Throughout this article, there will be references to shutter speed, iso, and aperture.
I don't dive too deep into those aspects, but I have dedicated articles just for them. So after you're done reading here - you can head over to the topic you need help with and fill in some of the finer details.
Let's get at it!
All modern DSLR or mirrorless cameras have an exposure meter built-in. This is a tool to help you get the best picture possible by giving you an idea of what shutter speed, aperture, and ISO will give the correct brightness level in your photo.
The problem with that is most indoor photography situations are not well lit so it's hard for this feature to work properly when indoors - especially if there isn't any natural light coming from windows or lamps nearby.
The good thing about these meters, though, is they can be calibrated: meaning once you have found out which settings work best for one situation (bright room), make sure those settings stay consistent throughout all future pictures taken in similar low lit conditions (so same shutter speed, iso, and aperture).
We photographers often mention the exposure triangle, but it's a good idea to know how it works.
It's simply the three different settings that you can change on your camera to get the perfect picture:
All of these affect one another (known as reciprocity), which means if you increase one setting, then all other related settings will need to be increased too, so everything balances out again.
For example, if I set my ISO higher for indoor photography without flash, my shutter speed and aperture may also need adjusting.
Keep this in mind as we go further in this discussion.
When talking about settings and the exposure triangle (which you balance when taking any photo), I wouldn't say that there's one that trumps the other. It really comes down to the type of photography you're taking and what the subject is.
For example, if I'm shooting a dance performance or event, my shutter speed will need to be faster than when photographing family indoors in low light without flash. The same can be said for aperture.
Your aperture would need to be higher if you want less background blur - you'd then lower your shutter and increase ISO.
Don't worry, we'll cover them all as it pertains to indoor photography - but, I'd say it's best to take note of all three as they all work together when creating exposure on any given photo.
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Aperture is the size of the hole in your lens. It can be adjusted to control how much light is allowed into the camera, and therefore what the exposure will look like on any given photo.
Aperture blades control the size of the hole and can be adjusted manually on some types of lenses. If not, they're controlled by a mechanical mechanism inside the lens itself that opens and closes to adjust how much light is allowed in.
If you're a beginner and usually shoot in automatic mode, stop.
Automatic mode is great for certain situations (although very few) - you will want to learn how to shoot in manual mode (we will have an article soon that covers this). Why am I saying this? It's simple, flexibility and knowing that your settings will get your desired effect.
This will also help you adjust your settings based on the current situation and not rely solely on automatic mode.
Priority modes are great, but I rarely use them. If I were to use one for indoor photography without a flash - it would be aperture priority. This would ensure that my aperture stays wide open (for the most light provided within the environment). This will ensure that your ISO wouldn't have to be too high (causes digital noise) - and your shutter too low (causes motion blur if set too low during fast action).
Again, every situation/type of photography is different, so this could change, which puts even more emphasis on learning/using manual mode.
Generally speaking, indoor lighting is not ideal and usually low (compared to outdoors, of course). This means your aperture needs to be adjusted accordingly - and as stated before, aperture controls the amount of light coming in.
You'll want to open the aperture as wide as it can go - depending on your lens. Some open as far as f/1.2, others open to f/2.8 or f/4 (the lower the number, the more 'open' the lens is). When we refer to a 'fast lens,' that's referencing a lens that opens up (stops down) very wide - generally speaking, f/1.8, f/1.4, f/1.2. Anything at or below f/2.0.
You'll have to check the lens you're using (we will go over a few recommendations here shortly) - but generally speaking, you want to keep the aperture open as wide as possible in indoor low light situations.
Remember, we aren't using a flash here - so you'll want to absorb as much natural or artificial light within the environment as possible. All light (regardless of quality) is better than increasing ISO to amplify what's already there.
To do this, you'll want to slow your shutter speed.
Set your camera to manual or aperture priority mode to get the slowest shutter possible without a tripod. This will allow you to change both ISO and shutter speed at once - essentially telling the camera what is more important at that moment (light sensitivity vs. motion blur).
You'll need to gauge what you're shooting versus your shutter speed. Fast action (dancing, boxing, performances) generally requires a faster shutter. The higher the shutter speed, the faster the camera can 'freeze' the motion.
Shutter speed introduces blur or dragging.
This can be more apparent the slower your shutter is versus the motion.
Generally speaking, I shoot between 1/125th and 1/500th. However, I'm only at or close to 1/500th during dance performances, and there is a lot of fast motion (spinning in dresses, jumping, rolling, etc.)
