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Shooting in low light photography can be incredibly challenging. Every one of your camera settings will change, even if you’re photographing the same scene you covered in the daytime.

This article will go through camera settings, extra gear and techniques used to capture great photos in low light.

A motorway in the low light of evening with streaming light trails of cars whizzing by

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Types of Low Light

Visible

These are the dark areas, found in the daytime. Shadows created by large buildings or trees can be up to -2 stops of light than the well-lit areas.

Low Light

After sunset, areas may still be visible, yet too dark to capture. It maybe indoor photography also.

Dark

This is when only the brightest objects are visible at night-time.

High-Shutter Speed

Shutter speed affects how much light enters the camera. The faster the shutter speed, the less light will enter.

If you’re out and about in a low-light situation, chances are you’re not going to have a tripod with you. Be careful not to select too slow a speed or you’ll end up with blurry photos.

As a rule of thumb, the average person can take a sharp, blur-free image by setting the speed to a fraction of the focal length.

For example, to take a photo at 30mm, you would set the shutter speed to 1/30 of a second. Any slower and motion blur is likely to occur.

It’s worth noting however that this rule is only relevant to full frame cameras. For a crop sensor, due to its magnifying effect, you would be better off choosing a speed of 1/45 of a second.

You’ll also need to drastically increase your shutter speed if the subject is moving.

If you happen to have a tripod with you and you’re shooting a still object, you can increase the shutter speed to virtually as long as you want. I recommend shining a torch on your subject so that you can focus properly.

Then, use an external shutter release trigger to minimise camera shake.

Dreamy low light photography portrait of a girl sitting on a windowsill

Wide Aperture

This is the hole the light passes through in your lens; the wider it is, the more light you let in. Rather confusingly, the wider the aperture, the lower the f-number – bear that in mind.

This step isn’t particularly useful if you’re still using your standard kit lens as you’ll find that your maximum aperture is somewhere around f/3.5. This won’t let in enough light for good results.

I suggest buying a cheap yet effective prime lens with a maximum aperture of about f/1.8 (Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II).  This is commonly referred to as a ‘fast’ lens as it allows you to take photos at faster shutter speeds.

The point here is that, if you want to take a well-exposed photo in low light, you need a lens with a wide enough aperture to let more light in.

Setting your lens to stop at f/1.8 actually lets in 4 times more light than f/3.5, which is a huge difference for a small change in number.

A wide aperture will produce a shallow depth of field. There’s no way around this without making your aperture narrow again and increasing the ISO or slowing down your shutter speed.

If you’re taking photos of groups of people in, for example, the pub, be careful about how wide your aperture is. F/1.4 will leave half of the people out of focus

. This is a good time to use the flash but take my advice: invest in a proper external flash unit, it’ll make a world of difference.

A busy Japanese cityscape with streaming light trails of cars whizzing by tall buildings - low light photography

Higher ISO

This is slightly trickier to manage on most cameras as, the higher the ISO, the more digital noise there will be, which can be pretty ugly.

If you’re struggling to get the exposure you’re looking for just by changing the shutter speed and aperture, the best thing to do is to raise the ISO.

Remember how stops work though: doubling the ISO number doubles the amount of light that your camera can see.

I find that high ISOs on my camera aren’t very good at determining colour. You might want to consider changing your photos to black and white. That gives the photos a warm, old feeling and the high ISO actually adds to this.

Typically, I don’t raise my ISO above about 1600. If I need more light, I use a flash unless it’s for artistic effect.

A busy cityscape with streaming light trails of cars whizzing by tall buildings at night - low light photography

Faster Lenses

One of the physical attributes of the lens is the aperture. The choice in a lens is very important when it comes to the maximum achievable aperture.

Most consumer zoom lenses find their limit at f/3.5-f/5.6 for maximum aperture. Professional zoom lenses often have a constant aperture of f/2.8.

Many prime lenses can reach f/1.4, and even some of the most specialist lenses can drop down to f/0.95. The wider the aperture (the lower the f-number), the faster the lens is considered to be.

Low light photography situations need the fastest possible apertures to capture them. F/1.4 will give you twice as much light as F/2.8. However, beware that widening your aperture will decrease your depth of field, making it more difficult to place in focus.

This is a great technique to use during visible low light situations.

Low angle low light photography shot of a street alleyway

Image Stabilisation

Your lenses may have ‘image stabilisation’. Nikon, Canon, and even third-party manufacturers allow up to 4.5 stops of compensation. This can come really handy when shooting hand-held.

With this in mind, these stops allow you to drop your shutter speed down to capture and freeze the scene.

If you can capture a sharp scene with 1/250th of a second using a regular lens, then a lens with image stabilisation can bring that down to 1/15th of a second, or even lower.

This is a great technique to use during visible low light photography.

