Tutorial: How to Take Better Indoor Pictures Without a Flash

In an earlier post I talked about being able to take pictures in a museum without using a flash [averagetraveller.com]. This is important because using a flash in museums, zoos, or aquariums is a lose-lose-lose situation. In the first place, bright light can damage pigments in artwork or artifacts, which is one of the biggest reasons museums and galleries have for banning photography. On top of that, constant flashes from visitors takes away from the carefully planned ambiance of whatever is on display, especially in an aquarium. Finally, in addition to the fact that your built in flash often hides a lot of the natural colour of your subect, the object that you want to photograph is often behind glass which means that your photo will probably have a big white flash reflection instead of what you planned to shoot.

Simulated Blurry Turtle Photo

In some museums you can take photos but are kindly asked to not use your flash. From what I’ve seen, about a third of the people taking pictures in this scenario don’t know how to turn off the flash.  If you can’t be bothered to learn anything else about your camera, at least learn to shoot in P mode (program) because it will let you disable your flash. Many cameras lock you out of flash control in the full auto modes. Most of the people who have figured out how to force the flash to off still end up with dark and/or blurry pictures.

The good news is that it is possible to take nice pictures without a flash. Once you get up a bit of a learning curve on some camera basics, and if you have a few dollars to spend on some relatively inexpensive camera gear, you’ll be shooting with a plan instead of just hoping for the best! And if we can all learn to take indoor pictures without a flash maybe fewer museums will have to enforce outright camera bans to protect their treasures.

Short-cut: Low light mode

If your camera is less than 3 years old it is likely that it has a bunch of pre-set ‘modes’ to help you take your shot. Point and shoot cameras have had this for a while and the newer entry-level SLR cameras have them as well. Play around with your camera before your trip and see if you can find something labelled as ‘low light’. Just make sure that whichever mode you choose doesn’t automatically fire the flash. I’ve been saved by low-light mode in the past when I’ve needed to get a shot very quickly and didn’t have time to manually set up the camera the way I wanted.

Aperture, ISO, and Shutter Speed

Speaking of setting up the camera, what exactly do you set? Well you can set aperture, ISO, and shutter speed. You don’t have to fully understand how these things work, but you do need to know what they do.


Canon T1i Aperture Priority Mode

Aperture describes the size of the hole the lens uses to allow light through to hit the image sensor in your camera. The best way to think about this is that the larger the hole, the more light that is allowed in, and the less time your camera needs to capture the image. The important bit here is that the faster your camera can take the image, the less the chance of camera shake or movement of your subject which results in blurry pictures. Changing the aperture also has the effect of changing the depth-of-field in the photo, but that’s a whole different tutorial. For now, just remember that bigger aperture allows more light into your camera. Now the confusing part: in camera-speak, a smaller number = a larger aperture.

Canon S90 Lens

Aperture is often indicated either prepended with an f/ (the letter ‘F’ followed by a slash) or by a 1: (the number one followed by a colon). Remember the smaller the number, the more light you get. Aperture is completely dependant on your camera lens. For inexpensive zoom lenses you will typically get a range of aperture settings because the lens is limited to how wide it can have the aperture set depending on how zoomed in the lens is. You can usually see what the range of your lens is by looking at the front of it. The lens on my Canon S90 point and shoot says “6.0=22.5mm 1:2.0-4.9″. The part after the “1:” is the aperture range. When my point and shoot is zoomed all the way out (wide angle) it can go to f/2.0 and by the time it’s zoomed in the best it can do is f/4.9.


Canon T1i ISO Button

ISO is a measure of sensitivity to light. Back in the days of film photography you had to decide what ISO you would need ahead of time because it was determined by the physical properties of the roll of film in your camera. If you were usually shooting portraits outdoors in sunshine you could buy good old regular ISO 100 film. If you were planning on shooting action shots or indoor shots you could pay a few dollars extra and get 200, 400, or 800 film. If you went to a fancy camera shop you might find film with higher ISO – Konica had ISO 3200 film available.

