How to Shoot Effectively in Low Light Situations (and Which Lenses to Use)
By Hunter McRae
Shooting in low light isn’t easy. There’s a reason that your concert, campfire and nightclub pictures always come out blurry. Fortunately, it is possible to capture sharp, detailed images in extremely low light situations. The bad news is that doing so isn’t as simple as just buying the right lens or learning proper technique. It’s a multi-faceted combination of both gear and know-how.
Thanks to a couple of trusty lenses in my bag and a solid understanding of their abilities and limitations, I often stretch portrait sessions as long as 45 minutes after sunset. Of course, as the light wanes, each moment is precious, so don’t save your most important shots for the end. But if you do want to expand your photography into dusk and nighttime indoor shooting situations, the following tips will certainly help along the way.
1. Use a High ISO Setting
ISO is the measurement of how sensitive a digital camera’s sensor is to available light. The higher the ISO number, the higher the sensitivity to light, and vice versa. High-end cameras allow you to change your ISO settings and, not surprisingly, better quality camera bodies produce better quality images when using a high ISO.
The downside of using a high ISO, even with a high quality camera, is that your image may appear grainy or digitally ‘noisy.’ 100 ISO will give you a very sharp image, while 3200 ISO will let light in, but give you a noisy image. Sometimes, however, that’s the best you can get! My best advice on ISO is to select the lowest ISO you can possibly get away with to achieve a usable image.
2. Use a Tripod
A must for low light shooting, a sturdy, professional tripod is a resource that all photographers need to have in their tool kit. A tripod will keep your camera steady while you use a very slow shutter speed to capture a sharp image. They are simple to use, but keep in mind that a cheap tripod may not hold steady in even a light breeze, and will almost certainly require a remote trigger. It’s worth investing in a professional tripod that will hold steady in nearly any condition. However, even with a perfectly still camera, make sure that your subject remains very still, as well, or they will appear blurry when shooting with a slow shutter speed.
3. Hold Your Breath and Use the Slowest Shutter Speed Possible
If you forgot your tripod or are traveling light, you can still capture great nighttime images, but you’ll need to push your camera and yourself to the limits. As you start running out of light, set your camera to a high ISO, a low aperture, and a slow shutter speed to capture available light. I personally don’t use the ‘hold my breath’ technique at slower than 1/15th of a second, or else I risk the image turning out too blurry. I will often crouch down into a tight ball, keep as still as possible, and hold my breath while taking the shot. This technique has proven to work well for me and I use it often!
4. Use a Super Wide Aperture
This is where having an amazing lens comes into play. It’s tough to rely on your lens for help when you’re using a 4 – 5.6 kit lens that came with your standard camera.
I have two go-to lenses when working in low-light situations: Canon’s 50mm 1.2 and Canon’s 35mm 1.4. I can’t say enough about how wonderfully these lenses have treated me! I am able to open up the apertures to 1.2 or 1.4 and take beautiful pictures that would never have been possible with standard lenses. A wide aperture lens is well worth the investment, in my opinion. Just be sure to pay close attention to your focusing, because your focal point will be very specific and is easy to miss when working with such a wide aperture.
5. Look for Light Already Present and Angle Yourself to Take Advantage of It
This tip speaks for itself. Learn to pay attention to light and use it when you see it. If it’s dark but a subject is relaxing near a lantern hanging from a tree, angle yourself relative to the light and your subject, to best utilize the ‘natural’ light available.
6. When All Else Fails, Use a Flash (but not the one on your camera)
I am a natural light lover and try to use it whenever possible, but we all know that sometimes, you just have to use flash. There’s no way around it. Flash is a tricky skill to learn and is often a weakness for talented photographers. Many people avoid flash altogether, but if you practice and learn to use flash to your advantage you will start to love the control it gives you.
My best advice is to use an external flash and never point it directly at your subject. You can bounce the light off of a ceiling, a wall or tape a white card onto it to use as a reflector that will bounce back into your subject. When you get more comfortable, try using your flash off camera. The creative possibilities are endless!
Hunter McRae is an award-winning photojournalist and wedding photographer based in Charleston, S.C. She has been featured in the New York Times and Weddings Unveiled, and is a frequent blogger for BorrowLenses.com.