How to Use Prime Lenses in Low-Light Environments

Fast prime lenses offer a number of advantages. They are great tools in many situations – whether you need discretion, low-light performance, portability or aesthetics, there’s a lens for every taste. However, these strong advantages also come with certain issues. When used wide-open (meaning at maximum aperture), many prime lenses render extremely shallow depth of field. In normal lighting conditions modern AF systems are capable of focusing accurately. In low-light environments, our DSLRs start to suffer, which reduces our chances of capturing sharp images. Because of this, missed focus is often mistaken for lack of general lens sharpness by beginner photographers. In this article, I will introduce you to several tips on how to use fast lenses in low-light environments, which hopefully will make you feel a little more confident when using them for your photography needs.

How to Use Prime Lenses in Low-Light Environments

Tips on Shooting in Low-Light Conditions

1) Calibrate Your Lenses

The first step you need to take in order to focus accurately in any light, is to make sure that your lens(es) can focus accurately in general. Front and back-focusing has become a very known issue recently. It has become especially visible with higher resolution sensors – they are most unforgiving if you miss focus even slightly. If you want to know why these issues happen, please read our How Phase Detection Autofocus Works article where we explain everything thoroughly. If you want to identify whether your gear has any of these problems, read our How to Quickly Test Your DSLR for Autofocus Issues article.

Most modern, higher-end DSLRs offer a focus calibration function. This feature effectively saves you from having to send your lenses and cameras to a professional service or the manufacturer. It can also save you a lot of time. Fully calibrating your lenses to your camera may take you a couple of hours, while sending your gear could take up to a few weeks. Read our Lens Calibration Explained article to find out the best and most accurate way of calibrating your gear. If you’d prefer to automate the process as much as possible, there are a couple of software products you can use that will do that for you.

2) Use a Good Stance

Presumably, if you use a fast lens, you will have a fast enough shutter speed to counter hand shake. However, it is equally important to get into a stable, secure stance when shooting wide-open in low-light for critical focus accuracy. This is because a wide aperture results in a very thin depth of field, which, at a set focus distance, moves whenever you or your camera moves. In other words, if you sway an inch forward or backward once you’ve already focused, your subject will be out of focus by an inch. Mind you, we never really stand still – we move forward, backward and sideways all the time. The effect of such movement is very apparent with wide-aperture lenses. It is critical to remember this and learn to keep still when you focus and make an exposure.

Low-Light Photography with Fast Lenses (1)

A good way to keep still is to lean on a large stable object like a wall whenever possible. Also, keep your feet at least at shoulder width with one foot slightly in front of the other.

To learn more about the effect of wide aperture, read our “Understanding Aperture” beginner’s guide.

3) Refocus Constantly

Another tip to remember is to adjust for any body movement by constantly refocusing your lens. Whenever I shoot a moving subject in dark environments, I never really settle with my focus. I engage it almost all the time whilst I wait for that moment. In tricky, low-light environments, many AF systems will sometimes fail to acquire precise focus on the first try. Constantly refocusing allows me to make sure I get perfect focus when I finally take the photograph.

4) Use Cross-Type AF Sensors

Phase-detect autofocus systems have two kinds of focus points. The best ones are sensitive to both horizontal and vertical detail and are called cross-type sensors. The remaining ones are sensitive to just the horizontal or just the vertical detail. Cross-type sensors are much more dependable in low-light environments and for this reason it is preferable to use them. Usually, the center sensor, which is always cross-type, is the most reliable and accurate of the bunch.

5) Focus And Recompose Carefully

If you are indeed going to use the most reliable center focus sensor, remember all the issues you may be faced with. To get a good composition, you will first need to learn how to focus and recompose. And the technique comes with its own set of potential issues, such as focus plane shift (because the focus plane changes when you recompose the image). Also, it takes time to recompose.

