When you were a kid, your mom probably took a lot of pictures. When she wasn't taking pictures outdoors, she was using a flash. Remember that? "Oh wait dear, don't move, the flash has to warm up."
If you look back at those photo albums full of all those pictures that your mom took when you were a kid, you may notice a common theme. Those photos probably don't look very good. In them, your kid-self probably has a washed-out face and/or red eyes, and there are most likely some really big, ugly black shadows directly behind you. These are all hallmarks of direct flash.
Now that you've grown up and have a camera of your own, let's see how to take photos that don't look like the ones in your mom's photo album.
[ Top image Melissa and the too-bright flash by Flickr user schwa23]
Why flash is bad
Let me back up a bit—not all flash is bad. Indirect, diffused flash (like when you bounce it off of the ceiling) can actually look quite nice, but you have to have an off-camera flash and some practice using it. In the meantime, it is possible to get great indoor photos without any sort of flash at all.
Your mom actually had something working against her back in those days. She probably had a camera that just wasn't very light sensitive. It was also probably an instant camera, which was basically the predecessor of today's basic (inexpensive) point shoot. The flash was built in, and her only choice was to turn it on whenever she was taking pictures indoors. If she didn't, she'd be wasting a lot of film, because the only image she'd be able to capture would be solid black.
Today you have got much better options. Modern digital cameras are much better equipped at taking flash-free images low light—all you need is a little bit of knowledge.
Start with a high ISO
Before you try taking pictures indoors without a flash, you need to understand ISO. Those letters stand for "international standards organization," which was a term coined a very long time ago so that film of manufacturers could make film that adhered to a certain set of standards in terms of light sensitivity. That way when you bought a roll of ISO 400 film from Kodak, you could be reasonably sure it was the same light sensitivity as a roll of ISO 400 film from Fuji. Today we still use the term ISO, although obviously it no longer refers to film. Instead it is used as a way to describe how light-sensitive our cameras are. When you use ISO 100, for example, it means that your camera is not going to be very light-sensitive. To shoot at ISO 100 you need to be in a location where the natural light is very good, or you need to add strong artificial light. At ISO 1600, on the other hand, you camera is much more sensitive to the light. This means that you can shoot in low light without having to add artificial light.
Raymond B by Flickr user WarzauWynn
So why not just always shoot a higher ISO? Well this is where it gets a little tricky. Higher ISO does tend to produce images with more noise. Noise is what you see when you look at an image and there are grainy specs in it, usually in areas of uniform color. Noise is actually similar to the static that you get when you turn it up a sound amplifier. It's feedback, caused by an increased signal to noise ratio. For the most part, you want to avoid noise. Exceptions are if you're shooting an image that you kind of want to be a little gritty or photojournalistic—then the noise is going to help convey a mood. For the most part, though, you'll want to avoid it.
Not all cameras handle high ISOs in the same way. Some cameras don't produce any visible noise until you start to get to the much higher ISOs, in the 3200 to 6400 range. Other cameras start to produce visible noise at ISOs as low as 400. It's worth doing some experimentation to see how your particular camera handles those higher ISO. To do this you will need to have a tripod and some way of remotely releasing the shutter, such as a cable or remote release, or your camera's self-timer function. Now find a stationary subject and shoot a series of images at varying ISOs, starting with ISO 100. Go all the way up to the highest ISO your camera offers, then open up the results on your computer and compare them at 100%. Decide which image represents the most noise that you personally can tolerate in your images. Try not to go beyond that ISO when shooting in low light, but remember that ultimately you may prefer noise to those washed out faces, red eyes and ugly shadows.
Try a fast lens
Another way to shoot flash free photos in low light is to purchase a fast lens. "Fast" in this context means that it can take photos with a faster shutter speed in relatively low light. That's because fast lenses let you shoot at very wide apertures, and wide apertures allow more light to reach your sensor. Your basic zoom like the kit lens that probably came with your camera usually doesn't go much wider than f/4.5, though more pricier zooms may go as wide as f/2.8. For the best performance in low light, however, consider purchasing a 50mm prime lens. A prime lens is a lens that has only one focal length, but the trade off is that you can shoot at apertures as wide as f/1.8, even f/1.4 if you want to spend a little more money. Now, the flip side of all this is that larger apertures mean less depth of field, so your photos are going to have a lot of bokeh. You'll probably also have a lot of images where you can't get your subject's entire face sharp--the depth of field will be so shallow that you'll lose focus by the time you get to the tip of his nose or the lobes of his ears.
