How can I take clear pictures in a small, dark club?
January 25, 2005 6:58 AM   Subscribe

What are the best camera settings to use when taking pictures at a concert in a small club? Mine always come out really blurry. Canon S45 digital camera, if that helps any (4mp).
posted by adampsyche to Technology (37 answers total)
Can you use a flash? If yes, I like the look of flash with a longer exposure for these types of settings. It allows you to handhold the camera, but it lets in the surrounding light without that harsh, annoying flash. If you can't set this manually, it's marked as "Nighttime mode" on a lot of cameras. (See here for a photo I took with that setting.)

If you can't use flash, get yourself a tripod, or steady your camera against something (wall, pole, table, whatever).
posted by AlisonM at 7:04 AM on January 25, 2005 [1 favorite]

Also, what kind of concert? The lighting and conditions are pretty different between a DJ lounge, a rock show, and a jazz club.

AlisonM has the right idea, though -- they're blurry because the camera and/or subject are moving while the shutter is open. To fix it you either need to keep the shutter open less long

On film cameras you have the advantage of choosing a very fast film — when I used to do a lot of photography in jazz clubs I'd try to get 1600 film and even then I'd usually be bracing myself or the camera against a wall. Anything slower than 800 and I'd need a tripod, which in a jazz club tends to be just as forbidden as a flash. I think I'd just get frustrated trying to do the same thing with digital (and I don't even own a film camera anymore). I haven't used an S45 but unless it's a particularly remarkable camera it might just not be the right tool for flashless hand-held low-light work.
posted by mendel at 7:15 AM on January 25, 2005

Your pictures are blurry because your camera's automatic settings are choosing too slow a shutter speed. First of all, your camera probably allows you to choose different ISO settings. The higher the number the more sensitive the film (or in this case digital exposure) is to light. Not familiar with the S45, but guessing that you can set it to at least 400.

Next: The camera can be fooled at concerts because the room is dark while the stage it lit brightly. Because of the dark part of the room in the view, the camera thinks that it must keep the shutter open longer to get enough light to take the picture, resulting in an exposure that is so long that any little movement you make DURING it is recorded making it blurry.
This effect is MAGNIFIED if you are zooming in to get closer to the scene. The more ZOOM you use the more still you must be (tripod would solve that, as mentioned above).

It would be best if you could move in close enough that only the lit stage was in the frame. Your camera may also have settings allowing it to be controlled MANUALLY (where you set the shutter speed - for example) which would allow you to override the camera's best guess automatic settings.
posted by spock at 7:16 AM on January 25, 2005

adampsyche: This is tricky, but I've been able to get shots that while blurry were at least intelegible with my digital camera. There's basicaly three settings I can change on my cam, the "ISO speed" (basicaly the level of amplification of the CCD sensors like volume on a sterio), and the shutter and what I think is the F-stop (It's just called 'F' on my camera).

The higher the ISO speed, the brighter the bright pixles are, but it's basicaly the same as taking a dim picture in photoshop and messing with the levels, the end result can be very grany at 800. But if it's the only way to get a good exposure, you might as well try it. 800 speed pics don't often turn out motion-blurred.

Then there's the shutter. To cut down on blur, have the shutter open less time, so what I do is crank this down and look at the LCD untill I get a dark-enough picture that's still resonable. In the outdoors at night, this can be up to 5 or 10 seconds.

Taking pictures of moving dark objects is not easy, and AlisonM's suggestion of using the flash with a longer exposure time is a good one.
posted by delmoi at 7:32 AM on January 25, 2005

I believe you meant to say "flash with a SHORTER exposure time".
posted by spock at 7:39 AM on January 25, 2005

The problem with suggesting flash is that the flash that comes on most digital cameras is hopelessly inadequate (unless you are within 10-12 feet (3-4 meters) of the subject. Higher end digital cameras will provide an external flash adapter which allows you to attach a higher powered flash, but the low end cameras normally don't.

