Indoor portraits with a Christmas tree in the background

If you have been in a situation where you had a Christmas tree behind your subject and you could not take a good portrait, correctly exposing both the subject and the Christmas tree, then don’t be surprised – you are not the only person having such challenges. Many photographers have a tough time with correctly exposing images indoors, especially when dealing with a very dim room with bright objects in the background. That’s the biggest problem with photographing the Christmas tree – most people like to turn off or dim their main lights and only keep the Christmas tree lights on. With such a low amount of light in the room, all kinds of problems arise for photographers: images come out blurry, portraits are too dark or images have a flat, point and shoot look to them when photographed with a flash. The biggest annoyance and frustration, is when flash lights up the room and makes the Christmas tree lights disappear, as if they are not even on! What is the best way to deal with these problems? How should you take pictures with the Christmas tree? In this article, I will do my best to explain what you need to do to take great family photos during holidays.

1) Challenges with bright backgrounds indoors

When a room is dim, the only thing you can do without using flash is heavily increase your camera’s sensitivity (ISO). Increasing camera ISO, however, results in lots of noise in images and does not help with the problem of having a dark subject with a brightly-lit Christmas tree in the background. If you expose for the subject by setting your camera’s metering mode to “Spot/Partial Metering” and pointing the focus point at your subject, the Christmas tree will be overexposed. If you meter for the Chritmas tree, your subject will be too dark. Just like in these pictures:

Exposing for the light and the subject indoors

What happened here? Besides me in the picture (note: my home models were asleep when I did this, so I had to find creative ways to photograph myself), the left image is metered for the light, while the right image is metered off me. As you can see, neither the first, nor the second image look acceptable in any way. That’s with only Christmas lights in the room. Let’s see what happens if I turn one light on the other side of the room on:

Ambient Light Only

A little better, but it is still very noisy and I still look darker than the background. In such situations, there is not much you can do to address the problem, besides putting a bright source of light in front of your subject. But walking around the room with a lamp is not very practical, specially when the house is full of people. That’s where flash comes to save you!

How would flash help in such a situation? Flash lights up your subject, allowing you to expose the Christmas lights properly as well. How? Let me show you how to do exactly that.

2) Before Using Flash

Before using flash, make sure to move your subject away from the Christmas tree or other bright sources of light. Why? Because flash easily spills on other objects and will certainly do so on the Christmas tree. When flash spills, it will make those objects look just like your subject and the image will become “flat”. Ideally, you want the Christmas tree to be at least 5-6 feet away from your subject. The next thing you will have to decide on, is whether you want to blur the Christmas tree behind your subject or not. If you choose to blur the Christmas tree, then you would have to use large apertures on your lens (smallest F-numbers) and would have to be close to your subject. If you choose to include the Christmas tree in your frame, then walk away from your subject and use a smaller aperture (larger F-number) to increase the depth of field and make your Christmas tree appear sharp. I personally prefer to blur the Christmas tree lights, so for this article, I only did the tests at relatively large apertures (between f/2.8 and f/4.0).

3) Using Flash

Let’s move on to using flash. If you have not purchased an external flash/Speedlight yet, then you will have to use the pop-up flash on your camera. While it works OK for this situation, you will have to be extremely careful with shadows, especially behind your subjects (on the walls, etc). That’s because pop-up flash is a direct source of light.

If you have a Speedlight, then you have two options – to use it on the camera or use it off-camera as a remote flash. If you are firing flash from your camera’s hot-shoe (on-camera), then I recommend to bounce the light off-ceilings and walls (by moving the flash head). Just make sure that you are not angling the light towards the Christmas tree, so that it does not get much of the light coming from your flash. Your goal is to light up the subject and not touch the Christmas tree. A better option, is to use off-camera flash and shoot through an umbrella. With off-camera flash, you have a much better control over light spill and you can position the light so that it hits your subject, but does not reach the Christmas tree. See my “Indoors Flash Photography” article, where I go through an off-camera light setup. Again, you have to be cautious about the distance between your subject and the Christmas tree – the further away they are from each other, the better.

4) Camera and Flash Settings

Here are the settings I recommend on your camera and flashes:

  1. Set your flash to “TTL” both on your camera and your Speedlight(s) to let the camera automatically determine the correct flash power.
  2. Set camera mode to “Manual”.
  3. Turn off “Auto ISO” and set your ISO to the camera’s base ISO (100 or 200).
  4. If you are using a prime lens, set your aperture to something between f/2.0 and f/2.8. If you are shooting with a zoom lens, set aperture to the smallest number like f/3.5.
  5. Set your shutter speed to the current focal length of the lens for now. For example, if you are zoomed in to 60mm, set your shutter speed to 1/60th of a second.

5) Accurate Focusing

While photographing in a dark environment, you might have issues with autofocus behavior – it just doesn’t work very well in such conditions. Whether you are using a Speedlight or not, make sure that AF-assist is turned on (if you have it) and you are in a “Single” servo mode (AF-S), not “Continuous” servo (AF-C) – AF-assist only works on AF-S mode. AF-assist typically works great in dark environments to get accurate focus.

If you still have challenges with autofocus, ask someone to temporarily turn the lights on so that you could get good focus, then freeze and when the lights are off again, take a picture. Another thing I highly recommend, is to set your camera on a tripod (read below why it is a good idea to use a tripod).

6) Shutter Speed – the Secret Ingredient

For the current objective, which is to properly expose the both the Christmas tree and your subject and make them both appear natural, you will have to play with your camera’s Shutter Speed. When it comes to ambient light, Shutter Speed is what fully controls it. Take a look at these two images:

Shutter Speed Ambient Light Difference

The image on the left was taken at 1/100th of a second at f/4.5, ISO 200. The image on the right was taken at the same aperture and ISO, except the shutter speed was dropped to 1/2 of a second. See the difference in the way the background came out on both images? The exposure on me is about the same on both images, but the image on the right looks a little more natural and it is almost hard to say that flash was used. That’s because ambient light mixed together with flash, giving a different color tone to my skin and shirt. I used one off-camera speedlight positioned on the right (my left), angled at around 45 degrees and reflected off a half-open umbrella with a black cover (I purposefully only opened the umbrella half way, so that the light only lands on me and does not spill all over the room).

Whenever you want to mix ambient light with flash, you always have to decrease your shutter speed. Dropping shutter speed to very low values is tricky, because any camera shake or movement by your subject will make the image blurry. A tripod is always helpful to fight against camera shake, but it cannot help when there is fast movement. Taking pictures of fast-moving kids is certainly challenging in this case. The good news, is that flash does freeze movement to a certain extent and you can increase your shutter speed by increasing camera ISO. For example, if you determine that you are getting a good exposure at 1/10th of a second at ISO 100, you could increase your shutter speed to 1/80th of a second when you increase camera ISO to 800. If you don’t understand how I came up with these figures, it is actually a very simple concept to understand – whenever you increase your camera sensitivity by a full stop, you can also increase shutter speed by a full stop. What happens if you increase camera sensitivity and keep both aperture and shutter speed the same? That’s right, the image will be overexposed. There are three full stops between ISO 100 and 800 (100-200, 200-400 and 400-800); and there are also three stops between 1/10th of a second and 1/80th (1/10-1/20, 1/20-1/40 and 1/40-1/80). Therefore, an image shot at 1/10th of a second at ISO 100 will look similarly to an image shot at 1/80th of a second at ISO 800, except the latter will have more noise in the image.

So if slow shutter speed becomes a big issue, increase your camera ISO, which will allow you to shoot at higher shutter speeds. Simple, yet works great!

7) Slow-sync/Rear-sync modes

I have already thoroughly explained the differences between various sync modes in a video in my “how to get the best out of your pop-up flash” article, but I know that people will still be asking about this. Basically, flash sync modes will do absolutely nothing to improve your pictures when you shoot in manual mode, like I have shown above. As for slow-sync mode, it is called “slow” sync for a reason…believe it or not, but all the slow-sync mode does, is decrease your camera’s shutter speed! Therefore, it is only good for taking pictures in Auto or Aperture Priority modes. What about rear-sync or front-sync modes? For portrait photography without movements, they do absolutely nothing. What difference does it make if flash fires at the beginning or the end of the exposure? In fact, I would recommend to turn off rear-sync mode, because your flash will fire twice (once in the beginning as modeling light and once at the end as main light), which will be very annoying at slow shutter speeds to the people you are taking pictures of. One flash in a dim room is already too much for the eyes, imagine two flashes firing one after another. So don’t worry about sync modes when shooting in Manual Mode and turn off rear-sync mode if you have it turned on.

Remember, the key is to use a slow shutter speed!

Comments

  1. 1
    ) Karl
    December 25, 2010 at 7:52 am

    Merry Christmas Nasim!

