Holiday 2012: Family Pictures in Low Light

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As the holidays approach, it’s a good time to get your game on, in terms of all those family photos you will be taking. Getting little Junior to smile and Uncle Harry to pay attention may be the most difficult aspects of creating a shareable family shot, but there are some technical elements surrounding quality holiday photography that we should discuss now, so that Junior and Harry are the only problem to surmount when it’s time to press the shutter release. Remember: while they may seem annoyed and wanting only to get back to the Thanksgiving feast, your family will be pleased when they see the clear, well-lit family photo you took the time to shoot.


The main problem with making photographs during the holidays and specifically, around the dinner table, is that you are shooting indoors, in low light and often cramped environments. This scenario poses a handful of problems, most notably because interior light, unless properly controlled will produce, at best, photos with shadowed faces and yellowish skin tones and at worst, blurred photos in which no one is even recognizable. Of course, even the most basic cameras offer a built-in flash that can light up a small space, but often that flash is too weak to extend to end of the dinner table or too “flashy” and gives you red-eyed relatives with washed-out faces. What this article will do is present a few ideas and products that will help even the most novice shooter get the shot that everyone in the family can be proud to frame and hang on the wall or even use as their updated profile photo.

First, however, clean your lens! The MiniPro Lens Cleaner from Lenspen is a pen-shaped lens cleaner designed to clean the small, often difficult-to-reach corners on point-and-shoot lenses. A retractable 8mm chamois tip can reach the corners where dust accumulates and its non-liquid cleaning agent cannot spill or dry out. A fine brush is also included in this portable 4” (9.5 cm) tool. The great lens maker, Zeiss, offers a 21-pack of Moistened Lens Cleaning Tissues that are individually packaged, non-abrasive, ammonia-free cloths, safe for even the best of lenses.

The reason that many interior shots lit by ambient dining-room light are blurry is that an automatic camera compensates for reading lower light levels by allowing the shutter to stay open a fraction of a second longer in an attempt to gather as much light as it thinks it needs to get a proper exposure. And it’s in that extra beat of time that someone turns their head slightly or drops their smile and the camera records that movement and produces a blurred image. There are many ways to get around that situation without demanding that everyone freeze in place for 1/30 of a second, and the ways to achieve a sharp, well-lit image depend on the amount of time you have, the space you are in, the style of shot you prefer and, of course, your budget.

The basic necessities to achieve a sharp, balanced, low light interior photo can be found in the standard functions of any camera, but you need to know this: do not set your camera on Auto and delicately handhold it if you want to get a good shot. If you have no time whatsoever to prepare and just grab an automatic camera out of the nearest drawer, at least do the basic minimum: turn all the lights on in the room, adjust the sensitivity (ISO) up to 800 or 1600, steady the camera as much as possible (I put the strap around my neck and extend it as far out as possible, strap tight against my neck and grip the camera firmly with two hands, elbows tucked against my chest), take a breath and shoot. Remember, most modern cameras set the focus and metering with a half-push of the shutter button. Try to do that before you’re ready to shoot by aiming the camera at your subject, doing the half push, hold it half-pressed and when you’re stable and ready, ease the button completely the rest of the way down to release the shutter.

I realize that many photographers reading this may bristle at the idea, but it can work if need be. In general, remember the basics: higher ISO settings allow the image to be more sensitive to light. With automatic cameras, this is good because it allows for faster shutter speed and less blur, but it will also produce an image with high noise, which is not so good. With manual cameras (and almost all new cameras, even compact point and shoots, have some degree of manual control), the idea is to let as much light into the camera as possible without slowing the shutter speed down and creating blur. Therefore, set the aperture to f/3.5, f/2.8 or as low as it will go. If it's in aperture priority, the camera will set the shutter speed as fast as possible, given the aperture and ISO you select.

If you are shooting all manual, set your shutter speed to at least 1/60 second and higher if possible, depending on what aperture and focal length you select. If enough light is available to close the aperture a stop or two without sacrificing too much shutter speed, you will get a wider depth of focus. If you are able to set White Balance on your camera, set it based on the type of light in your room, usually incandescent. Many camera bodies or lenses now feature an image stabilization system, which is an important development for low-light photography, offering optical or digital methods to compensate for camera movement during low-light shots. Some systems allow as much as 4 stops of compensation, and this will certainly help you capture the  shot without use of flash.

