Is it practical to shoot portraits in candle lights, only, provided there is no flash around? If yes, then for portrait shots, where and how should one place the candles? Are there any specific factors that need to be taken care of? Is it prone to creating a flat light?

Here are some specific details about my gear:

  • Camera: Canon Powershot SX210 IS
  • Min F8, Max F3.1 (but I zoom it gets up to 6, doh)
  • My ISO performs horribly beyond 100, and cannot shoot in raw

Considering these conditions in which way should the candles be placed so that they light up the model's face and do not create a flat light? On the side (left and right) of the person, or in the front of the person? How does the position impact the results?

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    you are certainly asking an eclectic bunch of questions. Keep it up! :-) – AJ Finch Nov 11 '11 at 10:49
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    I want to state, I think this is a truly superb question! The idea is very creative and intriguing. I'm very glad you asked it, Anisha! – jrista Nov 20 '11 at 2:03
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    The Stanley Kubrick movie Barry Lyndon has several scenes filmed entirely in candlelight. Watching those (example here) may give you some ideas, as well as this background interview clip. Kubrick famously used an ultra-fast (f/0.7!) lens designed for NASA; you can certainly get by with slower especially with modern high-ISO sensors, but your point-and-shoot is probably not up to the task. – mattdm Nov 21 '11 at 3:51
  • I stumbled upon this picture shot using candle/lighter light. Photographer is member of this forum. – Vikas Nov 30 '11 at 13:52
  • Obviously, you need MOAR CANDLES!!!1one! – Fake Name Dec 3 '11 at 5:42

Yes, this can work. I know because I've taken photos of children lit only by their birthday-cake candles and they've come out nicely.

First, some general tips, without regard to your specific camera. These are probably most appropriate for a DSLR or other advanced camera which gives a lot of photographer control:

  • Use manual exposure. The camera's automatic metering will try to make the scene look nicely bright overall, which is probably not what you want. Even if you're trying to create a brightly light room with lots of candles, the metering is likely to be confused.
  • Spot meter on the subject's face. That'll give you a base reading for correct exposure for that area. Metering on the candles themselves will cause the subject to be very dim — which can also work, but tends to make the candle the primary subject.
  • Once you have this base exposure reading, take test shots and see how they look. The histogram will probably be useless here, since it'll be mostly flat with peaks near the edges.
  • Decide on whether you want to have a largely black photograph with a small pool of light, or a tightly-framed portrait with just a candlelit face, or a whole room and scene lit by candles. This will influence your overall exposure decision, and frames your your other artistic choices as well.
  • Decide what you want to use for a shutter speed. A fast speed will reduce the flicker of the flame, and if you're trying to expose so as to show the candle itself clearly, this may be desirable. On the other hand, a little bit of motion blur might be acceptable or even preferred.
  • Decide what you want for aperture. Wide-open to gather the most light is the obvious choice, and will fit with the visual expectation of most viewers. The shallow depth of field can add to the intimate, personal feeling of a candlelit shot. On the other hand, a greater depth of field can help show more context.
  • Choose your ISO to match the factors above, so that the scene is exposed as you want. Again, take test shots here. You may decide you have to compromise on your artistic wishes for depth of field or shutter speed.
  • If you opt for a longer shutter speed, use a tripod. Having to worry about the subject moving is enough trouble; even with image stabilization, keeping the camera still enough will be a challenge.
  • Consider black and white, or perhaps a warm monotone. This will give you more latitude in using very high, noisy ISO settings, because color noise is the most annoying and distracting. A little color is nice for candlelight, though. Choosing a warm monotone similar to that cast by candles may be a good compromise — if you experiment or look at some sample pictures, you can see that color photographs often look monotone orange/yellow in this light anyway.
  • If you do go for color, set white balance manually. Candlelight is very warm — which means low Kelvin temperature. The camera's auto-wb will try to make the lighting neutral, which is probably not what you want. The tungsten/incandescent setting may be a good choice — candle flame is even warmer than that, so you'll still get a pleasant tone. Typically, candlelight is around 1500-1900K, while incandescent lights are 2700-3300K (and flash or sunlight more like 5500-6500K). If you set the camera to incandescent, the candlelight will still have a strong warm cast, which is probably what you want.
  • Manual focus may be required, as autofocus sometimes struggles in low light. Check focus carefully if you're using a wide aperture.
  • If you're using any filters for lens protection, take them off, particularly if the candles are in the frame. This is a perfect opportunity for them to increase glare and ruin your image.
  • Place the lights as close as possible to the subject — light follows the inverse square law, which means it decreases rapidly as you move away from the source. The birthday-cake photos work because the child is leaning in to blow out the candles, providing lots of immediate light.