Low-Light Photography with Fast Lenses (2)

With enough practice you may be able to learn how to use this technique with confidence in low-light. Each time you focus on your subject, imagine a thin wall in front of you, which represents depth of field. Everything in front and behind this wall is blurry / out of focus. The closer you are to the subject and the larger the aperture, the thinner the wall gets. So if you are too close to the subject and you are shooting at maximum aperture, your picture might not come out sharp when you focus and recompose. Hence, stepping back a little and not going too aggressive on the recomposing part is a good way to reduce the effect. Remember, this will take a lot of practice. But once you get a hang of it, it will come naturally when photographing in dark environments.

Lastly, always pick the brightest and the most textured area to focus on – your camera’s autofocus system needs plenty of contrast for good accuracy.

6) Experiment with Focus Settings

I have photographed a lot of low-light events during the last few years. What I’ve learned was that depending on lightning conditions and lenses used, different settings work best. In some cases, I prefer continuous AF tracking knowing I can trust it completely. Other situations demand single AF mode. I even use manual focus sometimes because AF can be so unreliable! So, definitely spend some time experimenting in low-light environments and photographing moving subjects. It will help you to know which settings work best when. To learn more about autofocus modes, please read our DSLR Autofocus Modes Explained article, where we discuss everything there is to know about AF modes. You will find several shooting situations described with optimal settings listed.

7) Turn On the Focus Assist Lamp

The focus assist lamp can be of huge help when it comes to focusing in low-light situations. Whenever you engage autofocus, AF assist will light up your subject providing more light to the scene. More light helps AF speed and accuracy greatly.

Low-Light Photography with Fast Lenses (3)

There are several things to note when using the focus assist lamp. First and foremost, it can be quite annoying to some of your subjects. It’s not very nice to have someone point a flashlight at your face, and AF assist beam is in fact a small flashlight. Also, using your camera with AF assist beam turned on will drain your battery more quickly. The range is not that great. More importantly, it will only work with the center AF point in single autofocus mode.

If you’re a Nikon shooter, a modern Speedlight, such as the SB-910 will often be more reliable than the AF assist lamp and will not blind your subjects, because it fires a quick red beam instead. However, you will still be unable to use it in continuous AF mode.

8) Rack That Focus

Another useful tip that often works for me, is to rack the focus ring when the lens doesn’t seem to focus properly. Sometimes the lens fails to acquire good focus and yet the camera thinks otherwise. By racking the focus ring, you basically force the camera to re-engage its autofocus (since everything is too blurry), which might give you better results next time. Keep in mind that this will only work on more recent lenses that have an autofocus override. Some older lenses will not let you turn the focus ring in AF mode.

9) Shoot in Burst Mode

Shooting in low-light diminishes your chances of capturing technically adequate keepers. AF inaccuracies are one of the main reasons for this. Shooting in burst mode will help you increase the chances of taking a well-focused photograph. Naturally, you will have more images to sort through, but imagine the disappointment of having captured an amazing image with great composition and story that’s also badly out of focus. Also, in low-light environments, your timing is affected by the focus acquisition speed. Whether you choose to shoot at several frames per second or take extra images in the single servo mode, it’s a good idea to over-shoot just to make sure that you have images with correct focus and well-captured subjects.

Low-Light Photography with Fast Lenses (4)

10) Final Words

Some of these points are just as applicable in good light. Once you learn how to properly use your beloved prime lenses to achieve satisfying results, you may find them to be much better performers than you originally thought. As it is often said by photographers, it’s not the camera or lens that doesn’t deliver – it’s the person behind the camera.

See Nasim’s excellent low-light photography tips for more information.


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Avatar of Romanas Naryškin About Romanas Naryškin

A student and a wedding photographer with a passion for cinematography and writing. You'll see me buying film even when there's no food in the fridge. Follow me on Google+, Facebook or visit my wedding photography website to see some of my work.

Comments

  1. 1
    ) deb Maharana

    Hi Romanas,
    Nice article. How good is Nikkor 28/1.8G with D7000 in low light conditions ??
    Regd Rana

  2. 2
    ) Steve Barth

    Thanks for the great article. I have the Nikon 35mm 1.8 on my D5000. I’ve experienced focal plane issues, especially when trying to use it wide open, typically indoors at grandkids birthday parties, where there are a lot of kids running around ‘helter skelter’. Would you recommend using single, continuous or 3D autofocus? Also, would you preset your ISO to a fixed value, or let it ‘float”? Thanks.
    Steve Barth
    Douglasville, Ga.

