Making the Best of Difficult Light


Grandma, originally uploaded by Edward Faulkner

My grandma, 87 years old and doing great!

Indoor candids like this photo can be a challenge. It's usually too dark, and the various lights in the room are often different colors. If you use an on-camera flash, it makes people look like deer in headlights, and you're likely to get red-eye too. Save the pop-up flash for bright outdoor shots, where it can fill in harsh shadows.

I took this photo with only ambient light, at ISO 1600. One of the big advantages of a digital SLR over a smaller point-and-shoot is that the sensor is larger, so it can capture more light. Small cameras usually only work well up to about ISO 400, which wouldn't have been enough for this shot.

The exposure was 1/25th of a second at a zoom of 50mm. This is within the realm where camera shake can blur your shot, but I'm using a stabilized lens (Nikon 18-200mm VR) that actively cancels out vibrations. You still need to catch the subject sitting still, because at shutter speeds this low any motion will be blurred.

The various incandescent and compact fluorescent bulbs in the room made it hard to get the color right. I compensated in GIMP. An alternative would be to shoot in RAW format and choose a white-balance at your leisure. At the very least, you can improve your indoor shots by picking the white balance setting in your camera that best describes the room, usually "incandescent" (aka "tungsten") or "fluorescent".

The background was cluttered, so I blurred and darkened it. You can get a nice naturally blurred background by shooting with a wide aperture, but the distance between the subject and the background is too short in this case to get a strong blur, so I blurred it further in software. I also brightened some shadows around the eyes. Eyes are critical in any portrait, because everyone's attention is naturally drawn to other people's eyes. Portrait photographers go to great lengths to get perfect highlights in the eyes.

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