All posts tagged ISO

Welcome all, with Thanksgiving just around the corner and other many holidays not too far behind I thought we would spend some time talking about how to take some decent photos of your friends and family during these happy gatherings.

The first hurdle that we are faced with is all of these holidays occur during the Winter time, which means indoor photos, which also means FLASH.

Flash can sometimes be a dirty word amongst photographers. It can conjure up images of super bright blown out blown out faces with harsh unflattering lighting that can make even the most attractive person in the world look like Frankenstein. So let’s discover some ways that we can minimize the negative effects of flash lighting and still capture some awesome photos of your friends and family this holiday season.

Let’s discuss those of you using a point and shoot camera first. With these small compact cameras the flash is so tiny that the light it produces is always very harsh. In addition due to the small size of the flash it can only provide illumination for just a couple of feet in front of you.

Pretend you’re shooting a photo of some family members in a room at your house during Thanksgiving. Everyone has 5 foot tall mice in their family right? Although the room looks well-lit to you, to your camera it’s a very different story. Your camera decides that flash is needed. You snap your photo and your family members end up looking like a disjointed faces and torsos floating in a sea of dark murkiness.


Family Photo with regular flash

This is despite the fact that they were actually standing in what you would consider a well-lit room. Come on admit it, how many of you have photos that turned out this way, but you never knew what to do about it? It’s ok you can raise your hand, I’ll look away.

So how can we prevent this. The first and one of the simplest things you can do is increase your ISO. Even the most inexpensive digital cameras have a function to increase ISO.

As we learned in a previous article, ISO determines how sensitive your digital camera’s sensor is to light. The higher the ISO the more sensitive your camera will be to light, which means it can perform better in low-light situations such as when shooting inside your house. In fact you might even be able to raise the ISO high enough that you won’t even need to use the flash at all.

There is a side-effect to be aware of, however. As you increase your ISO setting you also increase the amount of noise or grain that will be captured in your photo. This is an undesired effect and something you need to keep in mind when increasing your ISO setting. Most recent digital cameras will perform reasonably noise-free to ISO levels of 800 or even 1000. Some of the newest digital SLR (DSLR) cameras will even peform well at ISO levels  of up to 6400.

You can learn more about ISO from this previous article on the Dengrove Studios blog.

Now that we have our ISO set properly; high enough to allow make our camera more sensitive to the low-lighting conditions in the room, but not high enough to cause excess noise, what else can we do to make our flash photos better?

We can also change the mode of our flash. Most cameras allow you to change the way that the built-in flash operates by changing it’s mode. There are usually several to choose from.

There’s Standard Flash Mode, which causes the flash to fire when the light meter in your camera determines it’s necessary. There’s Fill Flash Mode, which causes the flash to fire every time you take a photo. Red-Eye Reduction Mode which is supposed to prevent subjects in your photo from getting those nasty devil eyes. More often than not it simply just annoys the heck out of people because they get blinded  with 3-5  flash bursts before taking the photo.

But the one we want to look for  is Slow-Sync Flash Mode. Some point and shoot cameras refer to it as “Night Mode” or “Party Mode”.

Ordinarily, when shooting with flash the camera chooses a fast shutter speed in order to “freeze” the action in the scene. Slow-Sync Flash allows the camera to use a slow shutter speed when shooting with flash. As you may recall from a previous article, shutter speed controls the length of time that ambient light or the available light in the scene is allowed to enter your camera and hit your camera’s digital sensor or film.

By using Slow-Sync Flash more of the available light in the scene or ambient light will be allowed to hit your camera’s digital sensor or film. Allowing you to capture not only your main subject which is illuminated by flash but also the background of your scene which is being illuminated by ambient light.

Remember that floating head photo you shot of your family members earlier? When we take that same photo again using Slow-Sync Flash just look at how much better it comes out! Now, not only is your main subject visible from the flash light but we can now see the actual room they’re standing in versus the scary abyss of darkness from before.


Family photo with Slow-Sync Flash

For those of you shooting with Digital SLR cameras there are even more things you can do to make your indoor flash photos look better. One of the absolute best ways of improving flash photos is to get the flash off the camera. This is because the built-in flash of your camera is actually in the worst possible position it could be in for making people look their best in photos.

