A Guide to Shooting Outdoors in Low Light Conditions

A Guide to Shooting Outdoors in Low Light Conditions

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Shooting in low light, as with many other forms of photography, requires a bit of thought beforehand in order to get the most from the time you have. First and foremost will be making sure you have the right equipment with you.

Besides your camera and lenses, the top of the list of things you will need will be a tripod – the sturdier the better as exposures can get up to 30 seconds and sometimes even longer which is where even the slightest vibration or movement of the camera can ruin a shot.

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Other items that you can get by without but if you have them will be very helpful include:

  • Remote release – these come in many forms including infra-red/wired/wireless. I’ve used all of them at some point or another and would now always opt for a wireless trigger. They can be inexpensive and give you a good mix of reliability and range. There are now also apps that you can use on your smartphone with a suitable cable that act as a release and can offer some great features above and beyond being a simple trigger, one I’ve used that is worth a look is called TriggerTrap
  • A torch – trying to get your camera to autofocus in very low light can be a right headache at times, shining a torch on your desired area of focus will allow it to lock on quickly (but remember to switch to manual focus when it has!) It is also useful for changing settings on camera and just generally seeing your way around!
  • ND Grad filters – by no means essential, but if still a bit of colour in the sky these can be helpful to ensure things in foreground are correctly exposed, particularly if already in shadow when beginning to shoot.
  • Warm clothes! Depending on where you are in the world, it can get very cold very quickly as it goes dark, nothing worse than standing round shivering as your 60 second exposure ticks very slowly by!

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Personal safety is also very important to mention if you are out to shoot in limited light conditions. Ideally take someone along with you, not least to give you someone to talk to as it can get very boring waiting for long exposures to finish, or at least tell someone where you plan to go and what time you expect to return. Carry a mobile phone and try not to make it obvious you have valuable equipment with you where possible.

You will probably already have locations in mind that are suitable for low light photography. I tend to find that cities offer the best opportunities and will set out with the intention of shooting specific buildings from various viewpoints and then improvise as the night progresses and other things present themselves.

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Artificial lighting can greatly enhance a dark scene and if you use a narrow aperture, f/16 for example, you should capture lights with a starburst effect to add some drama to the image.

Once you have found the composition you like the look of, set your tripod up ensuring it’s not in the way of others. If it has a bag hook as some do then hang your camera bag from it to give you a bit more stability.

Compose the scene in your viewfinder and use the torch as mentioned if needed to focus, then switch to manual focus which will stop the lens from ‘focus hunting’.

At this point I will wait for any moving light sources such as vehicles to leave the composition so I can check the settings selected by the camera before then plugging these into the cameras manual mode to ensure they do not change when shutter is triggered.

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If the scene is very dark, it may be the case that your camera cannot meter it sufficiently well to give a correct exposure (DSLR’s generally will not automatically select an exposure longer than 30 seconds).

If this is the case you will need to go into manual mode, choose your aperture, then select the cameras ‘Bulb’ mode which will open the shutter when you use the remote release and keep it open until you press it again. This is where guesswork comes into it, you will need to try out some exposure times until the image is sufficiently exposed and use the histogram on back of camera to give you some idea of how far under/over your exposure is.

Longer exposures can also produce ‘noise’ within an image. Similar to when using higher ISO’s to reduce this most DSLR’s will have some sort of ‘long exposure noise reduction’ setting somewhere within the menu system. If you turn this on when you have taken your image, the camera will then close the shutter and take a similar length exposure. You won’t see this second exposure and it doesn’t get saved to your memory card, but the camera will use it to subtract any hot pixels showing from your original image which can greatly reduce noise. The only problem is that this can get annoying though as every exposure will then take double the time to capture!

White balance can be tricky in low light with all kinds of artificial light spilling across your scene. For this reason I would suggest shooting in RAW to give you the flexibility to adjust this later, plus it will capture more detail in the image which can sometimes be an issue in very dark areas.

Don’t let rain put you off either, wet surfaces can look brilliant as light bounces off them!

And if you are feeling really creative, timelapse sequences can look fantastic as the light slowly disappears. This clip was made from about 140 photographs taken on Tower Bridge in London.

Now just grab your coat and get out there! I’d love to see what you get if you’d like to share some links in the comments below.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

James Farley is a semi professional photographer in the UK covering a wide range of genres, recently including wedding photography, and a self confessed ‘kit geek’. More of his work can be found on Facebook and at www.jamesfarley.co.uk.

Some Older Comments

  • Tessa July 1, 2013 01:59 pm

    Perhaps you should take your own advice, Bill. I have apologised and clarified my case already.

  • Fernando July 1, 2013 10:54 am

    I totally agree with Kurt, regarding Tessa opinion.
    But I want to add that the article does not have grammar mistakes at all.

  • Stacie Jensen June 30, 2013 09:01 am

    I really loved the article. I think the photos are incredible and it did exactly what I wanted it to do, get me headed out to rock some night shots. You did beautiful and I thought was explained nicely!

