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It’s often challenging for photographers to get consistent results in low light. Problems encountered may include camera shake, out of focus photos, and noisy images. There are three main reasons that these things happen.
With this in mind, let’s look at some steps you can take to get consistent results when shooting in low light conditions.
If you’re using your camera in a fully automatic exposure mode, such as portrait or night scene, it’s time to stop. You have little or no control over your camera’s settings by using these modes. That stops you from getting the best results in low light.
The only modes I recommend that you ever use are Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, Program Auto or Manual (the last one only if you really know what you’re doing).
Fully automatic exposure modes may also engage the camera’s built-in flash in low light. The problem is that built-in flash doesn’t provide high-quality light.
Don’t get me wrong. There will always be circumstances where it’s more important to get the photo than to worry about its aesthetic qualities. If you’re photographing a friend or loved one in the dark, it’s better to use the flash and capture the moment, however ugly the light, than not capture it all. But if you want to create beautiful photos, then you will want to either learn to use off-camera flash or make the most of the available light.
I made this photo at dusk using an off-camera flash with a softbox. There’s no way you can replicate this quality of the light in this image without the right equipment.
Image Stabilization lets you take sharp photos using longer shutter speeds than you could with a non-stabilized lens. This is useful to know if your photos tend to suffer from camera shake in low light.
There are two types of Image Stabilization. Canon and Nikon build it into their lenses. That means the technology only works if you have the right lens. As most kit lenses are image stabilized it is likely you own at least one image such lens you can use in low light.
Other manufacturers, like Olympus and Panasonic, place the image stabilization mechanism in the camera body. The advantage of this system is that it works with any lens. If you’re not sure how image stabilization works with your camera then check your manual for the details.
Most image stabilization systems give you a four-stop advantage. Let’s look at what that means in practice.
Let’s say you’re using an 18-55mm kit lens on an APS-C camera. Ideally, without image stabilization, you need a shutter speed of around 1/125 second to achieve a sharp image with a hand-held camera (some photographers may argue you could use a slower shutter speed). An image stabilization system that gives you a 4 stop advantage means you can drop the shutter speed to 1/8th of a second and still get a sharp image. That’s very helpful in low light.
For example, I made this photo in a dimly lit museum with a non-stabilized 18-55mm lens at 1/160 second, f5.6, ISO 1600. If the lens was image stabilized I would have had the option of using ISO 100 and 1/10th of a second, giving me a much cleaner image with less noise.
Most modern digital cameras give you excellent performance at high ISOs. It’s quite possible your camera is capable of giving great results at ISO 3200, 6400, or even higher. You won’t know until you try. This is another good reason for taking your camera off fully automatic. Now you can decide what ISO to use, rather than leaving it up to your camera.
The best thing to do is test your camera at all its high ISO levels to find your noise tolerance level. For example, you might find that ISO 6400 is the highest setting you’re comfortable using. Once you’ve decided this, you know the ISO range you can work with for your camera.
This photo is taken at ISO 6400, the highest ISO I’m comfortable using on my camera. I had to use the high ISO setting because the photo was taken indoors in low light.
If you don’t have one already then it’s worth considering buying a prime lens. For example, most 18-55mm kit lenses have a maximum aperture of f/5.6 at the 55mm end. But on a 50mm prime lens that maximum aperture could be f/1.8 (or even wider). That’s a difference of over three stops (eight times more light), which means that you can take photos in much lower light conditions.
The only caveat is that there is much less depth of field at wide apertures. But you can use this to your advantage by exploring the use of bokeh in your low light photos. I made this photo of a Chinese lantern, taken at night, using an 85mm lens set to f/2.
A tripod comes in really handy for taking photos of landscapes and cityscapes in low light. All the methods listed so far, such as using a high ISO, Image Stabilization, prime lenses and so on, have disadvantages. Noise increases at high ISOs, wide apertures don’t give much depth of field, and even Image Stabilization has its limits.
The benefit of a tripod is that you can use your camera at its lowest ISO setting (giving good image quality), and a small aperture such as f/8 or f/11 (allowing for a greater depth of field).
Shutter speeds will slow right down at these settings. Again, use this to your advantage. Slow shutter speeds are great for landscape photography because moving parts of the landscape, like water, become a silky blur. With cityscapes, the light from passing traffic becomes long streaks of light.
A tripod also opens up techniques like long exposure photography (photos taken with shutter speeds between a minute and eight minutes long) and painting with light (using flash or torchlight to illuminate the scene during a long exposure).
The key to getting consistent results shooting in low light is understanding the limitations of your equipment and taking control of your camera to make it do what you need, rather than what it wants. With a bit of work and patience, you can learn to take great photos in low light. The benefit is that low light conditions are often beautiful. Most places and landscapes look beautiful at dusk. Shooting at these times will help you take moody photos.
Do you have any ideas for shooting in low light? Let us know in the comments!
If you enjoyed this article and would like to learn more about the creative side of photography then please check out my ebook Mastering Photography. It shows you how to take control of and be creative with your digital camera, no matter what your skill level!