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Thread: Achieving Soft Light and Sharp Images in Low Light

  1. #1
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    Achieving Soft Light and Sharp Images in Low Light

    I am a casual photographer who does not know a lot about the technical aspects of photography. I have a Nikon D5000 and I have been experimenting with different settings to achieve a soft light in low-light situations, like indoor parties. I do not like the lighting with flash because it is too harsh and the subtlety of the colors gets lost. Without flash the backgrounds look good, but the people are always blurry. In social situations I do not have time to really experiment with the settings as much as I would like, so am looking for some advice on ways to maximize the quality of my pictures without taking a million pictures and annoying everyone when I ask them to "take just one more." I already find my camera pretty bulky for taking to parties etc.. so I don't want to increase the amount of equipment I am lugging around too much.
    1.) Is there a setting or technique I am missing that would solve this problem? I think I am holding the camera steady, but maybe not?
    2.) Do I need to buy a tripod? If so, is there a very small one I can buy that is not too expensive?
    3.) Someone suggested I buy a ring flash, would that help? I have read that you have to be pretty close up to your subjects, which seems like it would not be right for parties etc.. If this is what I want, which one should I buy that would not be exorbitantly expensive and not too bulky?
    4.) I've also thought about the flashes that bounce off the ceiling to decrease the harshness of the flash. Is this what I need, or is it the ring flash? Or neither? If this is what I need, any suggestions on compact and relatively cheap ones?

    I would appreciate any tips on whether I really need to be buying more equipment and if so, what I actually need.

    Thanks!

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    jiro's Avatar
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    Re: Achieving Soft Light and Sharp Images in Low Light

    Your Nikon D5000 have a good performance with high ISO settings. I suggest you capitalize on that. You can use a prime lens, for example a 35mm or 50mm lens with a wide aperture like f1.4 or f1.8 to gather more light. Should you opt to use the built-in flash try to lessen the output flash exposure value from -1 to -1.7 based on the distance of the camera to the subject for a more natural flash effect (not too bright on the skin). A nice hot shoe flash like the SB800 or SB700 would be very good (specially if you use a diffuser or bounce the light to the sides or to the ceiling) although it's a bit expensive. A good investment, though. Try to shoot with a shutter speed of 1/60 or higher if you can to reduce blur. A tripod would definitely help if this is a composed shot (I mean you have the time to ask the subjects to pose properly and hold their spot.) If it is not possible then brace yourself by leaning on a wall to prevent some camera shake. Lastly, practice, practice, practice so that once you are in the actual situation you would know what to do before you take the shots. Good luck.
    Last edited by jiro; 20th December 2010 at 04:47 AM.

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    Re: Achieving Soft Light and Sharp Images in Low Light

    Quote Originally Posted by lemonberry View Post
    I am a casual photographer who does not know a lot about the technical aspects of photography.
    Well, I'm delighted you've found yourself on CiC. You'll find that this is a place where you can learn all you want about photography and being a competent photographer. You've already had one example of that with jiro's post above

    I hope this will be the first of many posts that you make in CiC. So, welcome to the site.

    If you haven't already done so, please make sure that you read this post HERE which will help you get started. Also our Code of Conduct in the FAQ HERE
    Last edited by Donald; 19th December 2010 at 07:02 PM.

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    Re: Achieving Soft Light and Sharp Images in Low Light

    Quote Originally Posted by lemonberry View Post
    1.) Is there a setting or technique I am missing that would solve this problem? I think I am holding the camera steady, but maybe not?
    I'd recommend getting an external flash (speedlight) to put on your camera hotshoe, and learn how to bounce. This is where you point the head of the flash at a reflective surface (wall, floor, ceiling, reflector) and use the reflected light as your main source of illumination. This diffuses the light and makes it much softer. It will eat your power, though.

    3.) Someone suggested I buy a ring flash, would that help? ...
    It could. A ring flash is for elminating shadows altogether in a wraparound light. The look is very distinct, and it really depends on your tastes as to whether you like it or not. It's not always particularly soft, though, and I find it more like a fashion "mug shot" look than looking like natural lighting. And yes, they're big, expensive, and very very conspicuous, as they go around the lens of your camera.

    My recommendation for getting a flash for bouncing would be to pick up an OEM flash if you can afford it. In your case, that means an SB-600, SB-700, SB-800, or SB-900. You could use something a lot cheaper, but a Nikon speedlight will let you use iTTL to automatically set the power output level via through-the-lens (TTL) metering. The camera tells the flash to send out a "preflash" burst of a known brightness, meters it, and then adjust the power output to where it thinks it ought to be, and then takes the picture. It's kind of like having A mode on your camera, vs. only M.
    Last edited by inkista; 20th December 2010 at 04:56 AM.

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    Re: Achieving Soft Light and Sharp Images in Low Light

    The first thing to try is increasing the ISO to 3200 - your camera will do this. I'd try Aperture Priority(A), at around f4-5.6.

