Taking pictures in low light can be frustrating. Our eyes can pick up a much broader range of light than a camera, so you may think there is plenty of light for a photo, snap the shot, and the image comes out blurry or with too much noise.
What exactly do we mean by low light?
Three Levels of Low Light
Although it is very hard to categorize the amount of light, due to the fact that it is a long range of light between very bright and pitch black, just for the sake of making it easier to explain and refer to I’ve split it into three definable categories.
Visible: it’s daylight, but you happen to be in shadow areas. For example behind buildings, under large trees, or bridges.
Low Light: The sun has gone down but you can still clearly see everything around you.
Dark: night, when you can only see the brightest objects.
I’m sure you have come across all of the above situations at some point of time with your camera and perhaps even found it challenging and frustrating to take pictures in those conditions. Let’s go through the above one at a time and see what you can do to take good pictures in all low light conditions.
Three things you need to consider when shooting in low light conditions.
This is the hole the light passes through in your lens; the wider it is, the more light you let in. Rather confusingly, the wider the aperture, the lower the f-number – bear that in mind.
This step isn’t particularly useful if you’re still using your standard kit lens as you’ll find that your maximum aperture is somewhere around f/3.5. This won’t let in enough light for good results.
The point here is that, if you want to take a well exposed photo in low light, you need a lens with a wide enough aperture to let more light in. Setting your lens to stop as low as f/1.8 lets in 4 times more light than f/3.5, which will make a huge difference to your results.
A wide aperture will produce a shallow depth of field; there’s no way around this without making your aperture narrow again and increasing the ISO or slowing down your shutter speed.
Shutter speed is the second step in creating an exposure and also affects how much light enters the camera – the faster the shutter speed, the less light will enter.
If you’re out and about in a low light situation, chances are you’re not going to have a tripod with you; be careful not to select too slow a speed or you’ll end up with blurry photos.
As a rule of thumb, the average person can take a sharp, blur-free image by setting the speed to a fraction of the focal length. For example, to take a photo at 30mm, you would set the shutter speed to 1/30 of a second; any slower and motion blur is likely to occur.
It’s worth noting however that this rule is only relevant to full frame cameras. For a crop sensor, due its magnifying effect, you would be better off choosing a speed of 1/45 of a second and you’ll need to drastically increase your shutter speed if the subject is moving.
For slower shutter speeds it is worth investing in a tripod, as the slightest hand movements holding the camera can cause images to blur.
This is slightly trickier to manage on most cameras as, the higher the ISO, the more digital noise there will be, which can be pretty ugly.
If you’re struggling to get the exposure you’re looking for just by changing the shutter speed and aperture, the best thing to do is to raise the ISO. Remember how stops work though: doubling the ISO number doubles the amount of light that your camera can see.
I find that high ISO’s on my camera aren’t very good at determining colour; you might want to consider changing your photos to black and white. That gives the photos a warm, old feeling to them and the high ISO actually adds to this.
Typically, I don’t raise my ISO above about 1600 – if I need more light, I use a flash.
One final thing to consider is your flash.
When you’re shooting groups of people in low light, it’s best to use a flash. As I explained above, if you have your aperture too wide, you’ll end up with a shallow depth of field and not everyone in focus.
Firstly, just because you’re using a flash, it doesn’t mean that you can set your ISO back down to 100; if you do, you’ll start to lose background detail in the dark.
If you’re using an external flash, it’s best to bounce the light off of a wall or ceiling or to use a diffuser to make the light appear less harsh.
How to apply this to each visible condition
1) Low Light Photography: Visible Conditions
It’s still day, and you think there is plenty of light, but all your shots are coming ut just a little blurry. There is just too much noise in them. Well, the most likely reason is that there is not enough light for the camera to effectively capture the image.
1.1) Shoot at Higher Shutter Speeds to Avoid Blurry Images
If the shutter speed is too low, you will get camera shake and/or motion blur from moving subjects. To avoid camera shake, you should always try to shoot at faster shutter speeds. For most day-to-day photography, a shutter speed of 1/200th-1/250th of a second should be fast enough to yield sharp results and avoid motion blur.
1.2) Decrease Your Aperture to the Lowest Number (f/stop)
However, to shoot at fast shutter speeds such as 1/200th of a second means that you need to have plenty of light. In our situation, we don’t have enough light, so what do we do?
The first thing you will need to try to do is decrease your lens aperture to the lowest number on the camera. Decreasing your aperture means more light will pass through the lens into the camera body, which will allow you to shoot at faster shutter speeds without losing colour and light detail.
1.4) Use a Lens with Image Stabilization Technology
Does your lens have VR (Vibration Reduction) or IS (Image Stabilization)? If no, that’s too bad, because VR/IS truly does work! The latest “VR II” technology by Nikon can allow you to shoot up to 4 times slower when it comes to shutter speed without adding any blur to the picture (realistically, it’s more like 3 times) compared to non-VR lenses.
So, let’s say that with a regular lens you need 1/250th of a second to get a sharp picture. With a VR/IS system, you could lower the shutter speed all the way to 1/30th of a second or more and still get the same sharp image!
