Low Light Digital Photography

Low Light Digital Photography

Today’s tutorial on Low Light Digital Photography was submitted by Anthony Peyper.

I tend to like low light photography because of the element of surprise – you never know exactly what you’re going to get – no matter how accurate your guess is, especially with longer exposure times…well for me anyway. Maybe some of you reading this will be better at guessing.

It’s pretty much the same as any other discipline of photography – light being captured on a sensor & the same rules apply. The basics of photography are still very important – lets start with that. The larger the aperture (e.g. f1.8) the faster your shutter speed will be. The higher the ISO the more sensitive to light the sensor becomes & visa verse. This brings us right to the essence of low light photography, longer exposure times, so a tripod is (mostly) essential.


To get increased exposure times (longer shutter speeds) you will need to decrease the aperture (e.g. f22). The smaller the aperture the longer the exposure times become & the more depth of field your images will have. Simple! Just the basic of photography.

I think low light photography is possibly one of the easiest to master, or at least get a good grip of – I know some might disagree, but think of it like this, if you’re experimenting, just about any result is successful…and that is a good place to start.

I think everybody has their own method for low light photography, and this is mine – I guess, experiment, think, take my time & shoot again. Taking light reading when there’s little or no light is hardly easy & it’s usually too dark to see anything, so it’s very important that you know your camera well. Also it’s a good idea to use the timer or a shutter release cable to minimize camera shake.

I usually start by setting my ISO to 100 (or as low as the camera allows, often it’s 200) & my aperture to about f22 or smaller, then depending on the light condition I shoot 3 images – at about 5 sec, 10 sec & 20 sec. This usually gives you a good starting point to work from, often you’re looking at shooting closer to 20 seconds or even longer, again depending on the lightning, or lack there of. But you will be surprised how much light there is that you might not even have noticed. Sometimes in very low light conditions you will need to use the bulb setting on the camera. This allows you to keep the shutter open longer than the camera allows with it’s pre set settings – usually about 30 seconds.

While in Bulb Mode – If you connect a shutter release cable you can keep the shutter open until releasing the cable. If you are using a remote control, press once to open the shutter & again to close. Just remember that the longer the exposure time is, the more digital noise you’re likely to get, specially in the darker areas of your picture.

Something to look out for – sometimes shooting with a tripod attracts attention from the police. Check with your local authorities about rules & regulations for shooting with a tripod. A way to get around this is to not shoot in the city. Sea side shots work really well too, specially just at sunset while there is still a small amount of light. Capturing water moving back & forth over the rocks with an exposure of about 10 seconds, can give very interesting results. Also, experiment with different white balance settings – sometimes this can give you some really interesting results.

If you’re willing to sacrifice space for quality, then shoot in RAW. The quality is far beyond that of JPG, but this is a whole

new subject. If you want to know more about this, let me know & this could be my next topic. I hardly ever shoot in anything other than RAW. I don’t remember hen the last time was that I shot in JPG, but I do remember being disappointed with the quality.

Practice – And lastly, the best advice I can give is to experiment & practice practice practice!!! Get to know your equipment & even read the manual. Don’t be afraid to ask questions & don’t be afraid to take bad pictures. Without bad pictures, how could you possibly recognise your best ones?

Now get out there, turn off the lights & start shooting 🙂

For some samples of my low light pictures, please go to www.peyperphoto.com

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Darren Rowse is the editor and founder of Digital Photography School and SnapnDeals. He lives in Melbourne Australia and is also the editor of the ProBlogger Blog Tips. Follow him on Instagram, on Twitter at @digitalPS or on Google+.

Some Older Comments

  • Girish Joshi May 28, 2012 02:57 pm

    Thanks for the tips.
    Greate information for a new photographer like me.
    I you said, the topic FLASH is almost not available here, the flash guns, speedlites, types, uses etc..
    You should make this as a next topic.
    Again thanks for the above topic.

