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10 Tips for Shooting Great Photos in Low Light

Creative Market March 31, 2021 · 7 min read
You want to take a good shot, but the lighting is too low. Welcome to the wonderful world of photography. Lighting situations aren’t always what you want them to be, so you have to learn to work with what you’ve got. You can get great shots in low light. You just need to know the tricks of the trade. Lucky you! We have 10 tips below that will help you successfully tackle those lowlight shots like a pro.

1. Bring the Right Lens

Lowlight conditions call for the right lens, and that lens is a prime lens. Prime lenses have a fixed focal length (can’t zoom in or out) and a wide aperture. The wide aperture on a prime allows much more light to reach the camera sensor than a zoom lens allows, meaning you can get better exposure for your lowlight shot. If you are taking a shot that doesn’t have a lot of movement, use a prime lens that has built-in optical image stabilization if your camera model can take advantage of it. If your camera/lens has internal image stabilization, now is the time to turn it on!

2. Use a Wide Open Aperture

Open up the aperture on your lens to allow more light to hit the camera image sensor. Lots of prime lenses can open up to anywhere from f/2.0 to f/1.2, letting in two to three times as much light as a zoom can. Spend a little extra time focusing the shot. A sharp shot is possible, but it won’t come as easy as it does in optimum lighting conditions. Even though prime lenses tend to be fast, focusing is still trickier because many cameras, especially DSLRs, don’t like lowlight.

3. Try a Long Exposure

Try a long exposure to let more light into the shot. This solution works well for shots that don’t have much movement, but not so well when there is a lot of movement. The reason why is because the blurring can occur with slower shutter speeds. However, this can create a nice effect if you have a still foreground and moving background. The foreground will be sharp and the background will be blurred. Manually focus when shooting with a slow shutter speed in lowlight, because autofocus often can’t properly handle this type of situation. A tripod can help a great deal. The stiller the camera, the easier it is to focus.

4. Watch Your Shutter Speed for Handheld Shots

For handheld shots, follow the 1/focal length or above rule to make sure you get sharp shots. For this rule, you set the shutter speed at least as fast as the focal length of your lens. For example, if your lens has a 50mm focal length, the slowest shutter speed you should shoot at handheld is 1/50 second. This 1/focal length or above rule was designed for 35mm film cameras. If you have a digital camera with a smaller sensor, you should use the 35mm equivalent of your focal length. To get the 35mm equivalent, multiply the focal length of the lens by the crop factor of the camera. For example, a 4/3 camera sensor has a 2x crop factor, so you would multiply the focal point x2 to get the 35mm equivalent. For example, a 50mm lens x2 is equal to a 100mm lens. So, the slowest shutter speed you should shoot at handheld is 1/100 second. If you don’t want to do the math, use this chart to find the focal length equivalent of your lens for the crop factor of your camera.

5. Increase ISO

In low settings, increase the ISO setting. A higher setting makes the camera sensor more sensitive to light. If the ISO setting is too low, you will need to shoot at slower shutter speeds to get enough light in the shot, which could result in a blurry shot if you aren’t on a tripod and if the subject isn’t perfectly still. Keep in mind that, the higher the ISO, the noisier the resulting image. Professional-level cameras have awesome ISO performance, but if you’re using a cheaper body, you’ll need to run tests to find the noise level ceiling that you’re comfortable with. On my Canon 5D Mark II, I try to always stay below 3200 ISO, but on my old Canon Rebel T1i, I couldn’t shoot above 800.

6. Bounce the External Flash

Bounce the flash off a ceiling or wall to evenly light your shot. A white or off-white ceiling works best. If the ceiling is dark or really high, choose a wall instead. To bounce the flash, point the flash towards the ceiling or wall. If you want a little bit of the flash to hit your subject, for example to get a light reflection in your subject’s eye, use a bounce card to deflect some of the light. Most external flashes have a bounce card, which is a small white plastic sheet, built in. Simply pull it out to try bouncing some light.

7. Bounce the Camera’s Built-In Flash

Don’t have an external flash? Don’t let that stop you from bouncing light. Grab a white or off-white business card and connect it to your camera’s built-in flash at a 45-degree angle. This tutorial on CNET has a great video that shows this trick in action.

8. Try a Silhouette Shot

Sometimes it’s better not to fight the lighting situation, and work with what you’ve got instead. Take advantage of the lowlight situation with a silhouette shot. For a silhouette shot, the subject needs to be lit from the back. For example, the way the sun lights a shot from behind during dawn or dusk. Turn off the camera flash and use a small aperture and a high f-stop. If you are shooting in automatic mode, set the camera to spot metering mode to make it focus only on the bright part of the shot.

9. The Light Is the Subject

Another way to make the most of your lighting situation is to use a small light source in a photo and make it the subject. For example, take a look at this picture of a girl with a cellphone in a cornfield. The light from the girl’s cellphone is the main focus of the picture. To bring the picture’s focus on a lit subject, turn off the flash, set the aperture a bit lower than normal and the f-stop a bit higher than normal. If shooting in automatic, set the camera to spot metering mode.

10. Don’t Trust The Preview On The Back of Your Camera

Is the preview screen on the back of your camera a good guide on how well your shot is lit? Not really! Trust that screen and you may end up disappointed. The preview screen often shows light differently than the camera sensor picks it up. So, just because the picture looks good on the screen, doesn’t mean the final shot will look good. Instead of relying on the preview screen, stick to the above photography techniques and use a light meter. Further, you’ll often find that the photo you took seems sharp on the back of your camera, only to find that it’s blurry on your computer. Try using your camera’s zoom button and check out the finer details to make sure they’re in focus.

Happy Shooting!

Photography is, first and foremost, an art. Use the above tips as general guides, but never be afraid to try something a little different. What matters is getting the shot. Take a lot of pictures. The more you take, the more likely you will get something you really love.
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