There are situations in which we find ourselves wanting to snap photos but with less light than is ideal for a sharp photograph when hand-holding a camera. It could be a lecture hall, an evening dinner on the patio, a kids’ indoor playroom, a walk just before sunrise, or maybe a shadowed clearing under a canopy of trees in a park. You pull out your camera to capture a moment but the photos come out blurry, underexposed, grainy, or if you used the on-camera flash, unevenly exposed or harshly lit.
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There are several simple strategies to improve your photography in low light and create more dynamic, beautiful photos that look true to the scene as you saw it and, importantly, aren’t blurry!
Shoot in manual mode
The first thing you want to do is take your camera off the automatic mode. Shooting in automatic means your camera does all the calculations and guesswork for you. You have absolutely no say in the settings and thus no say in how your photo will turn out. Take control of your camera! Your photos in low light depend on your ability to decide on the best ISO for the situation, the aperture that will work best for what you want, and importantly, a shutter speed appropriate for capturing the scene. In some instances, such as photographing fireworks, manual mode is the only way to get truly great photos.
Even if you don’t use full manual, you will see a noticeable improvement in your images if you at least use aperture priority or shutter priority when shooting. If you aren’t comfortable with full manual yet, these semi-manual modes will ease you in to making the decisions about the settings for shooting a scene.
Open up your aperture
Now that you’ve taken control back from your camera, it’s time to start making adjustments in your settings to better capture a scene. If the light is low, one of the easiest changes to make is to open up your aperture. The aperture is like your camera’s pupil. Opening it up, like dilating your pupil, lets more light reach the sensor.
If you are shooting at f/8, for example, and your images are coming out blurry because there isn’t enough light, then you can open your aperture. By adjusting to f/5.6 you're letting in twice as much light as f/8. By adjusting it to f/4, you're letting in four times as much light as f/8. So when you open up your aperture, you can use a faster shutter speed to reduce blur or stop the action entirely.
The trade-off is that by opening up your aperture, you reduce your depth of field. In other words, more of the foreground and background are out of focus. If you're shooting a group of people and want all of them in focus, it will be more of a challenge to do that with a wide-open aperture. So you have to decide if the trade-off is worth it to you for that shot.
Use a faster lens
This coyote was photographed in dim early morning light, but a telephoto lens with a wide aperture ensured the shot was possible. (Photo: Jaymi Heimbuch)
For low light photography, having a fast lens is key. A fast lens means a lens that has a wider aperture. The best options out there are prime lenses that can shoot as wide as f/1.2 or in the case of Leica's Noctilux-M, f/0.95. The lens lets in a lot of light and has a minuscule depth of field when wide open.
Most photographers want to have a fast lens because it allows for greater flexibility when shooting in different lighting conditions. One of my favorite lenses is a fairly cheap Canon 50mm that shoots at f/1.4. Canon offers an even fancier (and far more expensive) version of the 50mm that shoots at f/1.2. One of the big deciding factors when purchasing a fast lens is, of course, price.
Prime lenses are often available with such apertures, but you can also find a great selection of fast telephoto lenses. For urban wildlife, I have enjoyed using the Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8. I've been able to shoot wildlife early in the morning before the sun is fully up thanks to how much light it lets in.
If you find that you're shooting with a lens that is wide open at f/3.5 or f/4, perhaps you'll want to try out a lens that is wide open at f/1.8 or f/1.4. Again, you'll have a shallower depth of field, but you'll have greater flexibility for shooting in low light.
Increase your ISO
This otter was spotted before dawn in a shaded area. Bumping the ISO up to 8000 made photographing it possible. (Photo: Jaymi Heimbuch)
Another option for letting in more light is to increase your ISO. This is the sensitivity of your sensor. The higher the ISO, the more sensitive it is, and the more light it records. In bright light, your ISO can be as low as 100 or 200. But when less light is available, you can bump up your ISO to 800, 1600, 3200 or higher.
The downside to dialing up your ISO is that you risk increasing the noise in the photo, or how grainy it looks. For some situations, this might be just fine. And programs such as Lightroom and Photoshop have powerful noise reduction tools. Camera manufacturers are also creating better and better high ISO capabilities in their camera so that increasing the ISO doesn't decrease the quality of the photo nearly as much as used to happen. But just be aware of your camera’s limits when it comes to noise.
An example of using this strategy is the photo of the river otter above. I was photographing otters at sunrise in a valley that was still shaded, and near a bridge that blocked even more of the weak early morning light. In order to have a shutter speed fast enough to capture the speedy movement of the otters, I used ISO 8000.
It's not always ideal to use such high ISO, but if that's all that stands between you and a great photo in low light, then by all means ramp it up.
Reduce your shutter speed
A great egret standing on the shoreline just before dawn. (Photo: Jaymi Heimbuch)
A slower shutter speed means there is more time for light to enter the camera and reach the sensor. If you’re having trouble with photos that are underexposed in low light, you can reduce your shutter speed.
Rule of thumb for shooting while hand-holding is that your shutter speed shouldn’t be slower than 1/the focal length of your camera. In other words, if you’re shooting with a 200mm lens, you want your shutter speed to be at least 1/200, or faster. However, this is just a rule of thumb for managing camera shake and blur. It also depends on how steady your hands are and what kind of effect you want in your photo. And if your camera is on a tripod (we'll get to that next) you can shoot at a shutter speed well below your focal length.
You can always use a slow shutter speed artistically by capturing motion blur. For instance, you can use a slow shutter speed while tracking a moving subject, causing your subject to be sharp while the background zooms by. You can also capitalize on a slow shutter speed to capture that misty effect of running water. There are quite a few ways, especially in sports and nature photography, where a little bit of blur adds to the photo, rather than detracts from it, and that can be achieved by taking advantage of a slow shutter speed.
Put your camera on a tripod
I steadied my camera by laying down and supporting my lens on the ground to get a steady shot with almost no daylight left. (Photo: Jaymi Heimbuch)
When you reduce your shutter speed but still want to get a really sharp image, you need a way to steady your camera so that you can get the sharpest photo possible. Having a way to stabilize the camera helps to reduce blur caused by the camera shaking in your hand.
You can have steadier shots by using a tripod or even by bracing your camera against a sturdy object like a fence railing, a countertop, or even by leaning against a wall. Use what is around you to help steady your hand and have a sharp photo even in low light and with a slow shutter speed.
For the photo of the fox above, taken after sunset, I got down on the ground and used my backpack to steady me while I shot a few frames at a slow shutter speed. I also took advantage of a wide-open aperture and a high ISO.
Shoot RAW and slightly underexpose
In most DSLR and mirror-less cameras, you have the option to record your image files as jpeg or as RAW. The jpeg files are the compressed version of the file, with information taken out in order to save space. The RAW file, on the other hand, keeps all the information recorded during the exposure. They take up far more space on your memory card but with RAW files, you have much more flexibility in post-processing — including brightening the photo to bring up details in the shadows.
If you want to use a faster shutter speed in low light conditions, make sure you're shooting in RAW. Your photos will look a bit underexposed in camera, but you can make adjustments in post processing to make the photo look just right. Plus, underexposing slightly, when done right, can lend an extra moodiness to the image. The dim lighting in your scene changes from a problem to overcome to an artistic edge in your final photo.