Help Me Learn To Use My Camera's Flash
February 18, 2007 2:12 PM   Subscribe

Help me learn how to take indoor pictures with my Canon SD800.

I just bought a Canon SD800 IS camera almost exclusively on its glowing mefite reviews. I've had it for 3 days and I absolutely love it, but I'm having a hard time working with the camera indoors, especially with the flash (outdoor pictures, however, are great).

I spent the weekend at a conference in Portland, so there were all kinds of fun lighting challenges (although the convention center has much better lighting than the gross fluorescentness of, say, Spokane's). When I tried to take pictures inside with the flash, I got some weird effects, such as this shot, where the lighting seems completely off. There were other examples (that were apparently so bad I didn't post them to Flickr), where subjects turned out way too light or way too dark.

When I turned the flash off, I either got stuff like this (relatively clear image but too dark), or this (unclear blurry image that is also too dark). This is obviously because the shutter speed was too slow.

Short of using a tripod, what options do I have for improving indoor shots with this camera? I saw the suggestion to put some tissue paper over the flash, which I have tried (it works moderately well), but any others are appreciated.

Sorry if this question is confusing. I'm an enthusiastic but highly amateur photographer, so even the most basic advice is great.
posted by rossination to Technology (18 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

Response by poster: (Thanks for that, rhapsodie - I'm sure it will be useful. But my camera has no manual controls for aperture or shutter speed).
posted by rossination at 2:28 PM on February 18, 2007

IMHO, you're never going to get great indoor pictures with that camera. That's just not something it's really good at due to the limitations inherent in its size. The max aperture is only f/2.8 (and that probably only at the wide end, I imagine you're getting at least f/4 if you zoom in at all), high ISO settings are not very usable due to noise, it has no manual settings, and the flash is small and close to the lens.
posted by kindall at 3:02 PM on February 18, 2007

That indoor flash shot you linked looks weird because it's what's called a "mixed-lighting situation". That is, the color temperature of the flash and of the pre-existing lighting are different. So, the foreground looks fine because the camera's white balance is set for a flash light source, but the background looks relatively yellowish because of the incandescent indoor lighting.

(And there's very little you can do about it, other than having absolute control over the lighting or making sure there aren't two types of lighting in the same shot. You'll get a similar situation in a lit indoor area with windows.)
posted by neckro23 at 3:06 PM on February 18, 2007

Best answer: IMHO, you're never going to get great indoor pictures with that camera.

There are other cameras which will produce better indoor photos, and better photos in general. It should be noted that the flashes on this series are notorious for sucking.

But that wasn't the question. The question was how to achieve better photos with this camera, which rossination has presumably just spent a lot of money on, and has other advantages.

Short of using a tripod, what options do I have for improving indoor shots with this camera?

Learning how to hold the camera steady reduces blurriness with high shutter speeds. With my SD 200, I am able to take better low-light shots with this body than anyone else I have seen. Here's what I do:
  1. Grip left hand around left side of camera.
    1. Push top of thumb down from top.
    2. Push base of index finger up from bottom.
    3. Push base of thumb right from left of camera.
  2. Grip right hand around right side of the camera.
    1. Press forward with your whole thumb.
    2. Press backwards with the top two bones of your middle finger.
    3. Use the two second timer so you can hold down your right index finger until the shot is done, reducing jitter further.
Don't use zoom, as kindall says. Try to take both a with-flash and without flash version of the photo—sometimes it is hard to see blur until you get the image on a larger screen.
posted by grouse at 3:27 PM on February 18, 2007

Best answer: You can get decent (maybe not award winning) indoor pictures with a modern consumer camera (i.e. not high end). DON'T use flash where you want a good picture of something more then five or ten feet from you. DO use flash when you've got a closer subject and don't mind the background being dark.

Often the best thing to do when using flash is to just give up and set everything to auto...your camera "knows" what to expect from a flash and letting it cope with it can give good results! The colour may be slightly off, but that is an easy fix later compared to fixing brightness.

If that doesn't work, walk around your subject and pick a different angle--either orient so that the major outside/non-flash lighting is directly behind you, or so that it is to one side. Make sure that you're far enough that the flash doesn't blind your subjects, close enough that it's actually hitting them--subjects too dark may mean you're too far away.

Still with all "auto" settings, you can organically adapt to some lighting using the half-press method (works for every modern digital camera that I've met, admittedly not an extensive sample)--when you press the shoot button half way down your camera will focus, pick the correct lighting, and so on. If your shots are coming out too dark, point at something darker then the main subject, press half way, point at whatever you want while holding the button down half way still, and then press all the way. Takes practice, but very useful.

Keep shooting. Try and take at -least- 7 or 8 pictures for every picture that you want to come out clean. More is fine. This is a good rule for film, too, but only if you're really rich.

For long distance, low light shots, or just when you don't want to/can't use a flash, you can make yourself into a tripod. Lean on a wall, table, whatever, try and support your elbows. Take a breath in and hold it when you shoot.