    • 8
      ) Edward Liu

      Is there a specific reason why you’re shooting wide-open? As Roman notes, depth-of-field issues can be resolved with time and patience to tweak your settings and reshoot, but that doesn’t describe any child’s birthday party I’ve ever been to. A lot of times, it’s all you can do to get the camera in front of your face, get an autofocus lock, and trip the shutter before your subjects are off doing something else. If you try to add in solving focal plane issues on top of that, I think you’re just setting yourself up for avoidable frustration that would be better solved with a smaller aperture/more depth-of-field and either a higher ISO or a flash.

      • Edward,

        with time and patience, one learns to deal with these issues. Quickly, too. :)

    • I actually have the same setup. The D5000 tends to choke on focus when faced with low light situations (and by that, I mean situations that would be better handled by a D700 or higher a.k.a leaning towards pitch black). However, I’ve never had an issue with focusing indoors under a decent amount of artificial light. If you’re chasing kids around the house you can increase your hit rate by choosing a smaller aperture (2.8ish) and using continuous AF in dynamic area mode. Positioning and anticipation work wonders as well. Hope that helps.

      • 22
        ) gregorylent

        heh, the d600 chokes on focus too … so, i guess it is us, not the cam

  3. 3
    ) FrancoisR

    Great article as usual, thanks!

  4. 4
    ) Drwillix

    Hi does the 910 flash use red or infra- red assist beams?

    • Infrared is usually invisible, so it is probably better to say that it fires a red beam of light, which Nikon calls “AF Assist Illuminator”.

  5. 5
    ) Dina

    Thanks a lot amazing amazing article…..I just loooove how u answer our unspoken questions….
    Keep them coming
    Thanks again

  6. 6
    ) Dina

    One more thing pls…hope u can share the edits on the pictures…they look amazing….

  7. 7
    ) Paul

    nice little article, thanks. I keep meaning to sit down and calibrate my lenses and am interested in the software options you’ve thrown up.

  8. 12
    ) Graham

    Thanks for another well thought-out and comprehensive article. I was amazed at the inability of my D700 + 70-200 VR2 to cope last night in an (appallingly lit) orchestral rehearsal. I was shooting at ISO 2000-3200, 1/60th, f.2.8, and trying to get sharp shots of a mandolin soloist (!) who never stopped jumping around. There was no time to shoot bursts: it was stretching my every power of prediction to hit the button neatly in advance of ‘the moment’. Continuous Focus completely failed to keep up; Single Point hunted wildly at times, and even when it appeared to lock on, often refused to release the shutter; at times Auto-Area AF focused nicely on the jacket it preferred but failed to give sharp eyes. Should we really need Face Recognition? I had to track from a focus point 1/3 up the frame: there would have been no time at all to recompose. Almost the only rewarding shots from the evening were posed later, by request. Your advice, from valuable experience, would be gratefully received please!

    • 20
      ) Janelle

      Graham,

      I shoot fast-moving children all of the time in various lighting situations. I am not a professional, but I take pictures of my children and their friends at their various events (soccer, boy scouts, church…). Here are some things that might help you. Sometimes with a fast-moving subject and a wide aperture it is necessary to manually focus your lens to get more keepers. However, a faster shutter speed would also help to freeze the action if you can obtain focus automatically. I don’t know how “jumpy” the mandolin player was, but I would try something closer to 1/150 at least, possibly faster. That being said, I don’t know your camera and the environment (I see your ISO was already pretty high), so if that is out of the question, a little bit narrower apperture (maybe 3.5 or 4) might give you a better chance of having your subject in focus since it would allow a wider depth of field (more front to back area in focus). Also, you didn’t mention how far away you were from the subject or what focal length you were shooting at (70mm or 200mm, etc…). If you were shooting at 200mm and very far away (for example, the back of a long auditorium), you might try moving closer to the subject to obtain focus more easily. (I know this is not always possible.)

      My personal preference at soccer games (subjects that are constantly moving quickly) is to manually focus. This might sound intimidating, but after a little practice it’s pretty easy to do. I find I get many more keepers this way.

