Tips for Better Results When Shooting in Low Light Conditions

Tips for Better Results When Shooting in Low Light Conditions

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Shooting in low light conditions can result in beautiful photographs. But it also presents plenty of technical challenges for you as a photographer to overcome.

noodles in a person's hands - Tips for Better Results When Shooting in Low Light Conditions

The main issues with doing low light photography are:

  • You may not be able to use a shutter speed fast enough to hand hold your camera without creating camera shake.
  • If you use a high ISO, your photos can be very noisy.
  • Shooting at a wider aperture might not give you the depth-of-field you need to get enough of the subject in focus.
  • Your pictures can be underexposed and lack shadow detail.
  • It may be difficult for your lens to focus in low light.

Working with a tripod can greatly reduce some of these technical difficulties, but what about situations where shooting handheld is usually a necessity, like street photography? Or in places where a tripod may be prohibited, like a restaurant or museum?

There are ways to take control of your camera to ensure you get the most out of these challenging situations.

urban street scene high viewpoint - Tips for Better Results When Shooting in Low Light Conditions

Tip #1 – Use a Prime Lens

There is no denying that zoom lenses are convenient, but choosing a prime over a zoom lens can ensure that your images will be that much sharper.

Zoom lenses are constructed with extra glass elements that move in order to zoom. More elements within the lens contribute to lens diffraction, a phenomenon of optical physics that degrades the quality of an image. Lens diffraction is why a generic prime lens can often be sharper than a much pricier zoom counterpart.

2 images of a tree and leaves - Tips for Better Results When Shooting in Low Light Conditions

Shot with an 85mm prime lens.

Tip #2 – Use Shutter Priority

We’re taught that the best way to get great photos is to always shoot in Manual Mode, but sometimes this isn’t the case. In low light photography, shooting in shutter priority mode will help you take better control of your camera.

Shutter Priority mode lets you set the ISO and shutter speed, while the camera will calculate the best aperture for the lighting conditions in which you’re working.

The shutter speed needs to be fast enough to prevent camera shake. Your settings will vary, depending on your focal length and the size of your camera’s sensor. A good approach is to start with the same number (as a fraction) as your focal length for a full frame camera, and then add a stop (double it).

For example, if you are shooting with a 50mm on a full frame camera, try 1/100th of a second and check your results. For a cropped sensor, double your focal length number and add a stop (so 50mm x 2 = 100 x 2 = 200 so 1/200th).

Keep in mind that this is only a guideline. It’s to be used as a quick baseline from which to start. Your camera, the lens you’re using, and the environment you’re shooting in are all factors that will influence your end result.

Tip #3 – Use a High ISO

Tips for Better Results When Shooting in Low Light Conditions - tree with pink lights in it

Your images can be very noisy at a high ISO. Some cameras handle high ISO settings better than others, but the vast majority of DSLRs (and mirrorless cameras) these days have good ISO capabilities. At least good enough to give you a decent base file for post-processing.

Lightroom and Photoshop can fix noise effectively, but the best results can be had with a program called Dfine from DxO’s Nik Collection. (Note: Once available for free, this plug-in can now be purchased with the entire Nik Collection from DxO).

The software measures select areas of your image for noise and adjusts it automatically. You can also take control and selectively increase and decrease noise reduction intensity and type in different parts of the image.

Before beginning to shoot in low light, I recommend doing an ISO test to determine how far you can push it with your camera. Run a few images through your post-processing program of choice and analyze the results. If you need to do a lot of noise reduction, your images might end up looking too plastic.

Tip #4 – Use Back Button Focus

Many of us rely on autofocus these days, especially if we have less than 20/20 vision. Both autofocus and manual focus have their pros and cons.

For example, when using autofocus, it’s very easy for the camera to miss focus at wider apertures. Also, when a scene lacks contrast, which is often the case in low lighting scenarios, the lens may struggle to find focus. You can remedy this by focusing on the edge of a brighter spot in your frame and then recomposing.

Tips for Better Results When Shooting in Low Light Conditions - images show in low light with back button focus

You’ll need to use focus lock, or back button focus so your camera doesn’t attempt to refocus once you try to recompose. Back button focus moves the trigger for focusing from the shutter button to the back of your camera. When your focus is not set with the shutter button, your camera will not attempt to refocus when you take a shot.

I always have my camera set to back button focusing, whether I am shooting in low light or not.

Low Light Portraits

If you need to shoot portraits in low light without a tripod, try image stabilization if your lens offers this technology. Image stabilization counteracts any minor vibration due to shaky hands.

An image stabilizer can help you shoot at a slower shutter speed that you ordinarily would with a lens that doesn’t have this function.

