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You are hereHome > Tutorials > Learn > Exposure> Low-Light

Low-Light Indoors Pictures

In this tutorial, we want to talk a bit about a challenging situation that many beginners are facing with current digital cameras: blurred pictures in low-light indoors situations.

Consider, first, that there is probably not much more for camera manufacturers to learn concerning making first class optics, properly obtaining the correct exposure and in autofocus. So then why are today's digital cameras still finding it difficult to produce correctly exposed and focused action pictures indoors?

Reread the above question and you will notice it deals with three challenges that digital cameras face today:

  1. Low-light Autofocus
  2. Low-light Action
  3. Low-light Indoors

Let us see what is actually required to take good low-light indoors pictures.

Low-Light Autofocus

Ability of the digital camera to gain a focus lock in low-light.

Unless your digital camera has some sort of low-light focus-assist, its autofocus sensor might not be able to gain a focus lock, with the result that you may end up with badly focused, hence blurry, pictures.

A few modern cameras lack an AF-assist light but their AF sensor is sensitive enough in low-light to focus properly.

Fortunately, more and more manufacturers now provide this low-light focus-assist feature on their digital cameras. However, not all AF-assist light are created equal, so do read up on the reviews to ensure that an AF-assist light is really helping. The key phrase to watch for is "AF hunts quite a bit in low-light" or "AF cannot lock focus in low-light".

Low-Light Action

To freeze action, a camera must be able to use a fast enough shutter speed to stop the action.

A fast shutter speed may be anything from 1/60 sec. all the way to 1/1,000 sec. depending on the kind of action you want to freeze.

[Editor's note: With shutter speeds, the smaller the number (i.e., 1/1000 is smaller than 1/125), the faster the shutter speed (1/1000 sec. is faster than 1/125 sec.).]

If the camera is unable to use a fast enough shutter speed, the result is a blurred picture [which can also be quite effectively used in certain situations to depict action].

But, if you use a fast shutter speed, the camera must compensate by using a large aperture to get proper exposure.

Now, unfortunately, most digital cameras have a maximum aperture of F2.8, which is not very large. In 35mm cameras, the standard is F1.8, with some lenses at F1.4. Only a couple of digital cameras go up to F2.0 and F1.8.

[Editor's note: With aperture, the smaller the number (i.e. 1.8 is smaller than 2.8), the larger the aperture (F1.8 is a larger aperture than F2.8). The larger the aperture, the more light reaches the picture.]

At the largest aperture setting your digital camera has, there might still not be enough light for a proper exposure.

If you set your camera to Auto, you're in big trouble. The camera will adjust the shutter speed down (never mind that you've selected the 'Action' scene mode) until proper exposure is achieved.

In low-light situations, that might mean an aperture/shutter speed combination of F2.8 at 1/30 sec. -- which makes it very easy to end up with a blurred shot due to camera shake and/or subject movements.

Unless you're using a tripod. A tripod will eliminate the blurring caused by your own movements, but not the movements of your subject (e.g. a child running around).

To boost the shutter speed up, you need to give more light to the picture.

One way to do that is to use flash. The flash output needs to be powerful enough to stop action from far away (assuming your subject is far away, say, on the basketball court). Unfortunately, your onboard fill-in flash is probably just not strong enough to do that.

Another caveat is that you may not be allowed to use flash indoors as it can interfere with the play.

Another way to boost the shutter speed is to increase the ISO up to, say, ISO 400 or 800.

Most point-and-shoot digital cameras may not even have this option, and if they do, you then have to deal with the issue of noise.

If you are at all familiar with 35mm photography, you know that when you use a higher ISO, you are more able to see the dots that make up the picture when you enlarge it.

Noise is similar: you can see the pixels at higher ISOs. Higher-end SLR digital cameras have noise reduction software combined with a large image sensor that effectively deal with the noise so that using high ISOs are practically feasible. In most compact digital cameras, however, the noise reduction does not work too well and the image sensor is quite small, so the picture quality is just not acceptable at higher ISOs (detail is also lost).

[Editor's note: A perfect example of a feature on paper which in practice proves to be unusable. So, take a manufacturer's boast of high ISOs with a grain of salt and always consult actual users' opinions.]

