How to take better photographs of movement in low light indoors.
August 10, 2014 4:34 PM   Subscribe

I'm having problems with taking photos indoors when there's a lot of movement. Prime example: weddings. Most of the shots turn out blurry. I have a basic digital camera with a setting for low light but it's at a low resolution and too grainy to print. Without using a tripod or flash what's the best way to adjust the manual settings to compensate?
posted by adapt to Media & Arts (12 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
You're going to need either more light or faster lenses. Because you've only got a basic camera (presumably without interchangeable lenses) there isn't much you can do except to add light, which is usually done via flash.

A tripod helps some because it reduces the amount YOU are moving the camera. It doesn't reduce movement by the subjects, though.

If you do use flash, you'll need likely need to bounce it off of walls or the ceiling. Aiming it right at your subjects won't look good.

Someone with better portrait experience can chime in with some more specific suggestions.
posted by cnc at 4:41 PM on August 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

Blurry means the shutter has been open to long; grainy likely means the iso setting of the camera has been raised rather high, possibly in order to get a shorter shutter speed. Unfortunately, in dark sim situations, in order to get sufficient exposure, you'll need more light hitting the film/sensor, which means
a) Wider/faster lens - make sure your aperture is wide open as it can get.
b) Longer shutter - make sure it's long enough to get a proper exposure, but short enough so that the blur is acceptable to you
c) ISO: Higher iso allows for higher shutter speeds at the expense of grain.

If you are not able to use the flash - and a tripod does not guarantee blur-free shots; a stable camera with a long exposure and moving people will give blurry results - you'll probably need to invest some money on one of those dslrs with big sensors.

posted by TrinsicWS at 4:49 PM on August 10, 2014

Short answer: if you have an option for rear curtain flash on your camera, use it. If you decide to upgrade to a camera that won't hold you back as much in low light, look for a DSLR with good high ISO performance, and buy a lens or two with a large aperture (f1.2-2.8 wide open). Either way, consider playing around with off camera flash.

Detailed answer: More light and/or a faster lens is definitely the answer. But let me break down what those things mean, so that you can put yourself in control of the light around you. All photography is really just about light, and the different camera settings simply control the amount of light gets into the camera. The first thing that I do when I realize I'm in low-light is turn up the ISO, which is the same thing as film speed/light sensitivity. This sounds like it isn't a good option for you, because the graininess means that your high ISO performance isn't great.

"Fast" lenses really just have wider openings (aperture) to let in more light. If you have a compact digital camera, your lens is probably fairly slow, and probably isn't interchangeable. If you have an entry level DSLR, a fast f1.8 (that's the aperture wide open) 50mm (that's the focal length) lens will only run you about $200.

You can also get more light by keeping the shutter open for longer. As you can imagine, though, keeping the shutter open can lead to blur, especially if you're hand-holding the camera, and also if there's fast movement.

ISO, aperture, and shutter speed form the basis of the exposure triangle, but we've forgotten about flash. Using flash, you have a couple more variables: flash power, and distance from flash to subject. If you have a hotshoe at the top of your camera, you can use an external flash unit that will be able to vary both of these things, which is incredibly liberating. If you don't have a hotshoe, you can still use your flash to your advantage.

Here's the thing: if you use the built in flash in automatic mode, it will pretty much wash everything out and you won't get a great image (you've no doubt been a victim of the flash deer in headlights look). But, if you try to just keep the shutter open longer (which is your only other option, because your high ISO performance sucks and you probably can't change your lens for a faster one), everything will be blurry. So, you can do a tricky little maneuver where you keep your shutter speed open for slightly longer, to capture more of the ambient light, and then pop the flash right at the end of the exposure, to freeze the action in the scene. I do this all the time at parties, including weddings, and it's a neat little trick.

Here's a more detailed explanation of rear curtain flash from a wedding photographer.

Good luck! Low light photography is really incredibly tricky, so don't worry if you struggle with it. Just keep trying to understand light, and how cameras work, and you'll be able to master it with lots of practice.
posted by therumsgone at 5:10 PM on August 10, 2014 [6 favorites]

Some non-DSLR cameras are better at this than others. If you'd be open to getting a different camera, you can sort reviews by low-light performance. I got a new camera (Lumix LX7) for this reason a couple years ago and it has made a big difference - even just using the auto setting, it takes much better low-light pics than my previous one.
posted by LobsterMitten at 5:32 PM on August 10, 2014

This is exactly the reason we finally bought a DSLR (moving kids indoors). All our shots were blurry. Adding a fast 50mm lens (cheapest lens to get f1.8) is what made the difference.
posted by saradarlin at 5:42 PM on August 10, 2014

Best answer: You're going to need either more light or faster lenses.

That's right. The blunt answer to your question, OP, is, "You can't."

Low light performance is one of the frontiers that camera manufacturers are currently working on. (The other big one is dynamic range.) The performance has improved greatly over the past few years, but I have a newer, higher-end DSLR and even with that I dislike shooting much above ISO 1000 because it introduces visible grain. In ten years I expect that ceiling will be much higher; I think DSLRs will be able to handle four-figure ISO settings without grain (which is really just digital noise, quite different from what people think of as attractive "grain"). But for now, the ceiling is low. If you keep your ISO in the hundreds, your photos will look good. In the thousands they'll be grainy.