In general, working with little point sources like this will emphatically not produce flat lighting. You will get pools of bright light and interesting shadows. As for where to put them exactly, experiment! Move the candles around and pay close attention to how these shadows shape the image.

For your specific camera: on the plus side, it offers a lot of manual control, including spot metering, so you can follow most of the suggestions above. But on the downside, the aperture is only f/3.1 at the widest lens setting, 28mm-e, which you probably don't want to use for portraits as it will tend to distort your subject's features unflatteringly. You'll probably want to zoom in to at least 50mm-e, and probably more like 70-100mm-e is ideal. This reduces your light-gathering ability, forcing you to increase the ISO. Additionally, in combination with the tiny sensor, this basically removes the possibility of shallow depth of field as an artistic choice. That doesn't necessarily kill the idea entirely, but it's a constraint you'll have to work around. Likewise, if you really don't want to raise the ISO beyond 100, you may be quite limited.

Here are some examples demonstrating some of the suggestions above. With the exception of a very minor curves adjustment in the last black and white image, these are all JPEG files from the camera, with no post-processing trickery other than choosing different in-camera toning options for the middle example.

A different look and more flexibility could be achieved by shooting RAW and spending more time on post-processing, but I wanted to demonstrate what can easily be done by anyone without special software (or time or knowledge to operate that software.

I spot-metered on on my subject's face, and generally didn't bother with the exposure dials after I was satisfied. I wanted to use settings that you could easily emulate with your point and shoot, so at first, I tried an aperture of f/3.2 and a longer shutter speed, but my model has trouble holding still for more than a fraction of a second. I dropped to f/2.8 and used a 1-second exposure, which almost worked:

f/2.8 / 1 second / ISO 100; two candles ghost effect

But she looked away at the last second.

I should add that this is with my Pentax DA 40mm f/2.8 Limited; I tried the 70mm f/2.4 first, but the fact that I was using fire around a small child meant I really needed to be closer.

As is probably evident, I'm using two standard taper candles. In this image, the white balance is set to tungsten. I discovered that the manual white balance in my camera doesn't go below 2500K, and I didn't bother to take a reading with a gray card. The image is actually a little cool and the candles too white — I don't like at all how the flames are rendered here and would work on that more for a final image. I do like the soft, muted, low-key tones of the "ghost" image — for me, if she hadn't looked away, I'd crop out the candles and this would definitely be a keeper. (Although, while imaging how things could be different, I'd also pose that stuffed animal so it looked somewhat cute rather than being a bedraggled amorphous blob. Don't tell my daughter I said that.)

f/2.8 / 1 second / ISO 100; two candles next try, first rendering

So there's the next try. Pretty much the same as the first but I had her rest her head in her hands in an effort to keep still, which worked relatively well. I also moved one of the candles much closer in order to provide a little more shaping to the shadows on her face. You can see that even that slight change makes a visible difference.

f/2.8 / 1 second / ISO 100; two candles; converted to black and white next try, grayscale

That really looks pretty good. My wife likes the color better; I prefer this one.

Here's the sepia version:

f/2.8 / 1 second / ISO 100; two candles; converted to sepia tone next try, sepia toned

I'm not so keen on how that turned out; I don't think my camera's built-in toning options are flexible enough to make me happy.

Anyway, after that, one second shutter wasn't working — that's a lot to ask of a six-year-old for more than one or two lucky shots. So, I dropped to a third of a second and upped the ISO to 400. I think you might be able to get away with this with your P&S camera too. Or, if you can order up a somewhat more restrained model, you may be able to go with longer exposures and keep the ISO down — even with your more-restrictive aperture in this focal range.

f/2.8 ⅓ second / ISO 400; two candles moving the lights

Here, some experimenting with changing the angle of the lights. You can see that the close candlelight is very much the opposite of flat lighting, and this image feels almost three-dimensional to me.

f/2.8 ⅓ second / ISO 400; two candles, one off-scene with reflector enter image description here

This is the only one I edited out-of-camera, and even then only by adjusting the tone curve so that there's a lot more contrast. The images above could also be subjected to the same treatment: the other B&W image, in particular, is very easy to make more dramatic.

I also did more playing with the light. In particular, there is candle just to the right of the frame next to the foot of the tripod where I had the camera, and right behind that, just far away enough to not catch fire, a 32" silver reflector. I'd planned to post a second version of this with that candle extinguished — the effect was dramatically different — but my model decided she'd had enough at that point.

So yeah. This can be done. You can do it, and you don't need 400 candles, or any such nonsense. Your point and shoot camera might have some limitations, but I'd highly suggest you go ahead and see what you can get out of it. It may pleasantly surprise you.