  • Heather Iles March 30, 2012 10:34 am

    Gosh, how I wish I had your tip last week as I have just come back from Toronto and as there were mostly skyscrapers that was what I took, but if I had your tips earlier my photos would have been better. I used my SLR Olympus camera. I will check out the various attachments for the camera as you suggested and hopefully I will get better results.

    Yes, your offer on the subject of RAW is a good idea. I have an ametuer photographer boy friend who shoots in RAW, but he keeps reminding me that I am not ready for it yet and I would love to prove him wrong, so please can you make it one of your subjects.



  • Tom November 11, 2011 02:54 am

    Frank Düpmann: Low light, wrong gear – never give up!

  • Karen Clemente October 20, 2011 12:52 am

    Thanks for your tips on low lighting. I am shooting in a very dark, haunted house. My challenges are occasional flashing lights and movement from people walking by. I'm going to set up and capture their horror faces as they walk by. I will be using a tripod and a cable release, but I'm not sure how else to capture this moment. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

    Thank you.

  • Rich November 14, 2010 02:49 am

    Thanks for this article. After many years of having nothing more than a point and shoot, I am now getting back into "proper" photography with entry-level DSLR Nikon D5000. Can I ask, in low light situations, why would you set your ISO to 100? Are we talking specifically about landscape or scenery shots because if you're shooting say an indoor event with people, wouldn't you want a high ISO to allow for fast shutter speeds?

    Also, you mentioned RAW being so much more superior to JPEG but there seem to be a lot of articles out there where some "professionals" claim that they never use RAW and the difference in quality between RAW and fine JPEG is hardly noticable.

    Thanks again

  • Stephanie May 3, 2010 07:44 am

    What is the best camera under $500 for concerts indoor?

  • Richard April 22, 2010 11:20 pm

    The thing I have not tried stepping down to f22 because I thought I would get clearer results at f8-11. Next time I go out I am going to try smaller aperture. This picture was 12min and what ever I shoot at night the exposure always works. I just guess and something cool comes out.

  • ayen April 19, 2010 12:33 am

    finally, your article taught me how aperture affects my shooting in low light conditions..have always used the iso and the flash but not satisfied with the results..finally got the shot i want when i tried to increase the f value at 10 or so

  • Lofts Conversions May 13, 2009 09:32 am

    Great article! I used an old Olympus digital camera for night photos c5000. I would attach the camera to a cheap telescope from Lidl and take great pictures of the moon. If anyone interested I have put some on <a href http://photobucket.com/elfinlinknight moon

    Small aperture long exposure!
    Loft Conversions London

  • MattGranz December 31, 2008 06:22 pm

    The one thing I didn't see in the article or in the comments, is that a flashlight (especially a high intensity one) is invaluable for getting your focus right on the subject matter. Infinity can always work for a basic landscape but objects will not autofocus and a manual focus can be a real pain if you have no real ability to see what you are focusing on. Otherwise a great article. By the way, I find that ISO 200
    2-1/2 minute exposure
    25 mm.
    is a great recipe for doing light painting at night.

  • Matt December 25, 2008 01:57 am

    I had a question low light photography. What do you recommend metering off for these types of photos, like say, the example sea photo, what did you meter off of originally?


  • bryan August 1, 2008 12:34 am

    it's a great articles, iam a newbies wait for more new articles from you.

  • Olivia Bell July 18, 2008 10:01 pm

    Landscape, waterscape... anything other than portraits I don't feel comfortable with. This article has really helped me. Thank you :D

  • Jamie March 7, 2008 10:34 pm

    Thanks for the tips. My first outdoor shoot at night once the weather warms up here is going to be at night, so stumbling upon this article is ver timely for me.

  • Nuno March 4, 2008 08:41 pm

    "Simple! Just the basic of photography."
    That's true.
    The basic of photography.

    Nice blog. :)

  • dhanasekar March 1, 2008 02:51 am

    good and i want suggest one thing, yes if i want take picture in low light 'never use zoom lens or tele lens, i used only block wide lens it gives great depth and avoid nois also. And one more important, dont be tens; work with cool.

