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Archive 2013 · Best way to improve light for indoor kid shots?
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p.1 #1 · p.1 #1 · Best way to improve light for indoor kid shots?

My primary subject is my 17-month old daughter. And the main location is inside of our house, where the light isn't always ideal.

I've been reading Strobist and a couple of eBooks on off-camera flash (from Craft & Vision), but I'm wondering how that will apply with a subject that refuses to stay still for more than a few moments. I guess I could light an entire room, and mostly take pictures there, but that's pretty limiting.

Another option would be an on-camera reflector/diffuser like the Demb Flip-it. That would give me more mobility, but the effects aren't as nice as off-camera flash.

Figured I'd ask here, since I'm sure this isn't an unusual situation.

What would you recommend? I have a 5D3.

(I did just buy Speedliter's Handbook: Learning to Craft Light with Canon Speedlites, by Syl Arena; perhaps that will have some good ideas.)

Jan 01, 2013 at 05:03 PM
Sheldon N
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p.1 #2 · p.1 #2 · Best way to improve light for indoor kid shots?

I've got kids of the same age (some now older) and the thing I've found to be most useful and trouble free is to simply bounce the flash from on-camera. Done creatively it can give you the look of off camera flash with no light coming from on-axis from the camera. Plus the camera is easy to grab and shoot with when something fun is happening and you don't have time to get out/set up lights.

I don't like that on-axis fill look that you get from products like the Flip it or bounce diffusers like the Fong/etc. The technique that I've found best is to flag the head of the speedlight with a small piece of foam/fabric so that you can even bounce light past your subject and get a short lighting or side lighting effect without direct light hitting them. The whole setup is cheap, simple and effective.

Neil van Niekerk has a great write up and explanation of how to make one and use it.


Jan 01, 2013 at 05:39 PM
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p.1 #3 · p.1 #3 · Best way to improve light for indoor kid shots?

Sounds like you're covering the bases and already have a pretty good understanding of the pros and cons of the different techniques.

One thing you didn't specifically mention though is just using bounce flash. If you haven't done much bounce-flash photography, you may be amazed with what you can accomplish. There is the standard, off-the-ceiling bounce but you don't have to limit yourself to that. Try bouncing off walls or whatever is handy. About the only thing that doesn't usually work (although there are exceptions) is to bounce off the floor.

I have seen wedding photogs here on FM that do this almost exclusively for their indoor shots and the results are impressive. I have heard of wedding photogs bouncing off a best man's white shirt so you can get pretty creative.

Often times what really makes these shots work is properly balancing the flash power with the ambient lighting. You want to use the light-modeling aspects of the flash without losing the "fill" of the ambient (and creating a "cave" photo). This may be where your main challenge will be since you have a moving youngster and low ambient light. You will probably need to jack-up your ISO and use a wide aperture in this situation.

Pros of bounce:
- Not much extra equipment to mess with other than the flash
- Not as unwieldy as a diffuser/fong dome/whatever although the Demb you mention is probably one of the least unwieldy in that regard.
- Can give you some nice diffuse, yet directional light that is possibly better than lighting the whole room with diffuse light.
- You can add a filter to the flash to balance to your most-common indoor lighting type (incandescent, flourescent, etc.).
- Easy to set-up. Maybe no real set-up at all other than positioning the flash head if you already have the flash attached. Don't underestimate this point in particular. If you make it too complicated, you will miss spur-of-the-moment shots and you may even find it impacts you willingness to go to the trouble.
- You're at home so probably no 20-foot ceilings that might make your flash power problematic.

Cons of bounce:
- You obviously don't have as much control as with off-camera flash (but setting up off-camera flash for a moving target is not going to be easy anyway).
- You may get some color casts if bouncing off things that aren't white/neutral grey but hey, you are in sort of a compromise situation anyway. If it was me, I would prioritize for "moment" #1, decent lighting/tonality #2, and then somewhere after that worry about color casts from the bounce. You can always try to do some color correction in post if you're up for that or go with black and white.

Anyway, I hope that gives you some ideas. Have fun.

Edited on Jan 01, 2013 at 08:28 PM · View previous versions

Jan 01, 2013 at 05:48 PM
Rick Ryan

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p.1 #4 · p.1 #4 · Best way to improve light for indoor kid shots?

