The first point to remember about low light photography is that it doesn’t have to be dark for low light camera settings to be necessary. Your camera doesn’t see as well as your eyes, so even when you can see perfectly fine, the light might be low for your camera.
In this ultimate guide to low light photography I answer the top 8 questions I get asked:
- What is low light photography?
- How do you take photos in low light?
- What camera setting is best for low light photography?
- What’s the best image format to use for low light photography?
- What shooting mode is best for low light photography?
- What metering mode is best for low light photography?
- How do I take sharp photos in low light?
- How do you shoot in low light without flash?
Let’s get started!
1. What is low light photography?
There are times, even during the middle of the day, that there isn’t much natural light and it’s not always possible to use flash, so you need to know how to photograph in low light.
Examples of low light photography in daylight are:
- Indoor photography with natural light
- Photographing in a thick forest, or anywhere that the light is restricted from getting through
- Very overcast weather
- Golden hour
- Blue hour
Further reading: How to take great photos in bad weather
Camera settings: 1/200th, F5.6, ISO 2000, 70mm. Taken at 11.45 am in winter in thick woodland on a very overcast day. They were walking so shutter speed had to be kept high and aperture not too wide so that depth of field wasn’t too narrow to allow for their movement.
2. How do you take photos in low light?
Even before deciding on your camera settings, the most important thing to remember with low light photography is that you have to keep your camera stable. If your camera moves during the exposure, camera shake will be visible in your photos and they won’t be sharp, even if they are in focus.
3 ways to prevent camera shake:
a) Stabilize yourself
b) Stabilize your camera
c) Use image stabilization
a) Stabilize yourself
A shutter speed of 1/60th is considered the lowest safe shutter speed to use when hand holding a camera. However, to achieve sharp photos without flash at 1/60th, you have to hold your camera correctly so that it has maximum support.
Think of yourself as a tripod, brace your arms against your body and view the scene through the viewfinder rather than on the LCD. When you bring your camera up to your face, it gives an extra bit of support by bracing the camera against your forehead.
If your arm is extended at all, as it would be when using the LCD to view the scene, your camera will not be stable and photographing at the lower shutter speed of 1/60th will mean you’ll definitely have camera shake.
Further reading: How to hold a camera correctly for sharp photos
The heavier your camera, the more chance there is of camera shake.
The biggest disadvantage of high end cameras is the weight, especially when you add a high quality lens with a longer focal length. It’s another reason the “nifty fifty” is so popular. Entry level cameras are much lighter than more advanced cameras. It’s true that advanced cameras have larger, more advanced sensors that perform better in low light. However, that’s not enough to avoid camera shake.
The longer your focal length, the higher your shutter speed needs to be to avoid camera shake.
The rule of thumb is that your shutter speed should at least equal your focal length. So, if your focal length is 100mm, your shutter speed should be at least 1/100. I prefer my shutter speed to be at least 1.5 times my focal length.
I prefer longer focal lengths and my camera with my favourite lens attached weighs over 2kg, but my wrists are weak. So I never handhold my camera below 1/80th without flash. After about 2 hours muscle fatigue sets in and definitely impacts my ability to shoot at lower shutter speeds. I had 3 back to back shoots yesterday and my arms are feeling it today!
A trick to help you stabilize yourself is to lean into something solid if possible. Try to find something you can:
- lean against
- wedge yourself up to or
- rest your elbows on
b) Stabilize your camera
For photographs with a shutter speed slower than 1/60th, or below your comfortable handheld shutter speed, you need to put your camera on something, such as a:
- monopod (see image below)
- level surface at the right height (sometimes you get lucky)
The man on the left is holding his camera correctly to keep it steady and for additional stability he is using either a tripod or a monopod.
c) Image stabilization
Vibration reduction, aka image stabilization, is a great feature in some cameras and lenses. If you have it, you can shoot handheld 2.5 – 4.5 stops slower than without it.
Two things to be aware of when using image stabilization:
- If your camera is mounted on a tripod (or similar) with image stabilization turned on, it might actually introduce blur, so switch it off. Some cameras aren’t affected in this way, so check your manual if you’re not sure, or just switch it off when using a tripod in low light.
- Image stabilization is not a way to reduce motion blur when your subject is moving, but it will help if both you and your subject are moving. For example, if your’e in a moving car photographing a cyclist through the window.
3. What camera setting is best for low light photography?
This is one of those “how long is a piece of string” questions, because the answer is it depends. In fact, it depends on two things:
a) the amount of available light
b) whether your subject is still or moving (and if so, how fast)
a) How low is the light
As with anything to do with exposure, your camera settings are entirely dependent on the amount of available light – be that natural light or any light you add to the scene.