    Usually if I want to bring the background/surroundings more to attention when I am using flash I simply increase ISO up to 3200-6400 which gives me still clean (in my opinion) images on my D700; But the possibility to switch the cam into manual mode, increasing shutter time and so to mix more natural light into the Image gives me the chance to save ISO and to increase the quality of my pictures.

    Thank you for this tip and for the pictures
    Have rest and enjoy
    Merry Christmas
    /Karl

    • January 6, 2011 at 11:45 pm

      Karl, increasing ISO should have a very minimal effect on how flash lights up your subjects, because all you are doing is increasing the sensitivity of the sensor. You might be getting better results at high ISOs simply because your flash does not need to fire at much power at high ISOs, which sometimes gives images a more natural feel :)

  2. 2
    ) Jane
    December 25, 2010 at 1:10 pm

    Thanks for the great article Nasim! Merry Christmas to you and your family.

    I managed to get pictures I’m happy with this year with my 50 mm f/1.4 on a tripod and a slow shutter speed. I arranged everyone beside each other so that I could use a shallow depth of field and used the remote with the delay to take a series of photos. Miraculously, my two year-old remained still enough not to be blurry (we told him to look for Dora coming out of the camera :). I have the SB-600 Speedlight, but I’m not yet very proficient with it, other than bouncing the light off the ceiling which worked well for our gift-opening pictures this morning, but washed out the Christmas tree last night in the dark.

    Oh, and Santa brought me the 70-200mm f/2.8 lens! I’ve only had a chance to play with it indoors for a bit and I’m already amazed by the lightning fast auto-focus and the sharpness. Amazing! I’d love to hear your tips on how to best handle a heavy lens like this? What is the best way to hold it and use the zoom ring? Best way to carry it? I turned the tripod collar 180 degrees so that it is sitting on top of the lens and I’m making sure I carry the camera holding the lens. This thing is heavy though!

    Again, Merry Christmas and all the best to you and your family in 2011. I am so grateful for all the work you put into this website. I am learning so much from you. I especially appreciate that your articles are geared toward photo enthusiasts like me who understand the basics but are not at the pro level. It’s a refreshing change from some of the more “snooty” photography blogs I read.

    • January 6, 2011 at 11:50 pm

      Jane, I’m glad your pictures came out great! And Santa loves you for sure – the 70-200mm is one of the best Nikon lenses ever made! :)

      I’m thinking about posting a separate article/video on handling long and heavy lenses…

      • 21
        ) Jane
        January 7, 2011 at 5:11 am

        Thanks Nasim. That would be a great article! As careful as I was with it, after a few days of using the lens on my D90, the lens mount ring began to separate and a couple of little clips came right out. Henry’s (a large photography gear chain in Canada) said they haven’t seen this particular issue before. The lens mount ring was coming off but there was no other external damage (cracks, etc.) to the body. The camera is with Nikon now. Luckily, I have my D40X as my backup, but no way am I attaching that lens to such a tiny body after what happened to my D90. I did have the lens mounted to the body in my camera bag which was well padded and there was some debate in the store among the sales reps whether this was okay. Some said yes, some said no way. I’m guessing the right answer is no, so I’ll be sure to never carry that lens attached to a body. Maybe the D700 or the D3’s could handle it, but I guess it’s too much “lens” for the non-pro bodies.

        • January 7, 2011 at 12:49 pm

          Ouch! Did you hold the D90 or the lens while shooting? Whenever you mount heavy lenses on a DSLR body, always hold the lens, not just the camera body :)

          • 25
            ) Jane
            January 7, 2011 at 7:08 pm

            That’s the thing….I was extremely careful with it and never, ever held the camera body only, always the lens. I turned the tripod collar so that it sits at the top of the lens and carried it that way if I had to move it. Or if I was holding it during shooting, always supported the lens. Perhaps putting it in my camera bag mounted was the issue, but I certainly wasn’t rough with the bag and never dropped it. That’s why the sales reps at Henry’s were so puzzled and have never seen this problem.

            • January 10, 2011 at 11:30 am

              Jane, then your camera is defective…that certainly should not have happened if you were that careful.

  3. 3
    ) Dazhen Gu
    December 25, 2010 at 6:16 pm

    Happy holidays Nasim! Great blog. I have been following for a while and thanks for all the efforts your family put into. You help make my learning curve less steeper.
    Although I agree that it looks more natural, the right photo in side-by-side comparison is hard to correct the white balance due to the light source mixing. What is your thought?