It kills me when people think the dinky flash on their cameras is having any effect at great distances. You are making sure that the backs of the peoples heads are well exposed (for the first 10-12 feet) in front of you, but that is about it.
posted by spock at 7:42 AM on January 25, 2005

I have an S45 -- I've found that the best results are from setting the ISO to 200 or 400 and bumping up exposure compensation by 1/3, 2/3, or even 1 full stop (only available in Av or Tv modes, IIRC). Then take your picture at the largest aperture and rock and roll.

Flash would always be good to use, but make sure it's on slow sync, (and the shutter speed is 1/20 or faster) since you tend to get more interesting shots, IMO.
posted by armage at 7:44 AM on January 25, 2005

Oh, and what spock said about the range. If you aren't within 15 feet of the performers, forget flash. Just try to use what light is available.
posted by armage at 7:44 AM on January 25, 2005

I continiously have this problem. Good camera, but I suck. I took 60 pics at a bar a couple of weeks ago and only 5 or 6 came out decent. Everything else was over-exposed. Of course, I was drinking heavily and suing auto-focus. Next time I'll wizen up.

Oh, and everything came out with a blue tint. Weird.

Blue-tinted band shots
posted by jsavimbi at 8:00 AM on January 25, 2005

"Next: The camera can be fooled at concerts because the room is dark while the stage it lit brightly. Because of the dark part of the room in the view, the camera thinks that it must keep the shutter open longer to get enough light to take the picture, resulting in an exposure that is so long that any little movement you make DURING it is recorded making it blurry."

This is incorrect. A lit stage, if anything, would set the exposure properly, unless, I suppose, you were aiming the camera directly at a light source, in which case, the pictures would be underexposed.

Bottom line: your camera, probably isn't sensitive enough to take good pics in this setting without an illegal flash. You can probably set a faster shutter speed, but the result will likely be less blurry darkness.

Either get closer, or get a more expensive camera.
posted by ParisParamus at 8:10 AM on January 25, 2005

In my experience, you need to be "setting" the camera on a solid surface like a railing, wall or table so that it won't move while the shutter is open. As others have said, your flash won't help. What I do is take a whole bunch of pictures (digital is almost free) and hope some of them synch up with the flashing stage lights.
posted by cardboard at 8:15 AM on January 25, 2005

I remember trying to take photos of the Who at the Garden in 1979 with ASA 1000 film. They were still underexposed. The eye is an amazing thing, the way it allows vision in dark light. a camera? Not so much...
posted by ParisParamus at 8:18 AM on January 25, 2005

I've found that the S45 actually performs well in low light with the flash turned off if you can keep the camera *very* steady, i.e. on a table. I've got a tiny $10 plastic tripod that works really well. Without a solid surface, it's tough.
posted by gwint at 8:19 AM on January 25, 2005

Oh, and everything came out with a blue tint. Weird.

From this link:

If you come from the world of films, you may remember using filters to correct for incandescent or fluorescent lighting. Most people don't bother and their indoors pictures invariably come out with a yellow/orange or bluish cast. In the digital world, these correction filters are no longer necessary, replaced by a feature found in most -- even the entry-level -- digital cameras called, "White Balance."
posted by CKZ at 8:24 AM on January 25, 2005

I shoot a lot of local bands in clubs. You can see some of my more recent band shots here, if you're interested. Generally clubs are dimly lit, so if you want to avoid the dreaded blurry shot, you'll want to bump up the ISO speed on your digital camera about as high as you can. This will allow you to get the fastest shutter speed possible. The faster your shutter speed is, the less likely that you or your subject will move creating blur. Now, to prevent blur, you are going to need a shutter speed of at least 1/60th of a second. This is the bare minimum speed and that assumes that your subject or yourself is not moving at any significant rate. If you can't get a shutter speed faster than 1/60th, then you'll need to turn on the flash.

