I am taking a photo with a Canon 5D Mark IV indoors in front of a Christmas tree using only the available lighting of the room. I do not have a flash.

I want to make sure that the subjects and the tree are in focus. What are the best settings for something like that?

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    In focus and no bokeh? A slower aperture... Probably a high ISO... What will the lighting look like? You'll want as much ambient light as possible, maybe even a shop light or something from the front to prevent the tree from providing too much back lighting... – AthomSfere Dec 14 '17 at 14:05
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    @AthomSfere Your comment is the start of a decent answer. Please don't answer in comments; instead, write it as an actual answer. Please see: Short answers as comments — please resist the urge – scottbb Dec 14 '17 at 14:26
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    @Laura What lenses are available to you? – Michael C Dec 14 '17 at 15:01
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    You say that you do not have a flash, but are you opposed to getting one? – OnBreak. Dec 14 '17 at 20:45
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    I think for questions like these lenses available to you or the lens you plan on using are more important than the particular camera body you are using. – JPhi1618 Dec 15 '17 at 16:19

10 Answers 10


Are you open to the possibility of getting yourself a flash as a quick before-Christmas gift to yourself? In my experience — and especially back when I had young, enthusiastic children not interested in sitting still — adding a flash was the best thing I did for my family-around-the-Christmas-tree photos.

On-camera flash is annoying and doesn't provide good light, but for under $200, you can get a radio-controlled flash system. Then, put the flash on a bookshelf or somewhere in the corner of the room where it bounces from the ceiling. Take a few test shots to make sure the shadows aren't crazy from this, and put your camera's shutter at the X-sync speed (¹⁄₂₀₀th, for your camera), and use f/5.6 or f/8 to get good depth of field (more of everything in focus). Then, experiment with flash power and ISO (start around 400 or 800) to get the exposure right. Once you have this, you won't have to change any settings, since you control the light.

Without a flash, this is generally a very difficult situation, since indoor lighting is generally much dimmer than people assume it is (our brain does a great job of adjusting), and the only way to get in enough light is to either leave the shutter speed open for a long exposure (risking motion blur) or to use a fast lens with a wide aperture (f/2.8 or faster), which means not much depth of field. Or you an use the very high ISO modern cameras offer, which will amplify the signal and produce noisy results (adequate for social sharing, maybe, but if that's all you wanted, you could just use your phone camera).

If you're doing formal "stand in front of the tree" pictures, it's a little easier, but even then, the flash will really help.

  • Very much agree on getting a flash. Even if the exposure is acceptable with ambient light (which it may not be, even considering the Mark IV's decent performance in the ISO 3200-6400 range), being able to put a bit more light where it is needed is so useful (e.g. making sure there is adequate light on faces). – Tim Medora Dec 15 '17 at 2:46
  • A photographer once suggested me to soften the in-camera flash by putting a white sheet / paper handkerchief in front of it. This will diffuse the light more (your light source will be a square instead of a dot). Maybe OP can try this ? The holding isn't pratical, but it costs you one sheet of paper. – BiAiB Dec 15 '17 at 9:56
  • @BiAiB In this case, the camera doesn't have a built-in flash. The paper thing can work, but off-camera is even better. – mattdm Dec 15 '17 at 16:02

From my experience, worst problem with photographing people in front of lights is that light are much brighter than faces.

If that is the case, you can do one of the following:

  • use flash (ok, you say you can't)
  • use some external light source (any lamp will make picture a bit easier)
  • move people and lights into area where faces are illuminated better
  • move people to the side, so that light from tree falls on their faces (ok, thats against your "people in front" requirement)
  • use reflector or even large mirror to get some extra light onto people's faces

For last case you can locate reflector/mirror under your camera or on the side. But it should be pretty large and reflects well.

Now, this might solve problem of balancing amount of light that comes from faces and from christmas tree. In order to get as much as possible in focus, you have to consult another question, about Depth of Field.

