Photographing Indoor Celebrations :: Digital Photo Secrets

Photographing Indoor Celebrations

by David Peterson 0 comments

Sometimes it seems like the weather is constantly driving us inside. It’s either too cold to have that outdoor party, or it's too hot. It's raining, or it's snowing, or it’s too humid. There are definitely more reasons to cancel an outdoor party then there are to keep it where it is. So what do you do when it's your job to take pictures of that outdoor event, but the venue suddenly changes to an indoor one? Keep reading to find out.

If your outdoor event has suddenly become an indoor event, don't think that means you're going to have to rely on your pop-up flash in order to photograph it. In fact that's the last thing you want to do, because that pop-up flash is going to create more problems than it solves. There are lots of better ways to capture photos in low light, and most of the time they just involve understanding your equipment.

Most modern digital cameras are designed to perform well in low light, even without the use of a flash. You may have heard that you should always shoot at low ISOs, because low ISOs give you better clarity and detail. The truth is that if you own a DSLR camera or even a better-quality point-and-shoot camera that was manufactured in the last few years, low ISOs make much less difference to the overall quality of your photo than they did even as recently as a decade ago. So you may not even notice much difference between those low ISO shots and the ones you take at higher ISOs.


Selfportrait with lovers by Flickr user Somethingintheair

Even if your camera does show some noise at higher ISOs, when you’re photographing people indoors it’s OK to sacrifice a little bit of clarity in exchange for a tack-sharp photo. It’s always going to be better to have a little noise in your photo than it would be to have a lot of motion blur or camera shake because you weren’t able to select a shutter speed that’s fast enough to freeze the action. So if you need to bump your ISO up to 1600 or even 3200, do it—remember that for people who are moving (even slower-moving people) you’ll need a shutter speed of at least 1/125—1/250 for faster action. In a pinch you can go as low as 1/60, but you’ll have to ask your subjects to remain still, and be aware that you could get motion blur in the extremities, especially the arms and hands.

Another way that you can shoot in low light without a flash is to use a very large aperture (small f-number). Now, if you’re shooting with your kit lens you may not be able to go very large (some kit lenses have maximum apertures of only f/3.5 or even f/4 or f/5.6). If this is you, consider investing in a 50mm prime lens.

A 50mm prime is a very inexpensive lens with a fixed focal length. But its focal length is not the reason why you want to have this lens on hand when you’re shooting in low light—what you really need is that maximum available aperture. 50mm prime lenses are fast, which means that they generally have maximum available apertures of f/1.8 or even faster, depending on which model you have. Personally, I think a 50mm prime lens is one of the best investments any beginning photographer can make as far as equipment is concerned. It’s a relatively inexpensive lens (you can expect to pay just over $100 for one), and it significantly increases your ability to get excellent shots in low light.

  • Canon EOS 5D
  • 800
  • f/2.0
  • 0.006 sec (1/160)
  • 135 mm

Boris by Flickr user prosto photos

Now do keep in mind that when you dial in that very large aperture, you get a big decrease in depth of field. So you may find (especially when you are very close to your subjects) that your subject’s eye will be tack-sharp, but you’ll have a loss of focus by the time you get to his ears or the tip of his nose. So it’s always a good idea to try to balance aperture with ISO, especially if you know you’re going to be close to your subjects. If you can’t do that and you have to use f/1.8, make sure you are also using single point AF (that’s the mode that lets you move the focus point around in your viewfinder using the joystick on the back of your camera). When you’re in single point AF mode, you can compose the shot as you like and then place the focus point on your subject’s eye without having to recompose. This will guarantee a sharp eye—and as long as your subject’s eye is in focus it doesn’t matter if there’s some softening in the rest of his features.

What if I just don’t like the noise, or the shallow depth of field is not working for me?

It could be that your camera is older, or it just doesn’t do high ISOs. You’ve found that you get an unacceptable amount of noise even at ISO 800, or maybe you just really don’t like noise on a personal level. It could also be that you don’t own a 50mm prime lens, or that you’re having too much trouble managing that shallow depth of field. So can you just use flash?

  • Nikon D3S
  • 800
  • f/3.2
  • 0.013 sec (1/80)
  • 70 mm

Bri-la 24 by Flickr user WarzauWynn

The answer is “yes,” but you won't be using it the way you use the pop up flash that's built into your camera. Instead, you will need an external flash. You don’t necessarily have to use it externally, but the reason why it’s important to have this particular piece of equipment is because of the swiveling head. Your built in flash points in only a single direction: straight in front of you. But with an external flash, you can swivel the head to point it up at the ceiling, and the bounced light will scatter and give you diffused light instead of that hard, direct light that you get with a popup.

