Chris is a photography enthusiast and blogger. He enjoys learning new photography techniques and practicing old ones.
Low-light photography is one of the more challenging elements when taking photos. Whether purposefully creating a low light scene or photographing in a venue that offers little in the way of good lighting, every photographer will necessarily have to eventually deal with little to no lighting.
Technically, getting enough light onto your camera sensor will require an understanding of the basics of ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. Today’s digital camera certainly has the intelligence to aid in automatically collecting the photo without having to manually dial in these components.
However, what is the fun and challenge of that? Additionally, there will be times when an auto camera setting will be woefully inadequate to record the scene you are trying to shoot.
The below tips will help you to succeed in low-light photography no matter what the venue.
Crank Up the ISO
Setting a high ISO is always contentious among the various photography tribes. The better the camera, the higher the useable ISO will be, in general. However, most of today’s digital cameras will provide a very nice looking image at ISO levels up to 3200. There are variables that would make one camera less suitable to that ISO than others, but for the most part, any digital camera will work great at 3200 and below.
Full frame cameras tend to have better ISO ability than, say, micro four-thirds systems. ISO 6400 from a professional full-frame DSLR is likely going to look as good as a mid-level APS-C at ISO 3200. Sensor size does matter, but at the end of the day, most quality digital cameras of any level are going to perform just fine at ISO 3200 and below.
A little grain is not the worst thing in a low-light photograph. Perhaps that is the composition needed for the shot. A grainy low light street scene can be pretty nice. It is, after all, your art. I've seen plenty of nighttime grungy street photographs in dismal light that look really good despite all the grain.
If grainy photos are not to your liking, then I would definitely suggest you shoot the photos in RAW and not JPEG. Raw files are huge compared with JPEG, but frankly, having all that information in the file will be to your benefit. Shooting in RAW will allow more flexibility in post-processing to relieve a good deal of the grain.
Open Up the Aperture
The larger the lens opening, the more light is being captured by the sensor. Having a lens with a minimum f-stop of 2.8 is typically the best option for low-light photography. The lower the f-stop number, the larger the aperture of the lens. Unfortunately, the lower the f-stop, then, typically, the more expensive the lens is.
Remember, though, that lower f-stops create a shallow depth of field. This might be fine if you are capturing images indoors or doing some kind of low-light portrait work. However, if you are trying to capture low-light landscape photos, then the f-stop will have to be cranked up to allow deep depth of field.
Slow the Shutter Speed
It all boils down to speed. In order to capture enough light, you also have to control the speed of the shutter. Exposure times will have to be increased as you decrease the aperture.
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As the shutter speed decreases, so too does the possibility of camera shake increase. Many cameras have excellent in-body stabilization, as well as many lenses, which will allow for steady hand holding of low light photography.
A typical rule of thumb is that a hand-held shot should be no slower than 1/60th of a second. There are few absolutes in photography, but once the shutter speed increases much more than this, then some amount of stabilization is required.
The aforementioned mechanical stabilizations will help, but a tripod will eventually be a necessity as the shutter speed decreases. If the scene is really dark, then a tripod is really the only option to get a sharp image in low light. There are many scenarios where the shutter could be open for 10, 20, 30 seconds, or more. These are definitely times when a tripod would be useful.
When using a tripod, you will also want to use it in conjunction with a shutter release cable. Holding down the shutter for even a second could lead to motion blur in your photos. One thing I would caution is that the longer you keep the shutter open in low light photography, the more grain that can be introduced into the photo.
Low-Light Photography Workflow
I always assume that it will take numerous composition shots to dial in exactly the modes I feel comfortable with. Let’s say you are shooting a low-light street scene. Assuming you have a tripod, you could start out at as low as ISO 100 and set the aperture at f/8, then shoot images at 5 sec, 10 sec, and 20 sec.
This will give you a base upon which to operate. Maybe you nailed the shot. Maybe you need to crank up the ISO to achieve a slower shutter speed. Maybe you want more motion blur and need to shoot at 30 sec or even ‘bulb’ mode.
There really is no one perfect setting for every low-light photography scenario. The nice thing about this type of photography is that it allows for a wide variety of experimentation. It also necessarily requires that you really get to know your equipment.
Every Photographer Has to Deal With Low-Light Conditions at Some Point
Whether you are taking photos in low light because you have to or you’re creating an image because you want to, every photographer is going to deal with low-light photography. Photography is all about light and how it is captured on the camera’s sensor.
Low-light photography offers a challenge in creating images. With practice and having the spirit to experiment, low-light photography will provide many opportunities to capture an image in any condition.
Chris Morris (author) from Nashville on November 17, 2017:
Thanks for commenting. I'm glad you found the article useful!
Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on November 16, 2017:
Very useful tips and suggestions about successful low light photography! I love taking pictures, especially of the beautiful Nature. Nowadays it’s easier also, to click anywhere, anytime and also edit them, till you get the desired results—thanks to the smart phones.
Your article has some helpful information for photography enthusiasts. I am sure this will a useful guide to many , including me.
Thanks for sharing!