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12 Tips For Indoor Photography

Often photos taken indoors turn out much worse than outdoor pictures, which have the benefit of broad daylight. The problem, of course, is the lack of light, which can lead to rubbish blurry 'images'. But the typical solution is also part of th problem! Direct flash creates harsh, massively unflattering and atmosphere crushing light. So, for this tutorial I'm going to assume you're shooting indoors, that you don't have a tripod and that you really want to overcome thoe above problems. Let's get cracking...

1. Use a fast lens

When we talk about the speed of a lens, we mean the speed at which it is able to gather light, which has a knock on effect for the shutter speed. Lenses that can gather lots of light enable a faster shutter speed (exposure time). The amount of light a lens can gather is dependent on its maximum aperture diameter. A lens with a maximum aperture of f1.8 is much faster than a lens with a maximum aperture of f5.6.

Fast lenses can be expensive though. But the good news is that prime lenses, which have a fixed focal length, are often really fast and are much cheaper than zooms (plus the glass quality is usually better). So get yourself a 35mm or 50mm f1.4 or f1.8 lens, and you'll soon learn that indoor photography isn't half the trouble it used to be!

 

2. Increase the ISO

By increasing ISO speed you make your digital camera's sensor more sensitive to light, enabling it to convert it to electric current and form an image faster. Just like using a fast lens, this means we can use a faster shutter speed and eliminate blur from camera shake. But unlike using a fast lens, there's a side effect to increasing ISO: noise. Noise appears as a grainy, or speckled, texture in images.

Noise refers to the slight hum of electric current, generated by heat from the sensor, which is always present in digital cameras. But most of the time, this background hum of current is so slight as to be totally imperceptible compared to the current generated by light coming through the lens (the signal). In indoor photography, less light hits the sensor, so the background noise is more apparent in relation to the image. When we increase ISO, the sensor is more sensitive to both noise and the electric current from the image, so we magnify the unwanted current, which results in a grainy texture.

ISO performance is stronger on full frame sensors than cropped sensors (in other words you can increase it further before the graininess gets too much). But even using cropped sensor cameras (as most of us do), never be afraid to increase ISO up to the maximum if it means freezing a great moment indoors that would have gone begging otherwise. (Learn more about ISO in this tutorial)

ISO Scale:
100 200 400 800 1600 3200 6400 12800

 

3. Shoot in aperture priority mode

Switch your camera from Program to aperture priority mode. This enables you to control the depth of field, and work with a nice big aperture which will usually be necessary.

Keep an eye on the shutter speed, and when it drops below 1/60th increase the ISO. Anything below 1/60th shutter speed when hand holding will normally produce camera shake (unless you have a grip a steady as a military sniper!).

For lots of situations, photographers set the aperture to f8, because this gives good depth of field that is roughly equivalent to the way we see things with our eyes. If the available light allows it, this can be a good setting to choose for the shots when you aren't restricted to the maximum aperture. (This guide explores aperture in greater depth)

 

4. Employ the reciprocal rule

The reciprocal rule in photography is that your shutter speed should always be at least the reciprocal of your lens' focal length. In other words, an 80mm lens would demand a shutter speed of 1/80th or more. Bear in mind that if you are not using a full frame sensor, the effective focal length is always more than that stated by your lens (by whatever the crop factor happens to be). So an 80mm lens with 1.5x cropped sensor actually gives a focal length of 120mm, demanding a shutter speed of 1/120th.

The larger your focal length, the faster the shutter speed will need to be. This in turn will mean the ISO needs to be higher to create a well exposed photo. This need for high ISO at long focal lengths is increased by the fact that most lenses become slower as their focal length increases. The fast telephotos used by pro sports photographers are worth about 3x my car, and most people don't invest in one!

 

5. Hold the camera steady and squeeze the shutter

It's important to hold the camera really still when shooting indoors. If your arms are extended in front of you, it's much harder to do that. So tuck in those helps and make your body as compact and solid as possible. To help with this, and avoid swaying around as you stand, lean against a solid object like a wall, or even sit down (bear in mind the change in perspective that sitting down produces).

When it comes to taking the shot, there are 2 things you can do to help. Both of these are apparently very similar techniques used by shooters. Firstly, breathe in, then exhale slowly, and just at the still point before you begin inhaling again, press the shutter. Secondly, having half pressed the shutter release button to focus, gently squeeze it until the photo is taken. This prevents you from jabbing at it, which invariably leads to slight camera shake when shooting indoors.