When shooting portraits, shoot at the lowest (widest) aperture possible. It will give you a narrower depth of field, which will help you blur out a busy background by letting it fall out of focus. If possible, use a reflector to bounce some light onto your subject’s face.

Tips for Better Results When Shooting in Low Light Conditions - portrait in low light

This child portrait above was shot handheld, very late in the day, without a reflector. Despite using some of the tips outlined here, it still was underexposed. I was able to bring some brightness back by using Curves in Photoshop and lightened the right side of her face a bit to counter some of the dreaded raccoon-eyes you often get with low light portraits.

Post-processing can go along way toward counteracting some of the problems encountered in low light photography, but trying to get things as perfect as you can in-camera, will save you a lot of time and headaches later.

Low Light Landscapes

Shooting at the golden hour or blue hour, when the light is low, is an ideal time to shoot landscapes. But it also presents the same challenges. In this case, a good, sturdy tripod is essential.

Also, you’ll need a shutter release. Manually depressing the shutter button will cause a vibration that will introduce camera shake and cause your images to be less than sharp.

When shooting landscapes in low light conditions, use Manual or Aperture Priority mode and be careful not to underexpose, or you’ll end up with too little shadow detail.

Your aperture should be fairly narrow, such as f/8 or f/11. Stopping down to apertures such as f/16 or f/22 can cause lens diffraction, in either prime or zoom lenses, no matter the quality. Shooting at f/8 will give you a good depth of field and enough sharpness. Not to mention, most lenses function at their best around this aperture.

Tips for Better Results When Shooting in Low Light Conditions - marina at night shot

Bulb mode is also a great way to shoot landscape photography. This mode is mostly used for long exposures at night or in dark conditions and allows you to do an exposure longer than 30 seconds. You can keep the shutter open as long as required to get the shot in this mode.

If image sharpness continues to be an issue, taking three identical images with different focus points and blending them together using the focus stacking function in Photoshop is an excellent remedy.

Low Light Indoors

Sometimes you’ll need to shoot indoors in low light where you can’t use a flash, such as in a museum or a restaurant. You can choose to crank up your ISO and try Shutter Priority, as mentioned above.

For shooting subjects like food or still life indoors in natural light, shoot by a window and do a long exposure with the camera on your tripod. As long as you have some light, you can still shoot. Use reflectors to bounce some of the light back onto your subject.

Long exposures can be used for still life indoors pomegranate - Tips for Better Results When Shooting in Low Light Conditions

In Summary

The key to getting consistently great results shooting in low light is understanding the principles as outlined above. Take some time to practice and take notes on what you observe while trying to get a well-exposed image.

After a while, it will become second nature for you to know what to do in any given low light situation.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Darina Kopcok is a writer and professional food photographer who shares her recipes and photography on her blog Gastrostoria. Her latest work can be found on OFFset, as well as her online portfolio at darinakopcok.com.

  • Osase Noma-Owens

    These tips really aren’t that helpful. If you want tips that will help you get photos like the one I attached (it was taken on a crop sensor camera in low light at ISO 10000, and no noise reduction was used) then contact me at http://www.photographybynima.com https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/d873da747af5d825aa9c2d4788f3703063687ee8543f28fe97dc9703dbf66aeb.jpg

  • Charles G. Haacker

    As a dedicated available-dark freak I think your tips are excellent. But I avoid tripods because of their nuisance factor, weight, bulk, and incidentally the fact that so many places prohibit them, usually for well-reasoned safety concerns. I’ve had pretty good luck always keeping a “stringpod” with me, a 50-cent 1/4 x 20 ringbolt with about 8-feet of parachute cord tied to it. The cord is thick enough that all I have to do is step on it and haul up on the camera. Tensioning the string gains you maybe another stop, especially if you have your vibration reducer engaged (and don’t forget to turn it off on a solid support). I also keep nearby a monopod with quick release locks and a V-yoke on it instead of an actual head. I’ve even gotten away with bringing that into some museums. The V-yoke is adapted from what shooters use to support a rifle or shotgun. I can rest the camera in it for support, quickly adjust the height (sighting through the V to see where I want my lens to be), instantly flip from horizontal to vertical and back, and be hand-held as much or as little as I choose without having to unscrew the camera or even flip off the quick release. It works pretty well for me. ( ?? ?? ?? )

  • CEpheide

    Once again DPS, miss conception :
    “If you use a high ISO, your photos can be very noisy.”
    Should be replace by:
    If you shoot in low light condition and/or use a camera with low light cololecting power, your photo can be very noisy. By nature of light.

    ISO is just a tool to brighten your photo in such conditions.