      • 21
        ) Janelle

        Forgive me if you already know this, but it occurred to me that you may not–VR will only help to compensate for “your” movement, not the movement of your subject. If your subject is moving a lot, then you will be forced to use a higher shutter speed to freeze the action. 1/125 may be a fast enough shutter speed for some moving objects, but others may require a shutter speed as quick as 1/250 or so (very fast objects).

  9. 13
    ) Randall

    Roman,

    Your articles are very interesting and relevant. Great work!

    Randall

  10. Great article (as always).

    Just to make the story complete you could add
    - Lock your breathing before taking a shot
    - Lock your elbow(s) against your body when shooting
    - Some f1.8 lenses have much faster auto-focus than the f1.4 version (Nikon 50mm for example). This can help a lot

    Lastly, although deadly to say, consider Nikon instead of Canon. I know of one good wedding photographer who said that he’d switch to Nikon if he had to start all over, only because of the auto focus. The difference has become a lot smaller nowadays, perhaps even no longer there.

    • Hello, Robin!

      In my practice, I’ve found slowly exhaling to work better than locking your breathing, but this of course is different for everyone.

      Also, recent Canon AF systems – those found in 5D III and 1DX – are at least a match for the Nikon’s best. Most Canon prime lenses are also much quicker to focus. So it’s really down to the skill of photographer most of the time.

      Thank you for your valuable input!

  11. 15
    ) Thierry

    Nice article as usual. It appears to me that there is something crutial you dont tell when I look at the pictures: I bet that the camera was set on spot mesure with a correction of about -1, was it ?

    • Hello, Thierry. Thank you for reading!
      Exposure settings are a slightly different topic, I think. In this case I’m afraid to say you are somewhat wrong – I never use any kind of AE for work and only very rarely for simple snaps. This was shot in manual exposure mode.

      • 17
        ) Thierry

        I agree to say its a different topic, … but not that much. I like to underexpose a bit indoor pictures, because it renders better the atmosphere, and that way you can use a shorter exposure. That says, I should confess that I dont use a lot the manual exposure mode, except when I use a flashlight (that way I can control the exposure of the background).

        • Thank you for your thoughts, Thierry, much appreciated!

          AE settings tend to change all the time. They are less dependent on the light and more on where you point your camera. Whenever AE settings change, one also needs to alter exposure compensation, which means fiddling with the controls. For this reason I prefer to be in manual mode, but it’s just me.

          In any case, this article is more on learning how to focus. There will be a different article on minimizing high ISO noise.

  12. 18
    ) Peter Gaunt

    One thing you hint at by your choice of pics but not in the text is the possibility of going monochrome. My D7000 and 35mm f1.8 combination produces decent colour pics up to 3200 ISO in lowish light. I don’t worry too much about using it for colour at 6400 ISO either a lot of the time but quite frequently I’ve produced acceptable monochrome pics at 12800 ISO and even 25600 ISO in very low light (parties etc.). I reckon it’s about as good at 8000 ISO as Tri-X film pushed to 1600 ISO. Fine by me.

    • It’s a good point when one want high ISO noise to be less distracting, Peter, and I will talk about it in an upcoming article. However, it doesn’t help when trying to focus in the dark, which this article is all about. :)

  13. 23
    ) Graham

    Thank you Janelle, but the problem is solely that of acquiring focus in challenging surroundings with subjects that dart around unpredictably. Even with my 70-300 VR2 I have managed to hand-hold pin-sharp rehearsal head-shots at 1/6th sec. and 300mm! (Shooting in slow bursts certainly raises the chances.) Of course the 70-200 VR2 is infinitely superior (and more appropriate). Which brings us in ‘at the top’ again…

    Manual pre-focus (and surely the depth of field is similar whether shooting closer at 100mm or further away at 200mm) is far too rough a ‘guestimate’ to ensure anything sharp in this context. Yes, it might give greater d-o-f to stop down a bit and pay the price in more noise — but I do try to keep my ISO no higher than 3200, though of course much can be cleaned up after the event: I use the superb Topaz DeNoise plug-in, along with the rest of the suite, occasionally.