Camera settings: 1/125th, F4, ISO 400, 35mm. Photo taken with natural light indoors at 13.42 in summer on a sunny day. The large window is just out of shot to camera right.
b) The subject dictates your camera settings
Of course I don’t mean that your subject tells you what to do. However, what you photograph is very important for camera settings in low light photography.
- Is it moving
- Or is it still
For example, an adult will stay still, but you can’t count on a young child staying still for more than a couple of seconds.
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So, bearing these two things in mind, the rules of thumb are:
- Shutter speed – as low as you can go to avoid movement causing blur – either by you with camera shake, or the subject with movement
- Aperture – as wide as you can go, but bear in mind the wider your aperture, the narrower your depth of field will be
- ISO – as high as you can go on your camera without introducing too much noise
Camera settings: 1/160th, F4, ISO 1000, 48mm. Photo taken at 15.42 on a sunny day in summer. There are 2 large windows – 1 directly behind her and 1 about 2 meters to camera left. Shutter speed and aperture were set to allow for her movement.
4. What’s the best image format to use for low light photography?
It’s best to shoot in RAW for low light photography, because more data will be recorded than when shooting JPEG. If you shoot RAW, using Lightroom, or similar post production software, you can:
- Lighten the image more than you could a JPEG
- Reduce noise further (and less noise will be captured than with JPEG format)
- Adjust color and white balance more effectively
Just remember that it’s often better to risk noise from a high ISO than to shoot at a lower ISO and then lighten the image in post production. Noise becomes visible in an underexposed image when you have to lighten it significantly.
Further reading: Shooting RAW vs JPEG image quality pros and cons
Camera settings: 1/160th, F4, ISO 800, 48mm. Photo taken at 17.51 in winter, during blue hour, on an overcast day. Adjusted in Lightroom (see below). This was the end of a long day of shooting, so I couldn’t drop the shutter speed, because of potential camera shake. I should have increased the ISO to avoid noise.
5. What shooting mode is best for low light photography?
I always prefer to shoot in manual mode wherever possible as it gives me the greatest control over my camera.
However, it’s not always essential, as long as you know the limitations of each shooting mode and factor that in when photographing in low light.
Of the other shooting modes available, I’d recommend using shutter priority if you don’t want to shoot in manual mode. The reason for using shutter priority in low light is that you can control the shutter speed, to ensure that it doesn’t go too low, and the camera will adjust the aperture.
The drawback of using shutter priority is that if you set a shutter speed that requires a wider aperture than your lens is capable of, your image will be underexposed. So, if your lens can only go as wide as f5.6, you’ll need a slower shutter speed than a lens that can go as wide as f1.4 for example.
Further reading: What are the best shooting modes to use and why?
6. What metering mode should I use for low light photography?
Again, this depends on what you’re photographing.
In portrait photography, for example, the most important part of the image is the person. So you need to ensure that your subject is correctly exposed and to do this in low light you need to use spot metering.
Further reading: Metering modes and how exposure metering works
7. How do I take sharp photos in low light?
Once you have the exposure set to avoid either camera shake or subject movement causing blur, you need to master focusing in low light for sharp photos.
Depending on how dark it is, in low light conditions it might be difficult for your camera to focus. Here are two focus tricks for when the light is low:
- Use a flashlight to illuminate the scene, set focus, switch off the flashlight and then take the shot
- Focus works differently with live view than when using the viewfinder, and because of this, it works better in low light conditions. So, switch to live view, focus and take the shot
Further reading: 8 tricks for sharp photos in low light – focusing in the dark
8. How do you shoot in low light without flash?
If you’ve pushed your camera settings as far as possible for the location and your subject, and there’s still not enough light, you have two choices:
a) Get closer to the light
b) Bounce light back into your subject
If that’s still not enough, you’ll need to add a pop of flash.
a) Get closer to available light
The further your subject is away from the light, the less light will reach them. So, if at all possible, bring your subject closer to the light.
Further reading: Top tips on using natural light indoors for great photos
Camera settings: 1/160th, F8, ISO 640, 70mm. Photo taken in a bird hide at 16.56 on a sunny day in summer. It was very dark inside as the only light in the hide came through the slit you see in shot. I chose F8 to ensure the mother and older child weren’t too blurred and exposed for the youngest child as he was looking to camera.
b) Use a reflector
If there’s light behind or to the side of your subject, using a reflector to bounce light back into the scene will make a huge difference. This is particularly useful when the light source is behind the subject.
Further reading: How to use a reflector properly and why you really need one
Using flash in low light photography
So far, we’ve looked at using just natural light for low light photography, but that’s not always enough.
Sometimes adding a pop of flash can make the world of difference to a photo. You don’t have to blast light at a scene to illuminate everything.
Further reading: Getting started with off camera flash
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By Jane Allan
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