Bottom line: Good luck on indoors low-light action shots with current crop of digital cameras! If you absolutely must take this kind of pictures, get a digital SLR camera with a large image sensor (large as in APS-sized and larger). No problem there.

Low-Light Indoors

How about just ordinary candid people shots doing normal things indoors, nothing that require freezing the action?

It's still a challenge for all the reasons outlined above, especially the one about noise reduction at higher ISOs.

What if your subject does not move (much) so that you can use a slow shutter speed at low ISO?

Sigh, for digital cameras, the longer you leave the shutter open, the more noise there is. So, once again, camera manufacturers have to use a larger image sensor in compact digital cameras.

Will things ever change?

Really, there is nothing much more to improve now: four or five megapixels resolution is much more than most of us will ever need; optical zoom will probably move up to 5x, 6x as standard, and higher optical zooms will have image stabilization. But the real improvement in picture quality will be for all digital cameras to provide low-light focus-assist, and usable noise reduction at slow shutter speed AND at higher ISOs. That will require using larger APS-sized image sensors.

Until that time, taking indoors pictures in low-light will continue to be the challenge.

Camera Settings

Your blurred shots could be caused by one or more of the following reasons:

  • Camera shake
  • Autofocus unable to get a lock
  • Main subject moves faster than slow shutter speed can freeze it

So, what are some of the things you can try with your digital camera settings to maximize your chances of obtaining good low-light indoors pictures?

To eliminate/reduce camera shake:

  • Hold the camera very steady and use a tripod if necessary.
  • Also, do remember that some digital cameras have a slight shutter lag (elapsed time between pressing the shutter release and the actual recording on the image), so don't move the camera until it has actually recorded the shot.
  • Use a large aperture so the camera can use a shutter speed fast enough to negate the effects of camera shake.
  • Likewise, using a higher ISO setting, e.g. ISO 400 or 800, if available, allows the camera to use a faster shutter speed.
  • If your camera has its AF set to "Multi" it will lock focus on the closest most contrasty subject. If that happens to be your main subject, well and good; if not, you will wonder why your main subject comes out blurry. In this case, I like to use "Center" AF and lock focus on the main subject by a half-press of the shutter release button (and then re-compose, if needed).

To help the camera gain a focus lock:

  • Focus on something that is at the same distance from the camera as your main subject, but which is in better light and have better contrast. Depress shutter release half-way to lock the focus, then reframe on your main subject and take the shot.
  • If you are in a somewhat controlled situation, you might want to move your subject to where there is more light, or even turn on all the light in the room temporarily so as to get a focus lock first.
  • If your camera has manual focus, use it. Digital cameras with the small focal lengths of their lenses have great depth of field, which means that even if you guess at the focus distance, the picture might well come out in focus. However, moving subjects will probably still come out blurred due to the slow shutter speed you'll be using -- unless you're using flash (see below).

To freeze a moving subject:

  • To stop action, anticipate where the best shots will be and pre-focus by pressing the shutter release half-way. This way, the camera has already done the focusing and you will suffer less from shutter lag.
  • Flash will effectively freeze motion, so use the built-in or external (if your camera has a dedicated hot shoe) flash.

When all else fails:

  • Since the onboard flash has a limited range, verify from your user's manual what that range is, and try to stay within that range to ensure your indoors shots are exposed properly.
  • Last recourse, take the picture anyway and then adjust in an image editing software.
  • And don't forget to experiment a lot with your digital camera to find out when it does do well in low-light situations.

We hope this article has shed some light in why you are getting so many blurred low-light indoors shots. Sorry, not much help in how to deal with the problem because it is really a technological issue that camera manufacturers have to deal with in the next generation of digital cameras.

Don't believe all those wonderful ads you see in print and on TV -- the bottom line is that digital cameras suck in low-light situations, and until you can use higher ISOs, you will be pretty well challenged to obtain good results. And higher ISOs with acceptable noise level are only possible with the use of larger image sensors. See our article on Noise to get a better understanding on the issue of noise.

Meanwhile, enjoy your digital camera for what it can do well!

Please give us your feedback on this article.

In the next section, find out how to use exposure bracketing to ensure correctly exposed pictures in challenging lighting situations.

<< Learn - Exposure

Learn - Exposure: Bracketing >>






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