This will mean the camera will try to use ISO to get you shutter speeds of at least 1/125th, but will go higher if it can.

  • Use the fastest (large aperture, low f number) lens you've got. For indoors in the club, the 35mm f/1.8 would be a good investment if all you have is the kit lens. A 50mm f/1.4 or f/1.8 would also be a good investment. If your budget is more, consider a zoom in the f/2.8 range.

  • If you've got a 'real' speedlight, like SB-600/700/800/900 etc (not the flash on your camera), and lower ceilings, you should be able to bounce flash of the ceiling and illuminate a larger area more evenly. How much power the speedlight needs, depends on the room really.

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Agree with most of this, but depending on your camera the second point about A mode with the ISO/shutter rules isn't always available. When I use Canon DSLRs (which mostly lack such shutter/ISO customisation) I just use M mode with f/4 or wider, 1/125 or 1/160, and ISO 400-1600 depending on just how dark it is. –  drfrogsplat Mar 20 at 5:38
    
And bouncing off the roof is a must if possible! If it's that dark, a bright flash straight in your eyes is going to blind you for a few seconds, which could make you very unpopular, and be potentially dangerous for people moving about quite actively. –  drfrogsplat Mar 20 at 5:40

I've done a fair bit of club photography with a Nikon D100. A fast lens is essential either a 50mm f1.8, a short zoom thats f2.8, or something similar. You will also need a decent flash with a bounce head and a diffuser of some sort. Some flashes will come with a focus assist light that throws red bars onto the subject. Some cameras have a similar white light too. A good flash thats not set on full power should be able to take two to four shots in a row fairly quickly.

Setting the camera and flash to manual and simply adjusting the flash power is what I used to do which gets great results with some practice.

Using bounce flash where you can gives a much more natural lighting effect and avoids those blown out faces that characterise so many party pictures. Use the diffuser to soften the light where you can't bounmce or try something like a bounce diffuser: http://www.lumiquest.com/

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I think you're asking two questions here: how to focus in such low light (since you can't see through the viewfinder) and how to light it to get a nice photo. The D3100 has a small (and therefore dimmer) viewfinder which makes it tough to use in low light. Additionally, I suspect you're using a "kit" 18-55mm lens -- good for many uses, but the relatively slow aperture of f4-5.6 doesn't let in much light, and therefore contributes to a dark viewfinder. A 35 or 50mm f1.8 or f1.4 lens would give you a noticeably brighter viewfinder for these conditions, and both 35 and 50mm f1.8 are inexpensive lenses at about $200.

Even with a faster lens, you may still have trouble with autofocus. Manually focusing in low light can be hit-or-miss, but I always have better results than just letting the autofocus rack back and forth and never locking. When using manual focus, if you can pre-focus to an expected distance -- say, five feet out, a distance you know you are likely to be taking photos at -- you can then just fine-tune the focus as needed. Other tips:

  • Try to find more light. I know it sounds silly, but there are often brighter areas around that you can use to help set focus and metering: white objects, street lights, moon light, lighters -- anything. If you can find something to focus on that is roughly the same distance then you at least have a starting point for manual focus corrections in your desired composition.

  • Many better lenses include a distance scale to help set focus. Sometimes they're difficult to judge precise focus with, but they are great to get close. If it's too dark to see the distance scale I pull out my phone briefly and used its screen to light the lens to help me get started.

Do you want to use flash at the party in the dark? A simple blast of flash will certainly let you capture the photo, but may ruin the ambiance and create white-faced party goers who are annoyed that you keep blasting their eyes and leaving them to see spots. I would aim to use a high ISO (probably 3200 or 6400, or as high as the camera will go/is acceptable), and that may be complimented with a very low power flash burst to just help light the scene a tiny bit.

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