As a photographer, it’s essential that you know how to shoot in any lighting conditions.
Weather and light can change on a dime; shoots can be delayed or take longer than expected.
No matter the reason, you’re bound to end up in a scenario where the light is not in your favor at some point in your photography career.
In this guide, we’ll go over different tips and techniques to help you the next time you find yourself shooting in low light conditions.
We’ll cover what camera settings work best, the gear you need, and techniques you can use to help you capture amazing low light photos.
Types of Low Light Conditions
Before we get started, let’s first define the different types of low light conditions.
Not all light is the same.
Low light can be categorized into three different types of light: visible light, low light, and dark light.
Before you can begin shooting in low light you need to determine the type of low light you are in and adjust your settings and methods accordingly.
1. Visible Low Light
Visible low light typically occurs when there are deep shadows during the day. For example, when shooting outdoors, the shadow or a car or tree can be up to two stops darker than the brighter areas of your scene.
2. Low Light
Low light typically occurs after sunset. During this time, objects and areas are still distinguishable to the human eye. But, there is not enough light to illuminate them in a photo. Low light is also typical when shooting indoors.
3. Dark Low Light
In dark low light conditions, the only things that are visible are bright, illuminated objects. Nighttime is the most common reason for dark low light conditions. Dark low light requires the most adjustments of the three low light photography.
Tips on How to Shoot in Low Light Conditions
1. Shoot in Manual Mode
One of the first steps you can apply to capture better low light photos is to shoot in manual mode. In manual mode, you have control overall all of your exposure settings: aperture, ISO, and shutter speed. With full control over all of your settings, you will be able to adjust the exposure in your scene more precisely.
Shutter speed, aperture, and ISO are the foundations of exposure. Adjusting either setting changes the exposure of your scene.
In low light, the goal is always to increase the exposure of your scene to make certain elements more visible. There are three ways you can increase the exposure of your scene: increase your ISO, use a wider aperture (smaller f-stop), or use slower shutter speed.
Those are the three basic ways you can increase your exposure. The setting you adjust will depend on your photographic goals.
For example, if you want to avoid capturing blur in your photos, then it is probably best to use a wider aperture so that you can use fast shutter speed to freeze any motion.
2. Increase Your ISO
One way to make your images brighter during low light conditions is to increase your ISO. Raising your ISO is the most effective strategy if you can’t achieve the proper exposure by adjusting your aperture or shutter speed alone.
Increasing your ISO will amplify the digital information your camera sensor records, which allows you to maintain your depth of field and shutter speed. For example, you want to keep a portion of your frame out of focus and freeze motion with a fast shutter speed, then increasing your ISO is the best option.
Remember that increasing your ISO will also increase the digital noise in an image. Images with digital noise look like they have static and are not visually pleasing.
That said, advanced cameras today can shoot typically shoot at high ISO settings without adding significant noise. The best way to determine how well your camera performs at high ISO settings is to test it yourself. Take an image of the same composition at each ISO setting and compare them in post-processing. Then determine the highest ISO setting that doesn’t add an undesirable amount of noise.
As a rule of thumb, I typically try to avoid using ISO values higher than 3200. As a last resort under dark low light, I will use an ISO of 6400. As I mentioned before, this will highly depend on the camera you are using. If you feel the need to use an ISO higher than 6400, an alternative is to use an external flash or light source.
It is important to note that an image with noise is better than a blurry image. It’s better to increase your ISO to make your image brighter rather than use a slow shutter speed that causes blur.
3. Use Slow Shutter Speeds
Your shutter speed will determine how long your sensor is exposed to light. Slower shutter speeds allow more light to enter the camera while faster shutter speeds allow less light to enter the camera.
Slow shutter speeds are beneficial when shooting in low light so that you can increase the exposure of your scene. When using slow shutter speeds, a tripod is necessary to avoid blur caused by camera shake.