 

6. Use a lens with Vibration Reduction/Image Stabilization

Many lenses, especially those of longer focal lengths, have a system to correct camera shake. In Nikon cameras this is called Vibration Reduction and in Canon cameras it's called Image Stabilization. What VR/IS does is to correct that slight movement caused by camera shake, by producing a small 'counter movement'. It's a great feature to eliminate blur when hand holding. But because it actually deals with shake by introducing more shake, be sure to switch it off when you attach your lens to a tripod for the next shoot (otherwise VR/IS becomes very counter productive!).

 

7. Shoot in Raw file format

Shooting in Raw is almost always a good idea, but especially so when there is a high chance you will need to tweak the exposure in post-processing. Raw files contain a greater dynamic range than JPEG's, which means they are able to capture a wider range of tonal information.

Because of the challenges of shooting indoors, images often turn out slightly underexposed, because we need fast enough shutter speeds to prevent blur. The large dynamic range of Raw files means that we can adjust the exposure of an image by up to 2 stops (up or down) in the conversion software (i.e. Adobe Camera Raw), without significantly damaging quality. This is excellent flexibility to have for indoor photography.

 

8. Use automatic bracketing

Even when we get the exposure right in-camera, indoor photos often end up with some areas, like the background, very underexposed. This is compounded by the fact that there are often a range of different light sources indoors, including window light, tungsten lights and candle light. The result can be very 'patchy' exposure. We can easily rectify this using a technique called bracketing. Bracketing is where you take several photos of the same scene with different exposure values. For example, underexposed by 1 stop, 'correct exposure' and overexposed by 1 stop.

These images can then be blended together in Photoshop, using masking, preserving only the correctly exposed parts of each photo. The result is 1 single picture with spot on exposure every area.

Digital cameras allow us to set up automatic exposure bracketing (AEB). You can choose the number of bracketed shots and the level of difference between them (e.g. 3 shots separated by 1/3 stop, or 2/3 stop or a whole stop). Some cameras require you to press the shutter button for each bracketed exposure, whilst others fire off the shots after just one press. Many cameras allow 9 or more bracketed shots, which could be used to produce an HDR (high dynamic range) image.

You don't have to blend bracketed pictures together. It can be a really useful technique to use when you only have one chance to get a shot in tricky light, so you instantly get 3 or more different exposures and can simply pick the best one. For instance, with everyone posed for a group shot at a party, you don't want to faff about changing the settings after a failed first attempt and then ask them to 'look all excited again...please'.

 

9. Put a diffuser on your flash unit

Attaching a simple diffuser to your flash unit is very easy and produces much softer light. If you have invested in an external flash unit, you might as well make use of a diffuser, which is really cheap, instead of firing the direct light at people and creating nasty hotspots and shadows.

 

10. Bounce flash off surfaces

Instead of firing flash straight at people, bounce it off suitable surfaces to soften the light and give it a natural/interesting direction. If you have a white ceiling in the room that is ideal, because it will absorb the hardness of the light and project a gentler light on the subject. Bouncing off the ceiling is also great because it's a sure way to keep shadows out of the background, as they fall on the floor instead. If you are lucky enough to have an assistant, ask them to hold up a reflector and fire your flash straight into it to really fine tune the colour, strength and direction of the light.

 

11. Use a make-shift diffuser for pop-up flash

If you are only able to use pop-up flash, it's always worth improvising by placing something in front of the light that serves as a diffuser. I like to use tissue paper, and fold it just enough to let in sufficient light whilst taking the edge off it. But lots of things will do, like a white napkin, a sheet of paper or a handkerchief.

 

12. Use flash compensation with pop-up flash

Another way to gain control over the harsh, direct light of pop-up flash is to use the flash compensation controls on your camera. These work exactly like exposure compensation controls, by increasing or decreasing the strength of the flash by several stops either way, often by increments of 1/3 stop. Combined with a make-shift diffuser, this can dramatically soften the light you get with pop-up flash.

 

Summary

So that's it, 12 easy ways to get blur-free and well exposed results whilst hand-holding your camera for indoor photography. If you get hold of a fast lens, bear in mind some simple principles of exposure, give yourself extra scope with Raw files and bracketing, plus aim for soft, directional light when using flash, then indoor photography can be a lot of fun. I hope this was helpful!

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