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Several years ago, I visited "The Big E" - New England's largest fair - with my then-girlfriend, her sister and my trusty 2 MP Kodak DC 80. At one point, I posed the ladies for a night shot about 30 feet in front of one of the rides. The ride was festooned with colorful lights and stationary at the time. But I had a problem.
My Kodak digital camera - a fairly early model - only had two options: flash on and flash off. I chose to shoot without the flash - even though it was fairly dark, so that the ride in the background wouldn't be lost.
Although the ladies are somewhat under-exposed, it's still a favorite shot. The ride is there in the background. The two sisters - obviously fond of one another & mugging for the camera - are at least visible, if not perfectly exposed. And their smiles say it all. It's the almost-perfect fair picture.
If you find yourself in a similar situation, you'll probably be luckier than I. That's because so many of today's compact digital cameras offer a scene mode called "night snapshot" (or something similar). This acts very much like the rear curtain sync of better film SLR's. Basically, it exposes the scene for a short period before the flash fires. Here's what that does:
The typical digital camera's flash isn't strong enough to light up anything more than a short distance from the camera. So let's say you're shooting your sweetheart in the evening with a cityscape in the background. When you take the shot in normal flash mode, the flash fires when the shutter opens, and - voila! - your sweetheart is well-lit and the background is lost.
Night snapshot mode (like rear curtain sync), however, opens the shutter for a very short time, and then fires the flash just before the shutter closes. This allows your camera's sensor to register at least some of the background light. When the flash fires, your sweetheart is also illuminated. But this picture will show much more background detail - especially any lights.
The resulting picture will have a more pleasing balance of foreground and background - and your sweetheart will love you all the more for capturing that special moment so well.