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by Bart Arondson

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I own a Canon 450D with just the standard kit lens that comes with it (I don't plan buying a new lens for a while) and one thing I tend to struggle with is shooting in lower light conditions, indoors and out.

When we have people over and I try and document the party with my camera, most of these photos are taken inside the house however even on the lowest f/3.5 for my 18-55mm lens the images tend to come out blurry and out of focus.

I have heard increasing your ISO works well but then you have the problem of noise.

Is increasing the shutter speed and ISO a good idea for these situations?

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related photo.stackexchange.com/questions/20072/… –  akram May 3 '12 at 6:47

10 Answers 10

up vote 24 down vote accepted

Get a flash!

Seriously, even the small external flashes make a huge difference. You can also (at least on my Nikon SB-400) direct the flash at the ceiling, which both annoys people less and also nearly always eliminates red-eye.

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This deserves an upvote since it's probably the easiest way to get better pics... it just isn't applicable to all situations. But then, what is? –  Craig Walker Jul 16 '10 at 2:19
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Keep in mind that pointing the flash at the ceiling isn't very effective if the ceiling is really high or vaulted. –  Jonathon Watney Jul 16 '10 at 5:40
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Also you have to be aware of ceiling colour! –  danio Jul 16 '10 at 8:37
    
Meh, just shoot in RAW. Then you'll only have issues if you are mixing it with ambient light. Even then, color contrasts can be fun if you aim and process it right. –  Eruditass Oct 9 '10 at 17:01
    
That's all fine for indoor situations, but not for taking pictures outdoor (like Nathan says he does). –  Max Aug 3 '12 at 9:10

Noise is better than blur (and much less of a problem than you might think from reading the internet), so don't hesitate to vigorously boost ISO.

Underexposing won't help; it's basically the same as increasing ISO w.r.t. noise. The only time to do this is when you've already maxed out the ISO adjustment.

Consider a "fast fifty" - you can get a 50mm f/1.4 or f/1.8 lens for super cheap.

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+1 for explaining underexposure vs. ISO w.r.t. noise. :) –  jrista Jul 15 '10 at 23:21
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Under exposing might be the only option on cameras that don't support the higher ISO ranges though. Often 1600 ISO (its maximum) on my camera does the job but if I need something faster my only option is to under expose. That being said there are some nifty softwares that can de-noise images. –  Jonathon Watney Jul 16 '10 at 5:48
1  
The fast 50mm lens is a great buy but I'm not sure that it would be so useful at parties unless OP just wants to get head & shoulders portraits. I suggest OP should try shooting his kit lens at 50mm before buying. –  danio Jul 16 '10 at 8:36
    
I was planning on buying a 50mm, but yeah it won't help me at parties with people in a room. –  Nathan W Jul 16 '10 at 9:29
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Nikon has a 35mm f/1.8 that's cheap ($200); not sure if there's a Canon equivalent. –  Reid Jul 16 '10 at 15:41

Aperture is king. As opposed to higher ISO (noise) and slower shutter speed (blur), a larger aperture (ie: a lower f-number) often results in better-looking pictures in lower light. The lower f-numbers give a shallower depth of field, resulting in blurry backgrounds. This gives a nice separation between the background and your in-focus subject.

A 50mm f/1.8 lens is a great investment for this reason. It's cheap too!

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But shooting wide open can also produce less sharp images. Might not be a big deal depending on how large you're publishing your images though. –  Jonathon Watney Jul 16 '10 at 5:44
    
Good point, although you don't necessarily need to shoot "wide" open... f/2.8 would still be a step up from the f/3.5 he maxes out at now. –  Craig Walker Jul 16 '10 at 14:44
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I disagree. Light is king and one way to get more light is a bigger aperture but it's not the only way and not always the best way. –  user7226 Dec 21 '11 at 8:08

To reduce motion blur (both by camera movement and subject movement) you need to get a shorter exposure time and/or reduce movement. To get a shorter time you need more light or reduce the need for light, so there are a few things that you can do:

  • Higher ISO
  • Underexposure
  • Add light (doh! But I think that it should be mentioned)

Using higher ISO and underexposing is basically the same when you are using a digital camera.

