How to Shoot in Low Light – 9 Commonly Asked Questions

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This image of Moon Rise over Marietta, Ohio was taken 20 minutes after sunset during the Blue Hour when the sun had set and the sky was a dark blue. Here the city lights make a great warm glow over the city.

According to British photojournalist Donald McCullin, “There is no such thing as bad light, just misunderstood light.” Many photographers consider low light to be bad light. The purpose of this article is to encourage you to not consider low light as inferior or unusable, but rather to look for subjects to photograph that react well to the available light.

Keep in mind that low light photography is not exclusively night photography. Low light photography opportunities may appear any time of the day as well. For instance, shooting waterfalls in low light allows you to shoot with a slow shutter speed, prevents over-exposure of the white water of the falls, and thereby creates a beautiful silky effect capturing the moving water. Using a flash will light up any subject, of course, but let’s take a look at how to improve your photography in naturally occurring low light. Some frequently asked questions about low light photography are addressed below.

Low Light Photography FAQs

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Low light create very dramatic scenes. Dark storm clouds turned this potential sunrise into a great low light opportunity

My low light images are blurry. Would a better lens alleviate the blur?

The short answer to this question is YES, a fast lens with maximum f-stop of 1.8 for instance, will give you better results than a kit lens with a maximum f-stop of 3.5 or 5.6. But even the faster, more expensive lens, will give you undesired results with the wrong settings. The wider aperture opening will allow you to use a faster shutter speed resulting in a sharper image. These lenses with larger maximum apertures are called “fast” because they allow you to shoot with faster shutter speeds, due to more light that is entering your camera through the bigger opening.

What are the best camera settings for shooting in low light?

Manual Mode

Shooting in manual mode is paramount to successful low light photography as it allows you to control every functional aspect of your camera. You basically have three ways to get more light on your camera sensor: Shutter speed, Aperture and ISO. These three controls are called The Exposure Triangle, and each of these can have a positive or negative result to your image’s exposure. Therefore, learning how to use them for the best result is the key to low light photography. Your in-camera light meter will reveal where adjustments should be made to the camera settings, and well-exposed images will be the result.

Shutter Speed

If you are shooting handheld, a good rule of thumb is to set your shutter speed to match your focal length. For example, if you are shooting at 50mm your shutter speed shouldn’t be any slower than 1/50th of a second. Of course, if the subject of your photo is moving, then you will need to increase your shutter speed to be fast enough to freeze the action. Therefore, choosing a slower shutter speed will allow more light into your camera, but with that setting, the possibility of a blurry picture occurs.

Great Blue Heron in Fight was the subject of this low light image. Exposure 1/250 of a second, f/5.6, ISO 1250. Here using the combination of slower shutter speed and a higher ISO to create the blur of the wings and panning to match the speed of the fight of the heron.

Great Blue Heron in fight was the subject of this low light image. Exposure 1/250 of a second, f/5.6, ISO 1250. Using the combination of slower shutter speed and a higher ISO to create the blur of the wings and panning to match the speed of the fight of the heron.

Aperture

In most low light situations you will probably need to shoot with your aperture wide open. But if there is enough light to allow you to shoot with a smaller f-stop, it will increase your depth of field. The principle to consider: choosing a wider aperture will let more light into your camera, but will decrease your depth of field, which could lead to an important portion of your image being out of focus.

ISO

The higher the ISO number the more light your camera will record. The trade-off here is, the higher the ISO, the more digital noise you are adding to your image. Keep your ISO as low as possible and only increase your ISO after you have maxed out your shutter speed and aperture.

Shoot in RAW

For best results, shooting in RAW is recommended, for the simple reason that your camera will save more shadow detail in RAW format compared to the compressed format of jpg.

It is very helpful to learn how to check your histogram, and not just rely of what you see on your camera’s LCD screen. Use the histogram to check your exposure, and avoid clipping the highlights and shadows.

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Using the low light at Huntington Beach California to create this black and white image with a five second exposure.

How do I take low light action shots?

Shooting action in low light can be very challenging and is almost always going to require you to shoot with your aperture at its widest setting. When your aperture is set, then your shutter speed should be adjusted to match the action that you are trying to freeze. Of course, depending on how low of a light situation you are shooting within, there may simply not be enough light. If this is the case, adjust the ISO to a higher setting until a good exposure is set. If your ISO setting is so high that you are getting an unacceptable amount of digital noise, you have two options: either add light with a flash or some other source, or live with the noise and try to remove some of it in post processing. Sometimes with the noise issue, it comes down to getting the shot with noise, or not taking the shot at all.

How do I reduce the digital noise level in low light images?

The simple answer to this question is to shoot at the lowest ISO that you can. But it is also a good idea to know the ISO at which your camera produces noise that you consider unacceptable. Always make sure that your exposure is correct. Even at a low ISO, if your image is underexposed you will have some noise in the shadowed areas.

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An over casted  cloudy day at Blackwater Falls West Virginia allowed for this long exposure without blowing out the highlight.

How do I focus in low light?

Another reason for blurry images in low light is the fact that some cameras just aren’t manufactured to focus properly with less light. Try shining a light on your subject to give your camera enough light to focus. You also may use you manual focus ring to fine-tune your focus. Using the center focus dot may also help as it is usually a cross-point type which focus faster and more accurately than others.

