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Getting Good Indoor Exposures

Pixel Guy

TPF Noob!
Jun 14, 2006
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Hi everyone,

I'm new to the forum and somewhat new to photography. I have a Nikon D70 and I've been shooting mostly in aperture priority. This past weekend, I was shooting indoors (using the 18-70mm kit lens), without the flash, and I had trouble getting the right exposure for a naturally lit living room.

Here's basically what happened: I set the aperture relatively wide, about 4.5 (the max that the lens allowed at its telephoto end). When I focused the shot, the exposure meter in the viewfinder stated that the image was very underexposed (all the "blocks" on the "-" side of the meter were full). I tried various things -- increasing the exposure compensation, activating the built-in flash -- but none of these really helped. It wasn't until I set the camera to shutter priority and set a slow shutter speed that, according to the camera, I had a good exposure.

Here's what I'm wondering: is changing the shutter speed the only or best way to get a good exposure indoors during the day? (I was hoping to just work in A mode so I wouldn't have to take too much time setting up shots -- I also wanted to avoid blurry images.)

Why wouldn't exposure compensation give me a correct exposure? Should I have been using an external flash?

Thanks for your help.
Welcome to the forum.

There are three things that control exposure. Aperture, Shutter speed and sensitivity (ISO setting). Once your aperture is at it's max (ie: F4.5) then you have to either slow down the shutter or crank up the ISO.

It seems odd that the camera would warn you of underexposure in aperture priority mode. It should have given you a slow enough shutter speed to expose correctly...however, that shutter speed would probably be too slow for hand held shots. A lot of cameras will warn you (or not shoot) while in auto mode...but not in Av.

Exposure compensation will adjust either the shutter speed or aperture away from what the meter says it should be. It does not give you any extra 'exposure room' so to speak.

You could try turning up the ISO to 1600...it will result in noisier images...but it will give you a few extra stops.

You could get a faster lens. Something with a max aperture of F2.8 or F1.8 etc.

You could use your flash, if you are close enough. The built in flash is not very powerful and will not make for great looking photos anyway. An accessory flash will be more powerful and farther away from the lens.
I'd suggest a faster lens too. I just bought a 50mm F/1.8 which allows me to get some pretty decent shutter speeds indoor without flash usually.

I always set the shutter speed, when indoors, relative to my focal length. i.e 50mm I tend to put around 1/60th or 18mm to 1/20th. There is a general forumla for this I just can't remember off the top of my head but its relative to camera shake and how steady your hands can generally stay at certain focal lengths. Now this obviously doesn't apply to taking people shots when they are walking as they are always going to have motion blur (which is a nice effect with a still background).

Bumping up the ISO speeds will help as will concentrating on nice lighting. If this is a common deal for you, invest in a good flash :)

Just my 0.02c
Thanks for the replies -- very helpful and much appreciated.

Big Mike -- I, too, thought it was odd that the camera would give me a corresponding shutter speed in aperture priority but then tell me (via the exposure meter in the viewfinder) that the shot was underexposed. It's done it at other times, too. I was in my backyard taking shots of flowers and plants that were in the shade (it was very late in the afternoon). I'd set the aperture in A mode, and the camera would give me a shutter speed but tell me the shot was still underexposed. So far, I've only noticed it doing this in places without a lot of light. In sun-lit or bright areas, it usually gives me a good exposure reading and doesn't tell me things are overexposed.

Thanks for the suggestions. I think I'll try changing the ISO setting and see what effect it has in the same room in which I was taking pictures. I will also look into a faster lens and an external flash. The photos that I've taken with the internal flash typically haven't turned out well.

Tonyeck -- thanks for the lens suggestion and also for the tips on setting shutter speed to focal length. I recently read something similar that said that the shutter speed should be around the focal length, like the examples you use. And, out of curiosity, I assume that this would be the minimum/slowest shutter speed you should set for that focal length? In other words, if you change the shutter speed, you can make it faster but you shouldn't make it slower? Just curious to know if I understand this correctly.
If you match the shutter speed with the focal length (50mm with 1/60th or so) thats the minimum speed to get without having camera shake. It still may be a little dark with indoor shots, so bump up the ISO :) If you made the shutter speed faster (such as 50mm @ 1/400) the shutter is quicker therefore wont let in as much light meaning your photos will be very dark.

To sum up really, I'd experiment with a few shots to see whats the minimum/slowest shutter speed you can achieve with the lighting conditions without getting camera shake with the desired focal length...

Does that help?
Tonyeck -- thanks, that really helps a lot, especially in terms of understanding the relationship between all the variables (shutter speed, focal length, camera shake, ISO, and so on). I'm beginning to learn just how much photography is a balance and a compromise between a number of factors.

I'll experiment with a specific focal length, set a shutter speed, and then see how the results turn out -- whether or not there's camera shake. If necessary, I'll bump ISO and check the results again.

By the way, I just looked online and found that Nikon has a very good 50mm 1.8 lens at a very moderate price. I think I'll check out that lens sometime soon.
I recommend that lens. While it is inexpensive, it will be optically much better that your kit lens and the wide aperture will be great for low light and shallow DOF.
Thanks, Big Mike and tonyeck. Given what you both say about the 50mm, as well as the very positive reviews I found online today, it's very likely I'll add that lens in the next week or so. It'd be nice to have something that easily allows for indoor shots as well as an even narrow DOF.
I photographed my entire home with a 28 mm/2.8 not too long ago (for documentation purposes since we're renovating so much... some of the images are at xxx (I'll take this link down shortly, just sharing to give an example). Some of it I believe I shot in A priority, and some manual. I wish I had ahold of a wider lens at that point though...
First, those photos of your home are great, Jodie. Thanks for sharing them. That's close to the kind of exposure level I was trying to get with my shots, but was unable to. Do you recall if you set the lens wide open for all of the photos, or did you use a smaller aperture?

Second, I thought I'd post an update. I figured out why my D70 was telling me everything was underexposed when I was in A priority -- even though the camera supposedly should suggest the proper exposure. After doing a little digging around on the internet, I found that when metering with the flash down, the camera would offer the right shutter speed to go with the aperture I had set. But the Flash symbol was blinking in the viewfinder, suggesting that using the flash might help the scene. When I raised the flash, that's when it told me the scene was greatly underexposed -- the camera's meter was still metering the ambient light (so the exposure really hadn't changed), but the flash has a minimum shutter speed setting. I didn't realize that, by default, the shutter speed for the flash was set at 1/60. At that setting, the particular scene I was trying to shoot was therefore underexposed. I should have realized this, but to a novice it can be a bit confusing -- the camera tells me flash might help, but when I raise the flash, all of a sudden the exposure settings are out of whack.

Now that I'm aware the camera does this, I can compensate the next time this occurs (and also go in to the menus and changed the default shutter speed for the flash).

Also, following everyone's advice here, I picked up the Nikon 50mm 1.8 on Friday evening. Great lens, especially for the price. (Out of pocket, it cost me less than 30 bucks because my birthday was last week, and my boss gave me a hundred dollar Visa gift card -- so off I went to my local camera store.)

I tested the lens out this weekend at a museum. I did have difficulty taking indoor shots, though -- even with the wide apertures, the camera kept telling me to use very slow shutter speeds (and even after bumping up the ISO to 400 and above). It was hard to take photos without camera shake. I think part of the problem had to do with the museum's very soft interior lighting. The other part of the problem is that I still don't really know what I'm doing. :D I'm going to have to practice more to get good exposures with the lens.

But I'm really glad I bought the lens. I know for a fact that I'm going to get a lot of use out of it.

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