Also of supreme importance when shooting inside is stability. Tripods like the Joby Gorillapod SLR-Zoom Flexible Mini-Tripod with Compact Ball Head are small enough to carry in any basic bag, and this mini tripod offers stability for cameras up to 4.5 lb (2.0 kg). It also has ultra-flexible legs that can bend to fit uneven surfaces and even twist to wrap around a pole or the back of a chair. Oben also makes numerous table top and mid-size tripods that can be carried easily and used for compact and smaller DSLR cameras. The Oben TT-50 Table Top Tripod weighs only 4.9 oz (139 g) and can sit next to you on the dinner table for impromptu shots or a self-timed group shot at the end of the table.

For more reach and eye-level angles, the Oben TT-200 and TT-300 Table Top Tripods extend to 14.5” (37 cm) and 17.3” (44 cm) respectively but remain portable when folded. A good deal larger, but still lightweight, are the Benro A-150EXU Digital Tripod Kit with Ball Head and Quick Release and the Oben AC-1300 3-section Aluminum Tripod w/ BA-00 Ball Head. Both offer quick-release plates and reversible center columns for low-angle shooting. Tripods are the best way to stabilize a camera for low-light shooting, but an accessible shelf or chair work in a pinch, too. Even if you are not planning on being in the shot, utilize the camera’s self-timer when the camera is stabilized on a tripod; this way you allow the shutter to fire automatically and eliminate that slight movement that can occur when you push the shutter release manually, potentially ruining a memorable moment.

Remote controls also give you the option to shoot without touching the camera. Vello remotes are available for almost all cameras and situations; some are wireless with multiple shutter and focus controls and others are simple cabled shutter releases. Ask any B&H professional, online or in the SuperStore, to recommend the best remote for your camera.

If you are interested in taking your holiday photos to the next level and looking to purchase new equipment to achieve this, let’s talk about what’s available. Various advanced compact cameras offer capabilities and the type of control found in high-end digital cameras, but also include easy-to-use, fully automatic functions too.

The Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5 Digital Camera offers fine, low-light potential with its fast f/2.0 lens, high ISO sensitivity from 1600-12800 and MEGA O.I.S. optical image stabilization. Whether you set automatic modes or set the aperture manually, you will be able to shoot with enough shutter speed to get blur-free smiles. The Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX7 Digital Camera is an updated version of the LX5 with an even faster f/1.4 lens, a bright 920K-dot LCD screen and Full HD 1080 video. Both come in black or white versions.

The Samsung EX2F Digital Camera also has an f/1.4 maximum-aperture lens. The lens is a Schneider-KREUZNACH lens and the camera has both optical and digital image stabilization, a pop-up flash and hot-shoe mount for attaching a more powerful flash. The EX2F has the added touch of being able to capture photo and video at the same time, a great option to have for those fleeting holiday moments.

The Canon PowerShot G15 Digital Camera is the latest in the line of Canon G series cameras. It has a fast lens with a maximum aperture in wide-angle of f/1.8 and in telephoto of f/2.8, which is ideal for low-light photography. High ISO sensitivity, image stabilization and 10 frames per second of continuous shooting also will help to get a crisp shot in ambient light. Like the other advanced compact cameras mentioned, the G15 has a hot-shoe mount for flash units, a tripod mount, full manual and automatic control, a larger sensor, powerful processor and a wide angle zoom focal length that can get a dinner table full of people into one frame.

Speaking of hot-shoe mounts, if you decide that lighting up your scene with an external flash is the way to go, each of the major manufacturers offers speedlights designed for smaller cameras and compact DSLRs. These flash units may not be the largest offering in their line, but they are certainly powerful enough for our present purpose, and have sufficient control options to place the right amount of light just where you want it.

The Nikon SB-700 Speedlight Shoe Mount Flash is a sophisticated flash that works with Nikon DSLRs and can utilize the i-TTL metering system with a 24-120mm range of coverage. It can be used on-camera or as a wireless remote flash, and its flash head can rotate 360° and tilt 90° to throw light in any direction. When shooting with flash, it is often best to direct your light onto the ceiling so the bounce of light offers a more balanced, pleasing light then the flash going off directly in your subject’s faces.

Canon offers its 430EXII Speedlite TTL Shoe-Mount Flash which supports their E-TTL metering system and works on the full line of Canon SLRs and the above-mentioned G series. Like the Nikon model, it swivels fully, recycles quickly, adjusts for camera sensor size and lens length and can work off the camera wirelessly with some camera models. Fully automatic E-TTL and nine custom functions offer control and ease of use.