The built-in flash rests nearly at eye level and right in front of your subject. This causes a bright harsh burst of flash light to fall on your subject from directly in front of them. So how can DSLR cameras help with this situation? Because, when shooting with a DSLR camera you have the option to use an external flash unit instead of the built-in one.

Nikon SB-900 External Flash (photo courtesy of Nikon)

Using an external flash compared to the built-in one is the difference between night and day! External flash units, when used properly, can simulate overhead lighting, side lighting, and even help to improve your photos in natural daylight. Since all of these types of light are what you find in most everyday lighting situations your flash photos will come out looking very natural, almost like you never used a flash at all.

Even using an external flash unit in it’s simplest configuration, mounted directly on the camera, it is still a vast improvement over the built-in one because it adds 1-2 inches of height. This means that the flash is no longer at eye level of your subject which makes the light softer and more flattering. It also helps get rid of that nasty red-eye.

For  even better photos you can rotate the angle of your external flash which you can then use to “bounce” the light coming from the flash off of a wall or ceiling. When “bouncing” your flash off of a ceiling it simulates the look of your subject being lit from overhead lights. This is excellent, now we can light our subject using flash but have it look more natural.


Nikon SB-900 External Flash rotated for bouncing light off the ceiling (shown with diffuser) (Photo courtesy of Nikon)

For the ultimate in natural looking flash photos you’ll want to get the external flash completely off the camera. “Why is this” you ask? Moving the flash off the camera allows you unlimited possibilities in positioning and directing your flash when taking a photo. This even allows you to light your subject from above at a 45 degree side angle, simulating natural daylight from the sun.

In order to make this work you can purchase a sync cable for your external flash unit which allows you to connect the flash to your camera while still being able to move it around. Some external flashes will even communicate wirelessly with your DSLR camera allowing you to position the flash on the other side of the room and still be able to set it off.

So as you can see no matter what type of camera you’re shooting with there are a number of simple techniques that you can employ to get better indoor flash photos of your friends and family. Most only require the turn of a simple switch to activate. With the holidays just around the corner I’m sure you’ll find plenty of opportunities to use these new techniques. Feel free to post your results, we’d love to see them and get introduced to your families.

As always, please feel free to leave comments, ask questions, and share some of your results on this blog post.

Scott Dengrove is a professional photographer from the NYC area. Scott’s work has been featured in many national photography competitions and published in several nationally circulated magazines and publications. In addition, his work can currently be seen in 3 exhibits at Cosi® restaurants in New York and Connecticut. For more information, and to see more of Scott’s work visit his website at and connect with him on his Facebook page at

With summer upon us a frequent activity of mine and I’m sure many others is visiting a theme or amusement park with family and friends. The wealth of colors, sights, people, shapes, and the occasional furry bear make theme parks an excellent venue for taking some really amazing photos. However, it is important to make sure that you’re using the right settings on your camera. Not only to make sure you get a great shot, but also to make sure that you do not disturb others around you who are trying to enjoy the ride!

The idea for this article came out of a trip I recently took to Walt Disney World in Orlando, FL. More specifically while riding one of my favorite attractions, Spaceship Earth, at EPCOT. You know Spaceship Earth it’s the one that people claim looks like a “big golf ball”. In actuality it is one of the world’s largest geodesic spheres. It is while riding this iconic attraction that an incident occurred that prompted me to write this post.

Spaceship Earth

In general, this particular blog post is aimed at anybody who will be visiting a theme park and taking photos in the near future.

However, more specifically this post is aimed at the gentleman of average-description who was sitting 4 cars behind me on June 30th, 2010 at precisely 1:34 PM in the afternoon who decided it would be a bright idea to continually use his flash approximately every 10 seconds while taking photos, thus ruining the ride for not only me, but the other 25 people around me who were all taking the “slow-moving journey through the history of civilization” that is Spaceship Earth!

I can only hope that this man is a reader of my blog, and if so, my friend, you’d better listen up because I’m talking directly to you on this one! *End of rant*

For those who don’t know, Spaceship Earth is what is known as a “dark ride”. These types of rides usually take place in some sort of a vehicle, which brings you past various scenes of a story, such as a haunted house. The key thing that some people don’t seem to fully understand is the “dark” concept.

These rides are meant to take place in the dark and often times have extremely low-light levels. Naturally, it is very difficult to take photographs under these conditions and have them come out. This, I assume, is why there are people who take photos in these “dark rides” with their flash on.