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    Increase the available lighting. +1. I've brought extra stoves to people's houses just for Thanksgiving day... y'all can't bring a few table lamps? – Mazura Dec 15 '17 at 0:13
  • Repositioning your subjects to use some of the light from the tree on their faces will also be a much more impressive composition than the the banal Christmas firing squad portrait ('Put subject against tree. Shoot them. Next!') – Ivan Dec 16 '17 at 0:04
  • @Ivan that was just a suggestion, but i will try :) – aaaaa says reinstate Monica Dec 16 '17 at 0:08

It depends on what kind of picture you're going for. If it's something like this:

enter image description here

Then you absolutely cannot take the picture without using flash (or strong daylight), as there's no other way to make sure that both the tree and the people are sharp and in focus (meaning the exposure is short and the aperture is stepped down). Alternatively you might be after a different kind of shot:

enter image description here

Here the Christmas tree is out of focus (so you can afford a wide aperture) and you cannot see the people's faces so you can afford a longer exposure (possibly down to 1/15). Take the ISO up to 1600 and shoot at F1.8 or below and your average ceiling lights should be sufficient to light up the scene.

  • Nice use of examples. – mskfisher Dec 15 '17 at 15:01
  • ` you absolutely cannot take the picture without using flash`. Some recent cameras have very usable ISO 12800. – Eric Duminil Dec 16 '17 at 14:37
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    @EricDuminil ISO 12800 won't help you get the nice, even lighting you get from using a good flash. And you certainly won't get it with your average room lights, especially if they're fluorescent. – JonathanReez Dec 16 '17 at 17:31
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    @EricDuminil Image stabilization will not help unless you sort of manage to freeze the people on the first image. The camera may stabilize the sensor, the people will still move. – TomTom Dec 17 '17 at 9:44
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    @mattdm: "for the same framing". That's the point. In a typical room, you won't be able to back off enough to get the whole group inside the frame in a 85mm. – Eric Duminil Dec 17 '17 at 17:30

Low light, and wanting enough depth of field to cover both people and the tree if you're shooting from relatively nearby is a hard ask unless all the people are adults who can remain still when requested to do so. Or you're okay with motion blur, or having the tree out of focus.

If you use a fast lens, you'll have to use one of the wider aperture settings to achieve a good exposure in low light, and that will necessarily narrow your depth of field and you might not have enough to cover both the people and the tree. And if you use a smaller aperture for the depth of field, you'll have to use a longer shutter speed.

Your only recourse to avoid motion blur may be to crank up the ISO to very high levels, but then you might have to deal with noise, so avoid underexposure. With low light and a medium aperture setting, without above-1600 ISO settings, you're liable to need a longer shutter speeds than may be safe for handholding. You can eliminate the camera shake with a tripod, or mitigate it with IS, but that still won't solve subject motion blur issues. And if you're shooting quick-moving children, then adding illumination from a flash is possibly your only option.

Given that the 5DMkIV has no pop-up flash, this can be an issue. But given how much the 5DMkIV tends to cost, affording a flash can seem like a no-brainer. Today, there are low-cost 3rd-party alternatives that can do TTL/HSS and have RF slaves built-in for around $100 (e.g., Godox TT685C, Yongnuo YN-600EX-RT II, etc.) They're not particularly hard-wearing or factory-serviceable, but if flash is only an occasional use thing for you, this may not matter. And simply bouncing a flash can work wonders; not to mention taking it off the camera.

See also: What features should one look for when selecting a flash?

  • For what it's worth I have three Godox flashes which I've had for several years and treated with, frankly, very little care, and they've stood up better than a big name brand flash I had previously. Only problem is I had to replace one of the batteries which got too hot (in transport, not in the flash) and started to swell. – mattdm Dec 14 '17 at 19:35
  • @mattdm, and anecdotally, I've heard opposite-side stories, too. My Yongnuo gear did well for me, but I still tended to warn folks, given the legions of DOA/bad-capacitor issues YN had in the early days. Just like the early days of Godox's Li-ion batteries. I tend to err on the side of caution. – inkista Dec 14 '17 at 21:26

First I would like to nudge you to reconsider your desire to have the tree in focus behind the people. I understand it will be a beautiful tree, and it may have family heirloom pieces on it, but it's still a tree. What I find important in pictures when I revisit them years later are the people. Focus on the people, metaphorically and literally.

