The Best Low Light Photography Tips and Techniques
Low light photography is something every photographer should learn. Though it certainly has its challenges - such as correcting exposure, working with contrast, setting white balance - knowing how to take photography in low-lit conditions can expand your skill set, allowing you to capture better images in any lighting conditions.
Fortunately, digital cameras do much of the heavy lifting thanks to a whole bunch of technological improvements. Coupled with the correct camera settings and our expert low light photography tips, you’ll be well on your way to learning how to take low light photos.
The best camera settings for low light photography
First and foremost, you want to shoot in manual mode. While beginners may be more comfortable shooting in automatic mode, only the manual function gives you complete control of all your camera settings.
After you’ve set your camera to manual, it’s time to dial in the rest of your low light camera settings.
1. Crank up the ISO
ISO refers to your camera’s sensitivity to light, and as one of the three pillars of the exposure triangle, ISO settings for low light photography are essential. Represented by a number, the higher the number is, the more sensitive your camera is to light.
When faced with low lighting conditions, increase the ISO to increase the amount of light captured. The majority of mainstream cameras have a limit of 1600 ISO. However, newer and more capable cameras can go even higher.
Remember that the higher the ISO, the grainier your photos will appear. As you increase the sensitivity of your camera’s sensors, it captures more light, which introduces noise and reduces clarity.
2. Rely on flash
When you’re shooting in low-light settings, flash can be your best friend. While many cameras will come with a built-in flash, they’re not the most functional and can typically only illuminate what’s directly in front of the camera, which can make your photo look flat. Your best bet is to use an external source of light, like a torch, flashguns or Speedlights.
If you’re inside, we suggest bouncing the light off the wall, but you can play around with the positioning of the torch until you get the lighting you’re looking for. If you’re trying to optimise natural lighting, consider using reflectors to direct light to illuminate your subject, reduce harsh shadows, and improve the lighting of your photos.
3. Use a wide Aperture
Aperture is another pillar of the exposure triangle and is basically a fancy word for the hole at the end of your camera lens. The wider the aperture, the more light passes through your camera’s lens and vice versa.
To put this into context, an f1.8 aperture lets in four times as much light as f3.5.
Choosing a wide aperture is a simple way to ensure your photo is well-exposed, so we recond going as wide as your lens allows for low light photography.
4. Use a high Shutter Speed
Shutter speed is the third and final pillar of the exposure triangle. And much like aperture and ISO, the trick to taking good low light photos is to turn up your settings.
Shutter speed is the length of time your camera is open during exposure. Set your shutter speed to a fraction of the focal length if you want to capture crisp, blur-free photos in low light.
The type of lens you use can also significantly impact which shutter speed setting you use for low light photography. If using a 50mm lens, choose a shutter speed of 1/50 a second. For 30mm lenses, go for a 1/30. Any slower than this, you’ll probably end up with blurry photos, especially if you’re shooting moving subjects.
Top Tip: When using slower shutter speeds, it is good to mount your camera to a tripod to eliminate camera shake.
5. Enable Auto-Focus
Low light conditions can make it much harder for your camera to auto-focus. That’s because your camera’s auto-focus system operates based on the amount of light available.
Without good light, your camera will struggle to focus on dark objects or subjects that are far away. Luckily, most digital cameras have an AF Assist light to illuminate the subject to help your camera auto-focus.
Top Tip: If AF Assist doesn’t work, grab your torch to shine even more light on the subject.
6. Set your White Balance
The type of lighting you’re working with can dramatically influence the look and feel of your photos. That’s because visible light, depending on its source, can produce different colours, otherwise known as colour temperatures. Measured in Kelvin (K), the colour temperature will determine your white balance.
Typical light sources like those from incandescent bulbs will produce more orange light (warmer) than sunlight, whereas, on a shady or cloudy day, the light will appear bluer or cooler.
Modern digital cameras typically have a range of automatic white balance settings for various shooting situations, including cloudy, daylight, fluorescent, incandescent, flash and shade. Depending on your camera's functionality, you may be able to dial a specific colour temperature in Kelvin for your white balance.
Below is a list of the approximate colour temperature ranges to give you an idea of which White Balance setting to use for low light photography.
- Candle flame: 1,000 to 2,000 K
- Tungsten Bulb: 2,700 K
- Sunrise/ Sunset: 3,000 to 4,000 K
- Fluorescent Bulb: 4,200 K
- Sunlight and Flash: 5,200 to 6,000 K
- Clear Sky: 6,000 to 6,500 K
- Cloudy/ Shady: 6,500 to 8,000 K
- Overcast/ Stormy: 9,000 to 10,000 K
7. Shoot RAW
At Ted’s Cameras, we recommend shooting in RAW mode all the time. Unlike your standard JPEG file, RAW images retain all their original data, allowing you to easily edit, colour-correct and adjust the white balance of your photos in post-processing. Even if you get your white balance setting wrong, RAW image files allow you to change it whenever you want.
Top Tip: In low light situations, the LCD screen on your camera will look brighter than the actual image you capture. Adjust your screen brightness to match your surroundings, and if you can, use your camera’s histogram (if it has one).
The best camera gear for low light photography
If low light photography is something you enjoy or an area of photography you want to improve, you might want to invest in gear that adapts well to less-than-ideal lighting. Remember that even the best and most expensive cameras still rely on all the basics discussed above.
While a top-of-the-line camera is sure to give you an edge, practice will always make you a better photographer. Use the following suggestions to build out your low light photography setup, and decide for yourself what you deem worthy of your investment.
A full-frame camera with a large sensor
Full-frame cameras aren’t just the best camera for low light photographs. They’re also the best cameras money can buy. That is before stepping into the world of Medium Format.
While they’re certainly not cheap, they are a worthwhile investment compared to cameras with crop or micro four-third sensors, capable of producing much better images in low light conditions.
A Fast Camera Lens
A faster lens is another way of saying a lens has a wider aperture. A fast lens allows you to shoot with faster shutter speeds, giving you far more exposure control.
Zoom lenses, like those commonly bundled with DSLR cameras, have a maximum aperture of f3.5-f5.6.
On the other hand, prime lenses are typically faster (f1.8 is the sweet spot) and are definitely worth the investment.
The Right Tripod
We could go on and on about what makes a good tripod, but for now, all you need to know is a tripod is there to eliminate camera shake and help you capture crisp images.
Check out our ultimate tripod buying guide for more information on which tripod is right for you.
While we’d love to shoot forever, you’ll eventually need to swap out your batteries. To avoid running out of juice in the middle of a shoot, pack a few spare batteries.
Discover more expert photography tips from Ted’s
Whether you need a new camera or accessories to add to your kit, drop by your local Ted’s Cameras store. Our team can help you choose the right gear for your shooting style and skill level and answer any questions you might have about low light photography.
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