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    Thread: Tip: Indoor portraiture under ambient light

    1. #1
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      Tip: Indoor portraiture under ambient light

      Shooting indoor under ambient light poses several challenges. Flashguns/off-camera strobes/diffusers are commonly used to cope with the situation. Such equipments can cost dearly and unless you own a studio or willing to shell out $$$, you are going to stick with the on-camera popup flash.

      This post is about getting that soft, evenly lit, near studio-like flash exposure using only on-camera flash and a cheap improvised home-made diffuser so you don't have to sacrifice your mobility lugging those bulky equipments around. While this is no way an alternative to a studio setup, you will find that this offers a good trade off over mobility vs quality.

      What you will need:
      A DSLR with a standard zoom lens (a prime/fast lens is a better option for shooting indoor and portraiture but shall be considered optional for our topic here) or a Pro/point & shoot camera that allows you to shoot in Manual or Shutter Priority mode.


      A typical flash exposure may look like this:

      Click image for larger version. 

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      Notice how harsh the lighting on the subject is. You can see specular reflection on the subject's face. The shadow cast on the shoulder and behind the subject is harsh and dark causing the overall exposure look amateurish. What we've got is a 'snapshot'.

      The above composition was taken with the fully automatic mode where the exposure is determined completely by the camera system.

      Beyond snapshot:

      What we need to achieve is an exposure that looks more than a snapshot - something that looks flattering, more or less. So I dialled in the Manual mode so I, instead of the camera, can take certain critical decision on the exposure. Below are my decisions and the corresponding advantages over the camera's.

      1. I chose the shutter speed as 1/30 sec, the slowest I've taught myself to hand hold the camera steady. In the Auto mode the camera chose 1/60 sec. Slower shutter speed exposes more ambient light which not only looks pleasing but also minimises light falloff behind the subject especially when flash is used. Falloff is an effect where the light intensity recedes gradually behind the subject. This can be observed in many flash photography where the background appears dark.

      2. Then I chose the maximum aperture possible with my lens. Because this is a portrait, I wanted my aperture as wide as possible. Also, a wider aperture helps let in more ambient light which is desirable for the same reason I mentioned in #1.

      3. Using centre-weighted metering I metered the skin on the chin and locked the exposure. The camera meter indicated an under-exposure by 3 stops. To compensate for the under exposure I should now either increase my ISO or reduce shutter speed or increase the aperture opening. My ISO is at 800 already and I didn't want to bump it any higher for the fear of introducing more noise. I cannot reduce the shutter speed further because 1/30 sec is the slowest I can handhold the camera steady. I have also maxed out on the aperture as well.

      4. Despite underexposure I went ahead composing the shot. I dialled in the Flash Exposure Compensation to +1.0 (3 stops from 0 at 1/3 EV).

      5. I picked a foam plate/bowl (available at any Fancy stores), cut a broad slit so I can mount it over my lens coaxially at about 5 or 6 inches from the popup flash. The foam acts a diffuser and reflector which helps soften the light.

      6. Focussing on the eye, I released the shutter and here is the result:

      Click image for larger version. 

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      Notice how the shadows have softened. The subject is also evenly lit.


      The homemade diffuser/reflector I used:
      Click image for larger version. 

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      It not only diffused the direct light on the subject but also reflected part of the flash light behind me and on to the wall behind. The wall/ceiling in turn reflected the light back on the subject. The multiple reflection helped blend the flash with the ambient light.


      PS:
      The numbers I chose are by no means hard and fast. Every room, every situation, every composition is different. So please view this post can as a general guide to base your decision of. You definitely need to experiment until you find the perfect exposure that suits your taste. I used Cloudy white balance for a warmer cast. That's how I like my indoor shots. Also a shutter speed of 1/30 secs might be too aggressive for some. If you find your shots lacking sharpness feel free to fallback to 1/60 secs.

      Happy snapping!
      Last edited by keerthi; 6th Jan 2013 at 00:01.
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      Oh... btw you might have noticed that I used 'Rear Sync' as my flash mode. The main reason for this is that I want the flash fire at the end of the exposure which helps expose for ambient light and therefore minimizes light falloff behind the subject.

      Advantages of this technique:

      1. Illuminates subject evenly.
      2. Helps eliminate harsh shadows from the subject.
      3. Exposes more ambient light (by virtue of the manually chosen shutter speed of 1/30 sec and 'Rear Sync' flash mode) and therefore reduces light falloff (i.e. helps illuminate background).
      4. No need for expensive strobes and diffusers.
      5. No need to sacrifice mobility.
      6. No tripod is necessary. Provides enough exposure to freeze the subject despite low-light conditions.
      Last edited by keerthi; 6th Jan 2013 at 08:18.
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      Thanks for the article. Lot of effort put in there.
      I liked the DIY diffuser idea .

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      I figured there isn't a thread on indoor photography here. #mods Can we change the thread title to something appropriate so others can also post their valuable indoor photography tips in this thread?
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      Quote Originally Posted by keerthi View Post
      btw you might have noticed that I used 'Rear Sync' as my flash mode
      In canon this is called Second Curtain Sync, this is one of the three types of external / onboard flash sync you can have in canon

      1. First Curtain Sync - Normally used with shutter speeds upto 1/250s ( this is camera dependent)
      2. Second Curtain Sync - same as above but the timing at which the flash is triggered by the camera is different
      3. High Speed Sync - All shutter speeds upto 1/3000 of a second. used in action photography.

      Since we have started talking about flash and artificial lighting here i believe the thread title needs to be updated accordingly.

      the DIY is pretty nice and the result is good , you have lost all the shadow definition and the light has become considerably soft. Given the fact that you have used an on camera flash unit.

      Refer below linky for a crash course on flash photography concepts.

      Flash Sync Speed
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      I have done a lot of ambient light shooting. The main issue is if the illumination is sufficient (a stable hand is often required) then what can create problems is a harsh light from a window or something. I find days when the sunlight is not too bright the best.

      One place where you should avoid flash is when picturing newly born babies.
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      Quote Originally Posted by keerthi View Post
      locked the exposure
      Could you please explain a bit?

      In manual mode, once you point to an area where you want to meter and then set the shutter/aperture/ISO, then you can compose the image and shoot. Am I right?

      Or do we need to use any exposure-lock button to 'lock the exposure'?

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      Quote Originally Posted by turbokick View Post
      Could you please explain a bit?
      In manual mode, once you point to an area where you want to meter and then set the shutter/aperture/ISO, then you can compose the image and shoot. Am I right?
      Yes. You are right. In Manual mode all you have to do is turn the command dials and/or ISO to set your required exposure.

      Quote Originally Posted by turbokick View Post
      Or do we need to use any exposure-lock button to 'lock the exposure'?
      You only need to use the 'lock exposure' button when you are in P/S/A mode and when you need to recompose.

      By 'locked the exposure' I did not intend to mean that you should press the 'lock exposure'. I implied 'my exposure was set at that instant'. Good eye you have
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