There are many photography situations you will find yourself shooting in where you have little ambient light. Remember photography is all about recording and capturing light. Therefore, low light settings create a relatively big obstacle for photography. However, there are ways to overcome this and to maximize the amount of available light you do have.
The following techniques are listed in the order I take when I find myself shooting in low light settings. If one step doesn’t work, then I proceed to the next step.
Use a Higher ISO
When you find yourself in low light settings, start by increasing your ISO. Every doubling of the ISO doubles the exposure of the photograph. Many digital cameras have ISO settings of 3200 and above which is sometimes enough to give you proper exposure in low light. The downside with using higher ISOs is that you get noise as a side effect.
What you want to do is increase your ISO to the point where the noise is acceptable to you.
If at this point, you’re still under-exposed, then proceed to the next step.
For this night photo, ISO 1600 was used. Note the noise in the image.
Use a Larger Aperture
A larger aperture is a larger opening of the lens which allows a greater flow of light into your camera. Don’t be confused, a larger aperture is labeled as a smaller f-stop. The smallest f-stop you can use depends entirely on your lens. Remember that increasing your aperture, decreases your depth-of-field. If you need greater depth-of-field, then your aperture setting will be restricted by this.
Select the lowest f-stop that will give you the depth of field that you need.
If you have lowered your f-stop to it’s smallest setting and your photo is still underexposed, then proceed to the next step.
An aperture of 1.8 was needed for this low-light indoor shot. Note the bokeh caused by the shallow depth-of-field.
Use a Longer Shutter Speed
Longer shutter speeds increase the duration with which light is recorded by your camera. You may be thinking, “just use a long enough shutter speed and you can take a picture in any low light setting. That is true, but the reason why I don’t adjust shutter speed first is because it will be dependent on subject blur and whether or not I have a camera stabilizer, such as a tripod. If you are hand-holding your camera, there will be a point where longer shutter speeds will induce camera shake. Turn on any image stabilizing if your camera or lens has it to help you get longer shutter speeds.
Choose the longest shutter speed that you can use that will still keep your pictures sharp.
Most of the time, changing the ISO and aperture will give you a usable hand-holding shutter speed. But if you still need a longer shutter speed, then you will need to find a way to stabilize your camera.
A ten second exposure was used to gain the proper exposure for this night time shot. Note the blur caused by the movement of the clouds. (The moon was shot at 1/30 sec and added in post).
If you tried the above options and your photo is still underexposed, you can resort to using flash.
Of course, with the right external lighting, you can shoot in any lighting situation you find yourself in.
However, many places that you find yourself shooting in low light, such as indoors, don’t allow the use of flash photography. For this reason, using flash is an optional step and last resort.
Sometimes, the only way to shoot in low-light is to add extra light. An external flash was used for this night-time portrait.
With these four steps, you will find that you can take photos in any low light situation. Remember, these are the steps I take personally and depending on the effect that I want to achieve are not always the order that I take. But if you should ever find yourself shooting in low light, then taking any or a combination of these four steps will give you the proper exposure you need.