3 Fundamentals You Should Know When Shooting Low Light Portraits


Low light portraits can be somewhat tricky and demanding – it requires a good deal of technical knowledge, proper lenses and of course creativity. Using flash in low-light modelling sessions is more common than using only ambient light because it allows you to create high-quality portraits rather consistently.

Sometimes, however, ambient light can help you achieve a more relaxed vibe which is suitable for casual modelling sessions.  If you like to experiment with available light and you want to create a rather unconventional modelling session without flash, check out the following tips and tricks!

1. Using Light In Creative Ways

If you’re shooting low light portraits in the city, you should be able to find some interesting sources of colourful light such as neon signs, traffic lights or street lights. These light sources can be anything in between subtle and dazzling – it’s up to you to choose the one that can enhance the atmosphere you want to create. Your choice of light should also fit your model’s style and clothing as well. For instance, if your model is dressed in black, you might need to find more dramatic ambient light in order to avoid underexposed shots.

If you’re flexible with the timing of your session, it can be a great idea to wait for a local outdoors festival. Such festivals are always great places to find various light sources, such as lasers, pyrotechnics and even fireworks.

When ambient light happens to be scarce but you still don’t want to use flash, you can improvise by using the light from your smartphone, the headlights from your car or a LED flashlight. These additional light sources can be used to do light painting on your subject, which will make your images truly colourful and experimental.

Photo by Kal Visuals

2. Suggestions On Camera Settings For Low Light Portraits

Your camera settings for low light portraits should be a balance of the highest ISO possible that provides acceptable noise levels, the widest aperture your lens allows, and the fastest shutter speed. It can be quite hard to find the perfect balance of these settings especially if you’re not experienced in low light photography.

Luckily, most cameras nowadays are capable of low noise even when using high ISO speeds, so this shouldn’t pose a problem.  What matters more is your choice of lens – you should use so-called fast lenses for low-light photography. Fast lenses are those with the widest aperture of at least f/2.8.

The wider the aperture, the more light can pass through the lens in a given unit of time. Because of this, fast lenses give you more freedom when it comes to ISO settings  – your ISO  won’t have to be so high when you use the widest aperture of a fast lens. In addition to this, lenses with wider apertures have the capability of shallow depth-of-field, which can add interest and drama of your low light portraits.

Photo by Matt Palmer

Shutter speed is also quite an important parameter in low-light portraiture. Because of its effect on overall exposure, you need to be very careful when choosing the adequate shutter speed.  Lower shutter speeds can introduce motion blur which is usually not welcome in portrait photography. Of course, an occasional blurry image can make a rather artistic statement, so you may want to experiment with motion blur from time to time.

If you have no idea what camera settings to start from, we suggest the following:

  • Camera Mode: Aperture Priority
  • Aperture: f/2.8  or f/1.8
  • ISO: 800 or 1000
  • Shutter Speed: 1/80s or faster

You can easily adjust these settings and see how the changes affect the scene you’re shooting.

Photo by Xuan Nguyen

3. Proper Post-Processing

There are two things you need to keep in mind when editing low light portraits – white balance and noise issues. When it comes to other settings, you should give yourself as much creative freedom as usual.

Fixing White Balance

Various light sources produce different colour temperatures. This means that cameras record various types of artificial and natural light (fluorescent, tungsten, sunset, cloudy, shade and so on)  and produce different colour casts. These colour casts can be very problematic especially when you have a mix of natural and artificial light.

In order to correct these colour mismatches in post-processing and make the white balance setting appear even throughout the image, you might need to selectively alter those problematic colours in specific parts of the image. If you have a green or magenta tint in your image, it’s quite easy to remove it in Lightroom – you just need to use the Tint slider to offset it.

Photo by Jarylle Adriane Paloma

Fixing Noise

In case you used a very high ISO setting in your low light portraits and you need to bring some of the noise down, there are a few ways to do it. To remove noise in Lightroom, open the Detail Panel in the Develop module to display the noise reduction sliders – there you will find sliders for Luminance noise and for Color noise.

If you want to remove noise in Photoshop, you should go to the Filter menu, choose Noise, and then choose Reduce Noise.

You shouldn’t overdo noise reduction because you will end up with an overly smooth plastic looking image.

Photo by Daniel Monteiro

Taking great low light portraits that rely on ambient light can definitely challenge your shooting and post-processing strategies.  The results might truly surprise you and be even more visually appealing than typical portraits shot with studio lighting.

If you want to learn more about portraits and low light portraits, feel free to check out the following links!

Further Reading:

Take a look at our fantastic Portrait Photography page where we've brought together every portrait photography tutorial and tip on the site (and several other sites) that we think will round out your skills as a portrait photographer.

Just a friendly reminder that this page is also a living document for portrait photographers who want a single online reference for the craft. It will change and be updated often, so bookmark it and come back as you need to.

Further Resources:

  1. Mastering Low Light Portraits
  2. The 7 Secrets Of Getting Better Photos In Low Light
  3. Improve Your Portraits With Rembrandt Lighting Technique
  4. 4 Tips For Taking Better Portraits In Low Light
  5. Low Light Photography Tips
  6. How To Shoot Portraits In Low Light: 4 Tips by Sam Fu

Further Learning:

The Art Of Portrait Photography is your chance to truly master portrait photography, and produce your own inspiring, memorable images that convey real meaning and emotion. In The Art Of Portrait Photography, you will discover the insider secrets used by professionals to take your portrait photography to the next level.

In this guide you'll learn:

  • Where to find the best natural light
  • How to get great shots with minimal equipment
  • How to make your own lighting gear from stuff that’s lying around your house
  • How to bend, squeeze, and alter light for dramatic effects
  • How to pose a single subject and groups of subjects
  • What are the best lenses to use
  • How good of a camera do you need
  • What steps to take for razor-sharp photos
  • What f/stop should you use
  • And much more…

Grab Your Copy Now

About Author

Jasenka is a photographer with a background in web design. You can find out more about her on her website, see some of her newest images at 500px or get to know her better here.

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