The Sony HVL-F43AM Compact External Flash has TTL flash exposure, variable power and a Quick Shift Bounce which allows the flash head to be adjusted easily, including into a vertical shooting side position. Remember, when making portraits of one or two people, it can be pleasing to orient the camera vertically, framing them from the waist up. And with a flash that can swivel to accommodate vertical shooting, you can light these portraits without harsh shadows.

The Olympus FL-600R Wireless Electronic Flash is a versatile flash with swivel and tilt, wireless capability and an integrated Commander function to remotely fire other flash units. An onboard LED light is capable of functioning as an AF illuminator or a full-time auxiliary light for video capture.

The Panasonic DMW-FL360 Shoe Mount Flash is compatible with the Lumix LX5, LX7 and other Panasonic cameras. It offers full bounce and swivel flexibility and an auto-zoom head, which will automatically adjust to match the lens angle. Auto TTL, Auto and manual modes are all available as well as a built-in AF assist lamp and wide-angle panel.

If you already own a DSLR camera but want to improve your chances for sharp interior portraits, you can look into the following bright, fast, wide-angle and standard-length lenses. The Canon EF 28mm IS USM Lens has the classic wide angle focal length of 28mm, with a fast f/2.8 maximum aperture. An Optical Image Stabilization lens, it will shoot clear images at shutter speeds as great as 4 stops slower than usual, giving you a tremendous edge in low-light photography. Fast autofocus, manual focus and smooth, silent operation make it good for shooting video too. The Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II Autofocus Lens offers a more standard focal length prime lens of 50mm, but has a faster f/1.8 maximum aperture. It’s a good lens for taking an intimate portrait with candlelight illumination.

The Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 35mm f/1.8G DX Lens is designed for shooting with APS-C sized sensors and, therefore, its full-frame sensor equivalent is 50mm, which is the traditional “normal” lens length. With its maximum aperture of f/1.8, like the above Canon, it’s ideal for low-light portraiture. Close focusing of 12” (30.5 cm), Super Integrated Lens Coating and Silent Wave Motor (SWM) for silent, smooth autofocus are featured on this lens. The AF-S NIKKOR 28mm f/1.8G Lens from Nikon is a very fast 28mm lens on FX full-frame cameras, with a 42mm equivalency when used on cameras with APS-C-sized sensors. Super Integrated Coating and Nano Crystal Coating ensure even light transmission and minimal flaring. Aspherical lens elements reduce aberrations and SWM provides silent autofocus, which is great for shooting video.

The Sony 35mm f/1.8 DT Alpha A-mount Standard Prime Lens is like the above 35mm Nikon in that it is optimized for APS-C sized sensors and provides a full-frame equivalency of 52mm on APS-C cameras. A very fast f/1.8 maximum aperture is a solid performer in low light, and SAM provides smooth, silent autofocus. Its 9.6” (24 cm) minimal focus distance is another reason why this is an ideal lens for the Sony A mount cameras, which offer their Image Stabilization inside the cameras. The Sony 16-50mm f/2.8 DT Standard Zoom Lens is an f/2.8 maximum aperture standard zoom lens that offers a full-frame equivalency of 24-75mm on APS-C-format cameras. Perfect for family photography because it is a true wide-angle and can include many subjects in a cramped area, it also zooms to a 75mm focal length, which is great for flattering portraiture. Its f/2.8 maximum aperture is constant throughout the zoom range and its Extra-low Dispersion and Aspherical lens elements bring with them sharp imagery with minimal aberration. For Sony Alpha and Minolta AF cameras, it too offers SSM Super Sonic Wave motor for ultra smooth and quiet autofocus.

The Pentax smc DA 50mm f/1.8 Lens is a standard 50mm lens with a very fast maximum aperture and 76.5mm focal length when used on an APS-C-sized camera. It is a compact lens, compatible with the Pentax K mount cameras and great for low light, thanks to its bright maximum aperture. The Pentax SMCP-DA 35mm f/2.8 Macro Limited Series Autofocus Lens can focus as close as 5.5” (13.9 cm) for 1:1 Macro shooting at its full-frame equivalency of 53.5mm. It is extremely compact for a macro lens and Pentax’s Super Multi Coating minimizes flaring and offers even light transmission and sharp images throughout the frame. The Quick-Shift Focus System allows instant switching from manual to autofocus.

If, in the past few years, you have “gone mirrorless” and are shooting with one of the many compact, interchangeable lens cameras, B&H stocks a growing list of fast wide-angle and normal focal length lenses for mirrorless cameras that will improve your low-light imaging.