  • Lou Ann March 1, 2008 12:54 am

    Washington, DC is another city where you technically need to get a permit to use a tripod. Police are inconsistent about enforcing this law. I have used a tripod there without a problem, but only at low-tourist times and only when I am sure to stay out of the way. I have heard of lots of people who have had problems with tripods in DC...

  • My Camera World March 1, 2008 12:11 am

    RAW vs Jpeg

    The Camera Raw format is the direct light data hitting the image sensors with only minimal processing applied (Bayer algorithm). Any changes that are performed to the RAW file through RAW editors add what they call a sidecar file, which records those changes. The RAW file is never changed not matter what you do. You can always go back to the original version and start over.

    Every time you save a jpeg image there is some loss of quality, even if it is to rotate file.

    Camera RAW sensor can depending on the type of camera record 12 or 14 bits of data vs jpeg which only has 8 bit. This only valid if you are doing extensive image enhancement to tones or colours that stretch their original range. In this scenario jpegs may cause banding in colours or msiised tones and should not in RAW unless to extreme.

    Because RAW files have extra data available then normally you are able to recover some blown highlights, but not normally more than 1 stop and even then sometimes one of the colour channels may be clipped a bit if highly saturated colour

    For most camera images the biggest advantage is that eh White Balance (WB) can be set in the RAW editor and is not permanent as with Jpeg image. It is so easy to change the colour tone of your image form warmer to cooler.

    The first image show in blog article how I made the snow more blue.

    The down side is very large files my RAW files are 15MB each whereas my jpeg tend to be about 3-4MB and therefore this eats up memory card space quickly or the hard drive storage.

    Also you need a RAW editor (some are free) and a workflow that allows to maximize the benefits of 16bit workflow like Adobe CS.

    There are even books just devoted to RAW processing.

    Here are a few good technical articles from the web.


    RAW vs Jpeg

    Primer RAW format

    Thom Hogan Quick & Dirty Guide to RAW

    Niels Henriksen

  • Peyper February 29, 2008 09:23 pm

    Hi everybody & thank you for the comments. It's good to see that this was helpful for some of you, and thanks you to those who added a few extra tips like bringing a torch, wearing reflective clothing & using a self timer or mirror lock up - all very important. I'll try answer some questions that you have....
    David - Does your camera not have a cable release made for it? If not, see if there is a remote control (cordless) available for it. Otherwise the timed shutter works just fine...I still often use that method.
    Luca (& all others interested) - I'll do a write up on RAW vs JPG ASAP, and don't worry (Bill) it won't be a wrestling match between the 2 :) I'll stay focussed on the advantages of RAW.
    James - using lowest ISO produces the least amount of digital noise. Sorry if I mislead you, I don't mean that you should always use the highest possible shutter speeds, it all depends on the result you want. Like you say, if you want a lot of motion, light trails etc then shoot at the longer shutter speeds. I personally like to stretch my shutter times more, but that's my preference, again depending on what I want to achieve (Depth of Field, motion, etc). In my sample image, I wanted the to capture the the motion of the water, even though it is not that extreme, I wanted to capture a ghostly mood.
    JJ - it seems like there are a few places, mainly in cities though, where you need a licence of sorts to use a tripod. I know that in the UK (London) due to terrorism acts there have been laws put into place to prevent people photographing near government buildings or possible terrorist targets. I have only read/heard about this, so I am not fully up to scratch with it. I live in Ireland, and have been stopped (on more than one occasion) from taking pictures while using a tripod. I think the Louvre, Paris is another example of where you can't use a tripod for security reasons.
    Tony - this is a different style of low light photography - a whole new set of rules apply here :) A bit like live music photography. You can see some samples on my website too. Basic rules here: 1. Hi Iso (set to auto iso but restrict to max of 800 to prevent too much noise). 2. Fast glass, try getting a lens that can go to an ISO of f2.8. Try not to shoot at speeds lower than 1/60 to reduce blurring, depending on how fast the subject is moving. Just some BASIC rules. Drop me an email if you have more questions. Try the Nikon 50mm F1.8 - great lens that won't break the bank. No zoom range but will give great results.
    Kristarella - best advise is to shoot something in RAW & then play with the options you have in the software you are using. This is really a case of practice makes perfect. What software are you using for RAW processing?
    If I missed any question I am sorry. Please feel free to email me with questions.

