Indoor portraits featuring a Christmas tree as the background

If you’ve ever encountered a situation in which there was the Christmas tree behind your subject, and you were able to not get a decent photograph, properly exposing both the subject as well as the Christmas tree don’t be shocked to learn that you’re not the only one with difficulties like this.

Many photographers have a difficult to properly expose photographs indoors, especially when they are in a dim area with prominent things behind. This is the most difficult part of shooting the Christmas tree: the majority of people prefer to turn off or dim the principal lights and keep the lights for the Christmas tree on. With this low level of light entering the room, all sorts of issues arise for photographers: photos appear blurry, portraits are dark or appear flat with a stylized appearance when taken using flash.

The biggest source of frustration and annoyance is when flash light up the space and makes those Christmas lights go out like they’re not there at all! What’s the best way to tackle these issues? What should you do to take photos of the Christmas tree? In this post, I’ll try to clarify the steps you must take to get great family pictures at the time of the holiday.

1. Challenges that feature bright backgrounds in indoors

If the room is dim the only option to avoid using flash is to significantly increase the sensitivity of your camera (ISO). The increase in the camera’s ISO is, however, a result in noise-filled photographs and doesn’t solve the issue being a dark object with a brightly lit Christmas tree as the background. If you choose to expose to the subject by setting the metering mode of your camera on “Spot/Partial Metering” and pointing your lens at the subject, then the Christmas tree will be exposed too much. If you are metering for your Christmas tree the object will appear too dark. Similar to the images:

Exposing for the light and the subject indoors

What’s going on here? In addition to me, in the photo (note that my models from home had fallen asleep while I took this, and I had to think of inventive ways to capture myself) The image on the left is metered to reflect light source, and the right one is metered off of me. As you can observe, neither the first and the second picture appear to be acceptable in any way. It’s just Christmas lights around the room. Let’s see what happens when I switch one light on the opposite part of the room:

Ambient Light Only
NIKON D700 + 50mm f/1.4 @ 50mm, ISO 6400, 1/100, f/2.8

A little better, however it’s still extremely noisy, and I look more dark that the backgrounds. In these situations there’s not much you can do about the issue, other than putting the right light source directly in front of your subject. However, walking around with a light source isn’t an ideal solution, particularly when you’re in a house packed with people. This is where flash can help!

What can flash do in this scenario? Flash can brighten up your subject, which allows you to display the Christmas lights correctly and effectively. How? Let me show you how to accomplish precisely this.

2. Before Using Flash

Before using flash, be sure that your subject is far away from Christmas trees and other glowing sources of light. Why? Because flash is prone to spill on other things and can be spilled when you decorate the tree. If flash is spilled, it will cause the objects to look exactly similar to your subject, and the image will appear “flat”. The ideal is for your Christmas tree 5-6 feet of your object. The second thing you’ll be deciding on is whether you would like to obscure the tree to blur you or your subjects.

If you decide to blur out the tree you’ll need to make use of wide apertures for your lens (smallest F-numbers) and you must be near to the subject. If you decide to incorporate the tree into your shot, then move away from your subject, and utilize the smaller aperture (larger F-number) to enhance the field of view, making the christmas tree look sharp. Personally, I like blurring the Christmas tree’s lights, therefore for this post I conducted the tests with moderately wide apertures (between f/2.8 and f/4.0).

3. Using Flash

Let’s get started using flash. If you’re not purchasing an external flash/Speedlight and you’re not sure if it’s the right one, then you’ll have to utilize the pop-up flash built into your camera. Although it is a good choice in this case however, you must be extra cautious with shadows, particularly behind subject (on the walls, etc.). This is because pop-up flashes are an extremely direct source of light.

If you own an Speedlight and you want to use it, the two possibilities are: to either use it with your camera or to use it off-camera as an external flash. If you’re firing the flash with your camera’s hotshoe (on-camera) I suggest that you bounce the light off walls and ceilings (by shifting the head of the flash). Be sure to ensure that you’re not pointing the light toward the Christmas tree, as it doesn’t get much of the light from the flash.

The goal is to brighten the subject, but not touch the tree. The best option is to use an off-camera flash and shoot with an umbrella. Off-camera flashes can have greater control over light leaks and you can place the light in a way that it is aimed at your subject but doesn’t reach your Christmas tree. Look at the “Indoors flash photography” article, in which I show you how to use the off-camera lighting setup. You must be aware of how far your object is from the tree. the further they are from one another the more secure.

