Successful photographers know how to utilize even low light conditions in their work. Uncover these eight industry secrets for capturing incredible low light photos.
Taking low light photos can render stunning and dramatic results. Low light photos can create mood and depth, providing a whole new creative element to your photography. Like master painters who studied light and shadow with mathematical precision, applying those same principles to capturing a low light photo with high dynamic range is an equally advanced skill.
Although it’s possible to capture low light photos on a smartphone or DSLR in automatic mode, viewing those images in high resolution for commercial end-use often reveals significant technical problems. When you’re required to shoot low light photos, you need complete control of your camera and equipment to capture the perfect image.
Image via Evgeny Atamanenko
Some points of failure for shooting in low light situations include clipped shadows, extreme noise, motion blur, camera shake, underexposure, and focus problems. Just to name a few.
That’s why we’re sharing 8 elements of photographic control that are key to shooting perfect low light photos for commercial clients. In a word, it starts with knowing how to shoot manual.
Spot Meter your Main Subject and Expose for It
Don’t rely on auto light metering in-camera, which averages the whole scene based on multiple points within the frame. For more tips on in-camera metering modes, check out this blog post.
Nail Your Exposure In-Camera
Compensation in post-production may further degrade the image quality and increase noise issues.
Use Manual Focus
Focus manually using an external, dedicated light source. Once focused, turn off that spotlight and shoot the moody, ambient, available light in your scene with confidence.
- Creating exposures in low light conditions requires compromise. Balance your aperture, shutter speed, and ISO while shooting. To learn how these work together, check out this article.
- When shooting people, have them hold poses as still as possible to avoid motion blur when using a slower shutter speed.
- If a shoot requires you to handhold a camera, brace your grip to avoid camera shake. Your minimum shutter speed should be 1/60 second when handholding.
Long exposures can render beautiful results in certain creative and experimental applications.
However, when shooting lifestyle photos for traditional client work, proceed on the side of caution. In lifestyle photos, models should be moving or interacting to capture authenticity. Aim for a shutter speed of 1/125 sec on dimly lit sets.
Long exposures are great when your subject matter is still with no moving parts. Try using a longer shutter speed on a tripod with a higher f-stop, such as f/8 or f/11. This will give you a deeper plane of focus, and the ability to capture more detail. For more tips on capturing long exposures, click here.
Always Use Your Fastest Lens
This means choosing the lens with the lowest possible option for aperture, such as f/1.4. A low aperture allows more light to hit your camera’s sensor, but also means the plane of focus is very thin.
Upgrade from Kit Lenses
Kit lenses are great for starting out, but many try to be all things to all shooters. The flexibility of all-purpose, variable kit lenses might be a trade-off at the expense of your aperture capabilities. Instead, use a high-quality zoom lens such as a 24-70 f/2.8 or a prime lens such as 50mm f/1.4 to capture stronger detail in your low light photos.
Different cameras have different ISO capabilities. Be aware of what your camera can handle, and how you can avoid noise with your ISO. For more tips on avoiding noise, click here.
As a rule of thumb, consider anything over ISO 1600 as entering high-risk territory for noise.
In addition to knowing the strengths and weaknesses of your specific camera body and lens combination, use a tripod and cable release whenever possible. This will ensure you capture low light photos with minimal camera shake or risk of blur
If you’ve tried all of the above and still find yourself with a histogram that’s left of center, use some filler light strategically. A subtle pop of bounced flash might be what it takes to take perfect low light photos.
Get it Right In-Camera
Avoid noise by exposing correctly in-camera rather than trying to correct it later. “Solves” in post-production degrade other aspects of the images, such as sharpness.
Also, compose the subject matter of your image with precision so you can avoid cropping later. Cropping can lower the image quality when exporting high-resolution photos.
RAW is a file format that captures all image data recorded by the camera sensor without degradation. While shooting JPEG in-camera saves on storage space, it comes with a loss of information due to compression.
RAW files are your “digital original,” similar to how film was processed in the analog days. RAWs might look flat at a glance, but that’s because there is so much detail in the mid-tones waiting to be pulled out through RAW image processing.
By shooting RAW you’ll be able to produce higher quality low light photos, as well as correct technical problems that would be unrecoverable if shot in JPEG format. These technical problems can include loss of detail in highlights and shadows.
View Files at 100%
This will allow you to see all the details so you can double-check your work before submitting.
Make Your Own “Darkroom”
Also remember to calibrate your screen and view images on your monitor with no ambient light. Many technical issues are best identified in a true digital darkroom.
Old school photographic principles are tried and true. They inform the advanced tech solves we enjoy today through intuitive gear that automates much of the process. Applying these 8 elements of photographic control for low light photos, and understanding what it means to shoot in manual mode, will render impressive results and elevate your skills for all shoots through an advanced understanding of inputs and outputs.
Looking for more photography tips? Check out these other Contributor articles: