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Whether you’re using a cellphone, a digital point-and-shoot camera, or an expensive SLR, you’ll take much better photos when you learn more about lighting and your camera.

Taking photos with a flash often gives ugly results. Washed-out, flat, phony-looking faces with monstrous makeup can ruin your memories of any special occasion. Everything else is so dark it’s useless. Here’s how to take great, natural-looking portraits and photos in low or very low light.

While written for digital cameras, many old film cameras can use these tips, too.

The overall strategy is control or compensation for low light, and using some simple built-in controls on your camera. As with any new tool, the key to getting them to work the way you want is practice, practice, practice.

For light, you can deliberately set your camera to flash, or not to flash. Learn how to turn off the flash and use natural light to obtain better results. The standard icons are a lightning bolt (flash always fires) and a lightning bolt with a bar through it (never flashes). Take one photo with flash, then another without flash, and you’ll instantly see the huge difference.

Modern flashes try to compensate somewhat for distance, but too close is still too close, and too far is still too far.

For this article, you can overlook the ‘eye’ icon (fires the flash rapidly a few times to shrink the subject’s pupils, eliminating ‘red eye’ then fires one last time to take a photo). Avoid the ‘auto’ setting, which automatically decides whether to fire the flash or not, depending on the available light. There are other settings (a moon and star icon may be a quick, handy ‘night’ setting — try it).

First, obtain your camera manual. For many people, it’s much easier to have a searchable soft copy (click the ‘binoculars’ icon) on your hard drive than to find and thumb through a hard copy printed manual. Many cameras don’t even come with a printed manual these days; it’s on a CD. To download your soft copy as a searchable Adobe Acrobat PDF file, just Google the name and model of your camera and manual PDF. So your Google search term might look like this: olympus fe-47 manual download pdf

Some cameras have built-in, detailed Help screens for popular features. Many have display screens that offer a wide range of valuable automated settings. Check yours.

Familiarize yourself with some of the settings, which vary based on model. Experiment and test before you need these settings so you can learn what your camera can do and how to do it. Most of the settings you’ll find can be overlooked — they’re for something else. Set the camera’s clock while you’re in there and your photos will all be date- and time-stamped.

Changing the ISO or ASA speed setting from ‘auto’ to a high number makes the camera much more sensitive to light. If you look at the internal information in photos you’ve taken, it probably includes the ‘film speed’ the camera used. 100 and 200 are common. Lower numbers mean there’s so much light you can afford to throw some away to get rich, deep colors and eliminate blur. Manually pushing the speed up to 1600 means you squeeze every bit of the meager light for all its worth. You’ll sacrifice some color range and depth, but your photos won’t be a blur of black shadows. Don’t forget to change it back to ‘auto’ when you’re done or your next photos will be too bright. Some cameras go back to ‘auto’ when you turn the camera off. Test yours. Film users can buy a roll of high-speed film if you know you’ll need it for low-light shots.