Alley in Pisa, Italy

by Lars Kotthoff

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I'm a total newbie to photography. I have a Nikon D90 and at the moment I'm trying to learn how to actually use it.

I've noticed that whenever I shoot in a dark room with the on-camera pop up flash, the picture looks somewhat unrealistic; I don't know how to precisely describe it, but this slight motion that makes pictures look alive is not captured (probably due to the high shutter speed). If I turn the flash off, pictures are just dark and obscure.

Is there a way to shoot (not necessarily still) objects, with or without flash is actually not important, but to be able to capture the live image? Also would be nice to be able to see something on those images.

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When you say flash, do you mean the on-camera pop up flash or a speedlight? –  ElendilTheTall Jun 9 '11 at 14:31
    
exactly that, on-camera popup flash, i didn't know there was something else –  Elijah Saounkine Jun 9 '11 at 14:32
    
See Nikon Speedlights Lineup for something else. :) –  mattdm Jun 9 '11 at 17:37
1  
Thought the question was about taking pictures where you're trying to develop film. :\ –  Seth Johnson Jun 10 '11 at 2:14
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The short answer is: "by making it (a lot) less dark, at least briefly." –  Jerry Coffin Jun 10 '11 at 4:02

6 Answers 6

up vote 12 down vote accepted

When you take pictures with the flash, it looks unreal because your room is not normally lit by a flash or by only a light source attached to your forehead.

Now, assuming your room is dark but not pitch black, what you need to do it take a photo without the flash. To get better results you will have to:

  • Increase your ISO as high as it is acceptable to you. You can go to 1600 or 3200 if you do not intend to make a large print with the image.
  • Open your aperture as wide as possible. You do this in A mode and turn the dial until you get a bright aperture (smaller numbers). You will see the shutter-speed increase at the same time if you are doing it right.
  • Buy yourself a brighter lens. Something with a wide maximum aperture. A number of not so expensive ones have F/1.8 or F/1.4 (even better). This lets it get 2-4X times more light than the kit lens, depending of the focal-length.

Note that there is always a limit. At one point, it becomes too dark for any camera and lens. If you have people in your room, then the shutter-speed should at least be 1/60 if they are still and probably 1/250 if they are moving. Otherwise they will appear blurry.

Once it becomes too low you can add artificial lighting but you are looking at a heavy and expensive setup to make it look close to natural.

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5  
+1 for the first sentence :D –  JoséNunoFerreira Jun 9 '11 at 16:43
    
I just pictured a flash popping up out of some guy's forehead. –  Nick Bedford Jun 10 '11 at 4:31

On-camera pop up flash is unfortunately pretty useless for illuminating a subject. The worst possible place for a light-source is directly in front of the subject, and when you couple this with the fact that a pop up flash is a small, harsh light source, you get some poor results.

Pop-up flash is really only useful for 'fill light'. Imagine you are taking a photo of someone against a bright background - the sky, for example. You want to maintain detail in the sky, so you have to expose for that, but as the sky is brighter than a person, you will get a silhouette. But if you use the pop up flash to illuminate them, you get a properly exposed sky (the flash won't light it!) and an illuminated subject.

Now, back to dark rooms. You have two solutions. The first is a speedlight or flash gun. These are the big flash units you see on the cameras paparazzi use. The advantage of these is that you can swivel and point them at a ceiling or wall, which spreads the light out and diffuses it, so you get more natural, even light. You can use a flashgun for other things too, like off-camera lighting.

The other option is to buy a 'fast' lens. If you have a standard kit lens on your D90, you probably have a maximum aperture of about 4-5.6. This means you can only get a certain amount of light in to your camera. In dark rooms, to get enough light, this means you need a relatively slow shutter speed like 1/20. This usually results in blurred images.

However, a fast lens has a much larger maximum aperture - say, f/1.8. This means you can get much more light in to the camera, so you can use a faster shutter speed and thus get a better shot. A good example of this is the Nikkor 35mm 1.8, which is pretty fast, good quality, and relatively cheap. The advantage of a fast lens is that you make use of available light, which generally gives more natural results. However, their use in the evening/night is limited.

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strangely it seems nobody suggested to bounce/diffuse your built-in flash. Doing so you can get good results also in very low light, avoiding very noisy high ISO, or if you dont have a fast lens, or you have it but it's not the focal length you want...

