Low-light photography techniques

Tips and techniques for indoor photography and photographing night scenes

Quick tips for shooting in low light

These are the basics.

  • Use the fastest lens you can — that is, a lens with the widest aperture — and one with the widest focal length you can. A wide, fast lens is always preferable in low-light situations: a 28mm f/1.8 lens, for instance, would be ideal for indoor low-light shots
  • Use the slowest shutter speed you can. You’ll have to be rigid with holding the camera — use a monopod or tripod if you can, or hold the camera hard and level against your body. A rule of thumb for hand-holding a camera without blur is given on a thread linked below: for image clarity, the minimum shutter speed is 1/[focal length] used. So if you have a 50mm lens, you can successfully shoot at 1/50 a second in the hand, but with a 250mm lens you couldn’t shoot any slower than 1/250 a second.
  • Higher ISO settings will let you get pictures in lower light, but they increase grain. Try setting a lower ISO and a slower shutter speed, allowing for crisper and less grainy photos — provided the camera’s held still; the basic rule here is to use the lowest ISO you can
  • If it’s too dark to use autofocus, try setting the focus manually
  • If you’re going for candid people shots, turn off the autofocus beam
  • Always remember to play with the white balance: in low light your camera’s sensor isn’t going to be the best with picking up color; the auto, manual, and preset settings will give you a range of different effects
  • Keep the camera steady, which means using a tripod or monopod all of the time; in low light, the difference between even a very steady hand and a tripod will be great
  • If you’re using a flash, play with the settings; try using a diffuser or an off-camera flash if you can
  • Shoot in RAW mode when you can; you’ll be able to grab more out of the uncompressed RAW-format files than a typical JPEG
  • If you’re shooting out-of-doors, try shooting at dusk or dawn if you can, instead of at night: you won’t have to follow so many of the above rules, so it’ll be easier to take better pictures

Digital “pushing”

If you don’t have a fast enough lens, so when you’ve set the aperture to the widest possible setting you’re still shooting at too slow of a shutter speed for holding your camera in the hand, what you can do is try to “push” the digital image: set the exposure compensation down one to two stops so that you can shoot at a slightly faster speed. Shoot a RAW image instead of a lossy JPEG, and then use your RAW conversion software to “push” the image.

If you have the time, you can always try bracketing: taking a series of shots with the exposure compensation adjusted + a bit, at 0, and - a bit.

Fill flash tricks

You can try a very slow shutter speed with flash; HP’s guide (linked below) suggests 3 seconds with flash for a night portrait shot. Also see if your camera has a Night Snapshot or Night Shot mode; this mode can adjust the shutter speed and gives a fast flash at the end of the exposure for interesting effect. (Be sure to try this with a tripod.)

MacTalk user gallet explains his fill-flash trick for getting good, colorful and atmospheric shots under tungsten lighting. Basically:

  • Set flash to TTL
  • Underexpose by about 1.5 or 2 steps
  • Use a “daylight” color balance / white balance setting
  • Set the ISO to 800 and don’t go higher than that
  • Use a shutter speed of 1/30 a second — shooting at Shutter Speed Priority mode if your camera has it — and hold the camera steady

The slower shutter speed allows for some blurriness in the photo, which gives interest to candid people shots. But these settings will also ensure that you’ve got a colorful image with no overwhelming dark areas.

Some photographers recommend setting an even lower ISO setting, such as 400, and upping the shutter speed to 1/60. There will be less blur, but if full clarity across the frame is what you’re going for, that would be better.

Another photographer on the same board, Sitthixay, recommends experimenting off these basic guidelines and not be afriad to try setting the camera on Aperture Priority and Manual modes. An example of a nighttime Aperture Priority shot at f/4.0 with ETTL flash and taken at 1/20 a second is his people shot of New Year’s Eve in Kuala Lumpur. He notes that rear curtain sync was set on the flash in order to emphasize movement; notice how the entire image is colorful but the two foreground figures are in sharper focus than the rest and seem to jump out of the frame. Other photographers have used this technique with 1/20 a second, a set aperture of f/5.6 and flash compensation set -1/2 or -1. With a smaller aperture and increased exposure time, some areas of the image will be all blur and light.

Color tricks

For indoor club or candid people shots, try turning the color temp up if your digital camera has that setting. For example if the normal setting is around 5200, crank it to the 7500-9000 range. Everyone will have a tan, but the overall effects on the color will be interesting.

Study the output of others

Read the EXIF data on the digital camera shots of other good photographers. Some good examples of indoor photography and club photo galleries are at Cooljunkie and Ryan Pfieffer, and the very bright and colorful night photos of Forrest Stewart.

For further reference

You need light to make a photograph. In low light scenarios you’re trying to squeeze out the most from your camera and the scene to make a great shot; here are more links with information on how to do so.

The Nocturnes is a site dedicated to night photography and has workshops and plenty of examples.

Ken Rockwell has a very good article with tips and advice on this subject: Night Photography.

Get Great Photos in Low Light” by Derrick Story is a good article that covers the basics for shooting in low light with a digital camera.

Low light photography: a long series of short ideas and suggestions.

Hewlett-Packard’s online photo tip guide has a section called “Night and low-light photography” with various good tips.

Steve Mirarchi’s online tutorial, “Concert, Stage, and Low-Light Photography

M. Kirschbaum’s long and informative 2005 article, Tips for Night and Low Light Photography

The New Low-Light Photography” is a 2008 article on the new digital SLRs and the possibilities for low-light shots that their image sensors now give (“ISO 1600 is the new 200”).

More…

First published on April 28th, 2009 at 12:10 pm (EST) and last modified on May 6th, 2009 at 12:48 pm (EST).