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How to Take Better Photos Under Pressure

Where you find crowds, you're bound to find something worth photographing. And in particular, when the unexpected happens--whether an accident occurs, for instance, or tear-gas canisters start to fly--you might find yourself reaching for your camera. Taking pictures in such situations certainly isn't the safest option, but thorough documentation keeps everyone honest. Here are some tips for getting usable photos when time is of the essence.

Remember to keep things simple. Start with your camera’s automatic settings, especially if it offers night-shooting modes. Tinkering with manual controls could help you tease out a stunning shot, but you likely can’t count on luxuries such as time or safety. If the photos from your automatic settings aren’t cutting it, try tweaking the exposure compensation (EV +/-), if your camera allows. This setting will adjust the amount of light the camera’s sensor takes in, and will be of utmost importance when all you can rely on are street lamps.

If you’re taking photos on a smartphone, you may not have much control over the camera’s more arcane settings. But even the lowliest point-and-shoot camera might offer some manual controls.

Optimize Your Settings for Night Shooting

When you're shooting photos at night, shutter speed is of the utmost importance. ISO settings manage a digital camera’s sensitivity to light. At a lower setting, a camera’s sensor is less sensitive, and the camera leaves the shutter open longer to capture more light. Higher settings allow for faster shutter speeds but introduce noise--grainy speckles that mar the final product.

Take a look at your camera’s ISO settings. Cranking the ISO up can help you capture an image in a dark area, but it also can make your photos grainy and sap some of the color out of the image. Finding a nice middle ground is essential to taking a solid picture. Lower ISO settings will offer crisper images, but the longer shutter speeds can make your photos a blurry mess. On my Canon PowerShot S90, I set the ISO as low as I can without resorting to using the flash or introducing too much blurring. Your mileage will vary depending on your own gear.

Using your camera’s flash is a solid option for snapping bright, clear images at lower ISO speeds, but that flashing bulb might distort the scene you were trying to capture--or attract unwanted attention. If you do use the camera’s flash, keep your subject’s location in mind. If you’re too close to what you’re photographing, you’ll risk filling the foreground of your image with light and obliterating anything in the background.

Another option for some cameras is the burst mode. This function fires a number of shots in rapid succession, giving you a better chance of capturing a frantic scene without requiring much of your attention. Expect delays between shots, as your camera will need to write a large amount of data to its memory card between takes.

Stay Calm for Steady Shots

While you’re futzing with the settings or trying to capture a scene, the frenetic activity around you (or your own jitters) will likely produce quite a bit of blurring. Using a tripod would be ideal, but you can’t count on having the time or the space to compose an idyllic shot.

You can compensate somewhat by finding something sturdier than yourself. Rest your camera on a rigid surface--a bench, or a wall, for example. Barring that, try locking your elbows together to steady your arms. The position can be a bit awkward (especially with smaller cameras), but you’ll find that constricting the movement of your arms will help keep things stable.

Mastering your own nerves is important, too. Take a deep breath, and then exhale. Notice the pause that comes naturally, between breaths? Take your shot then, when your muscles are relaxed. Don’t force it: Holding your breath will only make you tense, and ultimately introduce more camera shake.

Remember that wide shots of a scene will be better (and easier to compose) than up-close action. Use your discretion, reviewing your images as you take them (if you can), and making whatever adjustments your hardware will allow. And most important, stay safe.

Nate Ralph dabbles in powerful desktops and peaceful dissent. You can find him on Twitter.

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