I have found some of my most memorable shots of my grandson at that age were at high iso, in B&W, in natural light (north facing window) and fast lens.

Jan 01, 2013 at 06:22 PM
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p.1 #5 · p.1 #5 · Best way to improve light for indoor kid shots?

I'm in a similar situation with a toddler and another on the way. I'm shooting Nikon BTW, so there will be some differences with TTL behavior I'd assume.

With ambient light only, lots of post-processing involved. It got better with a shoe-mounted flash and bounce card, but still always had some direct light look to the photos. The problem was that TTL was deciding how much flash was needed to expose the subject, but this did not necessarily balance well with the background ambient, in terms of intensity and white balance. More post processing.

This Christmas, I dedided to give something else a try. I have 2 hot-shoe flashes that allow manual settings, as well as the SB-400 which is a small TTL only flash for Nikon, almost a popup flash on steroids that can be tilted but not rotated. I bought some Phottix Stratos II triggers/receiver. The transmitter for the camera allows TTL passthrough to the on-camera flash. The receivers are plain old RF triggers.

I set the camera at ISO 200, f/8, 1/160. In my home this pretty well supresses the ambient. I then placed the flashes at opposite ends of the room, and they created my room lighting with ceiling bounce. But pure bounce can sometimes leave the subject with shadows under the eyes, so I mounted the SB-400 on top of the camera-mounted transmitter, and set it to -1.7 EV TTL-BL. This gave a hint of natural fill tailored for my ever-changing camera to subject distance, while keeping even lighting in the room. Best of all was that the lighting was probably more than 90% instantaneous flash, so no ugly ghosting, and white balance was fairly uniform. I even managed to have some outside details available through the windows, rather than blown out white boxes.

Here's one of my kid:

I just do this for fun, but I was really happy with the results compared to previous attempts.

Jan 01, 2013 at 08:23 PM

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p.1 #6 · p.1 #6 · Best way to improve light for indoor kid shots?

These are all great suggestions thank you. I especially like the "black foamie thing". Seems a pretty lightweight and compact addition to the flash.

Jan 01, 2013 at 09:44 PM
Tom Boucher
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p.1 #7 · p.1 #7 · Best way to improve light for indoor kid shots?

I'm now on my fourth little kid, they are an adventure and a half to capture.

My current favorite method is an off camera flash in the corner of the room up high so that it's in the wall/ceiling seam. It uses the three surfaces to bounce the light into the room. You just have to keep that corner to your back. I use a quantum t5dr right now, as it cycles the fastest on battery compared to a 550EX I have.

I've also used a 550 EX for years on camera with a diffuser (demb) which works well though my poor 550EX is wearing out after almost 10 years

Jan 02, 2013 at 03:19 PM
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p.1 #8 · p.1 #8 · Best way to improve light for indoor kid shots?

I use two Canon flashes (either two 430IIs or one 430exII and one 270exI) attached to Phottix Odin flash triggers. place them in two corners of the room and bounce off ceiling or a neutral wall. One thing I've learned it that the 270EX is actually plenty of power for this application... since with my 5D3 I am happy to shoot ISO1600. Of course, YMMV with higher ceilings.

I have a demb flip it, but I think I'm bouncing too much of the light forward, it still looks like on-camera flash to me. I need to work on my technique.

Love the idea from another poster of the flagged flash... never considered that!

Jan 14, 2013 at 12:32 AM
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p.1 #9 · p.1 #9 · Best way to improve light for indoor kid shots?

Ambient is always my first lighting option. But often ambient light shades the eyes because it's coming from too high or not in the direction which flatters the subject on the background I need to frame them in front of. That's when I will use flash, but always mindful of how the ambient is modeling the subject.

The biggest mistake I see beginners make with flash, especially outdoors, is overpowering and canceling the ambient modeling. Not surprisingly the results don't look natural. The trick to getting natural looking flash assisted shots is to use the flash vectors (both key and fill) to complement or mimic the natural ambient modeling.

Part of the blame lies in the fact that camera makers continue to put hot shoes on cameras that encourage to use flash at an unnaturally low angle relative to faces. Even if a diffuser added bounce the light around if the dominant "key" vector comes from eye level the lighting while having softer shadows will not have natural downward modeling.

The problem is two fold: there are no shadow modeling clues and the eye level flash creates unnaturally low highlights on the cheekbones that don't look "right" compared to a downward natural baseline we see in person most of the time.

Many equate "better" flash lighting with moving the flash off axis sideways on a stand, in part because flash on camera looks so unnatural, but with a single flash the better strategy is to raise the flash make the key vector downward, but keep it centered so the nose does not cast an asymmetrical sideways shadow. When raised and centered there are no shadows on the sides of the nose. It blends into the similarly lit cheeks allowing the eyes and mouth to become stronger focal points. That's why centered key light strategies are frequently used in full face glamor shots.

Bouncing changes the modeling vector to downward and also bounces light all over the room creating many different "fill" vectors direct flash lacks. The modeling is natural and there aren't the "hot" spot highlight clues low on the cheeks that scream "flash" in a hot shoe mounted flash shot. It's a good solution with single flash when there is a ceiling available. But bounce down from too steep an angle and the brow shades the eyes. You'll also want a "catchlight" card attached to the flash to create reflected catchlights. As the size of the card /scoop gets bigger it will also bounce some fill forward but the modeling comes from the bounced vector.

A flash bracket makes lighting more flattering by raising the flash so it from an more natural downward direction. A direct flash on a bracket will also create the same 'hot spot' reflections on the face, but the bracket moves them up to where natural light would create them on the same oily, damp face. The hot spots still aren't flattering because they are a clue that makes the lighting seem "hard", but at least they are in the "right" places to model the 3D shape of the face naturally.

The single flash approach I use is a combination of both. I use a bracket and a DIY diffuser that looks like a scoop / bowl that bounces light directly and off the ceiling. I control the direct vs. bounced ratio with the angle of the top flap. Indoors where there is a lot of bounce spill occurring the main advantage the bracket is putting the flash a foot or so closer to the ceiling. But when there isn't a ceiling or it's too high to be effective I angle the top flap flat to bounce 100% of the flash output forward like a softbox and count on the bracket to make the vector of the light relative to the faces downward and flattering.

That two-prong approach covers all the single flash options: bouncing, bouncing + direct, and direct with and without the diffuser. All the approaches make the modeling vector downward and naturally flattering. What varies with the room are the fill vectors and tone of the shadows. But since the flash is always centered the shadows fall front > back not sideways creating distractions.

The problem moving a single flash off axis controlling the angle and tone of the shadows. Well placed downward angled shadows on a face framing a "mask" of highlights on the higher parts is what creates a natural impression of 3D face shape in a lighting pattern. But if the off camera flash is not precisely and skillfully placed with that in mind a face lit from the side wind up with dark shaded eyes and dark nose shadows hanging sideways. As with any single flash strategy the fill comes from the light that flash bounces around the room everywhere other than where it is aimed and creating the modeling vector. That varies unpredictably.

The convention of putting a key light 45 degrees to the side and 45 degrees above the eye line became a convention because it mimics how mid-day sun lights 3D objects and faces. To illustrate this cause and effect I created a snow head a few years ago aligned so afternoon sun would model it.


I knew the mid-day sun is about 45 vertically and in the SW sky so I aimed the face due west. When I finished it at around 2PM this was the modeling on the full face view:


Walking around towards the shadow side produces these views with the same "key" light placement:

Lighting a face like that is something I learned apprenticing with Monte Zucker 40 years ago, except we did it with the indirect key light from a north window not the direct sun. The lesson there is lighting isn't really that difficult if you understand the cause and effect. Get the light in both eyes and make the nose shadow fall just over the nose as much as possible to make the size and shape of the shadow it casts match the size and shape of the nose. The 45V / 45H angle does than because of the geometry of the eye sockets and nose.

There are no rules so it's up to you to try all the possible key light angles and decide what you like. Two criteria I suggest you consider is whether the key light reaches both eyes and where the nose shadow falls and how it affect the impression of the nose. Consider that the eyes and mouth expressions trigger the emotional reaction. What does the nose do? If poorly lit and underfilled it distracts from the eyes and mouth.

