How to Shoot in Low-Light Conditions Without Using Flash

0Comments

Photography is all about capturing the subject beautifully in the available light. Sometimes as a photographer you have more than optimum light (e.g., bright sunlight, halogens, etc.) to work with while some other times you have to work in suboptimal or low-light conditions. If you are not a pro photographer then it is always a great challenge, and sometimes it’s a nightmare, to capture great shots in low-light conditions.

Aperture 1

Exposure info: f/1.8, 1/50th at ISO 3200

In order to face the challenges that low-light conditions come with, I will be sharing five techniques that you can use to capture your subjects, effectively. For better understanding, I have divided these techniques into two categories: technical and non-technical considerations.

Technical considerations

  • Use of high ISO
  • Use of large aperture
  • Use of slow shutter speed

Non-technical considerations

  • Capture image(s) in raw format
  • Use of remote shutter and a tripod

Use of high ISO

ISO is the sensitivity of your camera (sensor) towards available light. It is measured in numbers (for example 80, 100, 200, 400 etc.) The higher the number, the greater the sensitivity of your camera is towards light and thus, more light can be captured.

The amount of light captured is directly proportional to the selected ISO. In other words, at ISO 200 you can capture double the light than you can at ISO 100. Similarly, at ISO 800 you can capture 8 times more light than at ISO 100. Thus, in low-light conditions, you should use a higher ISO in order to capture your subject effectively.

Iso 2

Exposure info: f/3.2, 1/5th at ISO 1600

Limitations of using a high ISO

As it also impacts the image quality that your camera (sensor) produces, ISO comes with its own limitations. By image quality, I mean, the ability of your camera to produce noise (grain). At a higher ISO your camera will always produce more noise (grain) than at a lower ISO. So, you will have to test and check what the ideal ISO setting is (for your camera) at which you can capture your subject with optimum light, along with maintaining good image quality.

NOTE: ISO is a feature of the camera and not the lens that you are using.

Iso 1

Exposure info: f/5, 1/125th at ISO 2500

Use of large aperture

Aperture is the opening (eye or hole) in the lens, through which light enters into the camera. Aperture size is also represented in numbers (for e.g., f/1.4, f/1.8, f/2.2, f/2.8, etc). The smaller the number, the wider the opening is and thus, more light can be captured.

The amount of light captured is inversely proportional to the square of the selected aperture. Say, for a lens with aperture values of f/1.4, f/1.8, f/2.2, f/2.8, f/3.3, f/4.0 etc., the amount of light captured at f/1.4 will be double the light than at aperture f/2.0. Similarly, at f/1.4 you can capture 8 times more light than at f/4.0. Thus, in low-light conditions, you should use a larger aperture (smaller value) in order to capture your subject effectively.

Aperture 2

Exposure info: f/1.8, 1/5th at ISO 400

Limitations of using a large aperture

As it also impacts the depth of field (sharpness or clear visibility) of the subject in your image, aperture comes with its own limitations. By depth of field, I mean, the ability of your lens to keep the subject in focus.

Generally, using a small aperture (higher f/number) you will be able to keep your entire subject in focus which is not possible using a large aperture (lower f/number). Again, you will have to test and check what the ideal aperture size is at which you can capture your subject with optimum light, keeping it in focus.

NOTE: Aperture is a feature of the lens and not the camera that you are using.

Use of slow shutter speed

Shutter speed, also known as camera exposure, is the length of time a camera shutter remains open in order to capture the light. Shutter speed is also represented in numbers (for e.g. 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/16, 1/32, 1/64, 1/125, 1/250, etc.) The higher the number, the longer the camera shutter remains open and thus, more light can be captured.

The amount of light captured is inversely proportional to the selected shutter speed (meaning the faster the shutter speed, the less light entering the camera). For a camera with shutter speed values of 1/4, 1/8, 1/16, 1/32, 1/64, 1/125 etc., the light captured at 1/2 second is double the amount of light than that at a speed of 1/4 second. Similarly, at a shutter speed of 1/2 you can capture 8 times more light than at a shutter speed of 1/16th. Thus, in low-light conditions, you should use a slower shutter speed in order to capture your subject effectively.

Shutter speed 2

Exposure info: f/3.2, 1 second at ISO 400

Limitations of using a slow shutter speed

As it also impacts the motion or movement of your subject, shutter speed comes with limitations. If you want to freeze the motion of your subject then you should use a higher shutter speed (e.g., 1/250, 1/500, 1/1000, etc.) While if you want to capture your subject with a motion blur then you should use a slower shutter speed (e.g., 1/8, 1/4, ½, etc.) Once again, you will have to test and check what the ideal shutter speed is at which you can capture your subject with optimum light, freezing or blurring its motion.

Shutter speed 1

Exposure info: f/10, for 8 seconds at ISO 200

NOTE: Shutter speed is a feature of the camera and not the lens that you are using.

Capture images in Raw format

A Raw image captures much more detail and information about the subject that you are shooting than a JPEG file. You get the luxury of improving the exposure, color, sharpness, etc., of the subject (using an editing software like Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom) while still preserving all the detail of the subject which is usually not possible while editing a JPEG file.

Raw 1 1

Exposure: f/3.2, 1/5th at ISO 400, before editing

Raw 2

Exposure: f/3.2, 1/5th at ISO 400, after editing

Note: the editing has been taken overly far just to show you the amount of detail in the Raw file.