As a rule of thumb to avoid camera shake while shooting handheld, you can set your shutter speed to one over your focal length. For example, If you are using a focal length of 85mm, then you should use a shutter speed of 1/85 of a second or faster. If you use a shutter speed that is slower than 1/85, your image will likely experience camera shake.
If you are using a crop frame camera, set your shutter speed to one over your focal length times the crop factor of your camera. For example, if you are using an 85mm lens and your camera has a crop factor of 1.5 then your shutter speed should be 1/127 of a second (1/ 85 x 1.5) or faster.
To ensure you can use the slowest possible shutter speed, use a tripod. A tripod will allow you to use much slower shutter speeds without experiencing any camera shake.
4. Use Fast Lenses and Wide Apertures
Your camera’s aperture refers to the opening that allows light to reach your lens. By adjusting the width of this opening, you can change the amount of light that enters the lens.
It is important to remember that wide apertures have small f-numbers. Lenses with smaller f-numbers have wider maximum apertures. The wider a lens can go, the better it is for low light photography.
When shooting in low light, you will need a fast lens. Without a fast lens, you won’t have wide enough apertures to help you adjust for the low light.
Lenses with high maximum apertures are referred to as fast lenses. This is because you can achieve the same exposure with faster shutter speed. The darker the lighting conditions of your scene, the faster your lens will need to be.
In visible low light, your lens does not have to be as fast as other situations.
For images in visible low light, you can use a lens with a maximum aperture of at least f/3.5. This is typically wide enough to adjust for darker areas in a scene.
In low light and dark low light, you will need a much faster lens. In low light, I recommend a lens with a maximum aperture of at least f/2 or f/2.8. In dark low light, I recommend you use a lens with a maximum aperture of at least f/1.8 or faster.
Fast lenses allow you to use wide apertures and continue using fast shutter speeds to adjust for the dark exposure in your scene. If you are trying to freeze motion or shoot handheld, a fast lens is crucial to the success of your photo.
Fast lenses can be expensive, but one way to avoid this is by buying a fast prime lens. Prime lenses are much cheaper than zoom lenses, and they are often much faster than zoom lenses. For example, you can find a 50mm f/1.8 prime lens for less than $300. A zoom lens with a similar aperture range can cost thousands of dollars.
|Brand||Focal Length ||Maximum Aperture||Type||Price|
5. Adjust Your White Balance
It’s important always to adjust your white balance to match the type of lighting you are in. This will eliminate any unwanted color cast in your images. Depending on your lighting conditions, there are preset white balance settings that will help you easily adjust to different lighting situations.
For example, if you are shooting in visible low light the overcast or shade white balance preset will produce good results.
If you are shooting in low light or dark low light, you can use the shade white balance preset. This setting does not always apply the best color correction, so I recommend you use your custom white balance settings.
Low lighting conditions typically have lower Kelvin values than brighter lighting conditions. Use this as a guide when setting your custom white balance setting. I typically suggest starting around 4000K and adjusting your white balance until you reach your desired settings.
When using custom white balance, a good trick to make your image appear a bit brighter is to use higher white balance values, then you generally would.Warmer light enhances the color of the shadows a bit more.
It is important to note that higher white balance values will not make your image brighter, and it’s not an alternative to adjusting your exposure. Adjusting your white balance will only give your shadows a small boost. Also, avoid increasing your white balance too much as this will give your image a warm or orange color cast.
6. Shoot in RAW
RAW images produce higher quality images, and this is more apparent when shooting at night.
In low light conditions, shooting in RAW is your best option. RAW has a wider dynamic range allowing it to retain detail in shadows better than JPEG.
RAW images can also capture the differences in color and exposure more accurately than JPEGs. This is important in low light photography because it will allow you to capture different levels of low light.
Another reason you should shoot in RAW is because of the greater editing power and flexibility. With RAW images, you can easily adjust your exposure, shadows, highlights, and contrast, among other things, without affecting the quality of your images.