I will then adjust my ISO accordingly.
3200 is when image quality starts dropping significantly on modern cameras. You'll want to maintain a good balance between aperture and shutter speed to reduce this number as much as you can to avoid noise.
Different manufacturers cameras handle high ISO and noise much better than others. Sony (and their A7iii) are known for their great low light performance (and high ISO) - while Nikon on the other hand, doesn't perform as well.
Simply put, ISO affects how much light the camera sensor can pick up at a given time. The lower the ISO, the less sensitive to light it is and vice versa:
If you're shooting in low-light conditions or your shutter isn't fast enough for scenery shots (forest with moving leaves), then using a higher ISO may help.
However, if you use too high an ISO - this will introduce more noise into your photos which looks like speckles of color on top of what should be cleanly white snow or grey buildings.
There are two ways to approach white balance. You can either set it manually (which I suggest) or leave it on auto. If you choose to use the camera's auto-white balance, then make sure you take several shots and pick the best one - otherwise, your images will be inconsistent.
There is nothing wrong with leaving this setting at automatic for most occasions as long as there aren't drastic color shifts when shooting in light of different temperatures, such as going from fluorescent to window light.
Also, white-balanced can be changed post-processing if you're shooting in RAW (which I also highly recommend). But, it's always better to get it somewhat correct in camera first, so you aren't adding a bunch of work for yourself during the post-processing phase.
This is the biggest benefit of shooting manual - and it's also the biggest roadblock for most people. When shooting in auto, you're hoping that your camera gets the white balance correctly.
But what happens when it doesn't? You end up with different colors per photo or, worse yet, a color cast over all of them, depending on how extreme the problem is. This could be due to many factors, such as window light coming into contact with fluorescent lighting, but if you shoot manually, then there are no surprises!
It might take some time to get used to set these settings right, but once mastered, you'll be sure every photo has consistency regardless of where they were taken or exposure variations.
Aperture, shutter speed, and ISO all work together to create the perfect balance for a photo.
If you're shooting indoors without a flash, then there's really no way of overcoming low natural lighting, so all three settings will need to work together with one another as well as any other additional ways you might have of bringing up those shadows (window lighting, etc.).
We'll cover some examples below but first, let's go over the most important thing: what type of photography do we want our photos portraying? This question leads us into understanding where we should set these various items
In photography (and life in general) - light is everything. It's how we see; it shapes everything around us - above anything in photography, light is most important.
So what are some ways to get better indoor photos? Using existing light to your advantage.
For example, let's say you're photographing someone in their home - the easiest and most likely place for that would be a window! If it's an event or happening outside of your home, finding a spot where windows are facing towards what you're shooting will also work well (you'll want to have people turn so they're not looking directly at the window).
This will allow one side of them to face into the room, giving some depth to their features and making colors pop more than if all images were taken against a dark background.
This is very typical for indoor events - the lighting is hardly ever good for photos. So we as photographers have to improvise. Here are settings you can start with, then adjust accordingly.
This is very common during indoor photography. This is many of our indoor shoots, and it's a lot easier than you'd expect.
The only time you would ever have to adjust ISO and have slower shutter speeds in this situation is when you don't have a high-speed lens.
Remember, the faster the lens
These are the toughest of them all. You're taking pictures of people, in the evening or at night, indoors. The lighting is bad, and you know the pictures aren't going to come out great. What do you do?
You find any and every way to light the scene. Forget about the quality of light at this point. Any light is better than none.
This could be ceiling light, lamplight, etc. If it's dark enough, turn them all on! I have even asked a homeowner if I could borrow their flashlight. They handed me a mag-light style flashlight. Bright for sure.
Do you know what I did? I turned it on and bounced it off the white ceiling above them. I would take a few shots like that - and then move the light around the room. Angling it off the ceiling too. Never shine it on them. This is using reflective light to light the scene.
Trust me - it's much better than not doing anything at all.
You'll want the widest aperture, slowest shutter speed, and lowest ISO values to capture something like this. You may need a tripod if you need to go below 1/60th of a second. Keeping the ISO low is critical in keeping the image crisp and free of noise.
There are two types of lenses. Primes and Zooms.
The choice is ultimately up to you regarding what works best in your environment/setting and results. Determining which one works best before the shoot will make everything easier going forward.
And you now know that there isn't an end-all-be-all setting for property indoor photography.
A few things to take away from this article
Until next time folks, be safe and keep creating!