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Taking Great Indoor Photos Without a Flash

written by: fionayb•edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 11/20/2008

"No Flash Photography Allowed." We've all seen the signs. Then there are those times when your flash doesn't give enough light to show anything anyway. What to do? Find out which settings can help you take better indoor shots.

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    Flashless Photography

    All too often we find ourselves in a museum looking at a piece and thinking what a great subject for a photo it would be, if it weren’t for that sign requesting “NO Flash Photography."

    Alternatively, we take a shot indoors only to find when we look at the preview screen that the flash wasn’t bright enough or the image was too far away to be properly lit.

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    How to Take Great Photos Without a Flash

    Beginner photographers often fall into the trap of thinking the flash will solve all problems, bathing everything in a well-lit glow. The truth is, the flash that comes on your camera only has a very limited range. However, it is possible to take wonderful photographs indoors even without a flash, provided you know how to use a few simple tricks.

    It’s time to learn about the Shutter and Aperture settings on your camera since these are the two things that can affect the brightness of your picture.

    Shutter Speed

    When you take a photograph, the shutter on your camera opens and closes, letting in light so that the image is registered. The shutter speed, or the length of time the shutter is open, determines how much light is allowed in. A fast shutter speed may be as quick as 1/500th of a second which, obviously, will not let in as much light. On the other hand, you have a slow speed of 1 second or even longer, which will let in much more light. Before you simply set your camera shutter speed to the longest possible time it will allow, you need to consider a few other factors… such as camera shake. The slower the shutter speed, the more likely the camera will shake and you’ll have a blurry image.

    Aperture

    You also need to consider the aperture. A fast shutter speed can still capture enough light to take a great picture, if the opening (or aperture) is large enough. The shutter speed is the length of time the shutter is open for, but the aperture is how wide it opens. Usually, you will use a larger aperture with a faster shutter speed, or a smaller aperture with a longer shutter speed. (To make things a little more confusing, a larger aperture number is actually a smaller aperture opening, so an f2.7 actually allows more light than an f8).

    If this all sounds very confusing, don’t worry because a lot of modern cameras make it easier for you by offering an Aperture Priority setting. This lets you set the aperture wide open to allow in a lot of light but the camera determines the best shutter speed, so you don’t have to worry about numbers, camera shake, or blurring. Instead, you can just have fun taking your photos.

    Another easy method that I personally use sometimes is the Sports setting. Because it is designed to capture an image quickly, it lets in enough light but works fast enough to capture an image even in low light conditions. Be warned though, that your image may appear much more grainy than usual.

    Play around with the different settings of your digital camera and see what you like. If I’m in a hurry and just want to take a picture quickly, I will use the Sports setting. Sometimes the graininess adds to the atmosphere of the shot and other times I use Photoshop to enhance it. When I have more time to play around though, I try different shutter speeds and aperture settings, being sure to jot down the settings I use for each shot so that I can then go back and see what I like best.

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    Examples

    Movie Shoot and Fog Machine 

    This image, at a movie shoot, was taken under low lighting. A flash would not have lit the area sufficiently. Using a sport setting captures enough light while the graininess adds to the atmosphere.Walrus at Indianapolis Zoo A flash here would have caused a bad reflection against the glass. Using a different setting allowed for a clearer shot with no harsh reflection.