Tips for Better Results when Shooting in Low Light Conditions

Shooting in low light conditions can result in beautiful photographs. But it also presents plenty of technical challenges for you as a photographer to overcome.

The main issues with doing low light photography are:

  • You may not be able to use a shutter speed fast enough to hand hold your camera without creating camera shake.
  • If you use a high ISO, your photos can be very noisy.
  • Shooting at a wider aperture might not give you the depth-of-field you need to get enough of the subject in focus.
  • Your pictures can be underexposed and lack shadow detail.
  • It may be difficult for your lens to focus in low light.

Working with a tripod can greatly reduce some of these technical difficulties, but what about situations where shooting handheld is usually a necessity, like street photography? Or in places where a tripod may be prohibited, like a restaurant or museum?

There are ways to take control of your camera to ensure you get the most out of these challenging situations.

1. Use a Prime Lens

There is no denying that zoom lenses are convenient, but choosing a prime over a zoom lens can ensure that your images will be that much sharper.

Zoom lenses are constructed with extra glass elements that move in order to zoom. More elements within the lens contribute to lens diffraction, a phenomenon of optical physics that degrades the quality of an image. Lens diffraction is why a generic prime lens can often be sharper than a much pricier zoom counterpart.

2. Use Shutter Priority

We’re taught that the best way to get great photos is to always shoot in Manual Mode, but sometimes this isn’t the case. In low light photography, shooting in shutter priority mode will help you take better control of your camera.

Shutter Priority mode lets you set the ISO and shutter speed, while the camera will calculate the best aperture for the lighting conditions in which you’re working.

The shutter speed needs to be fast enough to prevent camera shake. Your settings will vary, depending on your focal length and the size of your camera’s sensor. A good approach is to start with the same number (as a fraction) as your focal length for a full frame camera, and then add a stop (double it).

For example, if you are shooting with a 50mm on a full frame camera, try 1/100th of a second and check your results. For a cropped sensor, double your focal length number and add a stop (so 50mm x 2 = 100 x 2 = 200 so 1/200th).

Keep in mind that this is only a guideline. It’s to be used as a quick baseline from which to start. Your camera, the lens you’re using, and the environment you’re shooting in are all factors that will influence your end result.

3. Use a High ISO

Your images can be very noisy at a high ISO. Some cameras handle high ISO settings better than others, but the vast majority of DSLRs (and mirrorless cameras) these days have good ISO capabilities. At least good enough to give you a decent base file for post-processing.

Lightroom and Photoshop can fix noise effectively, but the best results can be had with a program called Dfine from DxO’s Nik Collection. (Note: Once available for free, this plug-in can now be purchased with the entire Nik Collection from DxO).

The software measures select areas of your image for noise and adjusts it automatically. You can also take control and selectively increase and decrease noise reduction intensity and type in different parts of the image.

Before beginning to shoot in low light, I recommend doing an ISO test to determine how far you can push it with your camera. Run a few images through your post-processing program of choice and analyze the results. If you need to do a lot of noise reduction, your images might end up looking too plastic.

4. Use Back Button Focus

Many of us rely on autofocus these days, especially if we have less than 20/20 vision. Both autofocus and manual focus have their pros and cons.

For example, when using autofocus, it’s very easy for the camera to miss focus at wider apertures. Also, when a scene lacks contrast, which is often the case in low lighting scenarios, the lens may struggle to find focus. You can remedy this by focusing on the edge of a brighter spot in your frame and then recomposing.

Low Light Portraits

If you need to shoot portraits in low light without a tripod, try image stabilization if your lens offers this technology. Image stabilization counteracts any minor vibration due to shaky hands.

An image stabilizer can help you shoot at a slower shutter speed that you ordinarily would with a lens that doesn’t have this function.

When shooting portraits, shoot at the lowest (widest) aperture possible. It will give you a narrower depth of field, which will help you blur out a busy background by letting it fall out of focus. If possible, use a reflector to bounce some light onto your subject’s face.

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