How To Make Beautiful Photos In Low Light

How To Make Beautiful Photos In Low Light

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Low light photography can give you beautiful photos but working in it provides plenty of technical challenges. As a result you encounter practical problems like camera shake, focusing errors, lack of depth of field and noise caused by using high ISOs.

There are four main reasons why these problems occur.

  • You may not be able to use a shutter speed fast enough to hand-hold your camera without getting camera shake.
  • Your camera may struggle to focus properly in low light, especially if your subject doesn’t have much contrast.
  • Your photos may be noisy because you used a high ISO, or your photos are underexposed, or a combination of both.
  • If you’re hand-holding the camera you may be forced to use a wide aperture and as a result you don’t have enough depth of field to get the entire subject in focus.

If you’re working with low light in the landscape (or with cityscapes) you can use use a tripod to allow you to use a low ISO and narrow apertures for good depth of field and image quality.

But what if your subject is portraiture or street photography? Or what if you’re working indoors where light levels are low but you can’t use a tripod (like in a museum)? In that case you need a different set of techniques to make the most of the conditions.

Low light photography in a temple

These are the techniques you can use to take photos with a hand-held camera in low light.

Low light photography tip #1: Avoid the camera’s fully automatic exposure modes

The best exposure mode to use is Shutter Priority as it lets you set the ISO and the shutter speed, and calculates the aperture required to give a good exposure. It’s important to be in control of the shutter speed because you need to make sure it’s fast enough to prevent camera shake at your chosen focal length. Alternatively you can use Manual, if you’re comfortable with changing the aperture, shutter speed and ISO settings yourself.

This table shows you the recommended shutter speeds for using with different focal lengths. Cameras with smaller sensors require shorter shutter speeds as the apparent magnification caused by crop factor also enlarges the effects of camera shake.

Shutter speed table

These figures are a rough guide only and are based on the standard advice that photography websites, magazines and books give for calculating shutter speed. In practice, some photographers need faster shutter speeds, others can manage with slower ones.

Because of that it’s a good idea to run a test with your own camera and lens. Let’s say you have an 85mm lens on a full-frame camera. Set the exposure mode to Shutter Priority and take a sequence of photos with shutter speeds of 1/250, 1/180, 1/125, 1/90 and 1/60 second. Don’t worry about the effect that changing shutter speed has on ISO and aperture. When you’re done, look at the photos at 100% magnification on your computer. Which ones are sharp, and which show signs of camera shake? The answer tells you what shutter speeds you can use confidently with that camera / lens combination.

For example, I used a shutter speed of 1/180 with an 85mm lens to create both these photos. The first (left) was taken in a museum, the second (right) in a historical home. The low light meant that I also needed an aperture of f1.8 and ISO 3200 for both images.

Low light photography in museums


Low light photography tip #2: Use Image Stabilization

Image Stabilization (also known as Vibration Reduction, Optical Image Stabilization and Vibration Compensation) lets you take sharp photos using longer shutter speeds than you could with a non-stabilized lens.

There are two types of Image Stabilization. The first is that used by Canon and Nikon, who build it into their lenses. The technology only works if you have a lens with Image Stabilization.

Other manufacturers, like Olympus and Panasonic, place the Image Stabilization mechanisms in the camera body. The advantage of this system is that it works with any lens.

If you’re not sure how Image Stabilization works with your camera then check your manual for the details.

Most Image Stabilization systems give you a four or five-stop advantage. Let’s look at what that means in practice.

Let’s say you’re using an 18-55mm kit lens on an APS-C camera. Let’s say that without image stabilization you need a shutter speed of around 1/125 second to achieve a sharp image with a hand-held camera. An image stabilization system that gives you a 4 stop advantage means you can drop the shutter speed to 1/8th of a second and still get a sharp image. As you can imagine that’s super helpful in low light.

For example, I made this photo in a dimly lit museum with a non-stabilized 18-55mm lens at 1/160 second, f5.6, ISO 1600. If the lens was Image Stabilized I would have had the option of using ISO 100 and 1/10th of a second, giving me a much cleaner image with less noise.

Low light photography in a museum

Low light photography tip #3: Don’t be afraid of high ISO

Most modern digital cameras give you excellent performance at high ISOs. It’s quite possible your camera is capable of giving great results at ISO 3200, 6400, 12800 or even higher. You won’t know until you try. This is another good reason for taking your camera off fully automatic. Now you can decide what ISO to use, rather than leaving it up to your camera.

The best thing to do is test your camera at all its high ISO levels to find your noise tolerance level. For example, you might find that ISO 6400 is the highest setting you’re comfortable using. Once you’ve decided this, you know the ISO range you can work with for your camera.

I made the photo below at ISO 6400, the highest setting I could use confidently on the camera I had at the time.