This is important during low light photography because if you don’t quite get the right exposure on-site, you can adjust the exposure in post-processing. With RAW images, you can increase the exposure and retrieve details from shadows while in JPEG this is typically not possible.
Resource: RAW vs JPEG: The Full Story
7. Use A Large Sensor Camera
While a large sensor camera is a sizable financial investment, it’s remarkably useful for low light photography. Larger sensors gather more light because of the larger surface area of the sensor. Using a larger camera sensor is a great way to increase your exposure without adjusting your settings.
If you are currently using a micro-four-thirds sensor or something smaller, you can always start by upgrading to an APS-C sensor first and in time upgrading to a full-frame camera.
Full frame cameras allow you to collect more light and have a brighter image for the same exposure settings when compared to a crop sensor.
|Nikon D850||DSLR||45.7||High||Check Price|
|Nikon D750||DSLR||24.9||Mid||Check Price|
|Nikon Z7||Mirrorless||45.7||High||Check Price|
|Canon EOS RP||Mirrorless||26.2||Mid||Check Price|
8. Use Autofocus Assist (AF Assist)
If you are using autofocus in low light, there is a high chance that your autofocus won’t’ work. Autofocus systems are not built to operate in the dark. In low light situations, your scene will lack sufficient contrast for autofocus to work properly.
A great way to compensate for low light conditions is to use AF assist. When using AF assist, your camera will use a small illumination light in front of the camera to temporarily illuminate your scene to help your camera autofocus.
The idea is that additional light will emphasize the contrast and object in your scene, making it easier for your camera to autofocus.
AF assist is usually sufficient when shooting in visible low light but, if you are shooting in low light or dark low light, then AF assist may not work. Also, if your subject or focal point is far away, then the AF assist will likely not be sufficient to help your camera autofocus.
9. Light Up Your Scene with an External Light Source
If AF assist is not sufficient light to help your autofocus system work, you can use a flashlight or some external light source to help you focus.
A flashlight is a practical, easily accessible external light source for low light photography. To use a flashlight as an external light source in photography, prepare a low light scene as usual. Then, use your flashlight to paint your scene. Remember to use your flashlight to highlight your subject.
Using an external light source will enhance the contrast in your scene, making it easier for your camera to autofocus. It will also make it easier to focus because your subject is more visible in your viewfinder.
You can also use other external light sources to light up your scenes such as campfires, street lights, and car lights. These external lights can add an interesting compositional element to your scene while also illuminating your scene and helping you focus.
10. Manual Focus Static Subjects
In low light photography, autofocus and AF assist likely won’t produce optimal results. These features will be slow to work and aren’t guaranteed to focus correctly. Instead, if your subject is still, attempt using manual focus to achieve sharp detail in your photo.
When shooting at night, your best option is to use manual focus. Simply adjust your focus ring until your subject is sharp and in focus. You can always just turn your focus to infinity, and your subject will likely be in focus.
Once you’ve brought your subject into focus, steer clear of the zoom ring, given that focus adjustments must be made at every focal length.
12. Use Live View Focus
Another way you to help you focus while shooting in low light conditions is by using live-view. This is especially useful when you are using a light source to enhance your subject.
Once your image is composed, turn your live view on and zoom in on your subject. While you’re zoomed in, adjust your focus ring manually until your subject is sharp.
You can use the same process if you are using autofocus. But remember zooming in will not help you focus. Rather it will just make it easier to determine if your object is sharp and in focus.
13. Use Flash to Light Up Your Images
One of the most intuitive options when shooting in low light is to use flash. You can use your cameras pop-up flash or an external flash. I recommend an external flash since you often have more control than a pop-up flash can have limitations.
It is important to note that you will likely only need to use flash during low light or dark low light. During these lighting conditions without a flash, your subject may not be visible at all. If possible, I would try only using flash during dark low light or if you can achieve your desired image by adjusting your exposure settings.
