I am not an expert. I am shooting images of children mostly in indoor conditions when the lighting is not perfect and keep getting the message subject is too dark. Also the pictures come as very dark.

I am shooting with a Nikon D5100 but that shouldn't make much difference.

I noticed speed of less than 1/100 sec makes the images blurry. So I can't go any lower than that on the speed.

Also I noticed the ISO of more than 400 makes the images grainy.

Another problem is that most children don't react well to flash light and they close their eyes. My desired mode of taking pictures is continuous. I take 3-4 continuous shot so I can later pick the best posture. So even because of that flash is not appropriate since I can't capture continuous shots.

These are my findings so far, and I was thinking to try a bright light source, but I am not sure whether children reaction to the light source would be also that great.

Any suggestion how I can have a better experience for indoor shooting. I know I am asking for a bit much here but maybe there are some tips I can follow to enhance the experience. Afterall I noticed with my iphone camera can take bright pictures (and not blurry). So I really like to do the same with my DSLR.

Update: I am shooting in S mode, so aperture is automatically set by the camera, and when I receive the warning subject is too dark, the aperture is at its widest set by the camera.

I noticed my widest aperture is 5.6. Maybe as some people suggested changing the lens to one with a wider aperture can help.

  • \$\begingroup\$ If you're getting better photos with your iPhone than your SLR, something's going badly wrong. Could you post a sample photo with each (not of your kids if you don't want them posted publicly), including EXIF data for each? \$\endgroup\$
    – Philip Kendall
    Apr 21, 2016 at 7:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ See What's the best bang for your buck to improve low light portrait shots: Lens, Flash or Body? for a question which approaches this from the "throw money and gear at the problem!" angle. \$\endgroup\$
    – mattdm
    Apr 21, 2016 at 9:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ Are you zooming in to 1:1 and seeing the grain - that's not really a realistic way to inspect photos, especially not action shots. Your pictures shouldn't be dark unless you're in manual mode or otherwise deliberately underexposing. \$\endgroup\$
    – Chris H
    Apr 21, 2016 at 10:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ The iPhone is really good at taking pictures in low light conditions - someone has optimised it for taking group photos in dimly lit bars. Possibly through clever postprocessing. \$\endgroup\$
    – pjc50
    Apr 21, 2016 at 10:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ @pjc50: the newer iPhones also have a pretty big aperture at f/2.2 - which is not that hard when you have a really tiny sensor. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 21, 2016 at 11:12

6 Answers 6


The answer @eftpotrm gave is pretty comprehensive, but let me highlight the single piece of advice that is by far the most likely to give you the desired results:

Get a lens with a large maximum aperture, like f/1.8 !!

The smaller the number, the better, but f/1.8 is the best that's typically available at a reasonable price. It's going to be a prime lens (i.e. no zoom).

A larger aperture will allow the lens to gather more light, and when shooting in low light situations with quick movement, that is what it's all about.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Not really a good option for fast-moving subjects like kids. At f1.8, you're going to go crazy trying to keep the focus tack-on for such a short depth of field. \$\endgroup\$
    – JS.
    Apr 21, 2016 at 17:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ @JS. Even my comparatively ancient Nikon D50 does a decent job of focus tracking on my toddler. And the 35/1.8 is a fantastic lens for the price. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 21, 2016 at 21:06

Your exposure is a function of -

  • The amount of light reaching the subject (with the quality and direction of the light allowing you to control the effect)
  • The shutter speed (too long leads to blurring as you've seen)
  • The aperture (wide lets in lots of light with shallow depth of field, narrow the reverse)
  • The ISO (like an amplifier dial on a hifi - controls the output level for a given input)

From the aspects you haven't mentioned, opening the aperture more will let in more light. For portraits of this sort a fast prime (non-zoom) lens will definitely help if you're not already using one, simply because it'll let you capture more of the light.

That said, I think you're likely being over-tight in your parameters and would be able to get sufficient print quality even by relaxing them a little.

