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I tried to take photographs in a church that was bright enough for human eyes, but I quickly realized the camera couldn't take it. Failing to anticipate this, I didn't bring a tripod.

Since I don't have a very calm hand, I didn't want to have long exposure times. Instead, I've set my camera to the following settings, arguing that I could fix the brightness in Photoshop, and shot in raw:

Exposure Time: 0,02s 
ISO 6400

The photos are sharp and, with some editing, bright enough. However, they are grainy beyond repair.

While I've learned my lesson and will bring a tripod to the next session, I'm curious if I could have improved any of the settings for better results with similarly short exposure times.

My Camera is a Canon EOS 600D with Magic Lantern.

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    Shooting in dark churches <> easy. Ever. Even with the best equipment - it is challenging. Tripods, strobe/flashes, wide aperture lenses, wide angle, better performing high ISO camera bodies, and technique will all give you better results, but none of that typically comes easy or cheap. – dpollitt Nov 30 '14 at 19:05
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    Software these days is excellent in noise reduction. Lightroom's very good and there are also custom programs. Secondly, hand-holding is a learnable skill that improves with practice. – user4894 Nov 30 '14 at 21:24
  • The ISO on the 600D/T3i can be expanded to 12,800. You'll get less noise if you get the extra stop from the higher ISO than from pushing it a stop in post-processing. You can test this out pretty easily. – Ray Dec 1 '14 at 18:01
  • Thanks for the tip. I couldn't set 12800 directly, but I think I recall some "Maximum ISO" settings somewhere in the menu and will look into that. – Kjeld Schmidt Dec 1 '14 at 18:17
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    You're already in a church, so ask a higher power to let there be more light. – Olin Lathrop Dec 2 '14 at 15:20
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Camera settings are never going to make this easy. Photographs need light to work, and while modern sensors are actually quite sensitive, they can't live up to our perceptions, because our brains take the dark, noisy image from our eyes and subconsciously make a mental model where the imperfections aren't noticed.

You don't mention what lens you are using, but one thing you can do is to use the widest possible aperture — and possibly even get a faster lens. The kit lens that comes with most cameras tends to be very slow, particularly when zoomed in. (That's because these lenses have variable max aperture, and usually about 2½× faster at the wide end.)

One very popular Canon recommendation is the 50mm f/1.8, which you can get around $100. (Other brands have similar lenses, although the Canon version happens to be a spectacularly good deal.) At 50mm, this will let in about 10× the light of the kit lens at 50mm. (However, it will also have very shallow depth of field, which may or may not be good for what you want.)

Another possibility is to bring light. Depending on when and what you're photographing and whether you're doing it by request or with official permission, you may be able to set something up using flashes. Cavernous churches don't make getting nice lighting easy, but this may be better than nothing. If you have the ability to set something up, spending a few hundred dollars on remote-triggered flashes could make all the difference.

Finally, you might want to reconsider what "grainy beyond repair" means to you. You note that you're shooting in RAW, which should give you fairly wide latitude in noise reduction. If you're not making gigantic prints — that is, 8×10" or smaller, or viewing online without zooming all the way in for no good reason — you actually should be able to get quite acceptable results at ISO 6400.