The Panasonic Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm f/2.8 ASPH lens for Micro Four Thirds Cameras is a wide angle to portrait length zoom lens (24-70mm equivalent) that fits any Micro Four Thirds mount camera. Its f/2.8 maximum aperture throughout the zoom and POWER O.I.S Image Stabilization make it a good low-ight performer and its compact size and versatile focal lengths make it a good lens if you’re only going to carry one. For prime lenses on Micro Four Thirds cameras, Panasonic offers the 25mm f/1.4 Leica DG Summilux ASPH Micro Four Thirds Lens, which is great for shallow depth of field and low-light shooting. Its 35mm equivalent focal length is 50mm, so it’s classified as a normal lens (50mm is closest to the human eye’s perspective), good for all around photography. Nano Surface Coating of the lens elements minimizes reflection and flaring, and being a Panasonic-Leica co-production, you know the optical quality will be satisfactory.

Olympus has a Limited Edition Black M.ZUIKO Digital ED 12mm f/2.0 Lens designed for their PEN series of Micro Four Thirds mount cameras. Again, a fast f/2.0 maximum aperture allows for crisp low-light shooting and its wide-angle focal length (24mm in 35mm format) can gather in everyone sitting around the dinner table. Aspherical, High Refractive and Extra-low Dispersion lens elements reduce aberration and give this lens superior image quality. A Snapshot ring on the lens allows for easy and precise manual focusing. As it’s a Limited Edition model, it comes with a metal lens hood, metal lens cap and protective filter. The standard silver version of this lens is also available.

Sigma also makes lenses for the Panasonic and Olympus Micro Four Thirds cameras. The Sigma 19mm f/2.8 EX DN Lens for Micro Four Thirds Lens is equivalent to a 38mm lens in full-frame format, which places it nicely between wide-angle and normal, and therefore versatile for many types of shooting. An f/2.8 maximum aperture is fast enough for interior shooting, and its inner focusing system and quiet Linear Autofocus Motor is great for shooting video, in any intimate setting where camera noise is counterproductive. The Sigma 30mm f/2.8 EX DN Lens for Micro Four Thirds Lens is designed similarly but offers a focal length equivalent to a 60mm lens in 35mm format. Able to focus as close as 11.8” (30 cm) and with aspherical lens elements and super multi-layer lens coating for high image quality, it is a nice lens for intimate portraits around the table. Like the above 19mm lens, it features a quiet AF system and the DN in its name stands for Digital Neo, which denotes that it was built specifically for mirrorless interchangeable lens digital cameras.

For their E-mount line of NEX mirrorless cameras, Sony has the 16mm f/2.8 Wide-Angle Alpha E-Mount Lens. It is a very compact “pancake” lens, less than one inch long. This, of course, maintains the distinct portable advantage of mirrorless cameras. It’s a true wide-angle lens with a 35mm focal length equivalent of 24mm and its f/2.8 maximum aperture will create sharp selective focus images with a pleasingly blurred background. Low-light shooting is not a problem and an internal stepping motor keeps it quiet during autofocus. The Sony 35mm f/1.8 OSS Alpha E-mount Prime Lens is approximately equivalent to a 50mm lens in the more familiar 35mm format, but with an extremely bright, fast f/1.8 maximum aperture and Optical SteadyShot Image Stabilization. It is an ideal low-light lens. Like the 16mm lens, it has a quiet stepping motor, especially useful when shooting video, and it supports Direct Manual Focus (DMF), which allows for precise manual focusing even in the Autofocus mode.

The Samsung 16mm f/2.4 Ultra Wide Pancake Lens is for their NX line of mirrorless cameras and, like the above Sony, is less than an inch long and very lightweight. Also, like the Sony, its equivalent focal length is 24mm, which is classic wide angle, with an 82.6°angle of view. Its f/2.4 maximum aperture allows for fast shutter speeds and the i-Function button on the lens gives you instant access to all of the camera’s manual settings for nimble adjustments without removing your eye from the subject. The Samsung 20mm f/2.8 Pancake Lens also has the i-Function button and is just one inch long, but its 20mm focal length (30mm in full-frame format) offers a bit more reach than the above 16mm lens.

Nikon introduced its Nikon 1 mirrorless camera series with a CX format sensor little more than a year ago, and offers two prime lenses specific to that mount. The first is the 1 Nikkor 10mm f/2.8 Lens for CX Format, which is available in black or white finishes. It, too, is a very compact wide-angle lens with a 35mm equivalency of 27mm. Its wide angle focal length and fast f/2.8 maximum aperture make it a good low-light performer, but it’s equally good when shooting landscapes or the family at the beach. Aspherical lens elements minimize aberration and distortion and Super Integrated Lens Coating cuts down on reflection and flaring and provides accurate and balanced colors. Focusing takes place in the rear lens elements, which creates a smoother, faster autofocus system. This lens can focus as close as 7.87” (20 cm)!

