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Design & Style

13 Tips for Shooting in Low Light: How to Take Photos With Low Light

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 8, 2020 • 6 min read

Getting the best available light is one of the biggest challenges to taking good pictures. But there are a few tricks to making the most of less than ideal lighting conditions.

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How to Understand Shooting Without Light

Shooting in low light is challenging because you’re stretching each element of the exposure triangle to its limit. Understanding the exposure triangle is an important step to knowing how to use your camera, especially when shooting in low light. Your camera has three ways to control the amount of light that reaches its sensor:

  1. Shutter Speed: This is how long the shutter is open, expressed as a measurement of time. For example 1/100 means that your shutter is open for 1/100th of a second. Shutter speed allows you to freeze or blur a subject in motion.
  2. Aperture: This is how big the opening is that lets light in, expressed in f-stops. F-stops are counterintuitive, because the larger the number, the smaller the opening. For example, f/2.8 allows twice as much light into the camera as f4, and 16 times as much light as f11. Aperture affects the depth of field: larger openings create a shallower depth of field, while smaller openings make more of the image in focus.
  3. ISO: This is how sensitive your camera’s sensor is to light, expressed in a number. The higher the ISO number, the more sensitive your camera will be to light. But increased ISO will also increase digital noise in your images, so you typically want your ISO to be as low as possible as the native setting for your camera. Many photographers recommend staying between ISO 1600 and ISO 3200 for sharp images without too much noise.

All three of these variables work in conjunction with one another to get the correct exposure for your images. For example, if you open up the aperture to let more light in, you will need to have either a faster shutter speed or a lower ISO to compensate for this additional light.

When you’re shooting in low-light conditions, the dynamic range, or difference between the darkest and lightest parts of the subject, is small. Prioritizing any one part of the exposure triangle involves making compromises. You’ll often find yourself choosing between blur (slower shutter speed) and noise (higher ISO), while a wide aperture creates shallow depth of field, making it harder to focus.

What’s the Best Lens to Use for Low-Light Photography?

If you’re able to swap out your lens for low-light photography, consider using a prime lens, which has a fixed focal length and typically has a larger maximum aperture (f/1.4 to f/2.8). The kit lens is the lens that comes standard with a new camera. It’s a type of zoom lens that typically has a focal length of 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6. Inexpensive and versatile kit lenses can do a lot, but they’re not the best for low-light photography, since they have a small aperture range.

When using a kit lens for low-light photography, use aperture priority or manual mode, setting aperture to its widest setting, f/3.5. Avoid zooming in, since aperture will decrease as you zoom in (f/3.5 at 18mm or f/5.6 at 55mm).

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example of low light photography

What Are the Different Types of Low Light?

It can be useful to break low-light photography down into three different types of light:

  1. Visible, which is when you’re shooting in daylight, but with shadows.
  2. Low light, which is when you’re shooting outdoors after sunset, or indoors.
  3. Dark, or nighttime.

Any light that the photographer does not bring to the image is called ambient light. This includes natural light, such as sunlight or moonlight, and artificial light sources, such as streetlights and lamps. Depending on how little light you’re working with, you may have to use different techniques to get the shot.

4 Tips for Shooting in Visible Conditions

When you’re shooting in visible conditions, you’ll likely want to set your camera either to shutter priority, aperture priority, or manual mode.

  1. In manual or shutter priority mode, set your camera to the slowest possible shutter speed that allows you to take photos without inducing camera shake, or blur. Since the lens is open for a longer amount of time, you can let in more light, but there’s also more chance of movement the longer it takes to capture the image. Image stabilization can also help prevent camera shake.
  2. If you’re in manual mode, set your aperture to lowest f-number, or maximum aperture. This allows more light to pass through the lens, allowing you to use a faster shutter speed.
  3. If you’ve slowed down your shutter speed and increased aperture as much as you can and still aren’t getting enough light, you can increase the ISO, which allows your camera to use more light. Keep in mind that increasing the ISO will increase the noise (graininess) of the image.
  4. If you’ve played around with the exposure triangle and still aren’t getting the results you want, one trick is to slow down the shutter speed and take a lot of pictures. (This works better for digital cameras, which have higher storage capacity.) Even if you can’t reliably get a blur-free image at that lower shutter speed, chances are that if you take several photos in quick succession, one might turn out less blurry.

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4 Tips for Shooting in Low-Light Conditions

For low light conditions, try the following tips:

  1. Shoot in RAW instead of JPEG and underexpose to recover details and shadow in post-processing software such as Lightroom.
  2. Stabilize the camera by using your knee to support your arm so you can shoot at lower shutter speeds with less camera shake, or by using a tripod or monopod. If your camera has a tilting screen, you can use it as a makeshift tripod; you can also use your camera strap to help stabilize the camera. Work with what you have!
  3. Check autofocus: In low light, it’s harder for cameras to focus, so if you’re using autofocus, make sure it’s doing its job. Check your photos in display mode as you go. Some cameras are equipped with autofocus assist, a small light that helps the camera focus on the subject.
  4. Consider investing in an external flash if you take a lot of photos in low light.

5 Tips for Shooting in Dark Conditions or Conditions With No Light

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  1. Although a tripod can be handy for shooting in low light or visible conditions, it’s pretty much essential for night photography.
  2. Even if you’re using a tripod, blur can still happen due to vibrations that occur inside the camera. Try using a remote control or cable release if you have them, or enable self-timer or exposure delay. An electronic shutter, such as an electronic front curtain shutter, can help eliminate camera shake that results from the shutter mechanism itself, called Shutter shock. Shutter shock can happen with any camera but it’s more likely to happen with mirrorless cameras. Exposure delay mode can help reduce mirror slap in DSLR cameras, which is more noticeable when using a tripod.Depending on your camera and which of these tools you have available to you, you might want to try a combination of methods.
  3. Consider swapping out your camera or lens for something with a larger sensor. Full frame cameras (digital cameras with sensor size equivalent to 35mm film cameras) capture the most light, so they’re the best option best for low-light situations.
  4. If your subject too far away for the autofocus assist to be useful, use a flashlight to light up your subject and allow your camera to focus. If your subject is even farther away, or or you don’t have a flashlight, use manual focus rather than autofocus. If your camera has live view, you can try zooming in in live view to achieve focus.
  5. Try using the flash—If it’s too bright, you can adjust your flash to half power.

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