Use a soda/water bottle tripod.
posted by anaelith at 3:30 PM on February 18, 2007

Natural light, or
Tripod, or
Flash Diffuser

I have the 600 and the same problem. What a horrible flash. Set it for underexposure by about one half stop. For a flash diffuser I have taped a few layers of Kleenex over the flash. It cuts the harshness of the light. It also cuts down on flash power but for most pictures of people in the 5 - 12 foot range it is fine.
posted by caddis at 3:34 PM on February 18, 2007

You could try putting it in a 'night mode' if it's got one. I find this helps when taking pictures indoors without a flash. You may need to set the camera on something solid, or brace it somehow, to prevent the pictures from coming out blurry due to the slower shutter speed. If there's nothing to hold it against, you just have to try to relax and hold it steady with both hands. I find this trick works decently with my cameraphone, so hopefully the results will be even better with a real camera.

Another thing that may help is setting the white balance manually. The 'tungsten' setting for white balance on Canon cameras seems to do a much better job at dealing with yellowish light than the auto setting. The same thing is true for fluorescent lighting, but it's not as big a deal as with incandescent.
posted by benign at 3:34 PM on February 18, 2007

I keep a white business card in the case with my Canon A520. When taking indoor photos, I use it as a "bounce card," holding it in front of the flash at a 45-degree angle so that the flash is redirected toward the ceiling. (This works best with a close, light-colored ceiling to reflect the flash; probably not so good in a huge convention hall.)

I'm tempted to get the Canon HF-DC1 external flash, which also works with their SD-series cameras. Then I could hold point it at the ceiling or a wall, or use a larger flash diffuser.
posted by mbrubeck at 3:44 PM on February 18, 2007

Also, when the automatic settings give me a photo that's under-exposed, it often looks much better after post-processing. Most photo software will let you easily adjust the contrast and brightness and color levels of your photos.
posted by mbrubeck at 3:48 PM on February 18, 2007

Definitely make sure image stabilization is on. That will help you a lot.
posted by marionnette en chaussette at 4:23 PM on February 18, 2007

Whenever I am taking indoor photos using my Canon A510, I do so in black and white mode. It is simply too hard to get colours that look at all correct using the on-camera flash and whatever lighting is already in the room.

For non-flash photos, I second the mini tripod option. I brought one with me to Turkey when I went recently and found it constantly useful. Another good way to avoid camera shake can be to use the 2 second timer. Set up the shot, press the shutter button, then brace as best you can during the intervening period before the shutter opens.
posted by sindark at 5:32 PM on February 18, 2007

There's a professional photographer whose name I can't remember who uses his built in camera flash (on a DSLR) for all of his photos. In order to diffuse the light and make it a bit more natural he just covers the flash with a band-aid, specifically the thin plastic part, not the part with the gauze on it. I didn't ask him what brand he used, but I suppose you could do some experimentation.

It's definitely a hack, so YMMV. But if you give it a try, you've only used up one cheap band-aid, so I suppose it cant hurt.
posted by nsillik at 6:12 PM on February 18, 2007

If you have a problem with color fidelity (like sindark, above), you should try a different "White Balance" setting, or use the "Custom White Balance" mode, where you point at a white or grey object (like a piece of paper) to set the correct white balance automatically.
posted by mbrubeck at 7:01 PM on February 18, 2007

I have a little experience with Canon products and just bought the SD800IS for my wife. One of the most important things to know about using the built-in flash on a camera like this is that it is only good for 10 feet or so; the HF-DC1 mentioned above claims to increase the range to thirty feet, but only under optimum conditions. For large indoor areas your best bet is to use available light; you can manually set your camera's ISO up to 1600; 800 is much more usable, but even 1600 can be cleaned up with something like Noise Ninja if you are willing to do a little post-processing (there is other noise-reduction software out there, this just happens to be what I use and like.)

It sounds like you are wanting to learn more about photography in general. There are a bunch of good resources out there, especially on the internet One of the best, especially for people who are just beginning to improve their skills, is the book Understanding Exposure by Bryan Peterson. It will give you a good understanding of how ISO, aperture, and shutter speed combine to produce a good exposure.
posted by TedW at 7:01 PM on February 18, 2007

The first photo looks like you didn't really need the flash at all (since the rest of the room looks reasonably well lit).

The second photo looks is workably underexposed and just a little blurry from camera shake, which suggests that the image stabilization was operating.

The last has the problem that the flash was just too weak to light your intended subject.

I don't know what ISO setting you are using, but it doesn't seem like you are at the point of getting horrible amounts of noise, so I'd try pushing it a little further. Higher ISO + image stabilization should give you the ability to take more pictures without the flash.

The other things to look into are using the in-camera exposure correction if you get a photo like #2 again.

Also, see about the different metering and autofocus modes. Using a more centerweighted metering will let you point the camera at the object you want properly exposed, push the button half way to lock the focus and exposure, and then move the camera to compose the shot before pushing the rest of the way and taking the picture. This might have helped with #3, with or without flash.