I'm not sure about your camera in particular, but with most digicams you can set them to manual mode. In this mode you should be able to turn the flash on and off and set the shutter speed. You can do cool effects like the first picture in my gallery, by leaving the shutter open (in that picture I think I had the shutter open for almost a full second) and popping a flash during the beginning or end of the exposure. This will freeze one sharp image but still allow for some cool blurring and also brings out the color of the stage lights that would normally be blown out by the flash with a fast shutter speed. You will need to be fairly close to your subject for this technique to work. You'll need to play around with this technique before you get the effects that you like.
posted by trbrts at 8:25 AM on January 25, 2005

I have found that sometimes the default presets (snow mode, candle light etc.) work better than trying to make your own settings, because the camera 'knows' its strong points & limitations. These have been programmed in by professionals, remember.
posted by tommyc at 8:37 AM on January 25, 2005

If a tripod is verboten you may be able to get away with a monopod. A monopod and a wall to lean against is almost as good as a tripod.
posted by Mitheral at 8:38 AM on January 25, 2005

"You can do cool effects like the first picture in my gallery, by leaving the shutter open (in that picture I think I had the shutter open for almost a full second) and popping a flash during the beginning or end of the exposure. This will freeze one sharp image but still allow for some cool blurring and also brings out the color of the stage lights that would normally be blown out by the flash with a fast shutter speed."

Yep, that's the effect I mentioned above - nighttime mode on cameras for those of you who either don't have a manual mode or don't know how to make it happen. Even my sister's cheapo digital camera has it, and I always use it when I shoot with flash to avoid the typical flashy-looking picture.
posted by AlisonM at 8:38 AM on January 25, 2005

I have a Konica Minolta Dimage Z1 -- similar bad results at concerts. Tried a bunch of manual settings, but got similar blurry non-results. Will try some of the setting suggestions posted here, as well as a tripod.

Can any one recommend a reasonably-priced (<$500) digital camera with 3MP or more, 10x or better optical zoom, that can offer decent results in low-light, high-motion situations such as this?
posted by omnidrew at 8:44 AM on January 25, 2005

If I'm using a camera with a shutter that cannot be manually adjusted and I still want photos, my last-ditch effort is to brace the camera against something, and then wait for the moments on stage when the main performer I'm framing is still. It helps if you know the song well; the performer will probably go still at a few repeatable moments in the song. But if you don't know the songs, you can still come to recognize that each person cycles through moments in which s/he's pretty still at different points of the performance. (Such as right before the song begins, right as it's ending, during a part when someone else is playing something, etc. You can often catch the singer right at the end of singing a line.)
posted by xo at 8:44 AM on January 25, 2005

There are ways to fool around with various auto modes to give you a better chance, but I'd say don't waste your time.

With the S45: (I just read a rundown of the specs)
Set the ISO to 400.
Put it in full manual mode.
Zoom out all the way, it's maximum aperture is 2.8 zoomed out, 4.9 zoomed in. Lower number = bigger hole to let the light in.
Get close enough so that you won't have to crop a ton.
Maybe get a small tripod, or brace against walls/columns/your bag, etc.

I'd bet your shots will be at 1/4-1/60 second. For slower stuff, you end up being limited by how the performer is moving (as mentioned by others). A smile after a bit of banter for example, a prolonged yell, etc. can be a moment at which you could shoot 1/8 and get away with it, as long as you're braced properly.

And that flash effect is called "shutter drag" in case you want to poke around for more discussion of it. I don't use a flash, so I don't know anything about it.
posted by Jack Karaoke at 8:48 AM on January 25, 2005

If you want to shoot available light, i.e. without flash, I suggest a Minolta Maxxum 7D and a 50/1.4 lens wide open. Crank the camera up to 800 or 1600 ISO. An SLR will take pictures virtually in the dark, and the Maxxum's integrated anti-shake will compensate to some extent for camera movement. (It won't compensate for subject motion, however, that's why you want the high ISO and fast lens, to keep the shutter speed reasonably short.)