A high speed photo of a motorbike racer on a track in low light

Stabilise Self

If you are capturing a low-lit scene and do not have a tripod or flash unit, there is another method to help keep your images well exposed and sharp. There are a few ways you can do this.

One is to stabilise your camera by using your camera strap around your neck. Making the strap taught will allow you to shoot at lower shutter speeds.

I have even seen people use string, threaded through the eye of an attached tripod plate and stood on at both ends under the photographer’s feet. This acts as a tripod.

Placing the camera on a wall, or against a wall can have a similar effect. Photographing between breaths can have an impact also. Low light photography conditions are where this technique works the best.

Atmospheric low light photography shot of an industrial alleyway

Large Sensor Camera

The sensor is what captures the information that makes your image. It goes without saying that the large the sensor, the more expensive the camera will be.

A basic point-and-shoot camera has a smaller sensor than a micro four-thirds sensor, which in turn is smaller than a cropped APS-C camera.

A full-frame sensor, such as the one used in the Canon 5D Mark IV, will help capture scenes with less noise. This allows you to increase the ISO to capture more light.

Don’t worry about the resolution, the sensor size is what counts. Use this for low light photography situations.

Atmospheric low light photography shot of wavy white light painting

Shoot in Raw

Shooting in RAW is something you should be doing 100% of the time. This is because it offers much more play when it comes to editing your image.

You can add 2/3 and even more stops of exposure into a RAW image without it affecting the quality of the image.

Use this across all low-light conditions, but it is effective most in low-lit situations.

Stunning milky way photography shot of a star filled night sky over the silhouettes of trees

Autofocus

Shooting in low-lit conditions may mean that your camera will find it difficult to auto-focus. There just isn’t enough light for the camera to determine how far a subject is.

Many modern digital cameras have an “AF assist” light. This is usually found at the front of the camera, lighting up like a torch when there is not enough light to illuminate the subject.

Make sure the subject is in focus, and if it isn’t, refocus. Check the captures by zooming in to make sure you got it before taking many more. This is best used in low-light conditions as it will be almost impossible in dark conditions.

Atmospheric low light photography portrait of a man lighting sparklers outdoors at night

Manual Focus

In dark situations, you will not be able to focus at all. Even your “AF Assist” may fail you. a flashlight may help in highlighting the subject enough to get a focus lock.

At other times, focusing on the subject by zooming in while in live view is your only option.

Once the focus has been acquired, do not touch the focus ring.

Majestic low light photography shot of the colourful lights of an amusement park ride at night

Light Closer to the Subject

By bringing the light source closer to your subject increases its intensity. By making the light brighter on your subject, your shutter speed, aperture and ISO can be re-worked for an image of better quality and sharpness.

If you are working with natural light, open the curtains and let the light through. This may be possible only in visible or low light situations.

Mysterious and atmospheric low light photography portrait of a girl holding fairy lights

Tripod

A tripod or monopod is a very useful piece of photographic equipment. They are necessary for very low light or dark situations, where the shutter speed needs to drop below 1/60th of a second.

We move the shutter speed as increasing the ISO reduces the quality of the image.

A tripod also stops blurriness in your images, ensuring a sharp, usable image.

A low light photography cityscape with streaming light trails of cars whizzing by tall buildings

Flash

When you’re shooting groups of people in dark scenes, it’s best to use a flash. As I explained above, if you have your aperture too wide, you’ll end up with a shallow depth of field and not everyone in focus.

If you only have a pop-up flash on your camera, you’re limited in terms of its uses but some of these techniques will still apply.

Firstly, just because you’re using a flash, it doesn’t mean that you can set your ISO back down to 100; if you do, you’ll start to lose background detail in the dark.

I like to leave my ISO on about 400 as I feel it gives an acceptable amount of grain and detail. All cameras are different, so play around with yours to see what works best.

If you’re using an external flash, it’s best to bounce the light off of a wall or ceiling or to use a diffuser to make the light appear less harsh.

A man covered in white powder jumping in a dark setting with black background

Flashlight / Torch

A torch allows you to light up the scene with an external source. This is also known as light painting and a very creative way to tackle low light and dark scenes.

Set up the scene as you would normally, use the torch to focus and then capture the scene as you paint it using the light from the torch.

Coloured strands of light against a black background - low light photography tips

Practise

Like everything else, practice makes perfect. By understanding which lack of light area you are working with, you will see what is possible and where the limitations lie. A flash will need extra care and research in how to operate in the way you wish.

Taking photos in low light conditions is one of the most interesting areas you can cover. Nighttime street photography is a great way to impress people by using a relatively small range of skills, gear and camera settings.

A low light photography cityscape with streaming light trails of cars whizzing by tall buildings at night

A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:

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Craig Hull

Craig is a photographer currently based in Budapest. His favourite photographic areas are street and documentary photography. Show him a darkroom and he'll be happy there for days. As long as there are music and snacks. Find him at craighullphotography.co.uk and Instagram/craighullphoto

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