In terms of cause and effect if the key light gets higher than 45 degrees the brow starts to shade the eyes. Lower than 30 degrees and the lighting look unnaturally low and the nose shadow hangs out sideways. If the key light is centered on the nose the shadow hangs straight down and the sides of the nose are highlighted - the nose more or less disappears. If the key light is 45 to the side the nose shadow falls over 1/2 of the nose. At all the other angles the nose shadow hangs out sideways to some degree creating a distraction from the yes and mouth.

In a studio setting you can "rough in" the key light position then coach the subject to adjust their face to the light to precisely place it. When trying to light candids with the 45/45 strategy you need to either find a stationary target, or predict where the nose will be pointing when you take the shot.

Here I was testing my DIY diffusers and found the in-house model otherwise engaged on the phone. But that still allowed me to wheel the off camera flash 45 degrees from her nose and 45 higher...
... then walk around to the opposite oblique angle where the face was 45 degrees to the camera and camera was 90 degrees to the key light:
Control of the lighting ratio was done via the Master flash on my bracket which provided a direct frontal fill vector. But note in the wide shot how much "spill fill" was also bouncing around the room creating diffuse "wrap around" key vectors. With most speedlight or studio modifiers the "spill fill" of the light footprints off ceiling and walls contribute to the "wrap" effect. A factor in using speedlight modifiers effectively is understanding how to take advantage of that spill to compensate for the small size of the source.

With a two flash strategy the flash on the bracket becomes "fill" not the primary modeling "key" vector. It still has all the same qualities that make my single flash shots more flattering while allowing the option of off axis modeling when a subject is standing still long enough to set the lights. I used the same strategy at a party...
Coming on the situation I saw the guy facing the camera would be there for a couple minutes looking at the tall guy in the foreground so I wheeled the off camera light around until standing behind it I saw the face of guy in the background obliquely, then walked back around 90 degrees from the light at a 45 degree angle to his face to take the shot. Same "formula" as the shot on the couch.

What if the subjects are moving? Odds of getting flattering lighting on the face decrease to below 50% especially when there is more than one face in the photo. The more effective strategy? Don't put a key light in front and too the side, but it behind the action...


It's the same strategy I use outdoors in backlight:

The flash behind (or sun outdoors) changes role from frontal "key" to rear "rim" light. The flash and diffuser on the bracket create the downward "key" modeling vector highlights on the face and the bounced ceiling light (or skylight outdoors) produces the fill vectors.

It produces a "three light (vector) solution with only two light sources. The critical factor? Raising the flash in front on the bracket. That's why I always have a flash on my bracket indoors and out.

Some find a bracket cumbersome, but for me I don't find it gets in the way shooting and when I'm not shooting grabbing the bracket on top is a convenient way to carry the camera around. It's not a solution everyone will like, but one I thing everyone should try because it automatically makes any single flash shot more flattering and provides the foundation of flat nearly shadowless fill needed to fit foreground range from black suit to white wedding dress to the range of the sensor at the same time.

For most run and gun shooting I use Canon's ETTL mode with A:B ratio flash control. I know from testing and experience an A:B=1:2 setting (2x more slave key light than master fill) produces a reflected ratio that will record detail everywhere. That makes getting optimally exposed full range files simply a matter of watching the highlights via the clipping warning and adjusting FEC so they stay just under the point of clipping. Approached that way shooting with dual flash is as simple and predictable as using one.

To recap:

Use the ambient as the foundation to any flash you add.

Create a downward modeling vector on the faces, directly or by bouncing

When you move a flash off axis sideways understand where the fill is coming from and how to control it

A logistically simple way to control key light placement and shadow tone is with an off axis key light (centered vertically or at 45 degrees from nose) with fill coming from the direction of the lens from a second source with Canon's ETTL ratios or the Nikon CLS system. Set a ratio you know from experience records a full range of tone (e.g. A:B =1:2) then adjust flash exposure for the highlight detail with FEC as you would with single flash.

If you can't control PRECISE placement of an off axis key light either center it to eliminate sideways shadows on the faces, or put it behind as rim light with the source in front raise on the bracket providing the frontal modeling.

Jan 14, 2013 at 09:31 PM

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