Not Your Everyday Banana

by Bart Arondson

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I current own a Nikon D5000 with kit lens (18-55mm f/3.5-5.6) and am looking to take better indoor photos of my fast-moving 9-month-old, which sometimes come out blurred or not natural I use the on-camera popup flash.

I believe to overcome these issues in an ideal world, a fast prime and a directional flash would solve this. However if I was to choose just one of those, which would be most effective to capture the best look (understanding a wide aperture will result in blurred background)?

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9 Answers 9

up vote 18 down vote accepted

I agree that you'll probably eventually want both (no one said that this is a cheap hobby!), but I'd go with the flash first.

It's easier to use quickly, and works well when you have multiple subjects not necessarily side-by-side — or when your kid won't stay within the in-focus area for for than a millisecond. With indoor lighting, even a wide-open fast prime is sometimes not enough.

Nikon has a nice, simple, and affordable flash with bounce capability, the SB-400. They make a lot of great flashes, in fact, and you certainly wouldn't go wrong getting a higher-up model, but you'll also get a great improvement just from the very basic model. Plus, it's small, which means you can include it in a small camera bag without much sacrifice.

Ooh, one more thing: a flash lets you take fun pictures of babies knocking over towers of blocks, with the blocks frozen mid-air:

boom.

Now, admittedly, that's with a nice prime and a nice flash, but the prime is set to f/5, which you could easily do with a low-cost zoom.

This one was taken of my other daughter, using an Olympus "bridge" style camera with a small sensor and built-in zoom lens. Your DSLR is unquestionably much more capable even with the kit lens. I added Olympus's low-end hotshoe flash, which is roughly equivalent to the SB-400. There's a bounce card which gives the catchlights in the eyes, and the flash is otherwise pointed straight up. This doesn't give very exciting, dynamic-feeling lighting, but it looks pretty nice. I've got some examples of more dramatic lighting, but the point here really is that a flash can make meaningful improvements even used very simply.

guen and cat

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I have to agree, though there are some tricks to diffusing the popup flash to make it less harsh, it's easier to deal with a decent flash that can tilt/swivel for bounce and softer light. –  John Cavan Dec 31 '10 at 20:48
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The SB-400 can't swivel side to side, but has a simple tilt-upwards capability. My father recently got one for his D3000, and his pictures are dramatically improved, and, no offense to my father :) I'm sure he's not really using any particular tricks. That said, yeah, if you do take the time to learn and think about it, controlling light is a very important part of getting great photos. –  mattdm Dec 31 '10 at 20:53
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I bought a 35mm f/1.8, and bought a flash later. In retrospect, I wish I had gotten the flash first; a flash will open more doors for your photography than a prime will. However, babies' eyes are more sensitive than adults, so you might want to hold off on the flash until he/she is older. –  Evan Krall Dec 31 '10 at 21:16
    
Something like StoFen's Omnibounce or Gary Fong's Lightdome can cure a lot of ills. Unlike simpler bounce cards and diffusers, they also allow the walls and ceiling to come into play (like a softer version of the bare bulb effect). If you're really up close and at floor level, it won't make a lot of difference, but at anything more than a couple of feet it really takes the harsh edge off. –  user2719 Jan 1 '11 at 2:54
    
@Stan Rogers, I don't think that'd work well with the SB-400, which isn't super-powerful. But just a simple bounce off of the ceiling works surprisingly well. –  mattdm Jan 1 '11 at 5:04
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I tend to go for the prime before the flash, and here's why:

  1. Flash adds weight and bulk to your camera. Once your 9 month old starts trying to grab the camera from your hands, better to have a lighter camera so that if/when s/he succeeds, they won't hurt themselves when they drop it. They also have less handholds of things they can pull apart.
  2. Flash shots require more skill to do nicely compared to prime, in my opinion (or at least, I required more skill with a flash to produce shots I liked compared to shots I like with a prime). With a prime, just set the focus point over the eyes and snap, and you've got a good chance of pulling off something decent at f/2 or f/2.8. With a flash, unless you're bouncing off of a nearby wall, the shot can tend to look blasted out, with a light gradient across the image. Prime = better chance of a good natural light shot.
  3. Flash requires batteries. If my experience with my 2 year old is any guide, you'll be hunting for those for the next few years. Prime = no batteries.
  4. One trick with a prime that's harder to do without a more expensive flash (sb900) is burst mode. Set the camera to rapid capture mode, and even with 1/30th or 1/60th shutter speed, chances are good that 1 out of the 5 or so in the burst won't be completely blurred out. Sure, you'll have more shots to wade through and remove during post, but it's pretty easy to ditch the four bad ones in favor of the one good. With flash, unless you set it on repeat mode (which, again, I know the sb900 can do, I'm not sure about the sb600 or sb400), you won't get a burst, and you won't get one faster than every five-ten seconds or so.
  5. Flashes can overheat, meaning that under certain conditions, you can only shoot for an hour or so (in burst mode) before the flash goes out. If you're shooting with your flash this much, though, you might be overdoing it (or a wedding photographer).

Having said that, it also depends on your local lighting conditions. If you're in a room that always has the blinds drawn and you're constantly shooting wide open with your current lens at 1600 iso and still requiring half a second of exposure, then the flash may be the better bet for you. If it's dark, it's dark. I tend try to shoot my son at 1/125th or faster if I can, so if your current metering requires a lot more light to get to that shutter speed, then you'll need the flash.

