How to Get Good Exposure Indoors With a Flash

In Master Photography Roundtable by Jeff Harmon10 Comments

Erica and Brian join Jeff at the round table to discuss how to get good exposure indoors with a camera and a single flash plus 4 portrait backgrounds easily found in ANY neighborhood.

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How to Get Good Exposure Indoors

Here is what long time listener of the show asked in the Facebook group:

Marcelo Soffiantini: I have been asked to photograph an indoor event along with other photographers and I have never shot indoors, unless it was for myself. I use a Yongnuo 560iv as a speedlight and my Nikon D500. I will be taking a lot of candid shots. Does anyone have any suggestions? This is not a last minute post, as I have seen many many times, people do on Facebook. I have plenty of time to prepare. Thanks in advance for any input.

To get the best exposure indoors with a flash you start with a slow shutter speed, about 1/100, as open an aperture as possible like f/2.8, ISO 400, and flash power of 1/32.  Take a test shot and adjust your shutter speed to be slower from there to make things brighter and decrease to make things brighter.

Jeff: Erica, you face these kinds of environments regularly and have a lot of equipment to help you get good exposure.  Let’s start off talking about this limiting the equipment to what was mentioned in the question. How you would approach getting a good exposure given your equipment is a camera and a single flash.  What would your initial settings be and walk through how you would adjust.

Erica: Initial settings: low shutter speed to capture ambient light and allow the flash to blend with the environment (low shutter speed is different depending on the lens). Start with flash around mid-power (1/32ish) and adjust as needed to blend. Bounce flash using walls or ceiling or even a bounce card. Avoid pointing the flash directly at the subject if you can.

Brian: MagSphere. Point it straight up then tilt it forward a notch. I first walk around and look at the lighting. Where is there natural light coming in? What are the windows like and is the lighting shining through harsh or soft? Harsh light looks cool as a spotlight in a b/w photo. As much as possible, especially at a wedding reception, try to have your flash complement the decor lighting and not over power it.

Jeff: I clearly remember the first time I bounced flash off the ceiling for a very dimly lit reception, which is even more challenging than normal in the building because they want mood lighting and don’t turn on all the lights the building has to offer.  Anyway, my setup was nothing special. I had a single flash mounted in the hot shoe of my camera pointed straight up to the ceiling. I understood getting good exposure outdoors using aperture, shutter speed, and ISO, but I had almost no idea what I was doing with flash.  Frankly, I was super nervous to give it a try because I have seen really bad flash in photos my whole life. I have a ton of Christmas morning photos my parents have taken where the flash pretty much ruined the picture.

I was SHOCKED at how big a difference it made to have a single flash on a small power setting like 1/32 as Erica recommended.  The image quality jumped up significantly.

I want to go back to the “adjust as needed to blend” part Erica.  It is that process I really want to make sure we talk through here.  Let’s start with what mode your camera will be in. Do you recommend manual mode or with the lighting being a little different throughout the room with small lights here and there would a semi-automatic mode like shutter or aperture priority be good?

Erica: I always recommend manual, especially when working with flash. It’s the only way to guarantee you get the results YOU want, as opposed to what the camera thinks you want.

Jeff: You mentioned 1/32 power on the flash to start with.  I like that as a starting point too. A lot of flashes will go less power than that but especially if there is only one it isn’t very likely to be enough at a lower setting.  

As I shoot indoors with flash one of my goals is to have the flash on as low a power as I can get it.  The flash lasts longer with a single set of batteries and can charge up faster between pops and be ready for my next shot.  Something I think Marcelo will need to get those candids. What about aperture, shutter speed, and ISO? What is a general starting point you recommend for those?

Erica: Completely dependent on ambient light and the lens you’re using. As Brian said, assess the environment. Typical reception photos: 70-200mm, SS 100, f/2.8, ISO 400-600.

Jeff: I like those starting points.  You say to adjust from there, but I want to specifically talk about which one you would adjust first and why.  You just took your first test shot and it is pretty badly underexposed. You have 4 settings to choose from now with aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and flash power.  Which one do you change first?

Erica: Environment or subject is underexposed? Subject – adjust flash. Environment – shutter if you can, otherwise ISO.

Jeff: Erica, Marcelo said that there is plenty of time to prepare for this event.  Not sure if there is budget to add more equipment, but for the sake of the discussion, what one piece of equipment would you recommend could be added prior to the event to give Marcelo a better chance at coming away with some really good images?

Erica: A trigger/receiver system to be able to use your flash off camera. Directional light is always better.

Brian: A SECOND flash w/ trigger built in, such as the Yongnuo. That way you have the trigger AND an additional flash.

Jeff: What about practicing before the event.  What recommendations do you have for getting in some practice before the day arrives?

Erica: Reach out to organizers to get an understanding of the lighting and environment, then mimic that while practicing. Practice as much as possible in order to feel most comfortable at the event.

