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
  • [amazonify]::omakase::300:250[/amazonify]

  • 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 tos/32269817@N00/3386660591/”>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 to.com/nightindex.html”>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.

tos-in-Low-Light.htm”>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 “tography/take_better_photos/tips/night.html”>Night and low-light photog­ra­phy” with var­i­ous good tips.

Steve Mirar­chi’s online tutor­i­al, “to.net/learn/concerts/mirarchi/concer_i”>Concert, Stage, and Low-Light Photog­ra­phy

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

to.com/Features/The-New-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”).


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

Better Tag Cloud