There is a better way. Let me show you some techniques that you can use on “dark rides”. Not only to help you take better photos, but also so that you’ll be able to take the photos you want without disturbing the other people around you who are also trying to enjoy the attraction.

There is also a third reason why you shouldn’t use flash on “dark rides”. This is because the photos will never look like what you see on the ride. The people who create these rides use special lighting, and projections to create all the effects that you see, and to give the scene an illusion of realism. When you take a photo your flash is so strong that often times it overpowers all of these special effects and you end up with a photo of a very fake looking mannequin.

Let me give you an example…at the very top of the Spaceship Earth ride is a beautiful projection of the planet Earth. Naturally, everyone loves to take a picture of it. And of course there is always one person who will ruin the scene with their flash.

What this person doesn’t understand is that they just took a photo of a big white nothing! You see the image of planet Earth on the ride is a digital projection, like when you watch a movie. So when you shoot your flash at it, it ends up being so bright that it drowns out the projector and all you get is a photo of a blank white screen.


Image of Earth (f/1.8, 1/10s, 1600 ISO)

Earth with Flash

Image of Earth taken with Flash

As you can see from the images above clearly the flash doesn’t work in this type of situation, and all you have done is upset the other riders around you. So how can we get a nice photo of the Earth projection or any other scene in a “dark ride”? The first step is to turn off the flash! Every camera has a way of doing this, usually you should look for this symbol on your camera. This is where you can change the flash setting on your camera to OFF .

Once you have your flash off, there are some other settings on your camera that need to be “tweaked”. You’ll want to increase your ISO. We’ve talked briefly about ISO before. ISO is the setting that controls how sensitive to light the sensor on your digital camera is. If you’re using a film camera the ISO is determined by the type of film you place in your camera. The higher the ISO that you use, the more sensitive it makes your camera to light an therefore makes it easier to take photos in low-light.

Great so let’s crank our ISO setting to full blast and take some “dark ride” photos. Wait just a minute, it’s not quite as simple as that. You see although increasing the ISO makes our cameras more sensitive to the light coming through the lens, it has a very detrimental side effect that we must take into account.

Increasing the ISO also increases the amount of noise in your photo. This means that if you set your ISO too high your photo will turn into a big grainy, noisy mess. What’s worse is you won’t realize this until you download the photos to your computer, because on your cameras tiny little screen everything looks sharp and clear.

Spaceship Earth Scene with ISO set too high

Fear not though, today’s modern digital cameras can usually use ISO settings as high as 1200-1800 without showing any noise at all. In addition, camera manufacturers are pushing the ISO envelope all the time, creating better and better sensors that can take high ISO’s without showing any noise at all. Just this year 2 of the major camera manufacturers came out with cameras whose maximum ISO settings are over 100,000!

Changing our ISO will allow us to take better photos without flash, but what other settings do we need to know about when taking photos on “dark rides”? As you know, in nearly all “dark rides” there is some sort of movement or vehicle that you travel in, this is the “ride” part of the “dark ride”. When you leave your camera on it’s automatic settings it wants to slow down your shutter speed so that it can allow the most light possible into your camera.

Your camera’s shutter speed controls how long the sensor or film in your camera is exposed to light. Slowing the shutter speed down will allow more light to enter your camera because the shutter is open for a longer period of time which makes for better photos. There’s only one problem, when you combine a slow shutter with the movement of a “dark ride”, you get blur. Basically your photos would be a big blurry mess if you simply used your camera’s automatic settings on a “dark ride”

In order to correct this, we must tell the camera which shutter speed we’d like it to use. This way we can pick one that’s slow enough to be able to take decent photos in low-light but still fast enough so that you don’t get any blur from the moving ride vehicle. To do this we must put the camera into Shutter-Priority Mode, or S-Mode. You should be aware that not all cameras have an S-Mode setting on them. For those that don’t you can usually use either a “Night Mode” setting or “Portrait Mode” setting on your camera. These modes limit how slow the shutter speed will get so you can prevent or eliminate blur.

For those of you with cameras that have a Shutter-Priority Mode I would recommend using a shutter speed of 1/15 – 1/30 of a second. I find that setting is usually sufficient to get a nicely exposed photo while eliminating blur. If you’re not sure what kind of settings your camera has, consult with your owner’s manual to see if it has an S-Mode setting, and to see what other exposure presets it may contain.