  • Debbie February 29, 2008 03:22 pm

    I liked the tip regarding Raw has less noise with low light photography....Thanks

  • richie February 29, 2008 01:35 pm

    Anthony, the links to your web site has an extra set of 'www' in it.

    "... sometimes shooting with a tripod attracts attention from the police." I am new to this site and I have never heard of this before. Where is this a problem?

  • saanva February 29, 2008 12:14 pm

    This is very helpful. Thank you for sharing

  • kristarella February 29, 2008 10:14 am

    Thanks Sean. I'd deduced about as much from reading and research. At this point the problem is that my white balancing and colour adjusting abilities are not as good as the cameras :P (I don't know how to use the software properly!)

  • Lou Ann February 29, 2008 08:14 am

    Thanks, Ash! That makes LOTS of sense! :-)

  • Tony February 29, 2008 07:21 am

    My low-light situations are typically my daughters ballet performances. In those situations, tripods are not practical as they interfere with the others around me. Slow shutter speeds are out of the question unless I'm really trying to capture a blur across the stage. And flash is dangerous to the dancers. So I'm learning to shoot as low (or is it high?) an aperture as I can manage with a reasonably high shutter speed, resulting in darker pictures than I might normally like. But at least they are as clean as ISO 1600 can get on my Nikon D50. Faster glass would help, but I can't afford the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G ED-IF AF-S VR Zoom-Nikkor that would make this so much better. You can guess that I'm very amateur at this.

  • JJ February 29, 2008 06:16 am

    Thanks for the tips. One question though: what country is this, where you are not allowed to use a tripod to take pictures?

  • Laura C February 29, 2008 02:35 am

    I would love for someone who really knows RAW vs. JPEG to explain the real deal between and about the two. So if the writer of this tutorial or someone else could do a tutorial on it, I would be grateful. Good article on low-light too. Makes me want to get out there and shoot.

  • Bill Zaspel February 29, 2008 01:06 am

    I would be extremely interested in more general information about shooting in RAW as well as detailed information regarding workflow in RAW. I have been shooting JPG for almost two years and I am becoming more and more unhappy. I went out yesterday and captured some images during a snow storm yesterday that I hope to rework in Photoshop but I haven't had time to preview them yet. I shot in RAW for the first time because I thought it would be an excellent opportunity to work those images that I knew would be rough due to the dynamic conditions of the weather. Anyway, let's hear what you have to say about using RAW. I don't mean the tired argument about which one is better, and I don't presume that you were going to subject us to that dialogue. I would be more interested in why you like RAW and how your work flow is different.

  • James February 29, 2008 01:06 am

    I'm at a loss to understand WHY you would recommend the lowest ISO and smallest aperture. It's already low light.. you'll already be having long exposures.. Why add to the exposure with small aps and low ISO? (I can see this for cityscapes with moving vehicle lights, etc... but your example photo had no such movement (other than wave action))

  • hfng February 29, 2008 01:05 am

    To even minimize camera shake further you could use mirror lockup.


  • 11thStudio February 28, 2008 09:14 pm

    Great way of working it out working back from ISO 1600!
    Will have to try it,

  • Luca Gervasi February 28, 2008 08:16 pm

    Hallo and thanks for all your advices.

    I usually shot in raw too (anyway, i'm a newbie...), but i don't get any advantage but the white balance, so... please...use the "raw" topic for you next issue...please :D

    Thanks again

  • Ash February 28, 2008 06:19 pm

    Lou Ann - Let's say you meter at f-8 and intend shooting with the same aperture. Take a meter reading at ISO 1600 (or the highest your camera will do)to enable you to get a rough shutter speed setting. Note this shutter speed (in your head), and then for each halving of the ISO speed, double the shutter speed. Therefore, an initial shutter speed of 10 seconds @ ISO 1600 would become (20s @ 800; 40s @ 400; 80s @ 200) 160 seconds back down at ISO 100. This technique works pretty well for me, although I have also had some deviations, but this may have been shoddy metering by me in the first place!!