To reduce movement there are some tricks:

  • Use stationary objects for support
  • Elbows in and use your own body for stability
  • Tripod
  • Monopod
  • Tell people to be still

Some of these things aren't practically possible, for example telling people to be still generally takes away a lot of the mood.

One old trick is to use a piece of string for support. You tie one end in the camera and let the other end hang to the floor. You step on the string and pull the camera upwards to tension the string, this will reduce movement of the camera.

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"Tell people to be still". Might sound awkward at first, but that's very good advice. I'll give it a try. –  Max Aug 3 '12 at 9:17

The obvious answer for low-light shooting is a tripod. You can get sharp images in almost no light with a tripod, remote control, and ridiculously long shutter times. This is not always practical though; any sort of movement rules this out.

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+1 because tripods are a critical part of the low-light discussion, but probably won't help with the party pics the OP wants to shoot. –  Reid Jul 15 '10 at 23:31
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Yup... unless it's a really boring party ;-) –  Craig Walker Jul 15 '10 at 23:41

An image-stabilized (vibration reduction) lens can also help you reduce blur in hand-held low-light situations. My understanding is that you can basically get the equivalent of 1-2 stops; you can trade this off for aperture, ISO, or shutter speed. However, it only works for hand shake; subject movement will still result in blur.

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This is the exact reason I got a 50mm f/1.8. The 1.8 aperture makes a huge difference in low light.

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By the way, it's important to note that there's a difference between "blurry" and "out of focus". I like to think of the difference as "side to side" vs "in and out".

"Blur" is typically used to describe the effect of motion between the subject and the sensor. That's caused either by the motion of the subject, or the motion of the camera (including camera shake and vibration). This is the sort of thing that's helped by tripods, shutter speeds, and image stabilization. It's also not necessarily bad; some blur can help imply motion on the part of the subject.

"Out of focus" is used to describe problems with the distance between subject and sensor, given a particular lens focus setting. Most of the time you want your subject to be in complete focus. Depth of field (which is controlled by aperture) can help achieve this. However, most of the results are determined by the focusing system itself, either you (for manual focus) or the autofocus system of your camera. The latter can be quite complex and tricky in low-light; different cameras and lenses will have different behaviors. That's why you'll often see the little light from your camera turn on before a shot; the AF system needs a minimum level of light in order to do its work.

They're two different things and require two different types of corrections. It's important to know what you're dealing with beforehand.

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Others have covered the basic techniques you can use here pretty well - just a couple additional points:

  • I'm not aware of a good, cheap, fast wide-angle lens for Canon. Their 28mm 2.8 runs about $250, and that's not super-wide, super-fast, or super-cheap (compared to the 50mm 1.8, anyway).
  • The 50mm 1.8 is such a great bargain that it's worth considering even if you're not sure how well it'll work for composition. You're going to get 2-3 stops better light-gathering ability relative to your lens, which will make a real difference.
  • +1 for flash. You can play with flash exposure compensation to vary the effect of the flash a bit. Even if you don't have an external flash, you can play with diffusing or bouncing the onboard flash with something as simple as a 3x5 card.
  • If you do end up shooting at a high ISO, take a look at DxO Optics Pro - it seems to do a pretty decent job with noise reduction, and it's pretty affordable compared to other options. They've got a free trial if you want to try it.
  • For the shooting you're doing, I don't think you're going to get a huge improvement from a tripod. The tripod eliminates camera movement, but it won't stop the people in your shot from moving.
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My low-light experience is not with parties but with indoors places such as churches or museums.

When these places allow photography at all, they usually forbid flashes and tripods. My solutions are:

  • high aperture lens, e.g. EF 50mm f/1.8
  • lens with Image Stabilization, e.g. EF-S 15-85mm USM IS
  • pocket tripod or bean bag (they are discrete enough not to draw much attention), with a telecommand
  • get as stable as possible: I put my back against a wall, my shoulders against my body, I fully breathe in, then I breathe out about one third then stop breathing and shoot.

Some people use a telescopic monopod.

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"get as stable as possible" : that's what a lot of people don't get right usually. One more advice about how you stand : stand on both of legs firmly , and don't keep them together (i.e. open at least as wide as your hips) –  Max Aug 3 '12 at 9:27

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