Photography is, by definition, capturing light onto some medium, such as film or digital media. Naturally, the amount of light captured makes a difference in the quality of the photograph. Too little light, and the photo is dark; too much light, and the photo is blown out. At either extreme, the final photograph lacks details that the photographer may have been trying to capture.
Low light photography is all about capturing a good picture with minimal illumination. Basically, this means keeping the shutter open long enough and wide enough to let in sufficient light. Beyond the basics, today's cameras include several features to improve a dimly-lit photo, including adjustments for flash, color, focus and depth of field.
Ready to wade through these camera features and create the perfect low light photographs? We offer five tips for getting that perfect shot, even in dimly lit environments.
Don't be so flashy!
Have you ever been out on the town or in a crowded conference hall, minding your own business, only to be suddenly blinded by a flash of light from an eager photographer? Have you ever been that photographer? A nice, bright flash can help you freeze the action and capture an image, but it's not always the best (or most considerate) way to take photos in low lighting conditions.
When considering using flash, be courteous to the people around you. We've already mentioned that a blinding flash can sometimes irritate others. More importantly, a bright or noisy flash could ruin important moments in life, like a couple exchanging wedding vows on their big day. When you know you need to use flash, be tactful about it, and find ways to minimize its effect on people.
Whether or not it's annoying, sometimes the flash just isn't necessary. A flash can freeze fast action, and it's a good substitute for faster shutter speeds when capturing movement in low light. The bright light and the harsh shadows a flash creates, though, flatten the subject and background. Little or no flash can capture more of the contrasts between lighter and darker parts of the room, adding depth and dimension to the photo.
When you do need a flash in low light, diffuse the light for best results. This breaks up the hard edges and shadows for a more natural effect. There's no need for a major equipment purchase for this, either. For starters, when you're indoors, you can point the flash upward where light can bounce off the ceiling rather than other objects in the room. Photojournalist René Edde also suggests double-folding a facial tissue to place over the flash, simulating a lamp shade for it [source: Edde].
Our next tip covers most essential part of low light photography: letting in as much light as possible.
Raise your ISO high and shout, "Let there be more light!"
Even some of the most basic digital cameras available today have adjustable settings for adapting to lighting conditions. You could leave the camera in an automatic mode, which works best for most casual photographers. But if you're serious about controlling your photos, get to know the manual settings for your camera. When it comes to low light photography, the setting you'll want to pay the most attention to is your ISO.
In film photography, the ISO is a measurement of how sensitive the film is to light. You've probably seen this when shopping for film, with values like 200, 400, 800 and so forth. The higher numbers indicate that the film is more sensitive to light, but your photos are also likely to be more grainy. In digital photography, though, ISO measures the sensitivity of the sensor used to draw in the light that creates the digital image. A digital camera controls the ISO rather than relying on the film. In short, for lower lighting conditions, you'll want to stick with lower numbers for film ISO, but choose higher numbers for digital ISO. But it's not as simple as selecting a setting and snapping away.
When adjusting your digital camera's ISO for low light, you can start by pushing the ISO to its highest setting, taking a couple of shots, and seeing how it works. Then, you can lower the ISO gradually until you get the photo quality and lighting effects that you want.
When using a high ISO, be aware of increased noise in the photo. Noise is photographers' way of describing tiny bright and dark color variations that can make parts of the photo look dusty or grainy. Photographers often use post-processing tools to reduce noise in digital photos. However, these these tools can't make up for any loss in detail caused by noise, such as intricate textures in furniture or clothing.
To reduce noise while keeping your ISO high, you'll want to ensure the camera's as stable as possible. Let's look at that in our next tip.
Get Some Stability
Whether you use manual or automatic settings for taking photos in low light, it's crucial that you hold the camera steady. Low light camera settings mean the shutter will open wider and stay open longer. As a result, during each shot, you have to keep the camera as still as possible to get a noise-free, motion-free shot.
Many digital cameras include a stabilization feature that corrects for small movements. Our human biology causes our muscles to constantly correct, meaning we often have shaky hands even when we're trying to be as still as possible. Digital stabilization helps counteract those shaky hands. This stabilization is limited, though, and less effective in dim conditions.
For best results in stabilizing your photo, consider mounting your camera on a stable surface. You can't always rely on having a table or chair for that purpose, so consider a tripod or monopod. The tripod lets you set up a shot in advance, and it offers a consistent position for the camera when taking multiple photos. The monopod gives you the stable base you need during each shot along with the freedom to move or rotate between shots.
