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Have you ever tried to take a photo in a dimly lit situation only to have it come out as a grainy, blurry, discolored mass of pixels? And to make matters more frustrating, you’ve seen other photos taken under similar lighting conditions that turned out beautifully. So you begin to wonder if those people have better cameras than you; maybe they’re just superior photographers. It’s possible that one or both of those conclusions may be accurate for any given photographer, but neither is particularly relevant. Why? Because anyone can make better low light photographs. Here’s how.
Use a Wide Aperture
Use the widest aperture available on your lens — this will allow more light to hit the camera’s sensor. For this reason, so-called fast lenses are advantageous for low light photography. If you are using an interchangeable lens camera and you plan to do a lot of low light work, you will want to invest in a lens that has a maximum aperture of, say, f/1.8 or f/2.
Photo by Clément
Use a Slow Shutter Speed
If using a wide aperture alone isn’t sufficient, you will need to slow down your shutter speed. Like opening up a lens’ aperture, using a slow shutter speed is about collecting more light. The longer the shutter is open, the more light reaches the sensor. This, combined with a wide aperture, should allow for a satisfactory exposure (though the slower shutter speed may cause moving subjects to appear blurry), but there is one more component of the “exposure triangle” you will want to keep in mind.
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Photo by Nicholas A. Tonelli
ISO refers to a digital imaging sensor’s sensitivity to light. ISO 100, for instance, is what you would set under good lighting conditions, as you don’t need the sensor to be overly sensitive. In a low light situation, however, you may need to set an ISO of 800 or even 3200. The overwhelming majority of digital cameras on the market today can go well over ISO 3200, but you may not often need to go that high.
While increasing ISO may allow you to use a slightly faster shutter speed and reduce motion blur, there is a good chance of introducing noticeable noise (digital “grain”) into the image. It’s not something you should be preoccupied with, though — most newer cameras handle noise rather well, and there are numerous software solutions to help you deal with with excessive noise.
Stabilize Your Camera
Successfully hand-holding your camera while using long(ish) shutter speeds is a tricky proposition — it’s certainly not impossible, but it takes some practice to acquire the proper technique. So you’ll want to use a tripod or monopod when attempting to do long exposure photography. If you find yourself needing to make a long exposure but you’re without a tripod, just look around for a makeshift solution — just about any solid surface will do. The ultimate goal is keeping your camera as steady as possible.
Thankfully, camera manufacturers have provided more tech savvy solutions to minimize camera shake in the form of image stabilization. This technology is either built into the lens or the camera body itself and using it is as easy as flipping a switch. Some implementations of image stabilization are more effective than others but all work reasonably well.
Photo by Davide D'Amico
Focus on Focusing
Basically, don’t rely on your camera’s autofocus system to get it right in low light conditions. Autofocus assist lights and pre-flashes notwithstanding, manual focus is probably your best bet. Many cameras have focus aids such as focus peaking and magnification to help achieve precise manual focus.
Photo by James Loesch
Flash or No Flash
Of course, flash is always an option, but results can vary wildly. Depending on what you’re photographing, there are times when a flash will be utterly useless as it won’t be powerful enough to illuminate very large or distant subjects — you won’t be doing any landscape or architectural photography with a simple burst of flash. And if you don’t have a way to bounce flash light, your attempts at low light portraiture may end up being just as disappointing. So, while there are creative ways to use flash for low light photography, most beginner photographers will probably prefer to stick to longer shutter speeds.
Photo by Hugo Chinchilla
In contrast to a JPEG file, a raw image file captures and retains far more information and, thereby, allows you more freedom in post processing. So, if you find you’ve gotten a decent low light exposure but certain areas could still use some improvement, you can easily restore detail, for example, in underexposed regions of the image.
Whether you’re shooting at night or you simply find yourself in a situation with poor lighting, there’s no reason to not accept the challenge before you. The tips above will help you achieve winning low light photos.