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As a photographer your work revolves around using the light in the environment to take pictures and so when you find yourself faced with low lit conditions it can feel like there’s nothing you can do – however, nothing could be further from the truth!
Many of the most beautiful scenes, portraits and views are poorly lit and although they look fantastic to the naked eye it can be hard to capture their essence with your camera. Fortunately, there are several techniques that you can start employing today to work more effectively in low lighting conditions.
It can be tempting to just try to use your flash to overcome the difficulties however in a lot of circumstances this will simply ruin the photo. Relying on your camera’s flash can leave the photos looking over exposed, flat and unnatural. You may also get a whole set of unwanted and imposing shadows that will spoil the composition of the image. This means that you’re going to have to learn other ways to use the available light while still managing to take superb photos!
9 Top Tips For Shooting in Low Light.
- Increase the ISO on Your Camera: One of the best things that you can do while working in low light conditions is to increase the ISO setting on your camera. The ISO determines your camera’s sensitivity to the light it is being exposed to and consequently by increasing it you make your camera’s sensor more sensitive to the available light. For example, if you’re working with an ISO of 200 then you can double it up to 400 and your camera will let more light get to the sensor. One thing you need to consider is that as you raise the ISO the image sharpness will be reduced and it will become more grainy. A good middle ground when you’re working in low light is to use an ISO setting or about 800 because you’ll be able to get more light to the camera’s sensor while not sacrificing too much of the image quality in the process.
- Reduce the Shutter Speed: Working with a slower shutter speed will let you work in lower light because the shutter of the camera will stay open for longer and therefore let more light enter the lens. You can lower your shutter speed without losing any image quality however you will have to be able to keep the camera absolutely still because any slight shake will ruin the photo. The only effective way to work with low shutter speeds is to use a tripod to keep the camera totally stable. You can also use a remote trigger system to press the shoot button so you don’t jolt the camera as you take the photo!
- Increase the Aperture: To get more light into your camera you can also increase the size of the aperture. This makes the hole through which the light travels larger and is an effective way to work in low light conditions. Remember though, to increase the aperture you have to lower the f-stop number! Another thing to keep in mind though is that as you increase the aperture size – by lowering the f-stop number – you will also decrease the depth of field in the photo. As the depth of field decreases you won’t be able to sharply shoot with things in the distance also being in focus. All these considerations need to be taken into account when you choose how much to increase the aperture on your camera.
- Use Artificial Sources of Light: If the sun is setting, or there’s only a limited amount of light available to work with you can still use alternative sources of light. As we mentioned, using your flash in most situations can spoil photos but you can still look around for lamp posts, reflections and other types of lighting in the environment. You can then position your subject nearer to the light so that you can get a nice soft glow to light up the scene. This can work particularly well for portraits but you can use it in many different contexts. Of course, if you’re working in your studio then you can set up artificial lights to completely make up for any low lighting conditions. If you want to create a silhouette of your subject in the photo then you can position them directly in front of a light source.
- Change the White Balance: When you’re shooting in low lighting your photos can end up looking faded and devoid of rich colors and sharp detail. This can be overcome, at least in part, by adjusting the white balance on your camera. When you adjust the white balance you’re effectively telling your camera how you want the image to look and it will adjust the settings accordingly. However, generally speaking, you can get better results by adjusting the aperture, shutter speed and ISO rather than only relying on the white balance.
- Try Using Black and White Photos: One shortcut to getting well balanced photos in poor lighting is to revert to using black and white settings. When you’re working with your DSLR you can set it to shoot in black and white mode. By using black and white you’ll avoid any of the issues that you’ll be facing with loss of color and contrast while giving your photos a classical look which can be very powerful, even in low light.
- Use Raw Settings: A great way to increase the detail, texture and content quality of your photos is to use Raw settings on your camera. This will use up more data storage but it will capture more information which will make your work in the editing suite much easier. You can’t entirely rely on the Raw settings to solve all the problems associated with low lit settings, however you can use it in conjunction with the other techniques described above to maximize the potential of your photos. Working in a Raw format will leave you with sharper and higher quality images regardless of the situation so it’s always useful to have in your conceptual toolkit.
- Post Production Editing: As well as working with the available light and conditions on location you can also sharpen and improve your images in the editing suite. You can use your software to enhance poorly lit photos by boosting contrast, colorizing and sharpening the details. That said, there’s only so much you can do in post production, even with the latest software, so you shouldn’t think of it as a ‘fix all’ solution; but you can still use it to improve the overall image quality. One of the most powerful tools in post production is your ability to reduce the noise in your photos which will be increased when you work in low lighting conditions so it’s always worth making use of your software when you can. Just like with the other techniques, post production is best when used in combination with the others however there’s still a lot you can do with your post production software.
Keep Practicing and Be Prepared to Experiment.
It will always take some practise while you are getting used to working in low lighting conditions so be prepared to keep at it! As you get better at taking photos in poorly lit situations you’ll start to learn what settings work for you and how you can enhance your images in post production.
If you’re worried that you might miss a one off opportunity while you’re out because you got the settings wrong then you can actually train at home. Simply reduce the light in your room or studio to a minimum and start practicing taking photos of subjects – still life is a great way to start – until you can use adjustments to your camera’s settings to get the results you want.
It will always be easier to shoot subjects that aren’t moving so beginning with that is a good way to practise your low lighting photography. Once you’re comfortable working in these conditions then you’ll have the confidence to take your skills out into the real world and take some incredible photos that otherwise might have been out of your grasp.
While you are practicing don’t be afraid to write notes. You can keep a small notebook in your camera bag where you’ve written down the exact settings that have been working for you while you practiced the technique. This means you can quickly refer to the settings you’ve noted down, for instance the ISO, shutter speed and aperture, and apply them while you are on location.
Choosing the Right Type of Lens – What Should You Use in Low Lighting?
If you’re regularly working in low light conditions you may want to consider buying a faster lens. When you’re working with a DSLR you can use a fast lens – thus giving you more freedom to shoot in poorly lit conditions.
A fast lens has a wider aperture than your standard lens. Usually it will have an aperture of either f/1.4, f/1.8 or even f/2.8. Another advantage of using a faster lens is not only that the aperture is wider than usual but it also means that you can use a faster shutter speed without losing light.
That means that your photos will remain a lot sharper than they would if you weren’t using a fast lens.
Mastering Low Light Photography Expands Your Horizons as a Creative.
Low lighting is something that, as a photographer, you’ll have to get used to working with. There are many situations in which the lighting is not ideal and yet you don’t want to miss the opportunity before you!
It will take a little practise to learn how to get your camera’s settings right however you can do so in advance, at home or in your studio. However, even if you practise the settings beforehand you’ll still need to be prepared to adapt to the situation and work with available light.
Some of the best photographs are taken in less than ideal conditions and so it’s a vital part of being a good all round photographer to be able to operate in whatever situation you find yourself in!
Is low light photography something that you are interested in?