This will have two effects. (Forgive me if I'm boring you, but I thought it's better to elaborate too much than too little.)

  • What is perhaps nonintuitive is that having a person in focus in front of a blurry background often is more beautiful and appealing than having everything in focus. Focusing on the important parts guides our perception and makes the picture speak to us. (Quickly googling I found this page illustrating the idea.) If, by contrast, everything is crisp, we are not sure what the photographer meant.
  • A larger aperture (reducing the depth of field) shortens your exposure time, reducing the chance of blur from camera and people motion. Scarcity of light is the determining restriction with available-light photography. Anything you can do to get more light on the sensor is good.

That said, apart from getting more light in the room as others suggested it may be possible to position people on the side of the tree, perhaps slightly farther away from you. (Here is an example I found, though not with available light.) This will illuminate their faces and put them at a distance not very different from the tree, making it easier to fulfill your original idea.

Perhaps you have one, but if not: In the long run I would really recommend getting a large aperture prime lens with a focal length suitable for photographing people. You really need that if you take pictures of people at all: Because many occasions when you want to take pictures of people tend to be inside, and you seem to try to avoid flash (me too), so you need as much light as you can get. Interestingly, a large camera tends to be inside as well — it's always tempting to leave it at home on a hike and bring the compact camera instead, isn't it? But it's easy to take it to a family function by car. So it will be used inside a lot, probably, unless you go on explicit photo safaris.

A relatively cheap 50mm lens will do. Having such a large aperture lens was invaluable for many available-light indoor shots, which I took originally with 800-1600 ISO film.

Independent of any technical details it is good to take more pictures than usual in difficult conditions because more than usual will have some defect or another.


Honestly, your question is a bit difficult because it isn't very clear what your concerns are other than

I want to make sure that the subjects and the tree are in focus. What are the best settings for something like that?

Well, this entails simply using an appropriate aperture and a suitably wide lens to ensure focus. As a starting point for experimentation, perhaps try 35mm and f/8. Try not to have much difference in the distance between the people and the tree from the camera.

Doing this might raise other problems. The shutter speed might be too slow if your subjects have trouble keeping still. My suggestion would be to not worry about noise too much, go for 1/100th (or maybe even faster for kids) of a second and go ahead and crank up the ISO to whatever is needed to get a correct exposure for that. You've got a recent FF camera, don't feel like you need stick to low ISO.

On the other hand, if your subjects can keep still, then you can go for 1/40th of a second, put the camera on a tripod, and keep the ISO low.

I'm not 100% clear on the look you want though. For instance, are there lights on the tree that you want to show glowing as well, in which case you may need to balance that against the room lighting and have a much darker room to work with.

I am taking a photo with a Canon 5D Mark IV indoors in front of a Christmas tree using only the available lighting of the room. I do not have a flash.

If you are willing to get a cheap flash with decent light output, I recommend the Neewer TT560, it should be < 40 USD. It is fully manual, but that is fine. As you will be indoors, I would recommend using it by pointing it at the ceiling, this will provide much more even flash with more natural shadows (as it will seem like the light is above them). This plan could be foiled by high ceilings, or an oddly colored ceiling (can cause the bounced light to have a different color). Experiment with it ahead of time to get the light level where you want it.

We don't know what the available lighting in your room is... my living room has a big window that provides very sufficient light in the day. We don't know if you're working with 1 window, no windows, etc.. and also your artificial lights, 1 bulb? 6 bulbs? How many lumen? It is difficult to give any further advice unless we know what you have to work with.

If you wanted, you could even take the shots from a tripod and get the tree and other subjects in focus individually in different shots and combine them in post processing.


