New Year’s Eve is around the corner and while that promises many regrets, one of the bigger ones is bad photos. While I can’t help with your choice of kisses at midnight, I thought I would share a few tips for taking better photos with your phone at your NYE bash.

We’ve all seen bad flash photos at parties with the blown out people that look like death warmed over and dark backgrounds. There are several reasons they turn out so bad: the shutter speed is too fast and the flash is too bright, too small and too central.

GEEK SPEAK (feel free to skip to the tips!)
I don’t want to geek out too hard here but there are basically two sources of light in these pictures: ambient and flash. The ambient light is the light all around the room and that’s what we depend on to light the background of our photos. The amount of ambient light we capture is a function of the speed of the shutter. If it’s really fast, we don’t catch much ambient light and get a dark background, while slower shutter gives us more ambient light. IF you just turn off your flash, you see that you get a more balanced photo but it has another problem: blur. A slow shutter with a moving (ie shaking) camera or subject leads to blur. Now a flash will freeze moving people but, the camera, knowing you’re about to use a flash with speed up the shutter so that the people don’t turn into ghosts by getting too much ambient light PLUS flash. So you’re kinda stuck between a rock and a hard place. What you really need is the ability to slow down the shutter and use a little bit of flash. In short, you need more control over your camera.

Some tips:

1. Wax paper.

This is a quick and dirty little trick if you do nothing else. Take a little bit of wax paper and tape it over your flash. This will decrease the intensity of the flash and create a little more balance between the foreground and background. Later when you’re applying Instagram filters to your images you can bring up the brightness without blowing out the people you’re shooting.

2. Get a better photo app.

For years, our point and shoot cameras have had the concept of “Scenes,” one of which was Nighttime Portrait. It had a little icon that looked like this: JZ_iconbut a lot of folks didn’t know about it. It essentially combined a slower shutter with flash to create more pleasant images at night. There is similar functionality available from some of the better camera apps including Camera+ and ProCamera.

3. Shoot Manual!

If you’re feeling a little more adventurous, shoot manual. This has long been my advice to aspiring photographers. The automatic modes of cameras are getting better and better all the time but when it’s not working it’s worth knowing a little bit about why so you can switch to manual mode and really get the photo you want. Android and Windows phones have long had the ability to shoot manual and now the iPhone does as well with iOS 8. There’s a cool new app called, appropriately, Manual, that you should check out. Remember, as you slow down the shutter, you get brighter backgrounds. You can also control the ISO (sensitivity to light) to get the whole picture brighter but eventually noisier.  It’s cheap. Don’t be afraid. Just try it. The water’s fine.

4. Have fun with a slower shutter!

Once you have figured out how to slow down your shutter, you’ll see that light sources streak when they (or the camera) move. Try this: arrange your people in front of some lights and turn your camera in a circle as you shoot. The flash will freeze the people but the slow shutter will make the light sources streak in the background (and some of the foreground). Experiment with it. You’ll love the results.

5. Light Painting!

For more fun with the slow shutter, tell folks to get out their phones, turn on the flash lights, point them at you, and move them as you take the photo. You’ll get the same kind of light streaks above but with more control. Some folks, early in the evening, will even be able to write their names! Remember, you’ll still want to hit them with the flash to get a solid face in addition to all the blur and streaks!

6. Get the light off the camera!

Something else that makes flash photos bad is that the flash is right above the lens. If you borrow a friend’s camera, you can light your subject with the flashlight and leave your flash turned off. You can control the intensity by changing the distance of the light to the subject.

7. Get a bigger light!

If you’re really serious, you need a bigger light source. Those small flashes create harsh shadows. If you ever see a fashion shoot, you see those giant soft boxes that make the flash nearly as big as model! The bigger the light, the more it wraps around the person and creates a more flattering photo. One option is an off camera flash such as the Nova that works via Bluetooth. Another is a continuous light source like an LED panel which, as you can see, range in price from $25 to $200. I won’t tell you what to buy but I will say that bigger is better for your photos, though perhaps not for your partying. Finally, the KLYP+  is a nice option from Manfrotto.

8. Practice!

I know, I know, but it’s better to get to know your new app and/gear, before you get to the party. Go to a bar or practice in your living room but get a sense of the settings and how they chance the photo so if you aren’t getting what you want you can quickly make an adjustment. Trust me, fortune favors the prepared!

9. Shoot Early!

It’s a fact that the later it gets, the worse people will look. Their eyes will get droopy, their hair and makeup will start to fail, and they will have spilled things on their outfits. Your friends will thank you for photos taken earlier in the night. Let’s face it, you’ll be a better judge of the photos you’re taking a little earlier as well.

10. Have fun!

None of this was meant to turn it into work. You’re at a party! Don’t forget to have fun while you’re taking the new Pulitzer Prize winning photo!