Photographing in Low Light

As a photographer, we all encounter amazing locations that are just a bit too dark for our cameras to cope. Fortunately, we’ve got some great tips to help you when photographing in low light venues such as churches, cathedrals, castles, abandoned buildings and more!

Whether the sun has set, or you’re confined to a location bathed in shadow, we can help. These tips for low light photography will give you the best chance possible to capture an acceptable exposure with most digital cameras.

Shooting in Low Light - Inside a Church

Tip – Be aware, sometimes it may just be too dark for your camera and you’ll never get the shot you want regardless of settings.

Use the Widest Aperture

The first setting you should change is the aperture. It’s the cleanest way to bring more light into your shot without major consequences. Use the fastest lens you have (the one with the widest aperture) and open it up to the max. If this helps you brighten the exposure to an adequate level then fantastic, if not, read on…

Remember – A wide aperture results in a shallow DoF. This will not give you front to back focus if that’s what you require. Instead, choose your preferred F/stop and change the shutter speed instead.

Use your widest aperture
Slow down your shutter speed

Slow Your Shutter

…If you’ve maxed out your aperture size and it’s just still too dark, look to your shutter speed. If you’re shooting handheld then don’t go slower than 1/125th (our hands aren’t as steady as we think).

But if you’re on a tripod go to 1/15th (but use a remote trigger to take the shot. Otherwise pressing the shutter button on the camera can cause micro-vibrations and cause the camera shake in the photo). If 1/15th isn’t bright enough then go slower – but watch out for moving elements in the scene that could blur during the exposure.

Crank up the ISO (slowly)

The ISO is sometimes seen as the solution to shooting in low light. While this is somewhat true, it doesn’t come without dangers. Raising the ISO level brings in noise to your shot. Every camera handles ISO differently so the more high-end your camera is, the better it will react at higher ISO levels.

Most cameras tend to show up digital noise in the shadows around 800-1600 ISO. It’s better to play with the shutter speed and aperture settings to improve the exposure before resorting to the ISO in low light.

Shoot in RAW

RAW files have a lot more tolerance for detail and light. They are uncompressed versions of your photograph, unlike JPGs. Shooting in RAW will result in a more forgiving image that you can then tweak in editing to eliminate any noise issues.

Image Stabilisation

Many cameras and lenses have built-in IS/IBIS (image stabilisation/in-built image stabilisation) or VR (vibration reduction).

These are technologies to which are designed to minimise any camera shake that occurs during an exposure and get the best possible sharpness.

They also have added bonuses when shooting in low light. IS/IBIS/VR can allow up to 4 extra stops of exposure compensation (EV). Basically, it could let you shoot at 1/15th or slower, with minimal motion blur. 

Turn on your image stabilisation on your camera lens

Noise Reduction in Editing

Once you’ve taken your shots you may need to do a little more work to get rid of any distracting patches of noise in the shadow areas. Software such as Lightroom have dedicated noise reduction tools to cope with this. It’s important to reduce overall noise as well as colour noise reduction too. Shooting in low light means that the colour temperature of any ambient light in the scene can cast tones across the shadows which appear in the noise.

Tip – Watch out for going too heavy on the noise reduction sliders though as this can reduce clarity and contrast in the shot.

Use AF Assist

Shooting in low light can also cause focus issues. You may find that autofocus struggles a little to find the necessary contrast to lock on to.

Fortunately, most digital cameras have an “AF assist” feature. The AF assist turns on to illuminate the scene if it’s too dark – find it in your camera’s menu system. It will automatically activate when you half-press your shutter button in low light conditions.

Use the AF Assist option and turn your lens to autofocus

Full Frame Sensors Suffer Less in Low Light

Again, we’re not telling you to sell up and buy a full-frame camera, but there are more advantages to having one over a cropped sensor when shooting in low light.

Full frame cameras have larger photosites on a sensor. This means it can handle light much better and therefore don’t have as many issues with digital noise.

Comparison of camera sensor sizes

Summary

Shooting in low light requires a conscious and alert mind to all the possible issues we’ve laid out. Don’t just rely on editing to solve all your problems, as it won’t always do the best job.

In summary, the best order of improving exposure in low light is as follows;

 

  1. Open the aperture to the maximum size
  2. Use a tripod
  3. Slow the shutter speed to a manageable level
  4. Shoot in RAW
  5. Turn on the AF assist lamp
  6. Turn on any IS/VR functions
  7. …and if all that fails, then slowly raise your ISO levels

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