  • darina Kopcok

    Thanks for that tip, Charles! I will have to look into both of those ideas. I’d love to have better options when shooting in low light situations, which for me would typically be in restaurants. Do you have a monopod you prefer or would recommend?

  • Charles G. Haacker

    You’re welcome Darina. My monopod is a Polaroid that goes to 7-feet. I am tall (not that tall) but I wanted to be sure that I could bring the head up to my eye level. https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B003LYKX0E/ref=oh_aui_detailpage_o01_s00?ie=UTF8&psc=1 I did buy it from Amazon, and the V-yoke is this one, also from Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B07DJMVXJ7/ref=oh_aui_detailpage_o00_s00?ie=UTF8&psc=1
    The yoke looks enormous in the picture but it’s actually only 3-inches across the opening and we’ll padded with flexible plastic fingers to support the lens barrel without risk of scratches. I love the thing. I made this https://www.flickr.com/photos/43619751@N06/43407506552/in/dateposted/ with it last week while a kindly volunteer held the thing. I used a 10 mm extension ring to get close:

  • David Gee

    Mention of ISO brings out the pendants. The replacement sentence is not different from the original one. The second bit about light ‘cololecting’, obviously you mean collecting, is bleeding obvious. Some cameras can handle low light better than others, especially newer one. Goodness knows what you mean by ‘nature of light’. THe camera sensor and associated electronics deal with the light sent into the camera.

  • David Gee

    Great tips here, Charles

  • David Gee

    I thought the tips were extremely helpful, bit not applicable to everybody in every situation which is normal. Thanks Darina. Modern camera technology enables enormous improvements in noise, so I guess Osase is the beneficiary of this.

  • Lexiel Roldan

    I am just a beginner, but this is already very huge knowledge to me. Thank you soooo much.

  • Osase Noma-Owens

    If you think it’s just technology, try shooting a picture like the one I took (at night) at ISO 10000 on a crop sensor camera and don’t use noise reduction. Technology can’t compete with proper techniques.

  • darina Kopcok

    Thanks, Lexiel. I’m glad you found it helpful!

  • darina Kopcok

    Thanks for sharing, Charles. I don’t now why I never really considered a monopod. I will have to look into these. At the price, it’s worth a try and might really change the way I shoot in some situations.

  • darina Kopcok

    Thanks, David. Yes, the tips may not necessarily be helpful to everyone. There is only so much info a 1000 word blog post can cover. Plus, I also have to consider my audience, which is comprised of a lot of beginner or intermediate photographers.

  • Michael Barnes

    i hate going on holiday with extra bulk and always leave the tripod a home. your string idea presents an excellent light weight alternative. thanks.

  • CEpheide

    I will pass on the “pedant” part which is a subjective opinion, agressive and non constructive. It seems that “pedant” for you is somebody with an other opinion or knowledge.
    The replacement sentence comes after a long history of DPS of trying to teach that the fact to bring up iso is the responsable of visible noise on a picture. This is wrong. High iso picture are noisy because you cannot record high amount of light with that setting (because of saturation). Noise comes, mostly, at least in most photographs from the fact that little amount of light has been captured (except of course in dark, no light areas where sensor noise can be visible). This is as simple as that.
    By ‘nature of light’ I mean the quantum nature of light. Light is transported by quantas (particles) named photon. And this is what makes most part of the visible noise in your low light picture. You will need to google ‘photon noise’ or ‘shot noise’. But basically, put several baskets under the rain during 5 seconds, you will not receive the same amount of drops while the rain is constant. The variation of drop amount is noise. Light works the same way. A little animation I made can help you to understand : https://www.zenfolio.com/cdn/pub/vhjnmsxquxn9/0/null/m/qva1tilr4bcrgtkdyowy/s6/v142/p2756406364-210.mp4

    Yes, it depends on the picture, but most of the noise in most of the pictures is coming from the light itself and not the sensor or iso amplification. Cameras are getting better in low light because they are getting more and more efficient on absorbing photons (50% now).
    – Low light high visible noise has direct causality link.
    – High ISO high visible noise is a correlation but does not have any causality, iso does not increase noise.

    It is an important difference for amateurs: teaching that low amount of light collected will result to noisy picture even with the most perfect/expensive/noise-free detector in the world, whatever the iso used. If you need less noise you need more light (bigger aperture lens, longueur exposure time, flash, …) put whatever iso is necessary to brighten your picture without saturation it does not mater on the noise (actually a too low iso setting will make your photo a bit more noise after post prod correction).

  • drdroad

    When I was in school, I had a professor that ALWAYS shot from a Monopod. Even in the Studio. So I got a Monopod my first year. Now, 40 years later, my cameras seem permanently attached to my Monopod.

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