Shooting 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.
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Types of Low Light
This is when only the brightest objects are visible at night-time.
Use a 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. For human subjects in motion, you’d have to use a shutter of around 1/200s to freeze them.
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.
Go for a Wide Aperture to Let More Light In
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 easily 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.
Try a High ISO to Get the Right Exposure
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 color. 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.
Why You Should Use a Fast Lens for Low Light Situations
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 four times 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, in automatic or manual modes.
Image Stabilisation Allows You to Drop Your Shutter Speed Down
Your lenses may have ‘image stabilization‘. 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 stabilization 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.
How to Stabilize Your Camera Without a Tripod
If you are capturing a low-lit scene and do not have a tripod or flash unit, there are a few methods to help keep your images well exposed and sharp.
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 best.
Use a Large Sensor Camera to Capture More Light
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.
Shoot in Raw to Add More Exposure Stops
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.
AF Assist Will Help You Use Auto-Focus in Low-Lit Situations
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.
Zoom In While in Live View to Focus in the Dark
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.
Light Closer to the Subject to Increase Intensity
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 for visible or low light situations.
Use a Tripod for Shutter Speeds Lower Than 1/60
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.
How to Use Flash for Better Low-Lit Images
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 Flashlight Introduces More Light Into the Scene
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.
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.