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I like to take portraits in low light. My T5i doesn't have an incredible sensor for low light, but my F/1.8 lens helps get more light. Still, if the conditions are too demanding, I need to turn up the ISO too high and I get noisy pictures. I've got a few ideas and I'd like to know which would be the best technique to get better photos.

  1. Median stacking - I've seen this used in landscape photography where multiple properly exposed but noisy exposures are blended into one and the noise is removed. I don't know how practical this would be since the subject is subject to movement between each successive photo.
  2. Exposure stacking - My camera has a setting where it takes 3 consecutive underexposed photos at 1/60s and combines them into one brighter exposure, but it doesn't work too well because 1/60s is too slow of a shutter speed for me. Perhaps if I shot faster, took more photos (say 5), and combined them manually in Photoshop they may turn out better.
  3. Shoot a single photo at high ISO and suffer the consequences of noise

Before you say get a flash, I like the natural look you get from just the ambient light and even if I used a nice flash that's well diffused I can still tell that a flash was used. Are any of these options preferred, or is there an even better option/technique out there?

  • 4) Add light yourself. – Michael C Dec 1 '17 at 4:37
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    Why would anyone say to get a flash? Flash is reserved for very bright conditions, to fill shadows! – Agent_L Dec 1 '17 at 9:16
  • If you control the lighting, a few cheap halogen desklamps bounced off diffusers can add a little extra soft lighting without breaking the bank (Ikea used to be a good source but they've gone over to only selling LED lamps leading to much fiddling with white balance). – Chris H Dec 1 '17 at 10:18
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    A tripod and long exposure? – FarO Dec 1 '17 at 15:02
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Are any of these options preferred, or is there an even better option/technique out there?

Photography is all about tradeoffs. You can compensate for low light by using a longer exposure, or increasing the aperture, or increasing the sensitivity (ISO), or adding more light. You can reduce noise by using lower sensitivity, or decreasing the exposure time, or stacking several images, or buying a camera with better low light performance. All these options are legitimate, but each one comes with some sort of cost, and how you choose to balance the various parameters is really up to you.

One thing you don't seem to have considered is just shooting with more ambient light. I expect that you're mostly interested in making images that look like they were created in dim surroundings and that you aren't necessarily wedded to the experience of shooting in the dark. If you increase the ambient light by a factor of 4 and drop the ISO 2 stops, you'll get the same exposure but less noise. This is a case of using photography's tradeoffs to your advantage: you can create a very low light look even when you've got more than enough light to get a noise-free image.

Before you say get a flash, I like the natural look you get from just the ambient light and even if I used a nice flash that's well diffused I can still tell that a flash was used.

Aside from intensity and duration, there's no actual difference between ambient light and flash... it's all just light. Take a look at the Lighting 101 lessons at strobist.com to begin to learn about how to move your flash off camera, and how to control the shape, color, and intensity so that your photos don't have that recognizable flash look.

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I used to use a fairly simple technique in event photography where there's low/inconsistent ambient lighting.

I used an on-camera flash with ETTL combined with a manual exposure setting (high ISO, slow shutter speed, wide aperture, rear shutter sync).

The slow exposure allowed for the capture of the ambient light in the background, and the flash compensated for the poor exposure of the subject.

The net result is that you get a pretty natural looking exposure of the subject and you get the context of the background. The flash of course has the effect of freezing any movement that might spoil the slow exposure.

The other benefit is that you stay in manual mode and let the flash do the work for you. You're free to wander around your event snapping at people without having to mess with the settings or lighting.

I got some pretty nice, natural looking candid shots this way.

  • in my experience, rear shutter sync & slow shutter tends to lead to smeared photos of people looking away, since they think the exposure is done when the ettl-pre-flash fires. – ths Dec 1 '17 at 11:01
  • It seemed to work ok for me. But it's just a suggestion and I'm not a pro. – Snow Dec 1 '17 at 11:02
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Point the flash at the ceiling. With a built-in flash, a pocket mirror might do in a pinch (if you aren't working with a big external flash which might be a good idea anyway since it can be way more powerful for indirect light games). Just be sure that it blocks nothing that should be kept pointing forward.

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