  • Bill June 29, 2013 07:28 am

    Well tessa looks like you may have gotten a lesson in humanity. a quote by Abe Lincoln: It is better to remain silent and thought a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.

  • Jo June 28, 2013 10:06 am

    Hi, I am enjoying your tips and weekly email as I am new to photography learning all the new lingo. I love your sample photos but would really love if you could put what settings you used to take the shot.

  • Allen June 28, 2013 07:02 am

    Sometimes I find this site rather annoying but never the less a great article. There are a few bits that I can add into the mix that some people might find helpful. Firstly and obviously with long exposures any movement will simply turn out as a blur. This includes people who obviously are not sitting perfectly still for the entire length of your exposure time. Trees with leaves and also flags and bunting or anything else that will flap around in the breeze will similarly become a blur in your image.
    Orange glow in the lighting is from maybe the wrong white balance setting and one can always change the setting and try again, sometimes we might think that the lights are tungsten when in actual fact they are not and are actually mercury vapour or fluro so just play around with the settings and see what happens. I am not big on rushing back to the computer to play around in "photoshop" as most problems can be worked out in camera. Sometimes the "Orange" glow gives a better effect than some cold bluish hue from a different white balance setting. Just play around with the exposure times try longer and try shorter try auto white balance and don't be afraid to shoot maybe 100 images and then simply delete the lot and try again another night. It is all just good fun and a bit of excitement. Strong white lights can be a pain as well and cause a "White-Out" in one part of your image so turn around and shoot in a different direction and from a different spot and simply see what happens. If you are really serious then take notes and write stuff down if it helps if not then don't worry about it just enjoy the exercise if nothing is working out well.

  • Rob Gipman June 28, 2013 06:11 am

    Been doing this a few times now while living in a new place.

    Just at night http://www.flickr.com/photos/gipukan/7648455990/
    and when the snow came http://www.flickr.com/photos/gipukan/8400901919/

    P.s. Bring your tripod!

  • corinna June 28, 2013 04:59 am

    Re security: When I go out shooting at night, being female, I wear -- in winter -- a wide-shouldered coat of my husand, a wide-rimmed hat and try to walk like a man. Makes me feel secure. ;-)))))

  • Richard Buck June 28, 2013 03:23 am

    How can I shoot available light (Tungstan) and elominate the strong red exposure.
    What are good settings, ISO, shutter speed, and apeture. I'm using a Canon 5D.

    Regards

    R. Buck

  • Henk June 28, 2013 03:00 am

    Great tips, thanks a lot Darren. I'm always looking forward to your articles, 'cause you explain it in such easy understandable language. Thanks again & keep the great work going!

  • Peter June 28, 2013 02:39 am

    The trouble with people when you use long exposures and no flash is that they move (apparently in London they never stop moving - dunno how true that is), so they can just disappear themselves from the scene. The ice rink one is only 2 seconds and you can see loads of people and the effect it has - a couple of skaters seem to have disappeared themselves for example.

  • Rachel June 28, 2013 02:19 am

    Thanks for this. I for one found it really easy to follow and some of the tips, particularly the use of the flashlight, I had never thought of before.

    Perhaps those who had trouble understanding don't know some of the terms? E.g. "torch" = flashlight, and maybe they didn't understand some of the photography terms.

  • Geoff Naylor June 28, 2013 02:10 am

    The problem I have with urban night photography is the lack of people; even in the middle of a busy city like London (one or two of the photo's are of Tower Bridge in London). This always creates a strange 'after-the-triffids' atmosphere with lot's of lights, plenty of impressive buildings, but empty streets.
    What happened to 'the city that never sleeps' image..? Tramps in doorways. Foxes!
    This isn't a criticism, just a personal observation.

  • Frank June 28, 2013 01:43 am

    I really liked this article. I think it was easy to follow and laid out in a logical and organized manner. I've been shooting landscapes / low light photography for about a year now and have found these tips on my own along the way. This is a great single source of free information for anyone to use.

    Thanks for the great article!

    You can see some of my work at http://frank-gomez.squarespcace.com

  • Tessa June 27, 2013 09:30 am

    Thanks david, bobby and DavidR for the support. :)

    I am a native speaker of Australian English, which is closer to British English than to American English. But yes, they are all different!

    I was albe to re-read the article several times to understand it better. But my point was that there were a lot of grammatical errors and run-on sentences that, if edited, could greatly enhance the article's comprehension.

    Thanks to everyone who was civil!

    Tessa

  • James Farley June 26, 2013 04:57 am

    Tessa - don't worry about it, everyone has their preferred style of article!

    If there was anything in particular that you wanted to know about that is not in the post, or that you feel I didn't cover particularly well, just say here and sure I can follow it up to help.

    James

  • John June 26, 2013 02:18 am

    Great article will be heading out to have a go this weekend

  • DavidR June 26, 2013 02:16 am

    I agree with Tessa, and am disappointed to see people lambasting her: the article does indeed have dozens of glaring grammatical errors. I could follow it, and I think the content was good, so I appreciate what James has put here. I don't want to sound rude of course, but yes, the article needs a lot of editing. Either way, thank you James for sharing some great tips here!