    “Plan Z: When in doubt, practise”!

  14. What a great article thank you, for sheding light on things. (Couldnt resist).

    Though this info really helps, I still seem to have a problem with being self conscious. It’s like I’m always scared of irritating people with my flash or even just drawing attention to myself. Even at f1.8 I had problems shooting at a low light venue, bumping up the ISO so much as 6400!!!! 

    • 29
      ) Himanshu

      I also have the same issue, and noticed your question after dropping mine. Waiting for experts to confirm.

  15. 28
    ) Himanshu

    great article. I have a question. I have D5100 with 18-55 VR and 40mm f2.8 lens. Which one should I use for low light pics?

    I tried 40mm prime but couldn’t click a decent photo on f2.8 and ISO 100-400, without flash. Do I need to increase ISO for shooting handheld without flash? Is this common with all prime lenses, ie increase ISO to 800+ to click without flash and tripod?

    • 30
      ) Ferhat

      Definitely 40mm f2.8. It’s sharper than a kit lens. For shooting handheld, i think you can go up to ISO 800 without flash. Beyond this range, your photos can be grainy.

  16. 31
    ) Maria

    Hello! I am wondering how do photographers do this white/fog effect like the once you have in thiss pictures..thank you!

    • Maria, could you be more specific?

      • 33
        ) Maria Botnari

        You can see it more in black and white first pic… somehow you add fog effect.. i noticed that a lot of photographers use it lately

        • There is no effect, Maria :) It’s light and B&W conversion, that’s all.

  17. 35
    ) Cyrus

    Hello! Great article!

    I am currently looking into buying a prime lens and I have one question that I haven’t found a satisfactory answer for and was hoping that you could answer it for me :)

    Say you are shooting a group picture (e.g. 4-8 people) in a low-light situation. To get proper exposure, you have raised your ISO (to say 800) and opened the aperture to say 1.4. With the aperture wide-open presumably the DOF is quite small. How do you as a photographer make sure that all the subjects are in focus? Or would you use some other method instead of opening the aperture wide?

    Thanks.

    • 36
      ) Robin

      Group shots should never be taken with f1.4. Some shots might work out ok (in you make sure everyone is in an arch around the camera and no one is behind anyone else, but you’ll always have too many shots with heads out of focus. You’ll always need to shoot around f4 or even better at f5.6. Getting the shot right is more important than getting artistic merits for shooting at f1.4. The solution is simple, get a good camera where you can boost ISO higher, use good noise reduction software (Lightroom 4 for example) and in particular use flashes if you can. All of my group shots in the summer are shots with flashes. During the late afternoon as fill light to ease the harsh shadows and as the main source of light once the light starts going.
      I always have one flash on camera and an extra with. In emergency situations this means you can always use a second flash as a slave in your left hand if your camera has CLS.

      • 37
        ) Cyrus

        Hi Robin,

        Thanks for your quick response.

        Friends of mine have recently adopted a child and want me to photograph a party that they are throwing. Before I take pictures with all the other guests (where I can use f5.6), I want to take some good pictures with the Mom, Dad and Child. For a group of 3, would you still recommend f5.6 (with flash of course) or can I go lower with a smaller group.

        • 38
          ) Robin

          It’s all a matter of distances between your cameras and the faces you are shooting.
          If you are shooting the heads face on and you make them squish their head together you could even attempt f1.4 (at your own risk), if you are shooting from the side them you’ll definitely need a higher f-stop. In any case, for important shots it’s always good to a few different shots. So take three shots, one full body, one zoomed in on the heads, and one from an angle. You adapt the f-stop accordingly to what’s possible. Keep in mind that nothing’s more frustrating than having a fantastic picture, beautiful people, fantastic expressions, a fantastic background, and one or two eyes that are out of focus because you tried to push things too far… My best group shots are always taken in low-light, thanks to flashes and a prime lens (even if not used at f1.4). The people and background colors just pop.

          Good luck with the shot & have fun! Get the people to enjoy themselves, make sure there’s nothing disturbing in the background, and then you can take the most fantastic pictures even at f16.

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