Jazz, my wonderful assistant-slash-model-slash-and-more, once invited me to one of her school's activities, a Stoplight-Themed Pageant/Party at the Icon, a Club that is located at The Intercontinental Hotel in Makati. Since the Icon is pretty much what one would expect in a prestigious club - lots of laser lights, fog machines, sub-woofers the size of your average armoire, disco balls, and pretty much assorted visual effects all confined in a very dimly-lit expanse of a room - photography there would be quite a task, even if one would bring out a DSLR mounted with a very fast prime. No matter how one would look at it, a camera's AF system would still need a significant amount of light for it to function properly, otherwise it will just hunt in the dark (no pun intended). This is where the benefits of a flashgun becomes very apparent, not just as a stronger source of light versus the kind of light that pop-up flashes would give, but also as a critical AF assistant.
I have always stood by the very idea that in choosing a flashgun, it is always paramount to choose the one that can give you the strongest amount of flash at any given time, and at the same time all the necessary features included for you to properly and effectively utilize it. With these in mind, I choose nothing less than the Nikon SB-900/910 to help me in my flash photography. First of all, It has the strongest flash available among Nikon's line-up of speedlights. It doesn't necessarily mean that you would always use it at full-blast, but it is always handy to have it, nonetheless. After all, it is always better to have a lot of it at your disposal than to have otherwise. Another feature of the Sb-900 that makes it my first choice is the fact that its flash head can be swiveled 180 degrees from either side. As I rely on directional bounce-flash technique to achieve the results that I want in my shots, this is a must for me, as opposed to other flashes that of which head can only be rotated for less (SB-600), or even not at all (SB-400). One final feature that I came to appreciate in taking sharp photos in very dark places is that the Sb-900 has an AF assistant, very much similar to the AF assist bulb located in from of most of Nikon's current DSLR bodies. The main difference though, is that instead of a harsh yellow light that would normally temporarily blind (or annoy, or scare) the subjects, the Sb-900 emits faint red streaks of horizontal light that can be easily detected by the camera, ensuring a much higher rate of accurate AF locks, and ultimately, in-focus photos every time.
All these features of the Nikon SB-900 Speedlight makes this an essential part of my kit, and I would always have a space for it in my bag.
Now, when it comes to working with on-camera speedlights, there are two things to keep in mind: first, the ambient exposure, which will take care of the background, and flash exposure, which will determine the proper exposure for the subject. Both of these things are fairly simple to understand; just obtain the needed camera settings for the correct (and by "correct", I mean the kind that suits your taste) ambient exposure, and apply TTL flash (you can also opt to go for Manual Flash settings, but for shooting outside the confines of a studio where all the lighting elements and the environment around it would have the tendency to drastically change, TTL would be far more beneficial) to achieve the correct flash exposure. TTL flash metering, however, doesn't necessarily mean that the camera has total control of the way your flash would behave; if the subject would appear to be too bright or too dark, simply apply Flash Exposure Compensation, then shoot again. Personally, I would apply -0.7 to -1.3 FEC when I use my 70-200mm f/2.8, but this, as always, really depends on the kind of lighting environment I'm in.
Back at the Icon, this was the time when most of the club's lighting effects were on full throttle, and that streaks of lasers were criss-crossing the dance floor. But as I've said earlier, even will all the extravagant light shows, the place was still pretty much dimly-lit. Since I didn't want to turn on the glaring AF assist light of the Nikon D7000 (more talk about this marvelous machine next time), I decided instead to switch on the speedlight's faint-yet-easily-detectable AF Assist light, and continued to shoot in the dark without disturbing anyone in the place (since the said light pretty much resembled most of the laser lights there). Eventually, with some mild camera adjustments, I got the exposure just right, but only for the subejct, like this sample photo:
Camera Settings: 1/10 sec. at f/2.8, ISO 1600, at 70mm., mild post-processing, no retouching
Now, I thought, "this is supposed to be a club, so where are the lights?". Since I know that the bouncing my flash would take care of the subject, and thus eliminate subject blur, I'm confident that I can drag my shutter down to something far slower to allow more light to register on the sensor, so I got myself this next photo:
Camera Settings: 1/2 sec. at f/2.8, ISO 1600, at 70mm, mild post-processing, no retouching
Now this looks nice, but wait. Again, we're in a club; people here are supposed to dance! And looking at the lights behind here, they resemble more like stationary lights. I mean, seriously, everything is supposed to move here! :) So I opted for another approach and relied on the capabilities of my flash to give me something that looks like this:
Camera Settings: 1.6 sec. at f/3.5, ISO 200, at 70mm. (the same is true for the first photo at the beginning of this writing)
Yes, the camera settings do not lie. At 1.6 sec., there should be a lot of blur, but this wasn't the case here. The flash took care of the subject's registry to the sensor, so subject blur wasn't a problem at all. Actually, there is no motion blur, since the subject wasn't really dancing here; I only made her pose to look like she was dancing. :) ISO 200 was chosen since, as due from the fact that the flash would take care of the proper subject exposure, and that I needed room for the ambient light to "draw" itself on the sensor. And, as I've said, everything should be moving in a club, so after pressing the trigger, I immediately moved the camera around for the entire duration of the shutter release (1.6 sec.) to allow the club lights to create those beautiful streaks of "motion" you see in the photos here.
Ultimately, we can properly see that even in dark places such as clubs and whatnot, sharp yet highly usable photos can still be achieved with the help of a flashgun. And it's not just about simply having an excellent, top-of-the-line flashgun that would help you in getting the photos you want; it's also about properly using it to achieve the best results possible, at all times, in virtually all places.