High ISO low light photography

It’s worth noting that tools like Denoise in Lightroom Classic or Topaz Labs Photo AI mean you can make photos with high ISOs and virtually eliminate the effects of noise when you develop your photos. If you have the right software, high ISO noise is less of a problem than it ever has been.

Low light photography tip #4: Use a prime lens

If you don’t have one already then it’s worth considering buying a prime lens. For example, most 18-55mm kit lenses have a maximum aperture of f/5.6 at the 55mm end. But on a 50mm prime lens that maximum aperture could be f/1.8 (or even wider). That’s a difference of over three stops (eight times more light), which means that you can take photos in much lower light conditions.

The only caveat is that there is much less depth of field at wide apertures. But you can use this to your advantage by exploring the use of bokeh in your low light photos. I made this photo of a Chinese lantern, taken at night, using an 85mm lens set to f2.

Chinese lantern in low light

Low light photography tip #5: Understand how your lens focuses

Modern autofocus systems are superb, but there are still times when they don’t work as well as you might want them to. One of those is in low light, especially with low contrast subjects.

That’s because in low light the subject may lack contrast, which in turn makes it harder for your camera to focus accurately. The lens may hunt for focus without achieving it and in some conditions you may be forced to switch to Manual focus. If this happens there’s no need to be concerned whether your camera’s autofocus is working properly – all that’s happened is that you’ve bumped up against its limitations.

It helps if you spend some time with your camera’s manual to understand exactly how it works. Here are the general principles to get you started.

Autofocus on digital SLR cameras

Digital SLR cameras use phase detection autofocus (unless you’re in Live View, which is unlikely if you’re hand-holding the camera). Check your manual to see which of your camera’s autofocus (AF) points are cross-type. These are the most accurate and the only ones you should use in low light.

Some cameras only have cross-type AF points. Others have a mixture of cross-type AF points and single line AF points, which are not as accurate. If your camera has both, it may have an option to display cross-type AF points only in the viewfinder.

For example, this photo shows the cross-type AF points of an EOS 5D Mark IV camera. Any of these will work well in low light.

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV cross-type AF points

Autofocus on mirrorless cameras

Mirrorless cameras use contrast detection autofocus (sometimes combined with a form of phase detection autofocus) and as a result all AF points are equal (although the ones in the center of the viewfinder may work better as more light reaches that part of the sensor when the aperture is wide open).

The lesson here is that you need to know which AF points on your camera work best in low light. Using these AF points helps prevent focusing errors.

This photo shows the AF point array of a mirrorless Fujifilm camera. As you can see, the pattern is different from the EOS 5D Mark IV.

Fujifilm X-T1 autofocus points

Digital SLR cameras may not focus accurately at wide apertures like f1.8 with prime lenses. Mid-range and high-end digital SLR cameras usually have a menu option to calibrate the lens to compensate for front and back focusing errors. Mirrorless cameras, on the other hand, always focus accurately on still subjects.

If you use prime lenses at wide apertures in low light and your digital SLR camera isn’t focusing where you think it ought to than that could be a sign that the autofocus needs testing and calibrating.

Low light photography tip #6: Go for mood

Let me show you this photo again.

High ISO low light photography

I photographed it because I liked the mood of the scene. I was walking around my neighbourhood at dusk and came across a vintage car parked in the street. I made several photos of it, and this is the one I like best.

Which brings me to the final point. It’s harder to make photos in low light, especially when you don’t have a tripod. But the reward is that it helps you create photos full of drama and mood.

Let me give you a couple more examples.

I made the portrait below left at dusk. The sun had set, casting an eerie pink glow over the beach. The light was amazingly, beautifully moody and only lasted a few minutes. I needed to use ISO 6400 and f1.8, but it gave the portrait a mood that you can’t get in brighter light.

I made the second photo (right) in a dimly lit temple in India. This time I used ISO 3200. There wasn’t much light, but the way it came in through the window is what gives the photo its mood. Sure, more light would have been easier to work with. But it wouldn’t have given me this beautifully lit photo.

Portraits made in low light

250 Creative Assignment Cards

Creative Assignment Cards

Low light gives you brilliant, moody photos, so it’s no surprise that my Creative Assignment Cards contains several low light assignments.

Designed for your phone, you get 250 assignment briefs and inspirational photos, all at your fingertips in an easy to nagivate format so you never get stuck for ideas again.

The screenshots below show you several low light assignments from the cards. Feel free to save the images to your phone go put the briefs into action.

Low light photography assignment Low light photography assignment
Low light photography assignment Low light photography assignment
Low light photography assignment Low light photography assignment

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About Andrew S. Gibson

Andrew S. Gibson is a writer with a camera. He started writing about photography while traveling in Bolivia, and has been published in many prestigious photography magazines including EOS magazine, where he worked as a Writer and Technical Editor for two years. He lives in south Devon in the UK and is inspired by meeting new people, seeing new places and having new experiences. Check out his photography ebooks here.


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