If photography is writing with light, then low light photography is like writing a novel with a half inch pencil stub. But, the perfect moments don’t pause to wait for perfect lighting and in fact, sometimes dark scenes make for amazing images. Whether it’s simply taking a photo inside your home, capturing an event inside a theatre or some nighttime sightseeing, you can take great photos with limited light—it will just take a little more work.
DSLRs are great tools for capturing low light scenes with large sensors and the potential for adding a good low light lens. But of course, no tool is greater than the knowledge of the craftsman behind it—here are eight low light photography tips to make the most of your DSLR.
Low light photography is much easier with some pre-planning. What kind of light will be there? When is the best time to take the photo? While you can’t choose the time of many images, subjects like night landscapes benefit from choosing the right time, like sunset for a warm glow, dusk for a blue tone or full night for really emphasizing any light sources.
The right tools makes low light photography much easier—and some shots are impossible without them. Plan ahead of time to bring a tripod, flash and your fastest lens. It’s also helpful to pack a small flashlight in your bag so you’re not fumbling around with the controls in the dark.
Less light means slower shutter speeds. Slower shutter speeds mean camera shake. Keep the blur at bay simply by using a tripod. While a tripod won’t combat blur from moving subjects, it will help prevent the entire image from blurring from camera shake. A tripod allows you to use slower shutter speeds than you could handheld and still get a sharp shot. To steady your shot even further, use a remote release (or the self timer if you don’t have one)—even with a tripod, your hand on the camera could introduce a bit of blur. Just make sure your tripod isn’t limiting your perspective—if you need, do some exploring first, then go back to retrieve your gear once you’ve found the right spot to set up.
If there’s ever a time to get off auto, it’s in low light. Learn manual modes, if you haven’t already, and use shutter priority mode. That will allow you to choose the right shutter speed for your shot. If you are trying to freeze action, try to keep it above 1/200. If you have a tripod and your subject is motionless (or you want to blur the motion), you can use a much slower shutter speed. Using shutter priority will make sure the shutter speed stays at the level you need, while selecting the rest of the settings for you. With more experience, you can take full control on manual mode.
Shooting in low light means choosing between the noise from a high ISO setting, or the blur from a slower shutter speed. Nine times out of ten, a noisy, sharp image is better than a blurry one — and that tenth time should be reserved for intentional motion blur with the long exposure technique. John Greengo, instructor for our Fundamentals of Photography class, says that sacrificing sharpness in an image is a classic novice slip-up. “Blur knocks every photograph down a step or two, so be ruthless in your sharpness.”
Noise can be reduced to some extent in Photoshop, but sharpness cannot be mimicked. If you capture a blurry photo, there’s no way to remedy that in post processing. Err on the side of noise over blur.
Some cameras perform great at high ISOs, while others create a grainy, splotchy mess. What category does your camera fall under? It’s important to know your gear, so you know just how high you can confidently push the ISO. Snap a few test shots at each ISO setting then view them at 100 percent on your computer. Where does noise creep in? Where does noise become unacceptable quality? While that’s a matter of opinion, look for things like color noise, or splotches of unusual color, and a big loss of detail.
When lighting is limited, it’s important to let as much light in as possible. That means using a wide aperture, or a low f-number. But, not all lenses are created equal when it comes to aperture. The kit lens that came with your DSLR probably has a maximum aperture of about f/3.6. But, many lenses will reach f/1.8 or even lower. If you are shooting with a kit lens, you’ll see a big jump in your low light image quality by adding a faster lens. Lenses with wide apertures are pricier, but prime lenses (with no zoom) can often be found for less than $300. Hungry for more Aperture info? Check out our Ultimate Aperture Guide.
Blur isn’t always a bad thing. The blur of moving water, clouds in the sky or people in a crowd, just to name a few, can create very effective images. Blur, when done right, gives an image a sense of motion and is something that every photographer should at least experiment with. Set your camera up on a tripod and use a long shutter speed—try starting at 30 s. and go up or down from there. Take a look at your first shot—for more blur, lower the shutter speed, for less, increase it. Long exposures can also be used with still subjects to use a lower ISO without blur.
Most new photographers are afraid to use flash—after all, how many photos have you seen that had an obvious “flash look” to them? Flash can be a great tool, but you have to use it right. Start by learning how to adjust your flash with manual mode. Even if you just have a pop-up flash, you can turn adjust the flash to half power or 1/16 to eliminate that bright “flash look”. Unlike manual exposure, there isn’t a meter for using manual flash, so it takes some practice, but it is well worth the extra time. It also helps to shoot towards any existing light sources, otherwise you’ll end up with a black background. If you have a hot shoe flash, you can also experiment with bouncing the flash by tilting it towards a wall or ceiling.
The lower the light is, the harder the shot is—but low light photography can produce great shots. Low light shots are full of emotion. Shooting the same scene at night will get vastly different results than photographing the same thing during the day. Mastering low light photography may be harder than tackling those well lit shots, but the results are well worth the extra effort.