The downside: the camera and the lens will cost you $1700... you can get a lot of the way there with a Canon 300D and a similar lens, which will cost a lot less, but you'll want to brace the camera more with that setup.
posted by kindall at 8:57 AM on January 25, 2005

I have the S50 (basically the same camera), and in addition to the great advice offered above, I'd suggest (a) use manual focus set to infinity, (b) set the ISO to the highest number (it's probably 400, which isn't great, but wotthehell) and (c) if you can't brace on a wall/monopod/mini-tripod/table, instead of looking at the LCD, look through the viewfinder - it braces the camera against your head, which wobbles less than your hand.
posted by matildaben at 9:02 AM on January 25, 2005

"This is incorrect. A lit stage, if anything, would set the exposure properly, unless, I suppose, you were aiming the camera directly at a light source, in which case, the pictures would be underexposed."

parisparamus: A word of caution before declaring other's information as incorrect. First understand the problem and then understand the advise that has been given. You are not doing one or the other or you would not have written the above.

As has been stated by several posters: The problem is that the camera attempts to determine the exposure by AVERAGING what it sees. The average concert is a highly lit performance area surrounded by darkness. The camera tries to split the difference which does two things:
1) It sets the shutter speed much slower/longer than you need for the brightly lit staqe (which, combined with not holding the camera steady results in blurriness)
2) The exposure it has chosen underexposes the dark areas of the picture and overexposes the bright areas of the picture.
Thus you are screwed two ways.

As several people have pointed out, the solution is to override the automatic exposure setting and correctly expose for the bright stage/performance area. This means understanding exposure, your camera and how to do that with your particular camera and concert lighting conditions.
posted by spock at 9:06 AM on January 25, 2005

A digital camera with SPOT exposure metering would help also. Instead of averaging the scene in the viewfinder, it isolates one area (generally the center point) and sets the exposure based upon that. In this case, it would be correctly metering for the well-lit stage.
posted by spock at 9:09 AM on January 25, 2005

spock: if the pictures are underexposed (dark) AND blurry, it doesn't seem like there's any light sensitivity left to obtain. If they're loverexposed and blurry, well, then yes, you need to fool the camera as suggested by others, no?
posted by ParisParamus at 9:10 AM on January 25, 2005

I periodically shoot shows in smallish NYC clubs.

If you compare even the best of my early shots, taken with a Canon S20, with more recent Digital Rebel shots with a decent lens, there's no comparison.

Simply put, Small club shows are very hard to shoot with a non-SLR digicam, even if you know what you're doing.

All of the suggestions above are good ones.

You're just in a situation with very low light overall and high contrast between the lighting on the stage and the audience.

To summarize, There are really only four things you can do about this:

1) Open the aperture more. I've never seen a non-SLR digicam that has an adjustable aperture. There may be some. This will also reduce your depth of field.

2) Use flash. Flash is tricky. As noted, most digicam flashes are puny, and they're head-on. Even if they work, they may just illuminate the very front of the subject, and leave the background in total darkness. Bounce the flash off the ceiling if you can.

3) Use a higher ISO. This will give you more light sensitivity, but more grain on the pictures.

4) Use a longer shutter speed. This will give you pictures with motion blur, but I also find that an image stabilizer in the lens helps a LOT. Stabilizing the camera will help, but remember that there are two things moving - the perfomers and you. You need to keep the camera stationary with respect to the people on stage, not the table.

Combine all that with the meter on your camera, which, as noted, is not cailbrated for these kinds of lighting conditions. You either need to meter manually or understand why your automatic meter is off and how to make it compensate. If your camera has a spot meter, you'll probably want to use that.