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  • It looks like this camera is 14MP -- so maybe you can back up from the subject, use the wider aperture, and then crop down most of the image? I don't know how much distortion you'll get, but I know it gets a lot worse if you're closer. I'm hoping that a little distance (plus @mattdm's setup advice) will help here. – Michael H. Nov 22 '11 at 19:30
  • @khedron: since that gives you a smaller effective sensor surface area to work with, that might be counterproductive. Worth experimenting with specific lens/sensor hardware, though. – mattdm Nov 22 '11 at 19:35
  • A good and useful update to your post. I'd upvote if I hadn't already done so. But it also serves to highlight the difficulty of live-model photography where shutter speeds stretch to a second or more. – Staale S Dec 3 '11 at 17:58
  • @Staale: thanks! And yes; I think it would be much easier with an adult — or with a much more mellow kid. I'll update more later with some pixel-level crops showing sharpness. – mattdm Dec 3 '11 at 18:34

Yes, it can be done - I just tried it :)

I don't have a compact camera, but I used parameters on my DSLR that can be used on your compact camera too. I am a bit of a cheapskate, so I used only one candle, but I did use a piece of foil behind it to reflect more light towards the model (myself, that is). I tried using most of @mattdm's advice, except metering (I used manual mode and adjusted based on histograms of test shots).

For the shots below, I used a 58mm lens on APS-C sensor (equivalent to about 85mm on full frame, or 3x optical zoom on your camera) - about the minimum focal length suitable for portraiture. Aperture was f/5.6. ISO was 100, file format JPEG. The candle was about 8 to 10 inches from my face.

I started off with maximum shutter speed of your camera, 15 seconds, but it turned out that gave overexposure in red channel, so I had to reduce it to 5 seconds. The red channel will be strongly dominating even with tungsten white balance. Your camera does not show histograms for separate color channels, so make sure your histogram ends at least one stop before the right edge to avoid overexposing red channel.

The 5 second shutter speed might seem long compared to speeds usually used in portraiture, but it's doable. After all, the masters had to use even slower speeds about a century ago with film speeds less than ISO 10 and f/8 considered a "fast" lens. You do have to make sure that, during exposure, neither the camera moves (use tripod) nor the model (stop breathing, posture with supported head also helps).

Three candlelit portraits

From here, you can see how positioning of light impacts the resulting image. Larger versions of the images are in my Flickr set.

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    +1 — thanks for a practical example! Clicking through to see the higher resolution is strongly recommended. – mattdm Nov 21 '11 at 21:57
  • @mattdm the higher resolution images are separate for easier viewing, I don't think I can hack an image-map here. The link is below the image. – Imre Nov 21 '11 at 21:59
  • I know — just highlighting it for more attention. :) – mattdm Nov 21 '11 at 22:01
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    Ah, a tripod and a frozen subject can work wonders :) If you want a reasonably handholdable 1/50 sec insted of 5 sec, that would be... about 9-ish stops, would it not - ie. 256 candles instead of the one? The calculations earlier in the thread were not so far off the mark, then. – Staale S Nov 21 '11 at 23:05
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    @StaaleS let's make it more than 400 candles - many of them would physically have to be further away, and the reflector would have to be behind them all. The heat would sweat up the model pretty fast. IMHO staying still is easier and safer for eyebrows than chasing high shutter speed. – Imre Nov 21 '11 at 23:40

Given a lens with a sufficiently large aperture, or a camera with a sufficiently high-ISO sensor (and autofocus or matte screen that allows focusing under such dim conditions) then, yes, it is perfectly feasible to shoot portraits in candlelight. I've gotten good shots at 3200 ISO, f/1.2 under such conditions on my old 1Ds mk II. Of course, you will not be able to do the "f/11 to get everything sharp" routine for this kind of portrait.

Place the candles as you would place studio flashes, basically. Light is light. The only caveat is that a candle is a point-source, like a naked flash. On the other hand there is nothing to stop you from using several of them to soften the light somewhat.

If you place the candles directly in front of the camera then the light will be flat (and an ultrafast lens like my 85 f/1.2 will probably flare like crazy); otherwise not. Colour balance will be very warm and deficient in blue, of course, but that is what gives candlelight its atmosphere. Sometimes I correct this out, sometimes not. Shoot in RAW and play around with white balance later.