In the digital world we no longer have to pick an ISO and stick with it for 12-36 shots. Digital sensors can be adjusted on the fly. When I was starting out in digital photography I read a long-lost tutorial that said to think of ISO as light catchers. The higher the ISO the more light catchers active on the sensor. The more light catchers, the faster your camera can capture an image and as we said before, less blur. Of course there’s no free lunch in the universe, and the downside to high digital ISO is graininess, or tiny dots all over your picture. Some modern consumer digital cameras will let you shoot all the way up to ISO 6400 or even 12,800 with a little tweaking but unless you are going for an artistic grainy look most people don’t shoot in that range very often.

Shutter Speed

Canon T1i Shutter Speed Priority Mode

Now this is the easiest one to understand. When I used to shoot film this was the only manual setting I dabbled with because I had no idea what the other two were. A fast shutter speed means that the shutter is open for a shorter amount of time. A slow shutter speed keeps the shutter open longer, allowing more light to hit the sensor. The tradeoff here is that a longer shutter speed lets your camera capture more of the available light and will brighten up your photo; however, it also means that even the slightest vibration while holding the camera will be captured and result in dreaded blur.

On your camera the shutter speeds that are less than a second are typically identified as fraction (1/8, 1/250, 1/500 etc). Shutter speeds of 1 second or greater are usually marked by a quotation mark (1″ = one second, 4″ = 4 seconds, etc). If you don’t have image stabilization in your camera or lens the slowest speed that most people can use handheld and still get a nice shot is around 1/60 or 1/80. With image stabilization you should be able to bring that down to around 1/30.

Okay, So Now What?

If you were a professional photographer you would probably be able to just eyeball a situation and know what aperture, ISO, and shutter speed you needed, or you might even have a fancy hand held light meter to help you figure it out. The rest of us are stuck using the good old trial and error method. The good news is that as you keep trying (and keep erring) you will get better and better and should be able to get that to well under 30 seconds.

Do You Use a Tripod?

Having a tripod gives you much more flexibility for taking pictures without a flash because it allows you to take photos with long shutter speeds without fear of hand movement causing blur. Personally, I don’t carry a tripod when travelling because they are fairly cumbersome and frankly, just a little dorky. I carry a small Gorilla-pod tripod in my bag but I almost never use it.  If you want to use one then you’re in luck because you are much more likely to get great shots of stationary objects without a flash.

First Attempt: Moderate ISO, Max Aperture.

Here is how I usually approach my low light shots. Set your ISO first. If it’s really dark, like in an aquarium, I like to start at somewhere around ISO 1000. I then set my camera to aperture priority mode (usually marked Av on Canon). That means that I will manually set the aperture and let the camera work out the best shutter speed setting. Try to take your shot at the largest possible aperture that you can get. Remember that for most zoom lenses the widest aperture is only available when you are fully zoomed out so start there. If you need a tighter shot use the foot zoom and physically get as close as you can to about 3 feet away from your subject. If the shot looks okay on your screen then you’re in luck. You can try again with a little zoom if you need, or lower ISO setting to cut graininess.

Second Attempt: Bump the ISO

If your shot is still dark, or if your camera picked a really slow shutter speed and you have loads of blur, try upping the ISO. The increased ‘light catchers’ should result in the camera picking a faster shutter speed, but you’ll need to check for graininess.

Third Time Charm: Adjust Shutter Speed

So you’ve maxed your ISO and still don’t like what you’ve got, or the only reasonable picture you’ve got is too grainy. If you got a blurry picture then you can keep your ISO where it is and switch from aperture priority to shutter speed priority (usually marked Tv). I’ll usually start at around 1/60 and move up or down from there. If the picture is sharp but too dark I’ll try slowing down the shutter speed. If the picture is reasonably lit but still blurry I’ll try speeding up the shutter speed. Now if the picture is too grainy, you should lower your ISO (light catchers) but then you’ll have to pick a slower shutter speed. In all cases when shooting with no flash in low light make sure to take lots of pictures – you might just get lucky and get a shot with little or no hand motion!