All the advice about tripods and steadying your shots is nice if you are taking photos of static scenes, but you already have image stabilization which accounts for camera shake and lets you use longer shutter speeds. If they get much longer you'll get blurs from people speaking, blinking their eyes, or just making minor movements.
posted by Good Brain at 7:03 PM on February 18, 2007

Best answer: In addition to all of the advice about exposure...

If you're using the LCD to frame the shot, don't. You can keep the camera much steadier held up against your face to use the viewfinder than you possibly can at arms length (even with your elbows bent), and while it may not be a perceptible difference to you, it will make a huge difference to the sharpness of your shots.

If your subjects are distant, as in that last shot, use the infinity focus mode (the mountain icon).

If there isn't enough light to get a sharp picture at a longer focal length, zoom out and crop it later. You'll lose some definition, but camera shake is much more pronounced on telephoto shots.

Finally, get yourself a gorillapod. It's the most versatile and lightest portable tripod I've found.
posted by Caviar at 7:53 PM on February 18, 2007

Best answer: (on preview, a lot of this has been said more succinctly, but maybe this will help with the principles behind it all)

The most important thing to remember/understand is that you're always going to get worse shots in non-ideal situations than you are in ideal situations. How much you are able to make a non-ideal situation into an ideal one is going to be largely determined by your equipment, and in this case you don't have a lot to work with (not an insult to you or your camera, just a fact). There's a lot of good advice in here already, but don't expect it to "solve" your problem.

Flashes on point and shoots really can't throw light further than 15 feet and on many models it's considerably less. When shooting indoors or in low light, figure that your flash is useless for anything greater than 10 feet away; don't even bother with it on anything further. A good example is actually this shot where the flash did fire. Notice how the heads in the foreground are pretty well illuminated, but the subject is dark... The light from the tiny flash in your camera simply can't get far enough to fully illuminate the subject.

The physics of this situation dictate two options, A.) create more light or B.) create greater sensitivity to the light that exists. In regard to A, you could use a booster flash (a full, separate flash unit that is sensitive to your camera's on board flash), but it can be tricky in low light situations. A variety of practical possibilities exist under the umbrella of B. Opening your aperture wider allows for more light to come in. On the above example, you're at f5 presumably because you are zoomed in; at the camera's widest angle you will be at f2.8 - meaning more light passing through the lens to the chip (you may to get closer to your subject to get the shot you want). You could also make the chip itself more sensitive by increasing the ISO (this will create more noise and make a "grainier" image). Finally, a slower shutter speed (letting the same amount of light pass through the lens for a longer period of time) will also help; you don't have much control over that other than what will automatically occur once your flash is off.

Okay, on to scenario 2... Your close-up shots are TOO bright. The flash is bursting hot to compensate for the darkness, but doesn't have the fine control to cut out before it has washed out your subject. Think about this similarly to how we were shooting without the flash, except instead of increasing A.) the amount of light or B.) the sensitivity to light we want to decrease it. In this case, the opposite is also true as to which method will be easier to utilize. To decrease the sensitivity, we turn down our ISO or use more zoom (to get a smaller aperture and/or create more distance that your fairly weak flash must travel); this gives the flash a little more time before it has washed out the subject and thus makes the job of not washing out the subject a tad easier. The problem is that your onboard flash is really not very good at fine control, so this won't necessarily be enough to solver your problem. On then we go to A.) reducing the amount of light. Your tissue over the flash trick does this and also softens the quality of the light. Another option that's been mentioned and I use frequently is creating a makeshift bounce flash. By making the light indirect you are improving its quality and reducing the amount splashing directly on your subject. I usually just use a business card and hold it horizontally at an angle in front of the flash just enough to break the direct beam. WARNING: your flash will compensate in an attempt to get the quantity of light the camera has asked it to throw into the picture; this means a longer burst than your flash was designed for; this means considerably shorter flash life. It's often worth it for the shot, but don't get too crazy with it. The other possibility is to manually turn down the amount of light the flash is throwing. I'm not sure what the option would be on the S800, but it is probably (flash icon)-EV or just a flash setting that is (flash icon)(minus). With (flash icon)-EV you can fine tune to a certain degree. Also note that it's different from your regular EV setting.

Hopefully, that explains why you're having problems and what you can think about to improve your images. As you play, remember that you have EXIF data on every image you take, so you can see exactly what happened in an image. When you find an image you like, check the EXIF to see where it was zoomed, the aperture, the ISO was, etc. You will have to lower your expectations for indoor images, though, there's simply no avoiding it. Less light means less latitude for what you are able to do.

O! Over/underexposed picture of cute girl at denny's tip since you have a note about it there: look at the dead center of the picture; that's what the camera exposed for. If you hold your shutter button down about halfway you'll feel a sort-of tension point. When in front of windows or shooting pairs of people in front of wide open bright space, aim at a subject, push to that tension point, hold, re-aim camera (compose the shot), click all the way.
posted by pokermonk at 8:11 PM on February 18, 2007

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