How to take pictures in low light

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Ever wonder how you can take better pictures in low light?

Taking pictures in low light is no easy task, and it can often leads to frustration.

If you’re using your camera in automatic mode in low light, the camera tries all it can to produce a well exposed image.

If you’re ending up with blurry images due to shake, it’s because the first thing the camera does is slow down the shutter speed to bring more light to the camera sensor. But the problem with slow shutter speed is that when you or the subject moves the slightest bit, your image is most likely going to be blurry.

When the slow shutter speed doesn’t improve your photo because your environment is too dark, the camera decides to use the built-in flash. But, I’m assuming you’re reading this post because you want to know how to take pictures in low light without using the flash, right?

There are ways to use low light to your advantage. With the right camera body, lens and some knowledge about lighting, you can overcome the frustration you face when taking pictures in low light conditions.

Obviously, there are different types of low light conditions, but the following tips are more geared toward taking pictures of people indoors in low light.

Here are some tips for taking pictures in low light without a flash:

1. Bring your subject near the light source

The first thing you should always do before you start taking pictures is to know where the light is coming from. Without light you can’t take pictures, and you want to use light to your advantage. So, always find out which direction the light is coming from.

Whether you have a lamp or window light as your light source bring your subject closer and around the light source. The subject doesn’t have to be directly next to the light source, but you need enough light on the subject to produce a picture.

2. Think about the direction of the light source

Also, the angle of the subject with respect to the light source matters. You can refer back to tips 1) and 2) from my post, 3 tips for taking pictures in the sun and those tips apply here.

If a lamp is the only light source in the room, you don’t want the lamp behind the subject. If you’re trying to take a portrait while the lamp is behind the subject, the subject’s face will be dark.

But, you can use it to your advantage and create a silhouette if you’d like.

how to take pictures in low light

3. Ditch the kit lens

When I say “kit lens” I mean the 18-55mm lens or whatever lens that comes with the camera.
The kit lens isn’t ideal in low light because:
a) aperture f/3.5-f/5.6 won’t bring enough light to the camera, and therefore, not ideal for low light conditions
b) variable aperture makes it even more challenging because if you were to zoom in, aperture f/ stop number increases to f/4.0 or f/5.6, which means it will let it even less light. (Confused? Read the article about Aperture)

Do yourself a favor and invest in a 35mm or 50mm.

4. Use a wide aperture

Use wide apertures like f/1.8,  f/2.0 or whatever your lens is capable of. The lower the number, the wider the aperture.
Wide aperture opens up the lens to bring in more light, enabling you to use a faster shutter speed on your camera. Slow shutter speed will cause camera shake and your photos won’t be sharp.

5. Increase your ISO

Don’t be afraid to increase your ISO! Especially with current technology, newer cameras perform so well even at high ISO. ISO 800 or 1600 are fine. I’ve even used ISO 2500 and 3200 at weddings. Look at the photo below. I was using ISO 5000! Some people might say avoid a high ISO because it produces grain (a.k.a noise). But I honestly don’t mind grain/noise. It’s a personal preference and it also depends on what you’re photographing. I’d rather have a moment captured with noise than no picture at all.

6. Keep your shutter speed above 1/60

Shutter Speed 1/60 is not a magical number, but from my experience, anything slower than 1/60 produces less sharp photos. Just understand that if you’re handholding your camera, you’ll have a better chance at getting a non-shaky image with a faster shutter speed. I shoot at 1/50 or 1/30 handheld at times with decent results. But even at 1/60 or higher, if you or the subject moves, you won’t get sharp images. Also, if you’re using a lens with a longer focal length and more weight such as 70mm, 85mm, 100mm, 200mm or higher, you’re going to need a faster shutter speed than 1/60. (Learn more about shutter speed)

Go experiment. Find out how slow you can shoot.

Here’s a photo I took inside a NYC taxi. It was super dark with barely any lights, so I cranked up the ISO to 5000. (No noise reduction applied).

These were my camera settings:
Camera: Canon 5D Mark II
Lens: Canon 35mm 2.0
ISO 5000, Aperture f/2.0 and Shutter Speed 1/50


7. Hold your camera firmly

If you’re at a slow shutter speed you want to hold the camera firmly to minimize shake. Tuck your elbows in and put the camera against your forehead. If there’s a wall or a tree near by, lean on it to keep you steady. If you have a tripod and are in a situation where you have time and room to set up a tripod, use it.

8. Hold your breath

Hold your breath for couple seconds to keep steady while you’re taking the picture. Try not to pass out though;)

9. Take multiple pictures in burst mode

Shoot in burst mode! Put your camera in burst mode which allows you to take 2 or 3 photos consecutively. As long as you and the subject aren’t moving too much, 1 out of 3 or 4 of the images you took should be sharper than others.

Here’s a photo I took on one of my boys’ birthday, applying all the tips I shared with you.
The only light source is candle light. There is enough light shining on their faces. I’m holding steady, but they were moving, so I used burst mode to take multiple shots in a row. And these were my camera settings:
Camera: Canon 5D Mark II
Lens: Canon 35mm 2.0
ISO 1600, Aperture f/2.0 and Shutter Speed 1/80

How to take pictures in low light - Photography Tips Corner

If I shot this with a kit lens, the widest aperture would have been f/3.5. In order to get the same exposure as the above photo, at ISO 1600, my shutter speed would have had to be at 1/25.

If my aperture was at f/4.0, shutter speed would be 1/20. And if my aperture was at f/5.6, shutter speed would be 1/10 to produce a same exposure as the above photo. (Confused? Look at the exposure chart I posted for you)

However, handheld at slow shutter speeds 1/25 or 1/10, your photo would likely turn out shaky and not sharp without a flash.

By the way, I think the lego cake my wife made is super cool. My son loved it. What do you think?

Hope these tips will help you next time you pick up your camera.

More photography tips:

3 Tips for taking pictures in the sun.

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4 Responses to How to take pictures in low light

  1. John Shim 01/31/2012 at 3:01 pm #

    If I could add one thing… when holding your camera firmly make sure to place the palm of your hand under the lens, not on the side of it. I see too many people gripping their lens from the side (like a C) instead of underneath the lens (like a U). If you think about it most of the weight is being placed on your thumb when you hold it like a C versus your entire palm when you hold it like a U. More hand area = more stability. Good stuff, Peter!

  2. Jean-Pierre 01/27/2012 at 5:06 pm #

    Some great, useable tips. That photo really captures the emotion of the moment. Great job!

    • Peter Bang 01/27/2012 at 8:38 pm #

      Glad you found it helpful. Thanks for all the comments:)

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