4. Camera and Flash Settings

These are my recommendations for settings that I would suggest for your camera and the flashes:

  1. Your flash should be set for “TTL” in both your camera as well as your Speedlight(s) to allow the camera to automatically determine the proper flash power.
  2. Set the camera’s default mode “Manual”.
  3. Switch off “Auto ISO” and set your ISO to your camera’s base ISO (100 or 200).
  4. If you’re employing a primary lens adjust your aperture that is between f/2.0 to f/2.8. If you’re using zoom lenses, set the aperture to the lowest amount, like f/3.5.
  5. Adjust your shutter speed according to the actual focal length for your lens currently. For instance, if you’re zoomed into 60mm make sure you set your shutter speed to 1/6th of one second.

5. Accurate Focusing

When you are taking photos in a dark setting it is possible to have problems with autofocus It just doesn’t work particularly well in dark circumstances. If you’re using an Speedlight (or not), you must make sure that the AF-assist feature is turned on (if you are using it) and that you are using the “Single” type of servo (AF-S) and not a “Continuous” mode (AF-C) It is only available in the AF-S mode. It is generally effective in dark conditions to ensure exact focus.

If you are still having issues with autofocus, have someone temporarily switch off the lights so that you can achieve a good focus. Then put the camera in a freeze, and when the lights go off then take a photo. Another suggestion I highly suggest for you to do is put your camera on the tripod (read below to find out why it’s an excellent idea to set your camera on the tripod).

6. Shutter Speed – the Secret Ingredient

To achieve the present goal which is to expose and the tree as well as your subject, and to ensure that they appear natural it is necessary to experiment with the cameras Shutter Speed. In the case of natural light sources, Shutter Speed is what is the sole control. Look at these two photos:

Shutter Speed Ambient Light Difference

The left-hand image was captured at 1/100th of an second and f/4.5, ISO 200. The right-hand image was captured with similar apertures and ISO however it was shuttered at 1/100th of a second. reduced to 1/2 of seconds. Notice the differences in how the background appears in both photos? The exposure for me is roughly the same for both photos, but the picture on the right appears more natural, and it’s hard to tell if flash was employed.

This is because ambient light was mixed with flash, resulting in an entirely different hue to my shirt and skin. I used an off-camera speedlight located on the side (my left) with an angle of approximately 45 degrees, and reflecting off an open umbrella with the black cover (I deliberately only opened the umbrella about half-way to ensure that the light focuses on me and doesn’t spill all over the space).

When you wish to blend ambient light and flash and ambient light, you must reduce the speed of your shutter. The process of reducing shutter speed to extremely low values can be difficult due to the fact that any motion or camera shake by your subject can make the image blurred. A tripod is always useful to combat camera shake, however it’s not as effective when you have a fast-moving subject. Photographing fast-moving children is definitely challenging in this situation.

The good news is that flash can stop movement to some degree and you can boost the speed of your shutter by increasing the ISO of your camera. If, for instance, you discover that you’re getting a decent exposure of 1/10th of a second ISO 100 it is possible to increase the speed of your shutter to one-eighth of a second if you raise your camera ISO up to. If you’re not sure the process I used to come up with the figures above, it’s really a simple concept to comprehend – when you increase the sensitivity of your camera by an entire stop, you also increase the speed of your shutter by one full stop.

What happens when you increase the sensitivity of your camera but keep shutter speed and aperture the same? It’s true that the image will be exposed to excessive light. There are three stops in between ISO 100 and 800 (100-200 200-400, 400-800 and 200-400) as well as three stops in between 1/10th of a second as well as the 1/80th (1/10-1/20 1/30-1/40, 1/40-1/80). Thus, an image captured at 1/10th of a second ISO 100 will look similarly to one shot at one-eighth of a second ISO 800, except the image with the higher ISO will be more noisy within the picture.

If a slow shutter speeds become an issue, you can increase the ISO of your camera, which will let you shoot at faster shutter speeds. Simple, but it works!

7. Slow-sync/Rear-sync modes

I’ve described the different aspects of various sync modes in a short video within my “how to get the most out of your flash’s pop-up” article However, I’m sure people will continue to ask about this. The fact is that flash sync modes don’t do anything to improve the quality of your images when shooting using manual mode, as I’ve demonstrated above. For slow-sync modes this is known as “slow” sync due to the reason…believe you’re not sure, all it does will do is slow down the shutter speed of your camera!

This is why it’s only suitable for shooting using Auto or Aperture Priority modes. What is the difference between front-sync and rear-sync modes? If you’re shooting portraits with no movement They do nothing. What is the difference when flash fires either at the start or at the end of an exposure? In actual fact I’d recommend that you switch off rear-sync mode since your flash will be fired twice (once at the beginning as a modeling light and another at the end, as main light) and can cause a lot of irritation at low shutter speeds to those who you’re taking photos of.

In a dim area is already a lot for your eyes to handle, but imagine two flashes that fire one after the other. Don’t be concerned about sync modes while using Manual Mode and disable back-sync mode when you’re using it.

Remember, the most important thing is to choose an extremely slow shutter speed!