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7 Essential Tips for Low Light Photography

Marianne Stenger
18th October 2017

Shooting sharp and well-lit photos at night or in low light conditions such as indoors requires a bit of knowledge about how your camera works.

This is because if you only use your camera’s Auto mode when shooting in low light, it will automatically switch on the flash, which can cause glare and harsh shadows.  On the other hand, you may find that when you shoot without the flash in low light, you run into problems like underexposed or blurry photos.

So what can you do to make sure you still get good photos when you don’t have much light to work with? Here are seven essential tips for low light photography.

1. Stabilise the camera

The first and most important thing to do when you’re shooting in low light conditions is to stabilise your camera. This is because you’ll generally be using a slower shutter speed and will have to keep the camera as still as possible while the shutter is open in order to avoid blurry images.

The best way to keep the camera still is to use a tripod, but if you don’t have one with you or can’t use one for whatever reason, you can still stabilise the camera by resting it on a stable surface such as a table, wall or even a tree stump.

2. Use a wider aperture

The aperture is the hole in your lens, and the wider it is, the more light will come through. So another thing to keep in mind when shooting in low light is that you’ll want to use a wider aperture to let in as much light as possible.

In order to adjust the aperture or f-stop number, you’ll need to shoot in manual mode or aperture priority mode.  Remember that the lower the f-stop number, the larger your camera’s aperture will be, so for instance, an aperture of f/5.6 would be larger than one of f/8 or f/22.

3. Adjust the ISO

A very crucial setting to be familiar with when it comes to low light photography is ISO, which controls your camera’s sensitivity to light. The higher the ISO number, the more sensitive your sensor will be to light, so if you’re shooting indoors or at dusk, you’ll want to crank it up.

One drawback to shooting at higher ISO numbers is that it will add digital noise to your images, which can make them look grainy. Fortunately, some of this can be fixed later on using photo editing software, and grainy photos are still better than blurry photos.

4. Experiment with different shutter speeds

The longer your shutter stays open for, the more light will get through to the sensor. So once you’ve stabilised your camera using a tripod or other surface, you can start experimenting with different shutter speeds and to how slow it needs to be to get the effect you’re looking for.

If you’re trying to freeze action, you’ll likely have to use a faster shutter speed and make do with a higher ISO and some graininess in your photos. If your goal is to capture motion, such as with light trails, you can slow it down a bit and leave the shutter open for seconds or even minutes at a time.

Because balancing your ISO, shutter speed and aperture just right can be tricky with low light photography, it’s a good idea to shoot RAW. This will give you a lot more freedom to adjust things like exposure and white balance even after you’ve taken the photo.

In order to do this, though, you will need to invest in some good photo editing software like Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom.

6. Look for a light source

When shooting in low light situations you should always first check whether there are any light sources already present that could throw some additional light on your subject. For instance, if you’re shooting outdoors at night, there might be a street light or shop window that you could shoot under or near. If you’re indoors there might be a window or a lamp.

7. Invest in a wide aperture lens

Some lenses are better suited to low light photography due to their maximum aperture. A wider aperture allows you use a faster shutter speed in order to get sharp images even when you’re working in low light.

For instance, an 18-55mm kit lens with a maximum aperture of f/3.5 to f/5.6 wouldn’t be nearly as effective in low light as a 35mm prime lens with a maximum aperture of f/1.8 or f/1.4.  

With this in mind, if you’re going to be shooting a lot of photos in low light, you should consider investing in a lens with a wider maximum aperture. There are countless options when it comes to lenses, of course, but prime lenses like the 50mm tend to be both effective and affordable.