    Thing is, this approach is free - if it doesn't give the results you're after, then a "bounced" flash is the next step.

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    Re: Achieving Soft Light and Sharp Images in Low Light

    Thanks for the advice! Very helpful!

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    Re: Achieving Soft Light and Sharp Images in Low Light

    Used creatively, flash doesn't necessarily have the "deer caught in the headlights" look. In fact, used creatively, flash often produces more natural and better lit imagery than does available light. Often when photographers talk about shooting with available light, they consider only the amount of available light, not the quality of that light.

    Yes, it is easier to bump your camera up to ISO 3200 (if your camera supports such a high ISO) and to begin shooting away at 1/30 second and f/1.4. Yes, it is a LOT EASIER! However, it doesn't always, in fact (IMO) it seldom produces the optimum imagery.

    The learning curve using a single hotshoe flash that is bounced is not particularly steep.

    I particularly like modifying my flash using the Joe Demb Flash Diffuser Pro
    www.dembflashproducts.com

    Shooting flash modified with a diffuser/reflector along with an off-camera cord and a flash bracket is not difficult to learn to use and can produce good to excellent results from the start. Obviously, as you grow more proficient in the creative use of flash, your imagery will improve.

    Take a look at Neil van Niekirk's tutorial on using flash creatively. Neil prefaces his tutorial with the following statement,

    These pages were originally written to help other photographers who struggle with on-camera flash. But they were also written as a reaction against the snobbery of the purists who insist on using available light only – even when it looks terrible.

    http://neilvn.com/tangents/flash-pho...hy-techniques/

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    Re: Achieving Soft Light and Sharp Images in Low Light

    Just two more small notes. While getting a flash can really help out in lower-light situations, there are actually two things to keep in mind.

    A small fast prime (like, say, the AF-S 35mm f/1.8) might still let you shoot available light, since a larger max. aperture will let in more light. And it will also thin your DoF and give you those nice blurry backgrounds. This is a lot easier than learning flash photography, as you'll only have to juggle iso, aperture, and shutter speed for ambient, rather than juggling iso, aperture, flash distance, flash power output, and finding a shutter speed that works for both the ambient and flash illumination (and probably under your max. sync speed, too) . Think of ambient photography as juggling three balls. Think of flash photography as juggling five while balancing on a high wire.

    Which brings me to point 2. You definitely want to master the three ball juggling first. If you are not comfortable shooting in full Manual mode, I'd actually recommend waiting on getting a flash until you are (it doesn't take long). The reasons for this are that if you shoot in the automatic modes (A, S, P), you're actually leaving the control of the ambient vs. flash balance up to the camera--you have a lot less control than you would in M mode. Most of the dSLRs today default to fill flash (where most of the illumination is from ambient and only a small amount from flash) in the A/S modes, and flash as your main illumination (more flash, less ambient) in P mode. You can override some of this with the shutter speed, but if you want full control of how you want to balance your subject and background illumination, using your camera in M is going to be the best way.

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    Re: Achieving Soft Light and Sharp Images in Low Light

    Hi, Donielle, and welcome!

    Your questions cover a lot of territory, which is pretty common, of course. Photography is a balancing act of settings, constrained by the equipment you have at the moment. You're asking the right questions about the combination of equipment and technique.

    I don't think there's a simple setting or technique you're "missing." A good resource is the set of tutorials on this site. They're very clear in describing the trade-offs in handling a situation and achieving results.

    A tripod is always helpful, but may not be critical for your application. Where the focal length is fairly short, subject movement is likely to be more of a problem than camera shake, which is what you describe as the background looking good, but the people being blurry. If the background looks good, a tripod won't help.

    A ring flash is usually for macro work, but I suppose it could be helpful for close-up portraiture.

    Bouncing off the ceiling or a wall is probably the best single technique I know of to reduce the harshness of flash lighting. You just need an external flash that can be tilted or rotated. The big pitfall is the color of the surface you're using to bounce from: a pink wall can cause very strange effects.

    To take this step by step, I would recommend reading the tutorials and getting an external flash if you don't have one. As you said, and as others have noted, once you have an external flash, you can bounce it, you can put a diffuser on it, and you can put it on a bracket to move it farther from the lens. Even when it's mounted on the camera, it's farther from the lens than the built-in flash. Having an external flash will take you a long way.

    Cheers,
    Rick

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    Re: Achieving Soft Light and Sharp Images in Low Light

    Donielle, another thing you can try before jumping into big bucks and another learning curve is reducing the flash level of your built in flash. I'm not sure which wheel you'd use with the D5000, but my D80, I use the front wheel. While holding the wee flash pop-up button, you scroll the wheel to the left or right to increase or decrease the intensity of the flash. This allows you to get better capture in low light, but reduces the shadow effects and harshness somewhat.

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