How to balance interior and exterior light for photo with no flash

I want to warn you right away that this article will focus mainly on amateur photography. “Try to shoot only at the lowest possible ISO sensitivity or photo with no flash” – this statement can be found everywhere, from Internet forums to reputable printed editions. Many beginner photographers blindly follow this rule, but it often leads to disappointment rather than good results. All the difficulties of shooting in low light most often come down to ISO sensitivity.

ISO sensitivity is a parameter that defines how fast the camera “captures” the picture. Low ISO speeds require slower shutter speeds, but they produce a better quality picture. Handheld photography without the risk of shake at the lowest possible ISO speed is only possible in very good light, such as daytime on the street. Owners of fast lenses are able to shoot at low ISO indoors. However, if you are a lucky owner of a fast 1:3.5-5.6 kit lens, then in low light conditions the question arises – what is the best way to proceed? Usually, there are three options:

  • Use the lowest ISO setting and flash
  • Use a tripod and continue shooting at your lowest ISO setting (usually 100-200)
  • Shoot pictures hand-held without using the flash, increasing the ISO sensitivity to a value at which the shutter speed allows you to take pictures without moving. You can take the shutter speed as low as 1/60th of a second.

Let’s look at the pros and cons of the three options:

Shooting with the flash

“If there’s not enough light – use the flash!” – This is the rule followed by the vast majority of amateur photographers. If you have an external flash and it is not directed at the forehead and, say, the ceiling or the wall, the result is likely to be good. However, not everyone has an external flash, so instead of it in such situations use the built-in flash. I have already talked about the harm of built-in flash – it produces red eyes, unpleasant glare on faces, harsh shadows, can distort colors. The foreground is much brighter than the background, which creates the illusion of “pasted”. It is useless to take pictures of distant objects with a flash – it just can’t reach them.

Based on the above, we can conclude that taking pictures with a built-in flash is a bad option. It makes absolutely no difference what camera you are using – a point-and-shoot, a DSLR, a mirrorless camera (even full frame!). The result will be the same: the foreground on a very dark background. Using flash is categorically contraindicated when shooting through glass, such as in a museum or zoo. Instead of an image of the exhibit or animal, you will get a glare from the flash halfway through the frame.

Using a tripod and taking pictures with a slow shutter speed

This option isn’t bad, but it has two serious limitations. First, you need to have your tripod with you, which in many cases is difficult – it’s not possible to carry it around with you all the time. Secondly, the use of slow shutter speeds noticeably narrows the range of subjects you can capture. The moving objects in the frame even with a half second shutter speed will be hopelessly smeared. If you are shooting a portrait, the slightest movement of the person, such as shifting from one foot to another can also ruin the photo. Thus we conclude that the use of a tripod and slow shutter speed is acceptable only for taking pictures of still objects – landscapes, architecture, monuments.

Increasing ISO Sensitivity and Handheld Shooting

It might make one squeamish if I tell you that most modern cameras allow you to take amateur photographs up to ISO 6400. By acceptable quality in this case I mean sufficient for the most typical use of amateur photos – to post on a social networking site or print out a 10*15 cm format. Here’s an example of a photo taken with an inexpensive mirrorless Olympus E-PM2 at ISO6400. It was downsized to 1600*1200 pixels (exif saved), which is enough to print a 10*15 at about 300dpi.

Naturally, I am not talking about any commercial or artistic value of such photos. No photobank will accept photos of that quality – the noise is noticeable even when the size is reduced significantly. Nevertheless, the photo “looks”. Moreover, if you print the photo on photographic paper you will be surprised to find that the noise is practically invisible – you can see it only on the monitor when you look at the picture at 100% zoom.

How do I adjust my camera to take pictures without a tripod or flash in low light?

1. Select the RAW or RAW+Jpeg format. When taking pictures indoors we often have to deal with non-standard lighting, e.g. power saving lamps with a spectrum that cannot be compensated by using the presets “overcast, sunny, lamp, …”. The picture goes either yellow or green. It is impossible to save color in such photos taken in Jpeg. Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, when working with RAW, allows you to bring the color rendition back in the right direction with a one-touch dropper of a deliberately white object. If there is a considerable level of noise in the picture, Jpeg, due to the compression, will definitively kill the detail – noise and useful details will go “under the same rug”. RAW is preferable in this respect, because Lightroom suppresses noise much better than in-camera noise reduction.

2. Sensitivity – Auto ISO. Most cameras have a customizable auto ISO range. By default, the maximum Auto ISO range is around 800-1600 units. It may well be possible to increase it to ISO6400. This allows you to choose the lesser of two evils – the picture will be noisier, but without the shake. Noise can be reduced programmatically, you cannot get rid of it.

3. Program exposure mode or shutter speed priority. When you set the shutter speed to P with auto ISO on, the camera will not let the shutter speed be slower than 1/60th of a second. On some cameras, you can change this setting, for example, to 1/40th of a second. If the aperture is fully open, the shutter speed is set to 1/60th of a second and there isn’t enough light, the camera will “make up” the lacking exposure level by increasing the ISO setting. If the maximum possible ISO level is insufficient, the camera will increase the shutter speed again. The same can be done in the shutter speed priority mode – forcing a shutter speed of 1/60th of a second, and the ISO value the camera will pick up. The only difference from the program exposure is that if the exposure level is not high enough, the device will not increase the shutter speed and will just make an underexposed picture. Why not aperture priority? Because the aperture simply “doesn’t exist” in such conditions. It is completely open and there is no point in closing it, i.e. reducing the light transmission of the lens. Besides, there is a possibility to set slow shutter speed at low ISO that would make handheld shooting impossible. The same is true in manual mode. We set the shutter speed to, say, 1/60th of a second. The aperture is completely open, e.g. f/3.5, but it cannot be wider with a kit lens. But unlike shutter speed priority, M mode most often lacks the ability to automatically adjust ISO sensitivity. We will have to turn the wheel ourselves every time, selecting ISO sensitivity for each particular case by referring to the exposure meter scale and trying to get the exposure level to “zero”. That is, we manually do the kind of work that the robot can do in P and TV(S) modes. At the same time we spend a lot more time on this operation. Is it worth it?

photo with no flash

Bonuses and “enhancements”

There are two things that can improve low-light shooting results.

1. Image Stabilizer (IS, VR, Steady Shot). If you have a stabilizer on your lens, it allows you to increase the “safe shutter speed” by about 2 times. That is, you can safely photograph handheld at a shutter speed of about 1/30th of a second. However, the stabilizer “works” only when shooting static objects. It only fixes the frame’s borders for the duration of exposure, but is unable to affect moving objects. As a result, if you increase the shutter speed by 2 times, moving objects have time to overcome 2 times the distance in the frame, respectively, “smeared” by 2 times more.

2. A fast lens. For reference, an inexpensive 50/1.8 Fix at the f/1.8 aperture lets in almost 4 times more light than a kit lens at the short end and 8 (!!!) times more than at the long end. This allows you to lower the ISO sensitivity, or cut the shutter speed by the same 4-8 times. You have to pay for it with strong background blur and “softness” of image, which is inherent to bright optics at open aperture.

Don’t forget about the direction of light!

If you are shooting at home without a flash, the best light sources will be windows. Try to let the light from the window come in from the side, this will give your pictures extra volume. Even for non-stop amateur photos it will come in handy!

I am sure that if you try shooting with light bulb fixes in natural light you will forget the built-in flash is a bad dream. That’s all for now. Have a great time taking pictures!