Low-Light Photography Tips

Most photographers eventually have to photograph in low-light conditions.

It’s just something that happens every so often. You get a call asking you to photograph an event or function indoors and you can’t set up your lights or even use a camera-mounted flash. What do you do!?

There are many options with photography! Each has a different effect and will affect the final image differently. These are all give-and-take, meaning you’re sacrificing something to gain the ability to photograph in low-light. What you’re sacrificing may be something you weren’t planning on using anyway, but that is a choice you’ll have to make.

I’ve posted some simple examples below. I use a Canon 5D, which handles high ISO very smoothly, but it should still work to show some grain in the image. I’ve also used some slate pieces in front of and behind the subject to help show depth-of-field a little better.

For integrity of the examples, I have not altered or retouched them in any way. All images below are straight from the camera, resized for web, and uploaded – unless explicitly stated otherwise.

Option 1: ISO

DSLR cameras can change the ISO setting, which changes how sensitive the camera is to light. The lower the number, the less sensitive it is, so more light is needed. A camera shooting at ISO 50 will need a lot of light, whereas setting it to 3200 will make your camera extremely sensitive and allow for images shot in very dark settings to be much brighter.

So you might be thinking, “This is pretty great! It’s basically just bumping up the brightness! I don’t need anything else.” If you were thinking that, you’d probably be wrong. It’s great in some settings, but terrible in others. Remember that I said all of these options were give-and-take. This particular setting takes away quality. The resolution of the image will be unchanged, but you’ll begin to see “grain” in the image. Different cameras handle this process differently. A Canon 5D will handle high ISO photography much smoother than, say, a Canon XSi. Grain can actually be a very attractive feature, and a look you might be after. You can also compensate, to a degree, in Photoshop with certain sliders in Camera RAW.

Summary: Use a high ISO when you are okay with having grain in the image, and want to keep your aperture and shutter speed at your normal settings.

_mg_0279My settings for this image were:
Aperture: f/10
Shutter: 1/60
ISO: 6400

Option 2: Slow Shutter

Your shutter speed can be a powerful ally in photographing in low-light. Typically, the rule of thumb for hand-holding a camera is 1/60 of a second, which is usually the lowest you’ll want to go to cancel out your hand shake and natural body movements. If you use a tripod, you can lower this as much as you want! What you’re sacrificing is the speed. Low shutter speeds will cause motion blur. At lower speeds, anything moving in your image will be blurred. Sometimes this is what you want, such as when you want to photograph the stars movement.

Summary: Use a slow shutter speed when you want to keep your aperture settings, the quality of a low ISO, and have access to a tripod.

slow-shutterMy settings for this image were:
Aperture: f/10
Shutter: 0.5 (Half a second)
ISO: 200

Option 3: Wide Aperture

A wide, or large, aperture, is when the opening that the light goes through is opened up, or stopped, up. In these terms, f/1.2 is extremely large while f/16 is extremely small. Opening up the aperture widens the hole and allows more light to pass through to the sensor. This improves low-light photography. The trade-off here is that when you use this technique, the depth-of-field becomes very shallow. To put this in perspective, portrait photography is the best example. A large aperture like f/1.2 will blur out a persons eyes if you focus on the tip of their nose. That is a very shallow depth-of-field.

Summary: Use a wide aperture when you want to keep the quality of a low ISO and do not have access to a tripod, or you enjoy the effect of shallow depth-of-field. It’s a feature Apple introduced in their iPhone 7, so it’s definitely a nice setting when used (and focused) correctly.

wide-apertureMy settings for this image were:
Aperture: f/1.8
Shutter: 1/60
ISO: 200
*Personally, I enjoy a nice shallow depth-of-field to keep the viewer focused on the subject. It’s not always feasible to use, but it’s a personal preference of mine!

Option 4: Mix-And-Match!

Who says you can only use one of these? You can raise your ISO to something only slightly above average, open your aperture up to something with a decent focus area, and slow your shutter to the minimum of 1/60.

In most DSLR cameras released in the last few decades, they have a little meter inside the viewfinder that will actually give you the average amount of brightness. This is far from perfect, but very helpful. It tends to darken the image a little bit so whites become gray. If you put the arrow in the middle of the meter, it’s telling you that’s perfect! Of course it depends on what you’re shooting and your personal style, but it’s a good helper to determine if your settings are adequate before you even fire off your first image.

mixMy settings for this image were:
Aperture: f/4.0
Shutter: 1/60
ISO: 1000

A very important thing to remember is that while Photoshop is a very powerful tool, nothing can pull perfect definition from an extremely under or over exposed image. The best practice is to get as much right as you can while you create the image rather than relying on Photoshop to fix it for you after the shoot.

underMy settings for this image were:
Aperture: f/5.6
Shutter: 1/60
ISO: 100
*This image was severely underexposed for the kind of light that was used. While I was able to use Adobe Photoshop to recover and view the content of the image, it has clearly visible imperfections which render the image unusable in professional work.

Now, I made it pretty evident that as you raise one setting, you have to lower another one to compensate. But did you notice that every image has the exact same brightness? That’s what’s called Exposure Compensation. One setting compensates for another.
Shutter speed and aperture are the most often switched, so let’s look at my settings for those shots: Slow shutter was shot at f/10 and 0.5 seconds, the wide aperture was set at f/1.8 and 1/60th of a second. Going by the number of clicks on my camera, it takes 15 clicks to go down from 1/60 to 0.5. It also takes 15 clicks to go from f/10 to f/1.8. They all balance each other out perfectly.

For my recovered photo, I just eyeballed it in Adobe Camera Raw, which I’d really like to get into, but RAW shooting is for another blog!


Thank you for reading and if you have anything else you’d like to add, feel free to send me an email or leave a comment down below!


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