Our next tip goes back to the settings you'll want to consider when making manual adjustments for low-light shots.
Raise the Aperture, Lower the F-stop
When you're in a dimly-lit setting, your camera's lens opening needs to be sufficiently wide to let in as much of that light as possible. The larger that opening, the more light the camera takes in during the shot. Photographers refer to the size of the lens opening as the aperture or focal length.
In your camera lens, the aperture is measured in f-stop values, written as f numbers in a slash notation. Common f-stops include f/8, f/11 and f/16. The larger number in the f-stop, the smaller the aperture. Thus, f/22 is a much smaller opening in the lens than f/4.
In low light, you'll want to aim for smaller f-stop numbers like f/4. If you plan to do a lot of low light photography, consider purchasing a lens known for having a wide maximum aperture. Some of these numbers go as low as f/1.4 and f/2.0.
Increasing the aperture isn't without its downside, though. The wider the lens opening, the smaller the portion of the image that's in focus. This is known as the depth of field (DOF) for the photograph. In lower light, a lower DOF works fine if you have a single subject. In this case, that single subject will be in focus while everything else is out of focus. The challenge comes when you have multiple objects in the shot at different distances from the camera. In that case, you'll have to choose which objects you most want in focus for the shot and sacrifice the rest to the lower DOF.
Our final tip can make all the difference when it comes to capturing true colors even in lower light.
Adjust the White Balance
White balance, also called color balance, introduces a level of complexity to photography that even some enthusiastic photographers shy away from. Today, you can make color adjustments in digital photos using post-processing software like Adobe Photoshop Lightroom. Catching the colors you want the first time, though, can save a lot of time at the computer.
If your camera allows for white balance or color balance adjustments, it's likely to have several automatic presets to choose from. These should cover most cases, even for lower lighting conditions. The presets are typically labeled based on the type of lighting the camera's capturing, such as fluorescent, tungsten (incandescent), daylight and cloudy.
When you decide to tackle manual white balance adjustments, plan for some additional steps. First, grab a white flat-surfaced object to take around with your camera. A blank white index card works well for this. When you get to the location where you're taking photos, place that white object under the same lighting conditions where you intend to take photos. Then, follow the steps for your particular camera to target that object and let the camera know "this is white." After that, the photos you take under those same lighting conditions will be corrected so that they're closer to true colors.
Even though we offer adjusting the white balance as a tip, we know that some photographers prefer the artistic effects created by certain lighting conditions. For example, if you're photographing a person sitting under an incandescent lamp, you might want to capture that warm red-orange glow created by the lamp. If that's the case, set your white or color balance to a full-auto mode and let your camera capture the colors without correction.
No matter what your lighting conditions, you'll want to practice to learn your camera, develop your skills and capture those perfect photos. Check out lots more information on the next page to help brighten your path to low light photography.
Have a ton of precious old movies, photos and VHS tapes sitting in boxes gathering dust? It's time to go digital and preserve those memories for future generations.
I'm one of those people that has always loved both the artistry and the tech behind all types of photography. In spite of that, I've never spent a lot of time exploring photography as a hobby or professionally. Working on this article, though, I've been inspired to take more photos, particularly in beautiful low-light scenarios. I've learned a lot from the research, and I hope the reader looks forward to trying out these tips as much as I do.
More Great Links
- Alan. "How to Take Sharp Photos in Low Light Without a Flash." LearningTheLight Blog. Apr. 27, 2010. (Feb. 16, 2012) http://www.learningthelight.com/2010/04/27/how-to-take-sharp-photos-in-low-light-without-a-flash/
- Edde, René. "How to Soften Up Harsh Flash Lighting." Digital Photography School. (Feb. 16, 2012) http://www.digital-photography-school.com/how-to-soften-up-harsh-flash-lighting
- Rowse, Darren. "How To Get Better Digital Photos In Low Light Conditions Without Using A Flash." (Feb. 16, 2012) http://www.learningthelight.com/2010/04/27/how-to-take-sharp-photos-in-low-light-without-a-flash/
- Rowse, Darren. "Introduction to White Balance." Digital Photography School. (Feb. 16, 2012) http://www.digital-photography-school.com/introduction-to-white-balance
- Rowse, Darren. "ISO Settings in Digital Photography." Digital Photography School. (Feb. 16, 2012) http://www.digital-photography-school.com/iso-settings
- Story, Derrick. "Get great photos in low light." Macworld.com. Mac Publishing, LLC. Mar. 10, 2009. (Feb. 16, 2012) http://www.macworld.com/article/139238/2009/03/lowlight_photos.html