The 1 Nikkor 18.5mm f/1.8 Lens for CX Format is equivalent to a 50mm lens in the 35mm format and is therefore a go-to lens for day-to-day shooting. Its particularly fast f/1.8 maximum aperture is great for handheld portraits and low-light situations (holiday dinner table, anyone?) and having such a wide aperture means you can shoot with shallow depth of field, getting a sharply focused face with a softly blurred, candle-lit background perhaps. A minimum focusing distance of 8.4” (21.3 cm) allows for serviceable close-up photography and can further help you capture the intimacy that a warm family setting deserves. This lens is available in black, white and silver editions.

If you (and you family) are prepared to take that next step to create greeting-card-ready family portraits, B&H has available numerous lighting and backdrop options, including kits that combine both. At this stage, even pro photographers take advantage of the qualified B&H staffers to help choose which setup is right for their needs. You should feel free to do so as well, be over the phone, in chat or in person at our New York SuperStore.

An example of our portrait-lighting products is the Impact Qualite 300 Focusing Flood Light Kit (120VAC). This kit includes two 300-watt lights, two light stands and two umbrellas. The lights come with bulbs whose beam range runs from 21-40°, safety glass and 4-leaf barndoor sets. They have cool-touch handles and slots for accessories. The air-cushioned light stands and 33” translucent umbrellas to soften and balance the light complete this basic setup, which is not overpowering, but big enough to create shots in which shadows are eliminated and everyone is evenly lit.

The Impact Background Kit with 10 x 12’ Dawn/Deep Sea Blue Reversible Muslin Backdrop is a handy backdrop system that can be used for multiple applications. The support system is 12’ (3.66 m) across and can hold up to 20 lb (9 kg), but the crossbar can be assembled into smaller sections if desired. Ideal for hanging backdrop fabric, it can also hold a roll-paper backdrop up to 11’ wide. It assembles easily and comes with a canvas bag for storage and transport. The reversible muslin backdrop is one piece of 10 x 12’ (3 x 3.66 m) cotton with a two-sided color scheme designed to absorb light and reduce reflections. A rod pocket with five eyelets allows for simple and secure hanging of the backdrop.

The Impact EX100 Ultimate Creative Portrait Kit (120VAC) is a group of products that can transform your family holiday portrait into a special-effects masterpiece. Two 100 watt-second monolights, two 8‘ light stands, two 24 x 24” softboxes and one 43” white umbrella combine for a versatile portrait lighting setup, but what makes this kit special is the 5 x 7’ (1.5 x 2.1 m) Digital Green Screen and accompanying software to create 100 alternate digital backgrounds. The chroma green screen is foldable polyester with grommets, and the software is Photo Key 2 Lite, which is an easy-to-use system that will automatically remove the green background and replace it with one of 100 background scenes. The holidays spent in the warmth of the family home is a beautiful thing, but a photo that looks like you all jetted off to Paris, Pisa or a tropical island is pretty cool, too.

Now let’s get back to little Junior and his cousins for a minute. They may not be willing to sit still while you organize the great family portrait, but if you throw one of the Camera Creatures or Shutter Huggers over your camera you just might get them interested long enough to rattle off a few winners, with smiles all around. Camera Creatures come in the form of Outrageous Owl, Look-at-Me Ladybug and Dapper Dog—colorful stuffed animals that fit around your camera’s lens and give the little ones a decoy to distract them (and hopefully smile at) instead of a big ol’ camera setup. They also have a built-in squeaker to get attention when needed. The Shutter Huggers are similar but offer more variations, including a dinosaur, monkey and elf. They will fit on any lens up to 90mm in diameter.

One quick tip when shooting kids (or animals for that matter) is to shoot them from their eye level. You may have to get down on your knees, but the angle will create a nicer, truer portrait and in getting down to their level, it will bring their attention to you in a way that will allow for better interaction—and therefore a better portrait. For getting Uncle Harry to sit still, that’s another story. Perhaps a second glass of wine?   

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Really, all is needed to take good family pictures indoors in low light is a flash with a bounce position.

And maybe adjusting the flash power. That's it.

Auto mode is good enough. A kit zoom is good enough. And a compact camera is good enough, if the built in flash can bounce.

Arguably even an smartphone would be good enough, if a bouncing flash could be attached to it :-)