If you're unable to get much lighting in the only real options is either a fasters lens (1.4-2.8f) which isn't likely given no flash, the more realistic is to crank up your ISO and try to extend the shutter speed, if you're using a tripod then even 1/10th of a second should help out.

Without being there it isn't really possible to give you exact instructions (what ISO/shutter speed/f setting and so on) try to mess around and see what suits and hopefully you'll find a combo which will be good enough for what you're aiming for.


As of my post, no-one has talked about the "in focus" part of your question from a lens standpoint.

Note to others - I think there are some terrific answers here - so please feel free to steal this info for your answer so that we can consolidate the info.

If you don't have a flash handy, you'll want to add as much light to the room as possible. Bring lamps from other rooms in if you have to.

You still may end of shooting at a wide aperture for a group - f/2.8 or f/4. However, this may not actually be detrimental.

If you're using a 35mm lens, and are standing 15ft away from your subjects, at f/2.8, your depth of field will extend from 11.4ft away to 21.9ft away. This is easily enough depth of field to have everyone in focus - even at f/2.8.

Stopping down will only help with depth of field. But what about opening up? Another stop gives you f/2 - and depth of field from 12.3ft to 19.3ft. Again - this is plenty.

If you shoot wider than 35mm - you will only increase your depth of field and you need to worry even less about bokeh-ing out people in the back. (technical term).

If you shoot narrower than 35mm, or have to be closer to your subjects than 15ft - then you will want to run some numbers past a depth of field calculator to get some piece of mind.

I'd love to be able to provide that for you, but I'll need to know the focal length of the lens you intend to use, it's widest f-stop, and how far away you'll be from your subjects.

Assuming you don't have to worry about depth of field causing a problem for getting everyone in focus, you only have to worry about lighting, camera shake, and motion blur. And there are already fantastic answers for that.

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    15 feet away is pretty big room.... – mattdm Dec 15 '17 at 3:42
  • @mattdm, possibly. Depends on the house I guess. Our townhouse isn't huge but it's a straight shot from living room back to the garage, so I can actually position a camera easily 15 ft away. We'll just have to wait for OP to give more info – OnBreak. Dec 15 '17 at 4:17

You can also increase the depth of field by placing the camera further away from the subjects, cropping the picture afterwards to taste. Pretend like your camera has a crop sensor. You'll lose some resolution and the noise gets more apparent in relation to the amount of cropping you do but it's a tactic that works. Now you can shoot with faster apertures. Choose the widest lenses you have.

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    Cropping increases the magnification which exactly counteracts the increased DoF from using a wider lens. The more you enlarge an image the more you enlarge the blur. What we call DoF are the areas of the image where the blur is too small for us to see it as blur. – Michael C Dec 15 '17 at 7:24

Use a fast lens (f/2.8 or lower) wide open, I believe 5D Mark IV can focus up to -3EV, so f/2.8 should be sufficient.

  • If she doesn't have a flash, what makes you think she would have a faster lens like a f2.8? Also, f2.8 @50mm+ would produce noticeable bokeh which I'm guessing she does not want (everything in focus) – AthomSfere Dec 14 '17 at 14:26
  • @AthomSfere My thinking auto-focus in low-light can be challenging, I think the combination of f/2.8 and -3EV should work to achieve auto-focus without hunting. Now, to make both the tree and the subject in focus I suggest placing the subject to the same focal plane as the tree, that is the distance from the lens to the subject and from the lens to the tree is about the same.. – pavelk Dec 14 '17 at 14:33
  • You certainly aren't wrong in your reasoning, but I think you're missing or under scrutinizing some of the technical difficulties (like not having access to different lenses potentially) – AthomSfere Dec 14 '17 at 14:54
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    Using a bigger aperture will reduce the DoF, so the OP's condition of "I want to make sure that the subjects and the tree are in focus." might not be met. – inkista Dec 14 '17 at 21:52
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    I think it's a safe assumption that if OP is asking about settings, they probably aren't aware of what EV is. Can you extrapolate on this point? – OnBreak. Dec 14 '17 at 22:09

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