Candlelit Portrait: Photography Activity

This is an indoor portrait taken in near darkness, resembling a birthday cake shot.

You’ll need:

  1. A darkish room that doesn’t have a lot of stray light coming in
  2. One or more candles
  3. A willing model

Camera Setup:

  • Mode: Aperture Priority (Often shown as Av on the mode wheel)
  • ISO: 800 or so (there will be very little light)
  • White Balance: Custom
  • Aperture: As low as your lens will go. Lower f-numbers captures the most light, and softens backgrounds.

Watch out for: The shutter speed. In a dark setting in Aperture Priority mode, your camera will choose the best shutter speed for the aperture value you selected. Don’t be surprised if it chooses a very slow speed, like ¼ to 1/15 second. You’ll have to stabilize both your image and your subject. You can increase the ISO, but at some point you’ll either hit the top ISO of your camera, or the noise of the camera’s sensor will make the image quality poor. This is the key tradeoff of images taken in low light – shutter speed vs ISO/noise!

White Balance Setup: With the candles lit, Put the white paper in front of the subject’s face. Take one image of the paper, set the custom white balance using your camera’s custom WB feature.

The Pose: This is your choice, but I recommend a shot almost even with the candles, with the subject’s face above. You will want to make sure they can stay very still if the camera’s shutter speed is below 1/60 of a second.

Framing the Image: Your choice here. If you are practicing for a birthday celebration, I recommend a landscape orientation with the cake at the bottom and the subject above. Since the wide aperture creates a narrow zone of focus, you can choose to either focus on the candle flame (which will render the subject out of focus), or the subject (fuzzing the candle). Both are good images.

Take the Image: Play back and look for motion blur. If the whole thing is blurry (candle base for example), then your movement of the camera is to blame. If the subject or part of the image is blurry, then you have motion blur. Either increase the ISO to increase shutter speed, or stabilize your camera (monopod or tripod or rest it on something), or find ways to get the subject to be more still.

Analyzing and Improving: You should have interesting shadows on the face of the subject from the candle light. Depending on how dark the room is, you may also have stray light (of a different temperature) that may be impacting the exposure.

Advanced Tricks: You can take full-body shots with multiple candles (think of a reclining model or foamy bathtub shot!). A birthday cake with many candles creates some really interesting (and bright) light!

About the Author:
John Huegel is a photographer in the Erie, Pennsylvania area who specializes in Seniors, Dance Studio, Families and other groups. He operates a blog for professional photographers at He is active in many charitable and volunteer activities in the Erie area.

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