How to take sharp photos in low light
The world looks a little different and a whole lot more interesting through the lens when the light is low. So low light photography can be very rewarding, but of course comes with its own set of challenges. The first one being how can your camera see well enough to focus for sharp photos in low light?
More specifically, when you’re photographing in low light, it’s often for the very characteristics that low light offers, so you don’t want to blast the scene with flash.
So how do you photograph in really low light when you don’t want to use a flash and more importantly, how can you focus to get sharp photos in low light?
I’ve listed the processes that I would use in the order that I would use them, or at least think through before trying one. As you can see, I prefer to start with the simple low light focus solutions.
- Focus on a bright area
- Focus on the subject’s edge
- Use your camera’s inbuilt AF illuminator
- Focus using live view
- Back button focus
- Light it up with a flashlight
- Focus manually
- Use hyperfocal focusing
1. Focus on a bright area in low light
If there is a brighter patch in the scene on the same focal plane as the part you want in focus:
- Aim your focus on the bright area
- Lock focus and then
- Recompose before taking the shot
2. Focus on the subject’s edge in low light photography
If you can see the edges of your subject, it means that one part of the subject is brighter than another part. As your camera’s focusing system works by detecting contrast between light and dark, it will help to focus.
- Aim your focus point on the edge
- Lock focus
- Recompose and take the shot
That’s all fairly straight forward, but how do you lock focus for sharp photos when photographing in low light?
How to lock focus
Before we move on to other ways to get sharp photos in low light, here’s how I would go about “locking focus” in challenging conditions.
If your subject is still use single servo autofocus. For Nikon it’s called AF-S and for Canon it’s One Shot AF. In this mode:
- Depress the shutter button to focus
- The camera will focus then hold it
- Keep holding the shutter button half way down
- Recompose your shot by moving your camera (while still on the same focal plane of course)
- The area you focused on will still be in focus
- Once your image is compsed the way you want
- Push the shutter button right down to take the shot
If you use continuous autofocus with a still subject:
- Then switch from autofocus to manual focus and shoot away
If your subject is moving, your friends are:
- The AF illuminator, if you’re close enough to your subject
- Live view
Which leads to the next two low light focusing tips.
3. Use the AF illuminator for focusing in low light
When it’s too dark for your camera to see properly, it can’t focus and that’s when the AF-assist illuminator is useful if your subject is not too far away.
The AF illuminator is the light at the front of your camera that also doubles up as the self timer lamp and red-eye reduction lamp. It will shine enough light for the camera to see the subject and focus so that your photo is sharp. You can set it using your camera menu.
When using the AF illuminator, just be aware of where you’ve positioned your focus point. With some older cameras it had to be in the middle of the viewfinder. With newer models, this may not be necessary, but the focus point does still need to be near the middle. You can’t use the AF illuminator when the focus point is near the edge of your frame.
When is the AF illuminator useful for focusing in low light? Bride and groom’s first dance.
What if your subject is too far away for the AF illuminator to be effective?
4. Focus with live view in low light
Your best option if your subject is too far away for the AF illuminator to work is to switch your camera to live view, because your camera’s autofocus works differently in live view.
Without delving into the technical details of how focus works (phase detection autofocus vs contrast detection autofocus), live view uses contrast detection autofocus. So it’s more accurate in low light conditions and works in all areas of the frame, even at the edges. The only requirement is that there’s enough light for the sensor to analyse the image.
Bear in mind that, when you view the scene with live view, rather than through the viewfinder, your camera won’t be well supported, as your arms will be outstretched. This could result in camera shake in your image, so a tripod is essential.
What would you photograph using live view for sharp photos in low light? Light trails from cars.
5. Use back button focus for photographing in low light
If you can lock focus in low light using the tips above, back button focus is a good option for sharp photos in low light photography.
Like the shutter button, back button focus can be used in two ways. When you use back button focus with focus set to single servo / one shot AF, your focus will hunt until it finds focus and locks. In continuous focus it will hunt, lock on the subject and stay with it, even if it moves (as long as your focus point remains on your subject of course).
Once focus is locked, simply depress the shutter to take the shot. Without back button focus, you run the risk of your camera trying to refocus before you depress the shutter.
Further reading: Why back button focus is your BFF, and how to use it
When are you most likely to use back button focus in low light? With moving subjects.
6. Light it up with a flashlight
I love a low tech, old school fix to problems… Enter the flashlight solution for sharp photos in low light – and who doesn’t love playing with a flashlight?
It’s always a good idea to put a flashlight in your bag before heading out on a shoot that might be in low light conditions. Apart from ensuring that you don’t trip over stuff, it’s a really useful focusing tool. There are two ways that you can use a flashlight in low light:
- Aim it at your subject, autofocus, lock focus, switch off the flashlight and take the shot
- Place the camera on a tripod and a switched on flashlight in the scene to illuminate it, autofocus, lock focus, remove the flashlight from the scene and take the shot
See, low tech is always simple and very often the solution.
What would you photograph using a flashlight for sharp photos in low light? Still life or landscapes with focus on a still foreground subject.
7. Focus manually in low light
Speaking of low tech, there’s always the option to manually focus your lens.
I think because we get so used to autofocus, we don’t think about using manual focus nearly enough. Low light photography is the perfect time for manual focus.
The first point to note before you do anything is turn off the autofocus to avoid damaging the autofocus mechanism when you turn the focus ring.
Of course, as this is photography, there are options of how to go about focusing manually for sharp photos in low light:
- Manual focus
- Zone focusing
The easy manual focus option
Here’s the method that’s most obvious:
- Set your camera and lens to manual focus
- Look at the subject through the viewfinder and
- Turn the focus ring until the subject is perfectly sharp
- Take the shot
Further reading: 9 times manual focus beats autofocus
Zone focusing / scale focusing
Then there’s the less obvious way to focus for sharp photos in low light.
When you use the lens scale to focus manually, you are zone focusing, also called scale focusing.
Before I start, please note that not every lens has a lens scale, particularly cheaper lenses. But that doesn’t mean you can’t zone focus.
What is a lens scale?
If you look at your lens you’ll see the infinity symbol (it looks like a figure 8 on its side) on one end of the scale. The other end of the scale shows your lens’ minimum focusing distance. The distances are written in both feet and meters.
As you turn the focusing ring you’ll see that the numbers move around. The number resting in front of the alignment point is the distance at which you’ll achieve sharp focus.
Using the lens scale method to focus in low light relies on your ability to judge distance, so use a wide angle if possible and a narrow aperture to give yourself some wiggle room for sharp photos – in other words, greater depth of field.
Using zone focusing for low light photography
To fully understand how to use the lens scale, you must first become familiar with how depth of field works.
Briefly, this is that depth of field extends behind your subject by 2/3 of the depth of field, or zone of focus, and also in front of your subject by 1/3 of the depth of field, or zone of focus.
There are 4 variables that affect depth of field:
- Focal length
- Camera sensor
Further reading: Using depth of field for gorgeous photography composition
There are some great depth of field apps for your phone – I’ve got F-Stop Calculator on my iPhone. Also, here’s a link to a really handy depth of field calculator: https://www.photopills.com/calculators/dof
Just having a play around with these calculators should help you to understand the variables of depth of field.
When are you most likely to use scale focusing / zone focusing for sharp photos in low light? Street photography.
8. Use hyperfocal focusing in low light
I’ve listed hyperfocal focusing last, purely because it’s what I would use least as I do more portraiture than landscapes. Hyperfocal focusing is mainly for landscapes, or photographing from a distance.
When are you most likely to use hyperlocal focusing for focusing in low light? Landscape photography.
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