If you’re anything like me, then one of the reasons you’re interested in photography – and why you shelled out on a nice camera – is to take some lovely shots of your family and friends. And, most of the time, I find that these photographic opportunities occur inside, where the light is low. Sure, there are the occasional barbeques outside, and holidays in the sun, but for the most part, I find I’m taking photos of my loved ones indoors.
And do we want to use our flash? Of course we don’t! As Scott Kelby says, and I’m paraphrasing here, “If you have a worst enemy, make sure you take a photo of them with your flash’. Shots taken with our little pop-up flashes look dreadful – either washed out, too dark, and always flat and just ugly looking. (By the way, you can check out my , a fantastic book written by Scott Kelby, if you like).
So, what can we do to take great photos indoors – where the light levels are often less than ideal – without using a tripod (as families and friends don’t stay still all the time, unfortunately!), and all this without using our flash?
The good news is that there are quite a few things we can do to attain this, including the use of Aperture, ISO, Burst Mode and more
1. Set Your Aperture To Its Widest Setting (Lowest F-number)
If you have a DSLR, or even a compact that has some manual settings, then you will be able to control your camera’s aperture (‘AV’ mode on Canon cameras, or ‘A’ if you’re a Nikon user). This is simply telling the camera how much light to allow in at a time – and so the bigger the amount of light that is coming into your lens, the quicker your shutter speed will be, and thus the sharper your photos.
We want to set our aperture to its widest setting, so that the most light available is entering our lens. This means choosing the lowest f-number possible, and how low you can go depends on what lens you are using – for example, if you are using the 18 – 55mm kit lens that comes with virtually all Canon cameras, then the lowest you can go would be f/3.5. Other lenses may be able to go down to even lower f-numbers, such as f/1.8.
Taken with a wide aperture of f/1.8
Depending on the amount of light you’re shooting in, and your other camera settings (such as ISO, which we’ll be talking about next) you may now be able to get some sharp, low light photos. Take a shot and check that you’re getting a shutter speed of at least 1/60 sec, and preferably even higher (such as 1/100 sec).
When you review your photo on the LCD screen, remember to zoom in to check if it really is sharp, as virtually every photo will look good on a 2” LCD if you don’t zoom in to examine the detail!
If your photo is still not sharp enough (i.e. you’re not getting quick-enough shutter speeds) then you’ll also need to adjust your ISO setting – see below for how to do that.
2. Raise Your ISO Setting
Your camera’s ISO setting is simply telling the camera how sensitive you want it to be to light – the higher the ISO, the more sensitive it will be. Now, as we want to take sharp photos when there is little available light, then we’ll be wanting to make our camera more sensitive to obtain those quicker shutter speeds, and so we raise our ISO – simple!
So, try taking a photo with your camera’s ISO setting at 800. If the resulting photo’s still not sharp enough, raise the ISO to 1600, and – if you need even more sensitivity – try ISO 3200 if your camera can go to that.
By the way, if you’ve read more articles and books about photography, then you’ll no doubt have seen it written a bazillion times how we must always ‘use the lowest ISO available’, as otherwise the quality of our shots will deteriorate. Although this is true to an extent, as, in theory, raising the ISO produces more ‘digital noise’ (equivalent to grain) in our shots, I would say don’t worry about this for 3 good reasons:
1. The performance of modern DSLR cameras at high ISOs are pretty amazing these days, where you can often use an ISO of 1600 – 3200 without seeing much, if any, deterioration.
2. Most of the photos we’ll generally be taking will be viewed on our computer screens, or perhaps printed to relatively small 7 x 5” prints – at these sizes digital noise is much less noticeable than if we were pumping out wall-sized posters.
3. What’s more important to you? You can either capture some lovely sharp photos of your friends and family – which will be memories forever – , or you can just sit there and not take a photo at all, because you would have to ‘raise your ISO’ which we’re always told we shouldn’t do. I know what’s more important to me!
ISO 1600, f/1.8, 80/sec
I took the above shot in a really lowlight situation, and even with such a wide aperture (low f-number) of f/1.8, I still wasn’t getting a fast enough shutter speed to get a sharp photo at my camera’s current ISO 400 setting. Experimenting at ISO 800 still didn’t get my shutter speed quick enough, so I raised it again to ISO 1600, et voila! A sharp photo, and not an ounce of ‘digital noise’ to be seen!
But what if raising your ISO and using your widest aperture still isn’t working for you? Well, you might want to look into buying a new lens, one that has a wider aperture than the one you’re currently using:
3. Buy A Lens With A Very Wide Maximum Aperture
When using your widest aperture and highest ISO still doesn’t produce those sharp lowlight photos, then you may need to get a new lens – one with a maximum aperture of f/1.8 or even wider (lower f-number). This will really help you to get those sharper shots, because you’ll be letting in so much more light at a time.
Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 - Wide aperture; great value. Click for my review.
The good news is that getting a lens like this needn’t be expensive; I use the absolutely fantastic – it only cost me about £90 from (you can get it for around on too).
See the below example of a shot I took of a local band, using this Canon 50mm f/1.8:
f/1.8, 1/100 sec, ISO 1600
Now, gig photography is an extremely lowlight situation, and there is no way that I could have got such a sharp shot with any of my other lenses – their maximum apertures are just not wide enough, so even with my high ISO of 1600 the photos would have been a blur. But with the Canon 50mm f/1.8 I was able to use a really wide aperture, getting lots of light into my camera at a time, and thus get those fast shutter speeds to get a sharp shot.
By the way, the band is called , and one of my shots was actually which made me smile!)
Following those top three tips should get you sharp shots without that dreaded pop-up flash or tripod. But there are a couple of more things that can help as well…
4. Shoot in ‘Burst’ Mode (Also called ‘Continuous Shooting’)
Another way you can increase the chance of getting a sharp shot is to use your camera’s ‘burst’ shooting mode (this could be called ‘Burst’ on your camera, or perhaps ‘Continuous Shooting’ like on the Canon T2i) to take multiple photos a second. This works like this:
When you normally take a shot in ‘one shot’ mode, taking one photo at a time, when you press the shutter button you’re actually introducing a small vibration into the photographic process as you’re physically depressing the button.
So, if you use ‘burst’ mode, and press the shutter, the vibration that is brought about by you pressing the button will only really affect the first photo of the 3 (or more) photos you’ll take – meaning every photo except the first of the series should be that little bit sharper.
Using ‘continuous shooting’ to get a sharp shot
Taking more photos at a time also increases the chance that your subject will be moving less for at least one of the shots too – in the example above my friends were pulling some funny faces, so I shot a lot of frames per second, increasing my chance of getting this sharp one.
5. Turn Up The Lights!
‘Lightbulbs’ on Flickr, by Andrewpaulcarr
Yes, this my seem like a no-brainer, but it’s actually one I have been guilty of forgetting myself – if the light is really too low to get those fast shutter speeds we’re after, just turn on some more lights!
Of course, you may be in a situation where there just aren’t any more lights to turn on, but, a lot of the time, there’ll be a light switch you can flip at the other end of the room, or a table lamp, or even a fire you can start – yes, any extra light source will help!
Talking of helping, I hope this little ‘How To…’ has helped you a little. If it has, why not follow me on twitter or ?
You may also like my ‘’ guide too.
By the way, I took all the photos above (except the lightbulbs and product shots) with my Canon T1i, which is available from and (where it’s known as the 500D). Yes, it may have already been superceded by the T2i / 550D, but it’s still a mighty fine DSLR!
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