I found this book to be great at illustrating a number of possibilities for low-light shooting in general.
posted by Caviar at 9:13 AM on January 25, 2005

Another thing i do if i have the camera braced or on a wall/table/shelf is to use the self timer. On my samll camer i can set the timer to wait 2 seconds ( or ten but thats too long). This gives me additional time to let go and the camer no longer moves from pressing the button or to get 2 hands to brace it better without moving it by pressing the button.
posted by stuartmm at 9:14 AM on January 25, 2005

Response by poster: Cool, thanks for the responses, all. It's a small club in NYC that I go to for punk rock karaoke. I'll give it a shot next week.
posted by adampsyche at 9:19 AM on January 25, 2005

Also - I don't know if any else has mentioned this - get as close as you can. For the Freezepop show, I was actually standing on the stage for much of it. Of course, I had permission from the band, and it was an informal setting, but definitely - the closer you can get, the better.

As a general rule, you can handhold around the focal length of the lens in shutter speed. (50mm lens ~= 1/50 second shutter speed without camera shake blur). If you have to zoom in, you'll have to shoot faster shutter speeds, which drastically cuts the amount of light in the exposure. This is where image stabilized lenses really help.
posted by Caviar at 9:22 AM on January 25, 2005

adampsyche, I shot Punk Rock Karaoke at Arlene Grocery last year. I was way back in the audience, but I still managed to get a few good ones.
posted by Caviar at 9:25 AM on January 25, 2005

Response by poster: Cool, that's actually the karaoke that I go to, but it's not at Arlene's anymore (now at the Continental). Come by again!
posted by adampsyche at 9:42 AM on January 25, 2005

It is really easy to take pictures in a club if you the "Night Scene" setting on your Canon camera.

The solution to blurry-no-flash pictures or washed-out-flash pictures is this symbol: . (That is supposed to be a pic of a person with a star in the upper-right; it doesn't look right with the green background..)
posted by rajbot at 10:10 AM on January 25, 2005

re: using the flash in small club...

if you take very many pictures, you're going to hella piss off the people around you.
posted by sad_otter at 11:04 AM on January 25, 2005

Possibly not helpful to the original poster, but most Panasonic Lumix cameras have built-in optical image stabilizers (even the really small pocket ones). I don't know why no one else does it. I haven't bought one yet, but I don't think I'll be considering anything else given how often I seem to come up against this problem.
posted by cillit bang at 12:17 PM on January 25, 2005

Echoing things mostly.....

Use spot metering and be sure you're centering on the (presumably better lit) performer. If you're using evaluative it's taking into account a lot of the surrounding darkness when figuring out the exposure.

Set the ISO to 400. Unfortunately on the S45 that means you're going to get some pretty wicked noise. That can work in some shots. If people ask, tell them it was intentional.

Try shooting in Av mode and open the aperture up as far as you can (the smallest number.) See what kind of a shutter speed that gives you.

Get up close to the stage and fill the viewfinder (LCD) with your subject. This is along the same lines of using spot metering where you're getting the camera to figure out the exposure with as much light as possible. Also, getting closer usually gives you better pictures. This won't work if there's a lot of people, you can't get close to the stage etc.

Learn to handhold longer exposures. Be aware of your breathing, brace your body against a wall/post/chair/friend, brace your arms against your sides. You can take non blurry shots of fairly long exposures. I saw a very clean shot on a photoblog with a 1/2s exposure last week that was handheld. I sometimes brace shots against my stomach, but I've got a swivel LCD and it would be hard to frame without it.
Or try leaving the camera on a table or something fixed and go for really long exposures. I have some really cool shots with about a 15s exposure where I sat the camera on the back of a couch. This method assumes you like motion blur in pictures of course.

Experiment. You're not paying for film/processing, take as many shots as you can. As has been said, try not to use the flash if you can to avoid pissing off every other person at the show.
posted by sinical at 3:00 PM on January 25, 2005

most Panasonic Lumix cameras have built-in optical image stabilizers

So do some of Minolta's high-end non-SLRs. I have an A1 and the image stabilization works quite well.
posted by kindall at 6:08 PM on January 25, 2005

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