4 Portrait Locations You Can Find in Any Neighborhood

Our last topic in this episode is one that Erica pointed from our friends over at  Photographers Tajreen Hedayet and Chloe V. of Tajreen&Co made a 2 minute video on the 4 portrait locations you can find any ANY neighborhood.  They suggest that while you are out and about for whatever reason in your neighborhood you should look for 4 different types of locations that make great places to shoot portraits:

  1. Solid colored walls
  2. Bushes and foliage
  3. High locations
  4. Corners or anyplace with intersecting lines

Erica, tell me what you liked about this video.  Do you go out in your neighborhood and shoot portraits?

Erica:  I do a lot of environment portrait shoots outside the studio and just love their point that these kinds of backgrounds are everywhere.  They don’t have to be complicated and you don’t have to travel to some place you think is ideal for a landscape shot to take a portrait.

Brian: I live in a downtown part of my town and it’s considered the “Arts & Design Center”. It’s a fairly affluent community so the parks and buildings are fairly nice and well taken care of – not always a good thing for someone that likes to shoot old broken down buildings!! Anyway, I always stress to my clients that we don’t need to travel far. Unless there’s a specific building or object they want in the background, it doesn’t matter a whole lot where we go. Most shots are close ups anyway, so you just need a little space behind them to get a good shot. Throw in a bit of off camera flash and you can be creative and get almost any shot anywhere. Examples: shot of my son doing soccer kick was in a yard across the street (see how I got the shot here , shot of my daughter throwing flower was in the alley behind my house (see how I got the shot here , and the shot of my daughter blowing snow out of her hands could have been anywhere but was just on a walking path three blocks away.

Jeff:  Over the past couple of years my wife and I have noticed some of these very things around us.  There is one spot that is only about 2 miles from our house that is an incredible place to shoot family portraits.  We just went and did that with my extended family this past week.

Most of the time the families who hire us for family photos have a place that means something to them they want us to use, so we go there and find something like they mentioned here.  Green pine trees are pretty prevalent in the mountains here, along with some cool rivers that provide great backgrounds.

For those times when the families ask us where to go we find out if they are looking for more of a city our a natural look and then we have quite a few places we have noticed around town that are just as these photographers have mentioned.  There is a building in my city here that has this really nice green wall made up of aluminum siding riveted together that makes for a really good background. Even better, it faces a good direction for the evening light when most families want to shoot.

There is a spot across the valley from me in another city where there is an abandoned rail line where the grasses have grown through the tracks pretty good and the tracks curve so that there is a beautiful leading line.  There is also a very cool rock bridge over a river right there where we can kind of get that high look. Our seniors really like that spot and request we go there when they look through our portfolio.

I think about the only thing I haven’t really shot around me here that was on their list was the corner type shot with the intersecting lines.  I am going to have to keep an eye out for that because I am sure they are there and I just haven’t thought about using them.


Jeff: Bvckup 2.  Windows only unfortunately.  It is a super simple, really fast backup tool that can copy your photos from one drive to another on a schedule or in real-time.  Validates the backups as part of the process. Fairly unique ability to not have to copy an entire binary file again if it is changed slightly.  Can also set things up so that if your main computer is a Windows laptop then it will only run the backup when specific devices like an external drive or NAS is present.  You buy it at and a personal license (which is all most photographers should need) is only $20.

Erica: Metal Ornaments from Millers – $8.50, double-sided, good quality, great for affordable client gifts, family gifts, etc

Brian: Sell my Mavic Pro and buy Mavic Pro II



  1. This was one of my favorite episodes. A nice mix of photo nerd (what did he say?) with practical advice (oh, I get it!). On the heals of the Photo Taco podcast on taking pictures of pictures, I’ve got some good projects to work on with some confidence. Thanks’

  2. Hey guys. New to the podcast and great work. Shot my first wedding recently and had to sort through many of the challenges you described.

    Couple of things I wonder that you didn’t cover:
    – ETTL? With some subjects close and some far, would ettl vs manual on the flash be a better option?
    – Speedlight external battery packs? Had a couple 600 ex’s (one for bounce and one for rim) and invested in external battery packs, but wonder if I really needed them. Was worried about recycling speed – especially at the reception.



    1. Author


      Welcome aboard. Thanks so much for listening! We should have made sure to say it in the episode, but none of like using ETTL. We all prefer having direct control over the settings on our camera and the lighting in the room to having the camera and flash make some decisions on their own. I personally think it makes flash photography more difficult. The process we described in the podcast know has to work around whatever the camera is going to think should be done.

  3. Really enjoying this format. The content is complete enough that the work MASTER is correct. This one was really well done and I look forward to improving my event work by slowing down the shutter speed.
    I get my START by using aperture priority to find the background setting and then switch to manual with the shutter speed suggested.
    Question: do mirrorless cameras have maximum flash sync speeds too?

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