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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.