It is important to note that when you use a flash, you should not lower your ISO to 100. At an ISO of 100, your background will appear dark and less detailed. You should reduce your ISO but adjust it to keep your background detailed and bright.
I suggest keeping your ISO around 400 or 800. These settings will provide a solid level of detail for most cameras. But, cameras vary from model to model, so experiment to find the right ISO setting for you.
The light from an external flash can often appear too severe, use a diffuser to solve this issue. If you do not have a diffuser, you can bounce your flash off a wall or ceiling to reduce the severity.
Sometimes, despite the benefits of using your camera’s flash for low-light settings, it may not be possible. Examples of scenarios in which you shouldn’t use flash include:
- Public locations that prohibit the use of flash, including sports venues, museums, and places of worship
- Areas with several other photographers, where your flash could ruin others’ images
- Areas where a flash could disturb or distract the people around you
- On wildlife shoots, where your flash may startle animals or even damage their eyesight
There are also distinct disadvantages to using flash in photography. For one, when the flash is directed at your subject head-on, it appears artificial and is often unflattering. Additionally, any ambient light that’s present at your shoot can be overwhelmed by your camera’s flash.
But, when used well, your camera’s flash can boost the artistic value of your shot. This is often true in low light photography. So, the use of flash shouldn’t be disregarded altogether, though it should be used thoughtfully.
14. Use a Monopod or Tripod
A monopod or tripod is a great way to keep your camera steady. Tripods and monopods are the best way to ensure you can use slow shutter speeds and keep your ISO low.
When buying a tripod or monopod, stability and durability are the most important features. You must avoid buying a cheap plastic tripod/monopod and invest in a quality tripod/monopod.
If you are looking for a tripod that doubles as a monopod, I recommend the ZOMEI Travel Tripod. This tripod will give you the versatility of having a tripod and monopod with you at all times.
If you are looking for a traditional tripod, then I recommend the Manfrotto Befree Travel Tripod. With the Manfrotto name you are guaranteed stability and durability. A major bonus is that the tripod is easy to use and relatively light weight.
This tripod delivers great stability and durability and carries the well-known Manfrotto
15. Stabilize Yourself
In addition to purchasing a tripod, learning how to best steady yourself as the photographer is an invaluable tool. To support the camera, use the palm of your non-dominant hand in between the body and the lens of the camera. Keep your elbows close to your torso.
If possible, take a seated position and have your knee take the weight of your non-dominant arm for support.
Work on pressing the shutter button as softly as possible for maximum sharpness. When you become experienced in these shooting techniques, it will be possible to avoid camera shake while using slow shutter speeds.
16. Use Image Stabilization
The final way to ensure you get sharp images is to use image stabilization. Image stabilization is a feature that eliminates camera shake while shooting handheld.
Camera and lenses can both have image stabilization, but it’s important that you first confirm if your equipment has this feature. Image stabilization is capable of reducing camera shake by 3 and 5 stops.
For example, without image stabilization, you can use a shutter speed of 1/250 before experiencing camera shake. With image stabilization, you would be able to use a shutter speed between 1/30 and 1/8 of a second, depending on the quality of your image stabilization.
This means that you will be able to use a slower shutter speed before you experience any camera shake. This is ideal for low light photography because it allows you to use slower shutter speeds while still capturing a sharp photo.
17. Adjust Your LCD Screen
Your camera’s rear LCD screen will seem far brighter than usual when you’re shooting in low light. If possible with your camera model, adjust the brightness setting of your LCD screen. By lowering the brightness of this screen, you can keep the previews of your images from being over-illuminated. With a too-bright LCD screen, it’s difficult to notice when your image is underexposed.
Rest assured that a sharply focused low light photo is attainable with the proper equipment and preparation. Here I covered the essential tips you can implement to take photos in three different types of low light.
So, beyond the possibilities listed above, explore and experiment to discover new low light effects in photography. Even when light is limited, your unique perspective as a photographer can shine through in your images.