    Hope this helps.

  • Sean February 28, 2008 11:24 am

    @ kristarella:

    A brief bit about RAW (I know someone will do a better job here later): Your camera does a few things to an image between shooting and saving the file as a JPEG, and it does them in a fraction of a second. Shooting in RAW gives you the option to do some of these on your computer, which can give you a better-looking result. You also get more control over things like exposure, white balance, noise, and a few other corrections you may find helpful, especially with night time shooting.

  • Lou Ann February 28, 2008 09:09 am

    Thanks for a great article. I would actually like to ask Ash about "calculating the time accordingly". Is this a computation that one can do in one's head? I understand stops and the ISO speeds ... so I can't imagine that it would be a real leap to figure out. Clarification would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!

  • kristarella February 28, 2008 08:32 am

    I'd love to know more about RAW! I've read some stuff about it, what it is and that you have more control etc. Hoever, I feel powerless when I shoot in RAW because I have no idea what to do with it. I finally learnt a bunch of tricks for tweaking my JPEG shots, but I don't understand how to process RAW shots at all.

    I only have Ufraw with GIMP at the moment and I read the documentation, but it didn't make any sense to me. :(

  • Ash February 28, 2008 07:33 am

    I have a count-down timer in my camera bag. I carry this because, when shooting low light, you don't want to ruin the image by flashing a torch on your watch, or the cameras timer.

    I meter in the fastest ISO (1600 on my EOS 350D) and widest aperture, and then calculate the time accordingly as I step down to ISO 100 and an appropriate aperture - I rarely go narrower than f-9 in low-light. You can then determine the time by doubling for each f-stop (or ISO stop) that you make. Set the timer. Start it counting down as you open the shutter (in bulb mode), and then close the shutter when it disturbs your peace with it's chirping sound. Invaluable.

    (PS - I support only using RAW for this sort of antic as JPEG's seem to really accentuate noise)

  • Anton Piatek February 28, 2008 05:55 am

    Image didnt embed... See

  • Anton Piatek February 28, 2008 05:54 am

    Things look different with long exposures, the sea being a classic example:

  • Kim S. February 28, 2008 04:09 am

    I went and shot the lunar eclipse the other evening. Each shot I took was done with the timer as my remotes battery had died =^( . the shots came out nice though.

    I don’t think I would suggest for folks to start using RAW until they’ve learned basic photography techniques. Each variable you add to the photography discipline makes it just a bit more difficult to come out with nice looking shots. Start with jpeg. Then move on to RAW later. Like Peyper says it’s a whole new ball of wax.

  • david February 28, 2008 02:26 am

    Great article. I've been trying to do more low light photography because I like the look and feel of the picutres. You mentioned a cable release. My 35mm had a cable release but my digital SLR does not. I usually set the shutter to a 2second delay to make sure I don't get camera shake from pushing the button.

  • AC February 28, 2008 02:12 am

    Great tips. I prefer using a longer exposure - abhor using the flash unless I really have to. Also, since I don't have a remote I use a timer when the camera is on the tripod to eliminate any chance of shaking.

  • feli February 28, 2008 12:53 am

    Thank you for sharing tips on low light photography. I do not like using the flash on my camera (because I am using a semi Pro camera that have some manual functions) and I am interested in Low light photography.


  • My Camera World February 28, 2008 12:53 am

    While normally the sweet spot for lens sharpness is between f11 and f16, in low light especially when there is water of sky movement the higher f-stop will not be much if a problem.

    Do forget to bring you flashlight to see were you are going and sometimes to see the controls on the camera.

    This would also be a good opportunity, if outside the city, to try and paint with light on the surrounded landscape, especially if longer shutter speeds are used.

    In the city do wear reflective clothing as you will probably so focused on the camera that you may not notice cars or other vehicles that haven’t seen you are going to be way to0 close to you.

    Niels Henriksen