How can I take pro-like images in low light?

Four things that most pros are going to do in low light:

  1. Use a tripod
  2. Shoot in RAW
  3. Shoot in Manual Mode
  4. Use the histogram
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Low light makes great silhouettes.

How do I choose the best white balance for low light?

Set your white balance to match you environment –  Tungsten for indoors with light from a regular lightbulb, Fluorescent for light from fluorescent bulbs, Cloudy for low light created by an overcast day, and Shade for shooting in a shaded or shadowy area. But, one thing to remember if you are shooting in RAW format is that you can adjust your white balance later in post-processing. But if you are shooting JPGs it is very important to get your white balance correct in-camera. For this reason you should not shoot Auto white balance, it’s very hard, sometimes impossible, to correct later from a JPG.

Should I raise my ISO or lower my shutter speed in low-light?

Assuming that you are shooting with your aperture wide open, in most situations this is an easy one to answer. Adjust your shutter speed and raise your ISO as a last resort. Remember that raising your ISO is going to add more noise into the image. Most new DSLRs do a much better job with the noise levels in their higher ISO settings, but as mentioned earlier, it is a good idea to know at what noise level you are unwilling to accept, and what ISO that is for your camera. In situations where your subject is moving, it may become necessary to adjust the ISO to keep your shutter speed fast enough to freeze the action.

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Fog created the low light in this fall image.

Why aren’t my low light shots sharp even when I shoot using a tripod?

Remember in most low light you will be shooting with your aperture wide open (or nearly so), hence your depth of field will be very shallow. Be extra careful to lock your focus (even try back-button focus) on the part of your image that needs to be in sharp focus. Case in point: when shooting a low light portrait, it is important to have the subject’s eyes in focus. If your subject is in motion, increase your shutter speed until it freezes the motion of the image. Also, make sure your camera’s vibration reduction is turned off, as this can actually create blur in your image even if shooting with a tripod.

Bonus tip

In low light the LCD screen on the back of your camera is going to look much brighter than the actual conditions. So, if your camera has an adjustment for the brightness of your LCD screen, turn it down so that your image will not appear to be overly bright when you view it, even if it is underexposed.

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Conclusion

The trick to low light photography is to take control of your camera, and know that every action or setting will have a reaction. So, how is that different than photography in any light? It’s not, really. Just consider photography in low light as an opportunity to be creative. What subjects do you like to shoot in low light?

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Bruce Wunderlich is a photographer from Marietta, Ohio. He became interested in photography as a teenager in the 1970s, and has been a passionate student of the art ever since. Bruce recently won Photographer’s Choice award at the 2014 Shoot the Hills Photography Competition in the Hocking Hills near Logan, Ohio. He has also instructed local classes in basic digital photography. Check out Bruce’s photos at Flickr

  • Drew

    Good article but I now take exception to always shooting in Raw.

    This past weekend I read a great article specific to my camera, Canon 7d, which reminded me that in certain low light situations, the 7d jpeg setting often handles noise better than raw. After several test shots, I saw this to be true and am no longer afraid of the jpeg setting. Sure, with a lot of work you could probably replicate the raw results, but maybe you should at least take a raw + jpeg shot.

  • Frode

    This is because RAW doesn’t filter the noise out at all. With RAW you have to choose how much noise to filter out in your RAW processing software on your computer, and that should be a standard part of your workflow. In Lightroom you can actually reconfigure the default noise reduction applied on import per ISO, so it’s set to the level you prefer (potentially matching the JPEG if you like), but you can still change the noise reduction to less or more afterwards depending on what you prefer. That’s the beauty of raw – you can select a noise reduction level that fits the subject, rather than a value that’s locked by the manufacturer. Sometimes you may want more detail (and more noise) in an image than the JPEG setting gives you, and RAW has that flexibility.

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  • Tim Lowe

    Nice article and well illustrated. That last bit about sharpness: If you are using a tripod, why the bias toward shooting wide open? A tripod gives you two luxuries. Shooting lower ISO for better image quality and the ability to select exposure times to match whatever aperture the scene calls for.

    Again, good article.

  • Rick Boothman

    Another tip which can help when using your camera hand-held in low light: set your camera for multiple images and fire at least three. Chances are the blurriness from hand-shake will be less in the middle shot.

  • David Andrews

    If you are shooting landscapes or stills at low light, you can underexpose about 1 – 11/2 stops and shoot multiple images. in the lab, merge 2 or more photos in the add mode. this will reduce the grain effect of high ISO Shooting.

  • Paul Harris

    Great article!
    This was shot just after dawn in a Civil War reenactment in sharpsburg, Maaryland

  • There’s a typo under the heron photo.

    “Great Blue Heron in fight” should be “flight” instead.

  • Bob Bevan Smith

    Also, the caption is misleading. It is the shutter speed alone that determines the blur of the wings, and the panning to keep the subject’s eye sharp and in focus. The ISO and Aperture are consequences of that choice – a lower ISO would simply require a wider aperture, which may not have been available on a long focal length lens.

  • Bruce Wunderlich

    go catch

  • Silvina Zitto

    Great article! I love to photograph water in low light conditions and the sky… 🙂

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