Of course the success of this technique requires that you have a low, white ceiling to bounce the light off of (you can also use a white wall). If you don’t, you can add a diffuser to your flash unit, which will also scatter/soften the light.

White balance

Here’s something that a lot of beginners forget when they go indoors—white balance becomes critically important in indoor lighting situations because indoor lights are often incandescent, fluorescent, or even a mixture of both, sometimes with some window light thrown in. In most lighting situations your auto white balance setting does a pretty good job of correcting for the color tints that are present in artificial lighting, but it won’t always get it right. I recommend that you pay close attention to the types of light that are used in the room—if the room is lit with incandescents (traditional bulbs), you’ll need to set your white balance manually to “incandescent.” If the room is lit with fluorescent lights, you’ll likewise need to choose that setting. But the problem arises when you’ve got mixed light, such as window light combined with incandescents. In this situation I recommend using a custom white balance setting. All cameras do this a little differently, so you’ll need to check your camera’s manual, but for the most part it involves taking a photo of something that is a true white (such as your Uncle Bob’s t-shirt) and using that as a reference point for your camera to make a judgment about the color of the light.

  • Canon EOS Digital Rebel XTi
  • 400
  • f/1.4
  • 0.02 sec (1/50)
  • 50 mm

Day 127 - Knackered by Flickr user lintmachine

Your subjects

Now that we’ve discussed all the subtleties of taking photos in low light, let’s discuss your subjects themselves. Indoor celebrations are usually pretty crowded, so besides the challenges of light you’ve also got challenges of background. When there are a lot of people milling about in a small space, it can be difficult to capture a photo that doesn’t look chaotic or busy. So while it can be informational to capture a wide shot of all the partygoers in one room, it’s not really the ideal way to showcase the event.

Instead, you’re going to want to focus on one person or a small group of people. Get close and make sure that there’s some space between them and whatever is behind them. Even at larger apertures if there isn’t some distance between your subject and the person standing behind him, you’re not going to get enough blur on that background person to eliminate him as a distraction. Instead you either need to leave some space between subject and background or you need to get close enough that you’re excluding those distractions altogether.

Now because you’re shooting in low light, your aperture will most likely already be pretty large. But just in case you’re using the bounced flash technique, remember to keep your aperture large so that you’ll get some blur on any background elements you do include in the shot.

Look for moments—maybe the event mostly involves people standing around with their cocktails and talking about politics, but that doesn’t mean that your goal ought to be to convey to your viewer that everyone was standing around with their cocktails talking about politics. That’s kind of a boring party to attend (sorry if you love politics) but it’s an even more boring photograph. Instead you want to look for interesting moments. Let’s say that your uncle Frank and your other uncle Bob come from opposite sides of the political spectrum and they get into a heated debate about socialized medicine. Now that’s an interesting moment—focus on facial expressions and body language. Try to capture some of the heat in that discussion and try to do it as inconspicuously as you can. Remember that when your subjects are aware that they’re being photographed they tend to act less naturally, and you want to capture the real moment, not the false one.

  • Nikon D300
  • 800
  • f/4.5
  • 0.02 sec (1/50)
  • 31 mm

Laugh! by Flickr user fikirbaz

It’s going to be easier if the event in question is an indoor play-date between a couple of kids—kids are naturally a lot more expressive than adults are. But you still need to look out for those meaningful moments: an exchange of laughter between the two children, or a moment of intense play. If they’re building Lego, look for the concentration in their faces and try to find a unique angle—shoot the scene from the perspective of a Lego storm trooper, for example. You can do this at the politics-and-cocktails party, too—try putting your camera on the table and shoot a photo of a cocktail sitting on a napkin, with party goers as blurs in the distance.


It’s tricky getting good photos at indoor parties, but it’s also completely doable provided that you understand your camera settings and that you make the best possible use of the lighting situation. Once you have that all figured out, you can start looking for those photo-worthy moments. Remember that you can’t do one without the other—you must find the right settings for that low light situation in addition to finding those perfect moments, and only then will your indoor photo shoot be a complete success.


  1. Use a high ISO
  2. Keep your shutter speed between 1/125 and 1/250
  3. Use a large aperture (small f-number)
  4. Bounce your flash
  5. Use a custom white balance setting
  6. Capture moments between people

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About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.