Do you love me? by Flickr user (davide)
Combining that fast lens with a large aperture is going to give you the edge you need to get great photos in low light without ever having to pop up the flash, but definitely keep a few guidelines in mind before you begin. Remember that ISO test I had you do with your camera? Now that you know just how high you can got without getting unacceptable noise in your image, dial in that ISO and meter your scene. Think about how much depth of field you want in your shot. If you're not bothered by that very shallow depth of field you get when you shoot at f/1.8, see if you can dial down the ISO a little, to reduce noise. If, however, you do want a little more depth of field, see if you can make adjustments to your shutter speed without having to turn up your ISO. Remember that subjects who aren't moving around a lot can be shot at between 1/60 and 1/125--faster moving subjects may need much faster shutter speeds, which you may not be able to pull off in low light. Ask yourself if that's such a bad thing--a little motion blur can actually look pretty cool, so feel free to experiment if you're just not able to get the fast shutter speeds you'd otherwise need.
Use a tripod
Speaking of motion blur, another direction you could go with this is to mount your camera on a tripod, lower your ISO and choose a smaller aperture. Now you're going to get lots of motion blur, but you'll also have very little noise in your photo, combined with a large depth of field. This is great for capturing detailed images of big indoor spaces, such as a cathedral or an auditorium. You'll get blur as people move in and out of the room, but you'll also have tack sharp details on every non-moving subject. Those blurry step reals will add an artistic, otherworldly quality to your scene.
Grand Central Terminal / New York City, USA (2009) by Flickr user Stephan Rebernik
Remember your cable or remote release—this is necessary because the simple act of touching your shutter button with your finger could be enough to introduce camera shake to your photo, which will result in a blurry image. The only exception to this rule is very long shutter speeds—at longer speeds the amount of shake you introduce by touching that button isn't going to show up on the final image because it accounts for such a small percentage of the time during which the shutter was actually open.
Use window light
Remember also to take advantage of the ambient light. During the day, you can still get great flash-free images indoors simply by moving your subject next to a window. Try shooting her with side light--orient her so one side of her face is next to the window, and the other side is facing the dark part of the room. For less dramatic light, try bouncing light back into the shadow side of her face with a reflector or a piece of foam core.
207/365 - Sharp As A Razor, Soft As A Prayer by Flickr user Helga Weber
One final thing it's important to remember is white balance. You know how you sometimes take photos indoors and they just look a little yellow? That's because those incandescent lights that illuminate a lot of interiors are actually a yellow color. Even those long lasting fluorescent bulbs have a much warmer cast than daylight does. All modern digital camera have a white balance setting, usually labeled "WB." Most users default to using the auto white balance setting, and that works fine for most applications. But indoors you'll usually get more accurate results if you use the preset for incandescent light (or fluorescent, depending on the situation)—that setting is usually marked by a lightbulb icon. Beware of mixed lighting—if you've got incandescent lights but you also have light coming in through a window, you're not going to get the right results even with those presets. In these cases, the best strategy is generally to just turn off the indoor lights. If you don't have that option, you may need to use your camera's custom white balance setting. All cameras have different ways of setting a custom white balance, but you'll need a photographer's gray or white card to get an accurate reading. Follow the instructions in your camera's manual to proceed.
Takoyaki - Momotaro AUD6 by Flickr user avlxyz
Modern cameras are miles ahead of that little instamatic that your mom used to have, so if you're still using that popup flash you're not taking advantage of everything the latest technology has to offer. Next time you're indoors in low light, I challenge you to forbid yourself from using your popup flash. Shoot with a high ISO, a slow shutter speed and a large aperture and see what you get. I'm betting you're going to be thrilled by just how much your photos do not resemble the ones in your mom's old photo album.
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