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Huh. I guess I disagree on almost all counts here. :) #1: the SB-400 is pretty small, with a non-traditional form-factor; #2: I actually think the flash is easier if you're not trying for anything clever -- obviously mileage will vary, flavor to taste, etc.; #3: get some eneloops and it's no big deal; #4: true, but the SB-400 has a 2.5 second recharge time. And #5, like you say, not a big deal for most home use. Anyway -- happy new year! –  mattdm Jan 1 '11 at 5:07
    
Well, it appears that @John agrees with you :) –  mmr Jan 1 '11 at 15:52
    
It seems a very split debate, and you made a very good argument. I have to agree with a lot of your points however chose the other answer as I reading all the answers I can see that in some cases the prime may still not work and the sb-400 is small light unit with long battery life. I am sure long term I will end up with both. –  John Jan 3 '11 at 10:59
    
@John-- glad you could make a decision. Hopefully, you'll get some good shots of the wee one :) –  mmr Jan 3 '11 at 21:21
    
Hehehe, "Prime goeth before a flash ..." –  Tim Post Jan 4 '11 at 10:07
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I ended up buying both!

Like you, I've got a D5000 and I am now the proud owner of a 35mm f1.8 and a SB-400.

I started with the lens, which has allowed me to take some really nice photos of my baby niece indoors. However, I found that I still needed a flash sometimes when the light really isn't that good. Bouncing the flash and/or using a diffuser makes a massive difference to photographs taken with flash.

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Same here :) I just got both the 35mm f/1.8 and the SB600 for Christmas. For the price of the two, I could have gone with a 50mm f/1.4. I got the lens first (by a week) and was still disappointed with my limitations on indoor photography (which had admittedly dramatically improved, but still). But, that being said, I live in NE Ohio which means we are indoors and it is cloudy for 4-6 months/year, so I knew the both would be used! If you can't afford both, go for the flash first. You will probably be wanting to upgrade to a prime lens soon after, though. –  Sarah Haren Dec 31 '10 at 23:41
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I'd go for the flash. Why? You're indoors. It is Winter. It is dark. A fast prime will give you 2 or 3 stops. But a flash gives you the ability to take a shot in any conditions. Sure, it will take some time to master. But these are skills worth developing.

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I am really happy with my Sigma 30mm f/1.4 (on a Canon 30D). It's a lot of fun to shoot with (mostly kittens, though, not babies), and although I eventually bought a flash I never use it because it isn't fun for me to shoot with. So in your position, I'd buy a fast lens! But, a very fast lens won't just cause a blurred background (which is usually a good thing, by the way):

  • your depth of field, wide open, will be very small. As in, if you get one eye in focus (and your goal should be to get the eyes in focus), the other eye might not be in focus.
  • because of this, autofocus will probably miss most of the time: your camera will focus on the nose, or ear, or anything else, instead of what you want, and with that super-narrow depth of field, the picture just won't turn out.
  • if you can't trust AF, and if you don't get a lens with an easy-to-use manual focus ring or you don't like using manual focus, you'll probably miss a lot of shots.
  • even if you enjoy focusing manually, you'll miss a lot of shots because the viewfinder won't show the difference between f/1.4 and f/2.8 or so. So you'll need to bracket your shots a lot (take a picture, make a miniscule adjustment to the focus, take another picture, repeat...) if you want to ensure you get good photos. My keeper rate is around 5-10% because I just barely miss the focus a lot of the time.

That said... I really love shooting with my 30/1.4, and when I nail the focus the pictures are absolutely amazing, with the subject popping clearly into view and the background fading smoothly away....

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Nobody mentioned as i'd like the (subjective) beauty of a portrait with great bokeh on the background..i get the logic behind the flash's advantage in dark situations, but how often do you take action baby pictures in the dark?

Within "normal" indoor lighting conditions, at f1.8 - f2.8, you can get 1/125s exposures with moderate ISO...at the same time, you're not flashing your baby's eyes, you're getting naturally lit shots and you're getting nice bokeh-ish background.

Granted, you won't be taking much action stopping shots, but IMHO, the benefits of wide aperture prime clearly outweigh those of the flash.

Disclaimer: i picked the prime for myself :)

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How often is it darker than I want indoors when I'm taking baby pictures? All the time! I went for the 50/f1.8 first, and picked up the flash later. The prime is great, but I've still got plenty of cases where I was barely getting 1/50th of a second with ISO 1600 and f/1.8. Need more light! –  khedron Sep 23 '11 at 21:57
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Flash for sure. You already got plenty of good answers and reasons here. It is just that for what you are seeking - flash will cover many more situations than a prime. Think of it - you can shoot your baby (photographically, that is...) in a completely dark room with a flash, but not with a prime. Plus, once you start using an external flash you may get curious about off-camera lighting and some creative lighting effects, and it may just be the beginning of a long and enjoyable journey...

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I would go with the prime lens every time. It just cannot be beaten for the depth of field and creativity.

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I have both the 35/1.8 and the SB-400 (however, no baby anymore). While I like both items I've been converted to the joys of a directional flash (like the SB-600) since getting old used SB-24s and shooting these manually. Being able to bounce a flash off a side wall or a wall behind you, with plenty of power, is very nice.

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