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Low Light Photography Tips

Updated on July 23, 2015

If you know you will be going somewhere that is dimly lit, it is important to plan ahead. Whether shooting inside a building or shooting outside at night, planning ahead will let you get the best possible photos.

Use a large aperture

When taking photos in low light, you really want to use the largest aperture value you can. The larger the aperture, the more light it let in through the lens.

If you have a camera with interchangeable lenses, use a lens with large maximum aperture value. Often fixed focal length (prime) lenses have a faster (wider) maximum aperture than zoom lenses. A popular lens suitable for low light photography would be the 50mm f/1.8 lens.

Of course, the lens and aperture setting you choose should also be partly dictated by what it is you are shooting. Shooting people at a party in a dimly lit room will have different requirements to photographing a landscape at night.

Julia & The Doogans (5/8) by Andrew Rennie - shot using a 50mm f/1.8 lens
Julia & The Doogans (5/8) by Andrew Rennie - shot using a 50mm f/1.8 lens | Source

Use support

Shooting in low light almost always necessitates slow shutter speeds. So keeping the camera steady is of paramount importance if you want sharp photos. A tripod is the best way to keep your camera steady, but can be heavy to carry around and could get in the way in some situations.

An alternative to a tripod is a monopod, which is like a stick you can mount the camera on. Although it isn't as stable as a tripod, a monopod can still help steady the camera. It removes the possibility of any up and down motion that you may get if you were hand-holding the camera.

If you want to hand-hold the camera, make sure you are holding the camera correctly for maximum steadiness. If you can find a wall, tree, or anything to brace yourself against, this can help quite a bit in getting a sharp hand-held photo as well.

Evening In Bury 25-3-2012 by Martin Pettitt - shot using a monopod to help steady the camera
Evening In Bury 25-3-2012 by Martin Pettitt - shot using a monopod to help steady the camera | Source

Use a high ISO

If you need a faster shutter speed (which you likely will if the camera is not on a rock solid support like a tripod), then set your camera to use a high ISO value. Modern cameras can reach very high ISO levels, and noise is kept under control under all but the most extreme settings.

Make sure you are exposing your photos correctly. Using high ISO settings introduces noise into the image. If a photo is shot using a high ISO setting and you later brighten it on the computer, it really brings out the image noise.

Normally using a higher ISO setting and getting a well exposed photo will produce less noise than using a lower ISO setting and brightening the photo in software later.

If you are shooting on a tripod with a slow shutter speed, or lighting your images with flash, then using a high ISO speed is not needed.

Alone in the big world by Timo Kuusela - shot at ISO3200
Alone in the big world by Timo Kuusela - shot at ISO3200 | Source

Take multiple shots

Taking multiple shots can help counteract both blur caused by camera shake and by subject movement. The more shots you take, the more likely you are to get one with no camera shake or where your subjects stayed still for the whole exposure.

Use the blur

If you are shooting moving subjects, you can also try panning the camera in the direction they are moving. This creates an image where the subject is sharp, but the background is blurred due to the camera movement. This takes some practice to get good at though!

You can also try some shots where you keep the camera still, in these shots anything moving will appear as a blur. This is a good way to show movement in an image.

Go crazy and move the camera around a lot (this works best for locations with lots of lights). This can create some great abstract shots where the lights appear as blurred zig-zag lines, following the camera movement.

In Movement by Marco Sanchez - a slow shutter speed was used to capture the blur of the dancers' movements
In Movement by Marco Sanchez - a slow shutter speed was used to capture the blur of the dancers' movements | Source
Strange attractor? by Kevin Dooley - a slow shutter speed combined with moving the camera in a circular motion produced abstract art from streetlights
Strange attractor? by Kevin Dooley - a slow shutter speed combined with moving the camera in a circular motion produced abstract art from streetlights | Source

Use Flash

Well, maybe this one is cheating a bit. If you add light to a scene, it could be argued that it's no longer low light photography. Anyway, using flash is a good way to get well lit photos in a dimly lit location.

Flash works best indoors, where the light from the flash can be bounced from the walls and ceiling onto the subject. Ideally use a flash speedlight with a swivel head, so you can aim the flash head at the wall or ceiling. Bouncing the flash in this way and avoiding direct flash produces a much nicer, more natural looking image.

If you only have your camera's pop-up flash, you may be able to use a piece of bent white card to bounce the flash up onto the ceiling. Or use a piece of tissue paper to diffuse the flash. The results probably won't be perfect, but should be better than direct flash.

colosseum_091003_0003 by Alex Gowers - a combination of flash and slow shutter speed was used to render the subjects hit by the flash sharp, while lights appear blurred
colosseum_091003_0003 by Alex Gowers - a combination of flash and slow shutter speed was used to render the subjects hit by the flash sharp, while lights appear blurred | Source

Low light photography can be quite difficult, particularly if you're trying to shoot moving subjects. Just make sure your shutter speed is fast enough, and do some planning before hand to make sure you have the right lens, flash if needed, and camera support.

Comments

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    • Vinaya Ghimire profile image

      Vinaya Ghimire 

      5 years ago from Nepal

      I have photographed theater shows and I enjoy low light photography.

      PS: Thanks for leaving valuable comments on my photography hub.

      Cheers

    • photographyadvice profile imageAUTHOR

      photographyadvice 

      5 years ago from UK

      Thanks EGT! It doesn't cost anything to try shooting in low light, no harm in giving it a try!

    • ExpectGreatThings profile image

      ExpectGreatThings 

      5 years ago from Illinois

      These are useful tips. Thank you for writing! I am a chicken when it comes to shooting in low-light settings, but I might need to just give it a shot now :)

    • raydevlin profile image

      Ray Devlin 

      5 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Agreed - great for taking shots of the kids, not so good for shots where you have the time to carefully consider it.

    • photographyadvice profile imageAUTHOR

      photographyadvice 

      5 years ago from UK

      Thanks Ray, that's a good tip.

      I think that if you can take time over your shot, then setting the ISO (and other exposure settings) yourself is a good idea. But for faster paced photography like Sports, Wildlife, and Kids, then auto ISO is definitely useful, particularly if you're shooting in changing light.

    • raydevlin profile image

      Ray Devlin 

      5 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Great tips here. I would also add that most DSLR's have the option to set auto ISO, which means that (in theory) the ISO will never be *too* high (providing your aperture and shutter settings are correct). However, I have found that occasionally the camera takes full advantage of high ISO, without it always being necessary.

    • photographyadvice profile imageAUTHOR

      photographyadvice 

      6 years ago from UK

      Thanks! Cameras with small sensors and fixed lenses aren't so great for hand holding in low light (get noisy at high ISO settings), but it depends how dark it is really. On a tripod a compact camera should perform pretty well though (depends partly on the maximum shutter speed you can use).

    • Rye Catcher profile image

      Rye Catcher 

      6 years ago from USA

      This is really awesome! Thanks for these great tips. I always wanted to know how to shoot in low light. I wish I had a camera with changeable lenses. I only have digital fixed lens for now. Voted up.

    • Sanjida Alam profile image

      Sanjida Alam 

      6 years ago from Bangladesh

      Very helpful. Voted up!

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