  • I've shot a Nikon D7000 for many years (which has a very similar sensor) and ISO 400 definitely isn't too noisy for most applications; I'd be comfortable from experience running up to ISO 1000 anywhere and ISO 5000 sometimes.
  • 1/100 at a likely focal length for this sort of image is a generous minimum shutter speed; with practice of how best to stably hold your camera I reckon you should be able to get down to 1/40-1/60 reasonably safely.
  • Some kids react negatively to flash, I agree, but not all and I find they generally get used to it pretty quickly. I'd practice more on the flash, and ideally get it off camera and running through a modifier like an umbrella or other diffuser to soften the light.
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'd suggest keeping the flash on the camera but using some sort of bounce/diffuse attachment - that way it's still pointing in the right direction when the kids move, and you don't have to try to keep hold of 2 things in a room full of high-speed kids. +1 \$\endgroup\$
    – Chris H
    Apr 21, 2016 at 10:15
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think worth mentioning: when shooting high ISO you can apply noise reduction in post processing to remove grainy look. It only works to certain degree yet still it can often be good improvement. \$\endgroup\$
    – Ski
    Apr 21, 2016 at 12:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ @ChrisH Depends how mobile the kids are :-) If they're running round a lot yes - if they're a little more constrained I like the more natural effect you can get from larger modifiers, which just aren't practical on camera. \$\endgroup\$
    – eftpotrm
    Apr 21, 2016 at 12:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ @ski Yes, at the expense of overall fine detail. Swings and roundabouts and worth doing carefully. \$\endgroup\$
    – eftpotrm
    Apr 21, 2016 at 12:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ The issue with going below 1/100s is likely to be subject movement, not camera shake. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 21, 2016 at 22:08

You can't have your cake and eat it.
Use Aperture priority mode at maximum aperture (smallest f stop) -that lets in as much available light as possible.

The shutter speed you get will then be a function of ISO (sensitivity). Without additional light you just have to juggle these 2 as best you can - but you can't get both. I.e you need to choose between:
a. lower ISO (less grainy) with longer shutter speed (giving potential blur) OR
b. higher ISO (more grainy) with shorter shutter speed (less blur).

Note: You can effectively control the grainyness/blur balance using the D7000s (or other Nikons) "ISO sensitivity settings" used by Auto ISO mode. With "Auto ISO sensitivity control" ON the camera will adjust shutter speed down to the limit set by "Minimum shutter speed". After that it will adjust up the ISO senstivity up to "Maximum sensitivity" to get correct exposure. Correctly setting these allows you to automagically get the grain/blur balance you want. Generally I use:

  • Auto ISO sensitivity control: ON
  • Minimum shutter speed: 1/100
  • Maximum sensitivity: 3200

The only real solution to getting both is to change your existing hardware in some way I.e:
a. get a camera with a higher senistivity sensor.
b. Introduce additional light e.g with a flash off the roof or other diffuser.
c. as Michael suggest in his answer get some "fast glass" i.e large appeture low f-stop lense - bearing in mind these tend to be expensive!

  • \$\begingroup\$ Aperture priority will let the camera choose the shutter speed and could result in motion blur in low light. \$\endgroup\$
    – Caleb
    Apr 21, 2016 at 13:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Caleb: Yes - good point - hence use of Auto ISO mode and correct settings there of to control the mimimum shutter speed you want to allow. I've updated my answer to cover this. This is actually a pretty important setting that lots of people neglect. \$\endgroup\$
    – Ricibob
    Apr 21, 2016 at 13:34

You will need more light and use a fairly fast shutter speed, a tiny bit of blur might be desirable (to show them running, flailing around), opening the Aperture will reduce the DOF.

I imagine the lowest cost is desirable, open your curtains on a sunny day.

A multi-use alternative is to buy a portable Halogen flood light from the hardware store ($10): http://www.homedepot.com/catalog/productImages/300/9a/9abb5285-8f00-48ac-bbc6-a18c414d1466_300.jpg


Increasing the ISO is the obvious choice, since you can't lower the shutter speed or use speedlight. So grainier pictures are inevitable, but at ISO 800 - 1600, it may not be so bad in real viewing distance.

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    \$\begingroup\$ What about opening the aperture? \$\endgroup\$
    – Aganju
    Apr 21, 2016 at 10:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Aganju you are right, I just presumed wide open aperture was already used. \$\endgroup\$
    – den miol
    Apr 21, 2016 at 11:37

All of the above answers would be a great choice. If you're able to spend 300-400 on a better lens it will be the best choice for sure. A speedlight will be one of the cheapest solutions. If you have white ceilings just point the speed light toward your roof. Also, taking out noise from high iso is easier to take out than exposure issues in post processing. Also try to get them close to windows so natural light can help.


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