Low light photography is not necessarily just night photography, as many people assume. There could be different amounts of light coming from various sources and whatever is less than daytime light outside, I consider low-light. Indoors photography without much ambient light (as in many of our homes) as well as the light that is barely visible to our eyes at night, is also considered to be low-light. In this article, I will provide tips on how to take pictures in various low-light environments, whether indoors or outdoors.
Three levels of low-light
Before we go any further, let’s first identify the varying levels of low-light and categorize them, so that we could refer to them in examples. 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 still decided to divide it into three categories:
- Visible: in daylight, when you happen to be in shadow areas behind buildings, under large trees or bridges.
- Low Light: after sunset, when you can still clearly see everything around you, but you can tell that it is getting dark or when you are indoors.
- Dark: at 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.
1) Low light photography: Visible Conditions
Have you had a situation where you were in a shadow during the day and tried to take a picture? This was one of my frustrations when I bought my first DSLR, because I couldn’t understand why my pictures were coming out blurry. At times, the images on the rear LCD of the camera would look OK, but when I eventually viewed them on the computer screen, they would all be a little blurry. I had no idea why it was happening and really needed to find out why.
As I later found out, apparently, our eyes can see a much broader range of light, which is known as “dynamic range” in photography, than our cameras do. Therefore, even though you might think that there is plenty of light when you are in a shadow area, in fact, there might be inadequate light for the camera to effectively capture the image. Depending on your camera settings, there might be two consequences: a) you will have a blurry image and b) you might have a lot of noise in your image.
1.1) Shoot at higher shutter speeds to avoid blurry images
So, why do blurry images happen? The answer is in the camera shutter speed. 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. You might ask “what is a fast shutter speed?”. It depends on the focal length of your lens. If you are photographing a subject with a wide-angle lens between 10-24mm, you might get away with shutter speeds under 1/50th of a second, depending on your camera hand-holding technique. If you are using a telephoto lens longer than 100mm, I recommend applying the reciprocal rule to calculate your optimal shutter speed. 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)
But 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. In order to do that, you would have to either switch to “Aperture Priority” mode or manually override your aperture in whatever mode you are using. Then, start lowering your aperture till you get to the lowest number your camera will allow.
1.3) Use a faster lens
The lowest number depends on the speed of your lens. Most consumer zoom lenses are limited to f/3.5 for maximum aperture, while professional zoom lenses have an aperture of f/2.8 and some prime (fixed) lenses can go all the way to f/1.2. How will decreasing aperture affect your shutter speed? Let’s say you were shooting at f/8.0 aperture and 1/125th shutter speed. Decreasing aperture to f/5.6 will double your shutter speed to 1/250th of a second, while lowering it to f/4.0 will quadruple the shutter speed to 1/500th of a second, which is plenty to freeze motion. If you have a fast lens with a maximum aperture of f/1.4 or f/1.8, just keep in mind that decreasing the aperture to the lowest number will also decrease the depth of field, so you will have to make sure to acquire correct focus before you take a picture. If you shoot Nikon, I recommend getting one of the following prime lenses, depending on your budget: Nikon 50mm f/1.4G, Nikon 50mm f/1.8D and Nikon 35mm f/1.8G (DX only). There is a similar selection for Canon Canon cameras: Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM, Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II, Canon EF 28mm f/1.8 USM.
1.4) Use a lens with VR/IS 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! Many of the consumer zoom lenses such as Nikon 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G VR and Nikon 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G VR II come with VR technology. While it is certainly nice to have VR in such versatile lenses, unfortunately, these lenses are also slower and not as sharp as prime lenses such as the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G. Zoom lenses with a fixed aperture and VR/IS technology are professional, expensive lenses such as the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II (read my Nikon 70-200mm VR II review) pictured below and are also great choices for low-light photography.
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. How did I calculate that? Basically, doubling your ISO doubles your shutter speed. So, increasing the camera ISO from 100 to 200, increases your shutter speed from 1/25th of a second to 1/50th of a second. Then, increasing it further more from 200 to 400 increases the shutter speed from 1/50th of a second to 1/100th of a second. Technically, the shutter speeds in the cameras a little different (1/30th, 1/60th and 1/125th of a second), but I used the above numbers to make it easier to understand. The main thing to remember, is that doubling ISO doubles your shutter speed.
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. I forgot to bring the flashes when we were photographing the below group, so we quickly found a solution by opening up a large gate and letting lots of exterior light in.
2.2) Stabilize yourself
That’s right – learn to stabilize yourself and hold your camera better. Use your left hand to support the camera by putting it with your palm facing up in between the camera lens and the camera body (or wherever the center of the weight is). 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 Noise 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. On my full-frame Nikon D700 body, I can push up ISO to 6400 every once in a while.
2.4) Shoot in RAW mode 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. I typically allow 1-1.5 stops of negative exposure compensation…anything above that might not allow me to recover the details I need. Try it – it really works! Some photographers give advice to bracket exposures, but I personally prefer to use exposure compensation instead.
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. Many DSLR cameras are equipped with an “AF assist” light in front of the camera that lights up just like a flashlight when there is not enough light to illuminate the subject. If you have such functionality, definitely turn it on in dim environments. On Nikon DSLRs, switch your camera from continuous mode (“C”) to single (“S”) mode to turn on this feature. When you focus on a subject, make sure that it looks sharp in the viewfinder. If it is blurry, try to re-acquire focus by half-pressing the shutter/autofocus button. 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.
2.6) Use a full-frame camera
A full frame sensor is expensive, but very helpful in low-light situations. The Nikon D700 (FX/Full Frame) has approximately the same amount of noise at ISO 3200 as the Nikon D300 (DX/Cropped sensor) at ISO 800. It truly does make a huge difference in low-light environments. During my last trip to Vegas, I shot many of the images at night hand-held with the D700. If I had a DX sensor, I would have needed a tripod to get similar images, because I was already pushing the low-light capability of the D700 at that point.
2.7) Use a monopod or a tripod
And last, but not least, try using a monopod or a tripod that will really help with keeping your gear still. A monopod is helpful in some situations, but I personally prefer using a tripod for most of my low-light photography. With a tripod, you could set your ISO to the lowest number to decrease the amount of noise and shoot at very slow shutter speeds. Obviously, slow shutter speeds mean that you would get a lot of motion blur in your images, but in some cases it is not a problem and sometimes it even looks cool! Make sure to use a sturdy tripod, not one of those cheap plastic ones.
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 colors.
3.3) Use manual focus
When it is too dark, autofocus will 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, practice and practice!
I don’t have to say much here – just practice as much as you can and you will get better in no time!
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 :)
Good luck and let me know if you have any questions!