Canon T1i Menu

Last Ditch Attempts

If none of that works I will usually give up on the shot; however, if you’re staring at your once-in-a-lifetime shot that you cannot live without, you can try the follow tips in addition to the camera settings:

  • If you’re not using a tripod make sure that you have the camera stabilized by bracing your body against something solid, or steady the camera itself by holding it against a stable object like a wall or a display case.
  • Use your camera’s burst mode if you have it. That’s kind of like a machine gun setting for your camera – it keeps shooting as fast as it can as long as you are holding down the shutter release. In addition to meeting the ’shoot lots of pictures and hope for the best’ rule above, this also has the advantage that any camera motion from you pressing the shutter release button is only captured on the first shot. All subsequent shots are taken with your finger already pushing down so there should be less camera movement and less blur.
  • If your camera doesn’t have burst mode try using the camera self timer. Self timer is will have the same impact of eliminating the motion of the shutter release press; however, it also results in a 5-10 second delay where you try not to look too stupid holding your camera up against a wall. The downside to this is that there is typically a bright blinky light shining out the front of your camera in this mode. Cover that with your finger if you can.
  • You might be able to correct for brightness and/or graininess in post processing. I know that there is some specialized software available to reduce graininess, but I haven’t tried any of it. If you have Photoshop CS3 and take multiple pictures it can stack them to cut graininess and noise.

If that still doesn’t work after all that then it was just not meant to be with the gear that you brought.

Okay Picture But the Colour is Off

White balance is another setting on your camera that adjusts the intensity of colours recorded by the image sensor. Different kinds of light impact white balance differently and it will show up in the intensity of colour or lack thereof, not in sharpness or noise. If you shoot in RAW mode you can adjust white balance easily in post processing but white balance and RAW are topics for an entirely different tutorial.

Still No Luck. Now What?

Well now you have to buy better gear. If you have an SLR and are using the kit lens that came with your camera body you’re in luck because you can get a prime (non-zoom) lens with very wide apertures for reasonably cheap. Canon and Nikon sell a 50mm f/1.8 lens for under $150 that can often be found at around $100 on sale or for even less used. If you only have a kit lens I strongly suggest that you make this investment because they also let you take those artsy pictures with creamy blury backgrounds leaving your subject in perfect focus.

If you’re shooting point and shoot you can search for one with a wider aperture. As I mentioned, my Canon S90 goes all the way to f/2.0 which is almost as good as the f/1.8 SLR lenses I previously suggested.  They have a newer S95 model that sells for around $350 and the newly released S100 which sells for $400-450 – about 3 times what you would pay for an entry-level point and shoot, but about half of what you would pay for an entry-level SLR with an f/1.8 prime lens. Oh, and the S100 has built in GPS so you can geotag photos without an external GPS unit and PC software [averagetraveller.com]!

This post was submitted to Travel Tips Tuesday hosted by Walkingon Travels and Suitcases and Sippycups.

7 thoughts on “Tutorial: How to Take Better Indoor Pictures Without a Flash

  1. Some great advice for those who want to get into available light. I find I can use my light weight carry everywhere Canon 500D DSLR and its super sharp stabilizer kit zoom easily at 1600 ISO, and even 3200, with the RAW files processed in Lightroom 3, which has state of the art noise reduction and sharpening. When the light’s really low, I use the widest angle setting at maximum aperture. This is in aperture prefered mode, which is my normal setting, anyway.

    • I need to get better at post processing. I’m planning to get some hands on experience with noise reduction software soon and will put up some tutorials once I figure it out. Thanks for the heads up!

  2. This is a great non-techy guide. Well done! I am always the one placing my camera on a rail or wall and hoping that I can hold still enough not to get a blur.

  3. I don’t know what all the buttons on my camera are for so this is such a great way to learn:) I love how your pictures demonstrate what you’re talking about. I can’t wait to try this. (I have many blurry pics!)

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