    • January 6, 2011 at 11:52 pm

      Dazhen, you are right – mixing flash and ambient light can often result in bad white balance on your subject. That’s where you would need to use special color gels to tweak the white balance.

  4. 4
    ) Eric
    December 29, 2010 at 5:00 pm

    this is a great article! thanks again!

  5. 5
    ) Karl
    December 30, 2010 at 3:46 am

    One example with manual Camera Mode – OutDoor :-)

    http://spinthma.zenfolio.com/p391952736/ha0d427c#ha0d427c

    used (-2 steps ) Built In flash
    and from the right site Nikon SB-900
    /Karl

    • January 6, 2011 at 11:53 pm

      Karl, that’s a great picture!!! Keep it up!

  6. 6
    ) Harry Hilders
    December 31, 2010 at 6:56 am

    Thanks for the tips and insights.

  7. January 1, 2011 at 4:21 am

    hi nasim,
    thanks for shedding some flash (i mean light) into this topic…:p

  8. 8
    ) bart
    January 1, 2011 at 9:48 pm

    Hi Nasim,

    I would like to ask if what is the best mid range zoom for a DX body. I am thinking of getting 17-55mm 2.8 or the 24-70mm 2.8. I need your opinion about this. thank you and happy new year!

    • January 6, 2011 at 11:55 pm

      Bart, I would personally go with something like the Nikon 16-35mm or 16-85mm instead. The 24-70mm is superb, but does not cover the wide angles on DX. 17-55mm is great, but overpriced.

      • 22
        ) bart
        January 7, 2011 at 5:51 am

        If its not about the price, would say that 17-55mm is better option? Not being a VR, does it make a huge difference lets say when i’m travelling and not having a tripod? i don’t think its wt. would be an issue for me. I’m leaning towards the 17-55mm and i was offered a really good price but i just want to be sure about the lens. I really appreciate the time and thank you!

        • January 7, 2011 at 12:53 pm

          Bart, I personally think that the 17-55mm is overpriced for a DX lens. I know the 17-55mm owners will disagree, but I just don’t see much value in such investment, especially if you will be moving over to FX in the future. As far as lens optics, the 17-55mm is a stellar lens and produces extremely sharp and colorful images.

  9. 9
    ) bart
    January 1, 2011 at 10:44 pm

    for my DX body, which is better Nikon Nikkor AF-S 16-35mm f/4G VR Lens or the 17-55 f/2.8? thank yo very much!

  10. 10
    ) Jeanne
    January 2, 2011 at 7:43 am

    Hi Nasim, apologies for the late greetings. Just came back from a holiday. Here am wishing you and your family great success for your business and well beings. Hope 2011 will bring more readers to your blog. Meanwhile, thank you for sharing your experience and tips on photography.

    Cheers!
    Jeanne/Singapore

    • January 6, 2011 at 11:56 pm

      Jeanne, Happy New Year and thanks for stopping by!

  11. 26
    ) Dennis
    January 9, 2011 at 5:55 am

    Great article! So much to learn. I will need time to absorb and play around with the flash.

    Dennis

  12. 28
    ) yen yenson
    June 8, 2011 at 7:10 pm

    … many many many thanks…
    You are one of a few professionals who are willing to share your knowledge and experience FREE… Buddha bless you and your family for good deeds that you do.
    I have a question. should I go for the Nikon 17-55 f2.8 or the nikon 16-35 f3.5. I love to learn shooting landscapes and people. I have an Nikon 35 f.18 and an Nikon 50 f1.4D. My camera is D7000.
    Thanks again.
    Yenson

  13. 29
    ) yen yenson
    June 8, 2011 at 7:12 pm

    Sorry. The 16-35 is f4…. I apologize for the mistake.
    Kind regards.
    Yenson

  14. 30
    ) felix indarta
    September 6, 2011 at 7:11 pm

    waww… thank for the info…

    im always in problem with my slow shutter when shooting at dark place.
    usually im using aperture mode and active slow shutter.. but, it reallly decrease my shutter speed.
    im in big headache in that case. BUT now, im knowing using the M mode then after that increase the iso full stop and the shutter as the same full stop, then GOTCHA the problem is solving.

    thanks alot alot.

    regards, felix indarta from indonesia

  15. 31
    ) Michael
    June 15, 2012 at 4:46 am

    An ExpoImaging Rouge Flash Bender with a hand held off camera speedlight seems much cheaper, less intrusive, and easier than including an umbrella into the equation. http://strobist.blogspot.com/2010/07/going-rogue-with-flashbenders.html

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