Do play around with it a little. It is not an expensive experiment :)

/// EDIT: Having crunched the numbers and with the input from other respondents in this thread, I think we may safely conclude that while shooting by candlelight only with your ISO-100, f/3.1, non-RAW point'n'shoot may be possible it certainly isn't going to be very practical given the huge number of candles that will have to be involved! And that is before considering the fire-hazard :)

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    Ah... you have a point'n'shoot. Sorry; those things can take excellent photos in bright daylight but are absolutely useless for this kind of thing I am afraid :( Any cheap DSLR with a cheap 50mm f/1.8 kind of thing would do it however! – Staale S Nov 11 '11 at 10:30
  • Candle placement would be done like you would place a flash for photographing people in a studio. Off to one side of the photographer, for example; this would give you some shape to the light on the subject's face. Look at www.strobist.com for inspiration, for example - just substitute candles for flash. Light is light. Flashes are just more powerful and controllable, that is all. – Staale S Nov 11 '11 at 10:33
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    Try it! Throwing more candles at the problem will help, certainly. 16 candles will be four stops faster than one candle. Just be aware that you cannot use too long a shutter time, otherwise the subject will move. Or breathe. Or something. Flashes get around this because the light-pulse is intense but so short that it freezes movement; candles cannot. And use the wide end of the lens so you can get that f/3.1 aperture. The closer the candles are to the subject, the stronger the light (strength falls off by the square of the distance). Again - check out strobist.com; the same principles apply. – Staale S Nov 11 '11 at 10:42

Use Lots of Candles

A single candle is a point source of light, but lots of candles together look like a larger light source.
You will typically want to have as many candles as possible because each one only gives a small amount of light.

Lots (50? 100? more? - see comment from @Staale) of candles placed in a semi-circle round the front of the subject can light the subject like a huge softbox. As well as placing them in a semi-circle, put them at different levels - some higher , some low down (othewise you end up with a strip light rather than a softbox).

Also, candle light is incredibly warm. I would try a custom light balance. If your camera doesn't have a custom white balance then I would use tungsten or auto.

Enjoy, and please post a link to the results :)

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    Yes. Lots of candles. If we assume that I can get a shot from a single candle with my 85L@f/1.2, ISO 3200, 1/100 second, and the OP is stuck at f/3.1@ISO 100. The difference between my f/1.2 versus her f/3.1 is... let's call it three stops, give or take. I shoot at ISO 3200, she wants ISO 100, that is 5 stops difference. Eight stops total. That is 2 - 4 - 8 - 16 - 32 - 64 - 128 - 256; 256 candles needed :) Shutter speed can probably be dragged to 1/50 because she is using a wide-angle versus my 85mm, that's still 128 candles for the same exposure as I got. – Staale S Nov 11 '11 at 11:46
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    I wonder, provided there IS a flash (off-camera). Manually setting it to minimum power and an amber gel, would it help, or still ruin the mood? – Luciano Nov 11 '11 at 15:40
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    @Staale We can work out the power of a candle from first principles. An old rule of thumb is that the reciprocal of the ASA (ISO) speed of a sensor is the exposure time, in seconds, for a brightly lit outdoor scene at f/16. The sun puts out about 1000 W/m^2 light, whereas a candle puts out 1/700 W/m^2 at a distance of about 30 cm (one foot). That means we need about Log(2, 1000*700) = 19 stops more exposure. On a cake there will be one to two dozen candles, giving back 4 stops. (Too many candles generate lots of heat; they will melt each other!) A P&S just can't get those 15 stops. – whuber Nov 11 '11 at 21:13
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    Yeah, but that's at sunny-sixteen. Nobody is proposing to shoot by candlelight at f/16 (i hope!) Going to ca f/2.8 gives you five stops instantly. Going to 1/50 seconds (marginal, but doable for a portrait shoot) is another stop. And the candles are not supposed to be on a cake in the first place, so we don't have this space limitation in our scenario. But, by all means, I'd like to have at least ISO 400 or preferably 800 in my pocket if I were to try. Doing it at 100 is... an interesting intellectual exercise, but not something I'd like to have to set up for real >:) – Staale S Nov 11 '11 at 22:49
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    @Staale you seem to misunderstand. Taking ISO 100 f/16 1/100 sec as a point of departure, you have to find around 15 more stops to expose a face illuminated by 16 nearby candles. (Actually you need a little less, because you can arrange for direct illumination on the face.) You could achieve this, say, with ISO 3200 (+5 stops) f/3.1 (+5 stops) 1/4 seconds (+5 stops). For the P&S camera this ISO is "horrible" and already the exposure is too long. Clearly that camera is not up to the task. Your f/1.2 lens gets another 3 stops, allowing an exposure around 1/30 second, which is ok. – whuber Nov 12 '11 at 0:31

I don't know how the people above have got such good shots with those settings, my favourite shot with only candlelight is this one that was shot on a Canon 5D mk III with the EF 85mm f/1.8 USM lens, handheld at 1/60th, f/2.0, and the ISO was a whopping 10,000! I also had -1 EV comp dialled in to keep it dark, so the camera didn't try to brighten it too much.

This was lit only by little tealights on the table...

enter image description here

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Interesting Article on DIYPhotography


... may be of use.

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