Limitations of capturing images in raw format

  • Not all cameras can produce images in Raw format. Only selected higher-end cameras can. Most SLRs and Mirrorless camera can shoot Raw format as well as a few point and shoot models (check your manual if you are unsure, look for file formats)
  • Size of a Raw image is usually 4-5 times larger than the JPEG file that the camera produces. Thus, you will need more space for storing these images.
  • Only a handful of software can read and recognize Raw format files. Thus, you need specialized software (like Adobe Photoshop, Lightroom, etc.) to edit these images.
Raw 1

Exposure: f/2, 160th at ISO 2200

NOTE: I believe that capturing images in raw format comes with more advantages than disadvantages and that it is always better to shoot in Raw format.

Use of remote shutter release and a tripod

If you want to capture a stationary or slow moving subject in low-light conditions then it is always better to do so using a remote shutter release and a tripod. This will help you avoid possible camera shake and you will have a greater chance of capturing your subject, effectively.

NOTE: While most of the cameras can be mounted on a tripod, a smaller fraction of them can be used syncing with a remote shutter.

Conclusion

I have discussed in this article five techniques which you can use in order to take great photographs in low-light conditions. These techniques are: use of higher ISO, use of larger aperture, use of slower shutter speed, capturing images in Raw format and use of a remote shutter and a tripod. Almost all these techniques come with limitations, but they are also very effective, if tested properly for the camera and lens combination that you are using.

Which particular technique do you use for taking those challenging shots in low-light conditions? Did I miss any other technique which can be equally effective? I would love to have your thoughts regarding this issue.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Anshul Sukhwal is the founder of ClicksToRemember and blogs here. He lives in Bangalore, India and loves shooting candid photographs for weddings. He has won Best Photographer of the Year award on Pixoto. He is also very good at fine-arts, nature, wildlife, architecture, hotel, product, journalism, and travel photography.

  • Bernie Gellman

    Can you download the software from some place?

  • Well Bernie, there must be some place but I haven’t tried searching for one. One of the main reasons is that I am happy using Adobe CS5.

    What are your suggestions about using the camera software for editing? Did you find it useful? Is it so good that one can consider using the same instead of Photoshop and Lightroom?

    If you have strong reasons/recommendation then I will surely try to get it and use in my future “editing sessions”. πŸ™‚

  • Bernie Gellman

    When I got my camera (I use photoshop CS6) it was not upgraded to the new raw, so I used 2 things, I converted to DNG, or used the camera software and saved as a TIF, until the update was installed. But my main editing was in Photoshop.

  • Thanks a lot for sharing your views, Bernie.

    So, I can safely conclude that the camera software are useful (sometimes) but cannot (and obviously cannot) replace Photoshop. πŸ™‚

  • Bernie Gellman

    Correct.

  • Jessica

    Great to know that I’m on the right track when taking photos at my work events that generally run at night. Thanks for the article!

  • Jessica, I am happy to learn that you found the article useful and that you are following all the necessary settings required to take great photos in low-light conditions. πŸ™‚

  • Kathy Sandlin

    Think you should re read your info on shutter speeds!

  • Brendan Foley

    Thanks for this! Is there an editing software that can read raw images that doesn’t take a phD or multiple classes to learn quickly? I work and volunteer a lot, and cannot invest months to learn.

  • Brendan, I particularly found both Lightroom and Adobe Photoshoot as very good software that can read and edit images in raw format. They are pretty easy to learn as well. Give them a try. πŸ™‚

  • Kathy, can you please share where the doubt comes in? Thanks.

  • Tell us what you mean by this please?

  • Obi Jacob

    I’m sure Kathy is talking about you referring to the larger number the more light. Kathy thinking of course larger number 1/1000 rather than 1/2 a simple error for those not familiar with fractions in everyday use. ” like me” . Maybe Kathy noticed something other than this suggestion. Cheers

  • Thanks so much for your inputs, Jacob. Yes, she must have mistaken the information over here.

  • Mangesh Yadav
  • The images came up very well, Mangesh. You have used the ISO intelligently. You increased it to such a level that the amount of light increased without adding much noise to the image. A superb effort. Wish to see many more images in future. All the Best.

  • Mangesh Yadav

    Thanks Anshul,

    ISO isnt bad. Just need to know how much is enough. I had to keep shutter speed 1/60 or 1/40 as the kids were moving around. Also I have Canon 7D mark ii and used HS mode for multiple shots I was able to capture 10 frames per second.

  • Mangesh, these were the nice settings (high iso, decent shutter speed and use of HS mode) for shooting these photos. Well, I highly rely on “snapsort” website to learn about a usable iso for a particular camera.

    On “snapsort” you can compare any two given camera and understand the main differences between them. Here is an example where I am comparing 7D Mark II with Nikon D750: http://snapsort.com/compare/Canon-EOS-7D-Mark-II-vs-Nikon-D750/detailed

    You can see that Nikpn D750 can produce fantastic images (with very less noise) even at an ISO of ~3000 whereas 7D Mark II can produce images with less noise only till 1000 ISO.

    As per my previous experiences, you can multiple ISO values as suggested on this page to 1.30 and you will still get beautiful results. That said: practically, you can get very good images even at an ISO of 1300 (1000*1.3 = 1300) on your 7D Mark II. Beyond this ISO, the photo quality will start deteriorating.

    Similarly, you can check the best usable ISO for any other camera.

    Hope this helps.

    Anshul
    http://www.clickstoremember.com

Join Our Email Newsletter

Thanks for subscribing!


DPS offers a free weekly newsletter with: 
1. new photography tutorials and tips
2. latest photography assignments
3. photo competitions and prizes

Enter your email below to subscribe.
Email:
 
 
Get DAILY free tips, news and reviews via our RSS feed