That limits your options. The reason your shots are blurry is the shutter isn't snapping fast enough to freeze the motion. The only way to speed up your shutter is to add more light. (A tripod won't help.) There are two ways to do that: you can use a faster lens, or you can use flash. If both of those are ruled out in your circumstance...? Then you can't do it. You are bumping your head against one of the device's limitations.

If using different equipment isn't an option for you, then you can ask people to stand still for certain shots, and for others you might think about creative ways to use the blur. Maybe you can't add more light, but maybe you can adjust the camera for less light and accentuate the blur. Sometimes limitations can force you to find something that, ultimately, you like even better than your original vision. Let's be honest: most candid shots that freeze motion on the wedding-reception dance floor are rather unremarkable, anyway. Play around, and maybe you'll end up with the photos everybody wants!
posted by cribcage at 5:58 PM on August 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

What everyone else said, with the small addition: if you get your hands on a faster lens, be prepared to focus REALLY carefully. The standard price you pay for a fast lens is really tiny depth of field. Which can be great, especially for photos of people like you might want to be doing at a wedding. But not if you screw up the focus it isn't.
posted by paultopia at 7:33 PM on August 10, 2014

If you'd be ok upgrading your camera, but would rather not go full-on DSLR, there are some great point and shoots that have larger than average sensors. I have the Canon PowerShot S95, and can't say enough good things about it and the other cameras in its series--if you look through photos of my daughter, you can pinpoint the day I got it, because all of a sudden, there are a lot more photos, and they're better lit and less blurry. The S110 can be had for $250 on Amazon, and is, in my opinion, worth every penny.
posted by MeghanC at 8:36 PM on August 10, 2014

2nding therumsgone - since by the sounds of it your camera is working as hard as it can in low light already, your only option is to experiment with flashes, or get a better camera. If you can't do the trick of firing the flash at the end of a long exposure, I've had fun results just letting it fire at the beginning (as some will default), followed by a long manual exposure of a second or so. You can end up with these cool crazy shots which have huge streaky colours and patterns across them as all the light is baked in, mixed in with whoever was caught in the flash preserved in crisper detail. Just experiment with long exposure (which sometimes there's a specific setting for on the camera) with flash engaged.

If you are keen to develop your photography, I would recommend a better camera - I have a Fuji X100 and while it has it's quirks, in low light it's an absolute monster, since due to the clever people at Fuji you can shoot at ISO 3200 without significant grain (I was shooting a wedding dance floor with it on Saturday). Look for a second hand X100 as the newer X100S might be a bit rich for your blood (but if you can afford it, it's fantastic to have faster autofocus.)
posted by 6am at 12:37 AM on August 11, 2014

Just one addition to the advice to consider a Panasonic Lumix LX7 or Canon PowerShot S110, which have larger than usual sensors for a point-and-shoot camera as well as fast lenses:

The widest aperture (the setting that lets in the most light) is when the camera is at its shortest focal length: that is, it is zoomed out as much as possible. As you zoom in, the maximum aperture gets smaller and the lens lets in less light.

In other words, if you get one of those cameras, leave the lens at its widest angle (the zoom setting it is at when you turn it on). If you need to make your subject bigger, get closer. This is true of DSLR zooms, too.
posted by brianogilvie at 11:42 AM on August 11, 2014

It's true of cheaper DSLR zoom lenses. Constant-aperture zooms exist and are quite popular; they're just considerably more expensive. The reasoning might be helpful in understanding the low-light problem.

Basically, engineering a lens is complex. You need to array pieces of glass in different shapes and types to project a good image—meaning not distorted, accurate colors, low aberration, good sharpness, etc. It's difficult enough to do that if everything is screwed in place. Now add the complication that your lens has to zoom from 24mm to 70mm. That requires moving parts. You know the adage about moving parts! Your design is now exponentially more complicated, so you need to make sacrifices. Those sacrifices usually come in reduced sharpness and reduced aperture. It's difficult to design a lens that zooms waaaaaay in but still lets in an equal amount of light. Difficult = costly. You can buy a Canon lens that gives you that same wide f/2.8 aperture at 70mm as you enjoyed at 24mm, but it will cost you $2,300. By contrast, for only $480 you can get a lens that shoots f/3.5 at 28mm and narrows to f/5.6 by the time you get to 135mm. That's a lot cheaper, but a lot less light.

To apply this to the OP's problem, it might help to explain why you "can't" achieve better low-light photos with your current equipment. It's easy to design a pinhole camera. Elementary school students do it with shoeboxes. But to capture more light with the lens—which is what you need, to snap that shutter faster—requires more complex design. It means more glass, which makes the lens heavier and more expensive. The best low-light lens I'm familiar with is the now-discontinued Canon EF 50mm f/1.0 L USM. It sells on eBay for around $5,000. It also weighs about 36 ounces. It's heavier than the camera it's attached to, and keep in mind, that's not because it's some monstrous telephoto; the weight is entirely about capturing more light. And the primary reason Canon discontinued the lens was that it wasn't sharp. It's hard to make a lens that is sharp at f/1.0, and for all their design, Canon didn't really succeed.

Long story short, it's an engineering problem we're still working with.
posted by cribcage at 12:26 PM on August 11, 2014

Best answer: @cribcage: given the initial post, I didn't think the OP was going to spring for a 3-4 figure DSLR and also a $2000 lens - especially since the Nikkor DSLR constant-aperture zooms have an f/2.8 maximum aperture, substantially worse than what you can get in a prime lens. Of course, if I were willing to spend the money on one, it would be a nice lens to have!
posted by brianogilvie at 6:41 PM on August 12, 2014

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