1.5) Increase Your Camera ISO
What if you have already decreased your aperture to the lowest number and you are still getting slow shutter speeds? The answer then is to increase the camera ISO (sensor sensitivity), to make the sensor collect light faster.
If you are shooting at ISO 100 and your camera is telling you that the shutter speed is 1/25th of a second, you will need to increase your ISO to 400 to get the shutter speed of 1/100th of a second.
Be careful with increasing your ISO to a big number, as higher sensor sensitivity means that more grain/noise will appear in your images. Most modern cameras can handle noise levels up to ISO 800 pretty well, while top-of-the-line full frame professional cameras can produce very little noise even at ISO 3200 and above.
2) Low Light Photography: Low Light Conditions
Let’s now move on to a more complex situation, where the amount of light is quickly diminishing after sunset or you are shooting indoors in a poorly lit environment.
Obviously, the first thing to try is to decrease your aperture and increase your ISO, as it says above. But then you get to the point where you are maxed out on the aperture and have already reached ISO 800 and you are still not able to get sharp photos. What do you do then?
2.1) Stand Closer to the Light Source
The closer you are to the light source, the more light there will be for your camera to use. Large windows are great sources of light, so open up those curtains and blinds and let the light get into the room.
2.2) Stabilize Yourself
That’s right – learn to stabilize yourself and hold your camera better. Pull your elbows towards your body. If you can, sit down with your right knee on the ground and use your left leg as support by resting your left arm on it. Gently squeeze the shutter button and see if you can get a sharp image. Practice this and other techniques and you will be able to shoot at very low shutter speeds without introducing camera shake.
2.3) Push Your ISO to a Higher Number
What is better, a blurry image or a sharp image with more noise? I prefer the latter. Push your ISO to a higher number and take a shot. See if the level of noise is acceptable to you. There are plenty of noise-removal programs out there such as Photo Ninja that can help you clean up an image. Try them out and see if the final result after post-processing is good enough for your needs. Although I personally try to stay below ISO 800, sometimes I push mine to ISO 1600 or even 3200, when needed.
2.4) Shoot in RAW and Slightly Underexpose
I personally always shoot in RAW, because I can recover some detail from a picture if I overexpose or underexpose it. With a JPEG image, you have very limited options to recover an image. In some cases, I intentionally underexpose an image by using the exposure compensation button, which increases camera shutter speed.
2.5) Be Careful About Autofocus
In low-light environments, the camera might start to lose its autofocus capabilities. That’s what happens when there is not enough light – the camera cannot differentiate between objects anymore, just like if you were to point it at a plain white wall.
If it is blurry, try to re-acquire focus by half-pressing the shutter/autofocus button. Or your can try manually focusing.
In many cases you won’t be able to tell if the camera was able to focus correctly on the subject until you take the picture. In that case, make sure to zoom in and check for sharpness of the image on the rear LCD of the camera.
3) Low-Light Photography: Dark Conditions
In poorly lit environments and at night, many of the above tips are useless, because you have no light to work with.
3.1) Use a Tripod
Hand-held photography is simply impossible at night (unless you want to create a really bad-looking effect of motion blur). A good, sturdy tripod is a must for night photography, because you deal with very slow shutter speeds and every vibration matters.
It is best to use a remote control or a cable release system with your camera in those situations, but if you do not have one, try using your camera timer. It is not as good of a solution as remote control, because you still have to press the shutter button, which temporarily vibrates the setup. Just use a longer time period for your timer and you should be good to go.
3.2) Use a Flashlight for Light Painting
If your subject is too dark, use a flash light to add some light to it. Light painting is pretty cool and you can get some really nice shots by painting with the light, especially if you use different colours.
3.3) Use Manual Focus
When it is too dark, autofocus will simply not function. If your subject is close, try to use your “AF Assist” light in the camera to get good focus. If your subject is further away, try using a flashlight to illuminate your subject and allow your camera to focus. If your subject is far away or you do not have a flashlight, you will need to manually focus on your subject.
Most of the time, setting your lens to “infinity” focus works great, but in some cases you will have to try to take a picture, then adjust the focus as needed. Once you acquire focus, make sure to turn off autofocus so that the camera does not attempt to focus again. Obviously, do not move your tripod after focus is acquired.
3.4) Practice makes perfect!
I don’t have to say much here – just practice as much as you can and you will get better in no time!
You will need to figure out exactly what equipment you will need, and exatly how your camera responds to each of the above tips.
Low-light photography is a lot of fun and you should definitely play and experiment with your camera in different lighting conditions. If you learn how to take pictures in low light, you will have an opportunity to take some amazing pictures that have a different feel to them compared to everyday pictures in daylight.
Here are some tips to bear in mind when you’re using your camera in low light conditions:
- If you’re in a dark room and you want your photo to accurately capture the environment you’re in, the photo should be a little underexposed.
- Getting the desired photo takes priority over worrying about ISO noise.
- Keeping your elbows together and not leaning forward will help you to hold the camera steady for longer, allowing you to lower your shutter speed.
- Turning up your camera’s exposure compensation will help your camera to overexpose and, in darkened conditions, produce more accurate results.