Some digital cameras today come with over 15 programmed exposure modes. With everything from a “beach” to a “fireworks” setting there should be one offered on your camera that will allow you to limit your shutter speed. For more information about S-Mode you can click here to view our previous blog post about it.

SSE Scene

Properly exposed scene without flash (ISO 1600, 1/10s, f/2.8)

As you can see from the above photo when you combine a high ISO with the proper shutter speed you can walk away with a great photo of any “dark ride” without using your flash, just as the designers intended the scene to look. And more importantly, without disturbing your fellow riders! So the next time you find yourself at Epcot, riding on Spaceship Earth, I beg you, please keep in mind what we’ve discussed here today. Not only will it help you take better photos, but as you can see Mr. average description gentleman sitting 4 cars behind me, I might just be the one who is on the receiving end of your flash bursts.

Imagine if you will a beautiful sunny day. You’re walking along, have your camera of course, and come upon a beautiful place to snap a shot. You get all ready to shoot and then it hits you! Uh oh, you left your light meter at home! This is terrible, how are you going to set the proper exposure for your sunny day photo? In fact not only did you realize you left your light meter at home, you remember that it’s really the light meter you’ve only been thinking about buying, you don’t even own a light meter yet!

Fear not, it turns out there is a way that you can set a close to perfect exposure on a nice bright sunny day without a light meter. This is excellent news for those of you who left your light meters at home, or haven’t gotten around to buying one yet (you know who you are out there). Enter…the Sunny 16 rule! It’s not just a record title by Ben Folds.

The Sunny 16 rule can be used as a guide to set a near perfect exposure when shooting on a sunny day. Here’s how it works. First switch to Manual Exposure mode on your camera. Not sure about Manual Exposure Mode? Just check a few blog posts back for our series on Exposure Modes. Next set your aperture to f/16 (that’s the 16 part of the Sunny 16 rule for those of you who were curious). Then set your shutter speed to the nearest full stop reciprocal of your ISO (what did he just say, did he just curse me out?).

Relax, reciprocal simply means to take the inverse of your ISO setting. So if your ISO is set to 100, then the reciprocal is 1/100. If your ISO is set at 200 then the reciprocal is 1/200. Hang on a minute though, I did say the “nearest full stop” to the reciprocal right? This is true, there are many cameras that only let you set your shutter speed to full stop settings, 1/100 and 1/200 are not full stop settings so you may not be able to use those on your camera. This is why we use the nearest full stop to the reciprocal. So if your ISO is set to 100, the reciprocal is 1/100 and we would use a shutter speed of 1/125. This is because 1/125 is the nearest full stop to 1/100. If our ISO is set to 200, the reciprocal is 1/200 and we would use a shutter speed of 1/250 because that is the nearest full stop to 1/200. Here is a list to refresh your memory about the full stop values with regard to shutter speed.

Shutter Full Stop Values: 1s, 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/15, 1/30, 1/60, 1/125, 1/250, 1/500, 1/1000, 1/2000

So what is ISO? ISO is basically a setting of how sensitive the sensor in your digital camera is to light, or how sensitive your film is to light. The difference between the 2 is that with a digital camera you can change your ISO with the touch of a button, in a film camera you actually have to put a new role of film in. Most digital cameras set the ISO automatically for you, and use ISO 100 or ISO 200 most of the time, of course it is possible for you to change this setting, and then you would take the reciprocal of whatever you currently have your ISO set to. As a rule of thumb though on a bright sunny day you would typically use a low ISO of about 100 or 200, this is because there is plenty of light around you so your sensor or film doesn’t need any extra sensitivity.

That’s all there is to it! So the next time you find yourself shooting on a bright sunny day and don’t want to drag that light meter out of the camera bag you can use the Sunny 16 rule to make sure you have perfect exposure almost every time. It’s May, the weather is beautiful, go put the rule into practice and shoot some bright sun scenes. As always feel free to post the results or comment.

Here is a photo using the Sunny 16 rule, as you can see a very nicely exposed photograph, ignore the funny looking guy on the Segway, he thought he was in the 3 o’clock parade.

Properly Exposed Photo Using the Sunny 16 Rule, f/16, 1/250, ISO 200