  • diffuse - a diffuser is a piece of plastic which is placed on your flash to diffuse light, giving a softer effect than just "naked" flash. The result is still not natural, but nicer. Diffusers are (usually) made for flashes other than the one that comes with the camera, so you probably won't find one that suits your needs. You can make one using anything that is transparent enough to let the light from the flash through (very thin paper, a semi-opaque can for rolls of film, transparent plastic foam sometimes found in the packages of photo filters...)

  • bounce - this is what you usually do with any decent flash which lets you turn its head up, so light will be reflected from the ceiling and walls, giving a natural rendition of the scene (someone else explained this). What I wanted to say is you can bounce the flash of your D90 (or other non-pro DSLRs) if you put something that reflects enough light (white cardboard/paper, aluminum, a small plastic mirror) in front of it , inclined forward by 45 degrees , so light will be reflected on the ceiling, then back on your subject. The downsides of doing this are

    • it can't be done outdoor or if the ceiling is very high

    • color casts if the ceiling (or anything else over you) is not white

    • holding the "bouncer" in you hand can be a problem. But you can fit it on the camera in many ways

With both these "techniques" you may need to adjust your flash exposure correction to account for the extra distance and absorption of light.

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You're trying to balance lighting and exposure in a really challenging environment. In order to take a picture, you've got to have some light, and you've got to set your camera up to capture that light. One of the problems you're going to see here is that there's a multitude of changes you can make, some of which might include new equipment, and those changes will impact other aspects of your photos, but I'll try to give you some things to think about.

As I mentioned, your picture will be affected by the exposure of your camera and the light available while you're taking that picture. The light will be some combination of ambient light (the light that's in the room before you start monkeying around) and artificial light that you add for your purposes. The "while you're taking the picture" part is the shutter speed on your camera.

If you hold lighting constant, then setting your camera up is all about the exposure settings -- aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. I'm not going to get started on a full explanation of all of these, because we've already got some excellent discussions here on exposure, but if there isn't a lot of light in the room, it's very likely that you're going to want to use a large aperture (small f-stop number) and high ISO speed for these shots, and you'll want to understand the impact you'll see on depth-of-field and noise in your photos.

If, on the other hand, you want to start adding light to the room, things can get complicated in a hurry. If you imagine walking into a dark room and flipping on a light switch, that's going to change the light level in the room (obviously). The good news is that there's now more light available for you to take photos, but the bad news is that you've gone and completely changed the nature, direction and white balance of the light in the room, and everything looks different now.

If you haven't done so already, I'd pay a visit to the Strobist web site to start getting a sense for the sort of flexibility and control that are available with artificial light. You might find that it takes some work to achieve the look you're going for, but you might also find that it helps you think a little more deliberately about lighting (where it's coming from, how it's spread or diffused, etc.). We tend not to worry about that very much when we're shooting with ambient light only, but once you start to train yourself to think in these terms, I think you'll find your ambient-light photos improve, too.

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Let me try to give you few simple tips that might help you in finding a solution:

  1. The picture is highly depends from a lens you use. If you have some 'kit' like 18-135 f/4.5 then it will be very hard to make good picture, especially from hands. If you have a chance to try lens with widest aperture 1.4, 1.8 or 2.8 - try it.
  2. Flash in most modes usually fills only the front but looses the back. Try Slow mode in Flash settings (hold the flash button near lens on the left and dial closest dialer. Make sure you chosen one from the "MASP" modes)
  3. In any case and any camera+lens (even with low-cost) you might try a tripod. If this is a case for you, then switch camera to Aperture priority (mode "A"), close an aperture little bit (to 6.0-7.0), increase ISO to 400-800, switch 'White Balance' to Auto, put the camera on a tripod and try to make a picture - I'm sure you'll get not bad result.
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Note that you can flag the question as not very clear, or make a comment to the post above rather than in your answer. The question is vague mostly due to lack of knowledge; the whole point of asking and answering is to remedy that. –  mattdm Jun 9 '11 at 18:53
    
now is better in Feng Shui? –  Genius Jun 10 '11 at 4:24
    
Absolutely. Thanks! :) –  mattdm Jun 10 '11 at 10:49
    
@mattdm ok, sorry, had no reason to offend anyone. –  Genius Jun 22 '11 at 9:39
    
Cool. Voted up now. –  mattdm Jun 22 '11 at 11:12

Increase 1SO. Decrease Shutter Speed (1/60 being the slowest you can shoot moving objects). Your aperture needs to be wide (smaller number). If that doesn't help much, you can always enhance it by computer editing (exposure, highlight, and fill light).

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