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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Four things that most pros are going to do in 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.
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.
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.
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.
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?