  • Bobby June 25, 2013 03:44 pm

    Tessa, I understood your point; I can't imagine that this article was edited...which I think is fine. Unless it is a distinctly British style, almost every sentence is a run-on and should be broken into two or three more- succinct ones. They were also confusing to me until I re-read them a second time more slowly.

    Tessa - perhaps you can point out some specific topics, or paragraphs, which were difficult for you to follow, and we can help clarify for you.

    And to the people like Kurt, who use the "maybe English isn't your language" argument, it is important to note that British English (which the author uses) has several rules, structures, and grammar laws that contradict with American English. So, please don't use the general term "English" in a criticism. That's just two cents from this Secondary (American) English language teacher.

  • Lyndel June 25, 2013 03:18 pm

    Good article with helpful tips - thank you James.

  • David June 25, 2013 02:42 pm

    I agree Tessa, I found it difficult to read but informative nevertheless. And Kurt your comment speaks for itself. Thanks James for the post.

  • Ash June 25, 2013 11:51 am

    Nice article ! I love night photography. I prefer leaving camera's in-built noise reduction on as it's the best way to reduce the noise. The other thing which I have realized is it's always good to use a lens with odd number of blades, this result in getting a real nice star. Also, one should know when diffraction might creep in their lens before going to very small aperture values (f/16, f/22, etc) and ruin the crispness of the shot.
    I have been shooting lot of skylines: NYC, Pittsburgh, Boston, Phoenix, LA, San Diego etc. You can see them at my website : www.agphotowerks.com.

  • Tessa June 25, 2013 06:33 am

    Thanks Kurt for the name-calling. Ad hominem always works in a discussion (sarcasm).

    Sorry if I came off a bit harsh. I genuinely had trouble following and was hoping to make a constructive comment. Upon re-reading, I see that I didn't come across very well. Sorry James, didn't mean to be harsh. I was just frustrated because I genuinely wanted to learn and found this hard to follow. I see I'm in the minority!

  • Kurt Hektek June 25, 2013 04:34 am

    Tessa I think you are a pretentious knob or maybe English isn't your native language! Very good article, well laid out points, great advice for beginners like me, thank you James for the free information.

  • James Farley June 25, 2013 04:12 am

    Thanks for the comments all, both good and bad!

    Didn't think to include that Mark, so here goes from top down......

    1. Tower Bridge - Nikon D7000, ISO 100, 10mm, f/7.1, 8.4 seconds
    2. Museum of Liverpool - Nikon D7000, ISO 100, 10mm, f/5.0, 1.2 seconds
    3. Somerset House - Nikon D7000, ISO 100, 12mm, f/6.3, 2 seconds
    4. Tower Bridge - Nikon D7000, ISO 100, 10mm, f/7.1, 14 seconds
    5. Millennium Bridge - Nikon D7000, ISO 100, 10mm, f/4.5, 4 seconds

  • Mary Kay June 24, 2013 11:59 pm

    Oh please, Tessa! So there's a little grammatical error here and there. I thank the author for his easy to follow tips. I am much more concerned with his content than a dangling participle. You should be ashamed of yourself and your over- dramatization! If you are not able to understand this, the problem lies with you. The rest of us appreciate his work.

  • Mark June 24, 2013 07:36 pm

    Quick suggestion - can article writers supply some basic EXIF where possible when adding shots to the article as this can be helpful for readers learning the trade and give them a starting point for their own attempts. ISO, shutter, aperture, and focal length should be enough.

  • ScottC June 22, 2013 09:52 pm

    Nice article. I am a big fan of the last point, shooting during or after a rain shower can really have a great effect.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/4274818672/

  • Woody June 22, 2013 01:03 pm

    Well Tessa, I think you're being a bit tough. I thought it was a well constructed article, setting out all the necessary tips that I usually use for night photography. I don't know where the grammatical errors were, maybe an odd one or two, but that does not detract from the story. Thanks James, good stuff.

  • Gregg Lowrimore June 22, 2013 09:07 am

    Good article on the basics of low-light/nighttime photography. I too venture into this realm once in a while. Most recently, I spent the evening shooting the San Diego Skyline from the shores of Coronado Island. Check out some of my results at my web site and tell me what you think.

    Thanks for sharing!
    greggl

  • JvW June 22, 2013 06:44 am

    Have you ever tried back button focusing instead of switching to manual focus after focusing with the shutter release?
    Back button focusing transfers the focus function from the shutter release to a button on the back of the camera, on Canon to 'AF-ON' if yours has that button, otherwise to '*' AE-lock. Nikon has similar options. Check your manual or google it.
    That way you focus using the back button and just leave it there until you want to change focus again, instead of flipping the AF/Manual switch.
    Some people love the function, others have no use for it, that's personal, but it can be handy to know just in case.

  • Tessa Needham June 22, 2013 03:08 am

    I tried really hard to follow this post, but found that incredibly difficult. Does anyone edit these guest posts? The writing is terrible and numerous grammatical errors made it incomprehensible. If anyone can decipher the tips hidden within, please share!