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    @KjeldSchmidt the lens is likely an f/3.5-4.5 or f/3.5-5.6. If you are shooting at the long end, you will be getting f/5.6 or so which is 4 (and a bit) stops slower than the 50mm f/1.8 mentioned (5.6 to 1.8 is 16x more light, f/4.5 to 1.8 is 10x more light (three and a bit stops)). This will let you trade that four stops for other things such as ISO 6400 to ISO 400. – user13451 Dec 1 '14 at 1:25
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    @KjeldSchmidt Roughly, yes — if the exposure is correct and there's enough light. Underexposing and correcting later (even with RAW) will usually give worse results. See this answer for details. You note in the question that the images are bright enough "with some editing" — lowering the ISO and doing more editing is not likely to help. – mattdm Dec 1 '14 at 17:44
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    Or to put it another way: lowering the amount of light that reaches the sensor is what leads to more noise. If you lower that and then attempt to compensate later, the sooner you compensate the better. Raising ISO works at the sensor level, so it's the least-bad option. – mattdm Dec 1 '14 at 17:45
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    Add add "Don't zoom in unless you have to" - zooming in will reduce the light hitting the sensor - where possible, take the photo more zoomed out and crop it later. Note that you'll lose quality (this is essentially a digital zoom) but if you don't need amazing detail or are shooting at high resolution, it can help – Jon Story Dec 2 '14 at 12:51
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    @JonStory yes, true presuming the lens is a variable-aperture zoom (like a f/3.5-f/5.6 kit lens). I did allude to that but could make it more clear. – mattdm Dec 2 '14 at 12:57
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In addition to the points mattdm has made, you can shoot a few pictures of the same scene in rapid succession. Unlike when using a tripod, you won't be able to achieve perfect alignment of the pictures; without a tripod, the shifts will be rather large and then the fact that there will be a parallax will prevent you from perfectly aligning the pictures. But this not a problem if you only want to do noise reduction, what matters is that you can achieve alignment locally for sufficiently small parts of the image.

You then create an image that has the pictures in different layers and you align them globally as best as possible. Then you consider one part of the image and you then shift the layers so that you get perfect alignment there. You then consider the area where you have (almost) perfect alignment. You then take the median value of all the layers in that area, and you repeat this procedure for the other parts of the image until you have processed the entire image.

Taking the median value elimates the outliers, which greatly reduces the noise in the image, see here for examples

  • Interesting! I'll keep that in mind for the future and will also use that in combination with a tripod for the next shoot. – Kjeld Schmidt Nov 30 '14 at 20:06
  • Also, for aligning the photos, there are many pieces of software which will do this automatically. Photoshop has a built-in operation for it. Further, instead of normalizing the individual images and taking the median, you can also just add the values of the dark original images instead to get the overall average. – fluffy Dec 1 '14 at 4:36
  • The linked article uses completely free software - the example is at ISO 25,600 using ImageMagik and GIMP+G'MIC - Hugin can be used for automatic image alignment. – Steve Barnes Dec 6 '14 at 13:53
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I had a must-have photo that was too dark or grainy for the same reasons. I went with a stylized image using a photo as a starting point. enter image description here

This was pre-digital: T-max 400, pushed to 800. That is a high-quality B&W film for you youngsters.

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The only settings that make shooting in a dark environment easy is the one you change at a light switch.

You can't change the basics of physics. To develop a photo, a certain number of photons have to reach your sensor. Either you give them a bigger opening (faster lens) which requires a better lens and also reduces depth of field, you increase the sensitivity (which as you discovered causes noise), or you increase the exposure time (which produces motion blur either from the movement of the subjects or from the movement of the camera).

The only other cheap option is to add more light. Better cameras and lenses will let have better high sensitivity modes and let in more light, but they cost more money too. Even with that equipment, shooting in low light is always a challenge, even with high end pro gear. Use the widest aperture you can and the longest exposure you can, but you are constrained by the needs of the photo and the environment.

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Aside from opening up the aperture to its maximum (bearing in mind the depth of field issues this will bring) you can increase the exposure time if you steady the camera against a solid object. For example press the camera against a column or rest it on a pew. It's surprising the length of exposure you can get away with without suffering camera shake.

  • To the category of stabilization I can add: use IS if possible, this will allow dropping the shutterspeed from 1/50 used. – lijat Jun 29 '18 at 14:09
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set your ISO between 400-800, in Nikon set your camera flash on your camera for "rear flash" flash power should be around 1/8 depending on the distance, I don't use TTL as it tends to overheat on a sb900, as speed goes you can go for lower speed because when the flash fires it will "lock" your subject, i usually keep my apertures between 5.6 to 12 do keep steady hands otherwise you are going to get "moving lights". flash should be bouncing off ceiling or wall, use a difuser and for bang-up shots use 2 flashes using a hotshoe on your camera and another that fires for sympathy. close to the altar. Hope it helps.

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