Photographing in low light conditions can be one of the most challenging scenarios for a photographer. Some low light situations like cityscapes are not hugely challenging as long as you are using a tripod. But for example, any type of photography with movement can be very difficult to master. Over the years I often get asked the same questions about low light photography, so here are 5 of the most common questions answered.
What settings should I use for low light photography?
This is by far the most common question I get asked. Unfortunately, there is no right answer here as all types of scenarios are different and require different settings. So rather than trying to give ideal settings, here are some tips to help you decide for yourself:
- Think about what you are photographing – your shutter speed will need to be set depending on what you are photographing. The faster something is moving, the faster your shutter speed needs to be. For example, trying to freeze a moving car in your shots will require a much faster shutter speed than photographing a statue. As a general guide, a fairly fast-moving subject will usually need a shutter speed of at least 1/250 sec. This would still be the case for moving subjects even if you are using a tripod.
- The depth of field is important – in addition to your shutter speed, your depth of field will also be an important consideration. More so in low light photography because it will impact your shutter speed. The smaller your aperture is the slower your shutter speed will need to be. So think about what you are photographing and set your aperture accordingly. For example, if you are taking a portrait, you don’t need a deep depth of field. By selecting a wide aperture you will naturally allow more light into the camera and so can achieve a faster shutter speed. This is really important in low light photography.
- Set your ISO accordingly – once you have the above two settings sorted, your ISO will be the setting to allow you to achieve these. So increase your ISO as much as you need to so that you can achieve the shutter speed and aperture that you need.
Why do my photos look blurred even with a fast shutter speed?
If your shutter speed is fast enough for the subject you are photographing and yet your photos still look blurred, there could be two reasons why:
- You have focused on the wrong place – if you are using a wide aperture or in other words a shallow depth of field, then your focus point becomes much more important. For example, if you accidentally focus on the background of your subject you’ll find that they won’t be in focus. This will make the overall image seem soft or blurred.
- Your ISO is too high – a high ISO can help you achieve the shutter speed and aperture that you desire. But that comes at a price. The higher your ISO is the more noise will appear in your image. More noise means the image will appear softer. So even if your shutter speed is 1/1000 sec, at 6400 your photo will look soft. The lesson here is to only raise your ISO as much as you need to. If for example, you can still capture the shot at 1/250 sec instead of 1/1000, then that will mean you can have a lower ISO.
I used a tripod but my image is still blurry, why is that?
This can be incredibly frustrating but usually, there are reasons why even if you used a tripod your image is still not completely sharp. Check if it could be because of any of the reasons below:
- Not stable enough – it could be that your tripod isn’t sturdy enough for your camera. Cheap and flimsy tripods can also suffer from vibration which has a detrimental effect on image sharpness at long exposures
- The tripod moved – did you accidentally knock the tripod after your pressed the shutter button? That might even be because you actually pressed the shutter button instead of using a remote or timer. It also could be that you are standing somewhere that vibrates when people move on it (i.e. a bridge). Even a strong gust of wind can make a camera vibrate and cause camera shake.
- You didn’t lockup your mirror – DSLR cameras have a mirror inside that flicks up when you press to take a photo. This mechanical action causes small vibrations in the camera that can have an impact on image sharpness at slow shutter speeds. You can either “lockup mirror” in your camera settings or use “Live view mode” to avoid this issue.
- Turn off image stabilization – modern lenses benefit from image stabilization which does a great job when you are handholding a camera. But when your camera is on a tripod, the image stabilization actually gets confused and can cause camera vibrations. So as a rule if your camera is mounted on a tripod, for slow exposures, turn off your image stabilization.
How can I freeze the action in low light?
This is one of the toughest photography scenarios and will take time and practice to perfect. The simple answer is that you will need a fast shutter speed. Earlier I talked about being able to achieve this while keeping your ISO as low as possible. The other solution is to use artificial lighting such as a flash or LED light to brighten your subject so that you can have a fast shutter speed and a lower ISO than you would be able to select otherwise. Using a flash or LED will also have its challenges as sometimes it’s not allowed or even possible. But if you use some lighting in low light conditions, it will allow you to take photos with a faster shutter speed and lower ISO.
How can I maximise my chances of capturing sharp photos handheld?
There are of course times when it isn’t possible to use a tripod and so you have to do your best to capture photos handheld. There are a few things you can do to maximise your chances of capturing sharp photos handheld:
- Shoot in burst mode – you will often find that shooting in high-speed burst mode will mean your middle images are sharper than your first and last ones.
- Set yourself – before you take photos, get yourself and your stance properly set up. Tuck your elbows in and if there is a wall or somewhere you can lean on, then do so. Keep your breathing steady and take your time.
- Underexpose a little – if you find that your shutter speed is on the borderline of being fast enough to handhold, then underexpose your image slightly so that your shutter speed will be fast enough. You can then brighten the image up a little when you are editing.
These are the most common questions that I get asked when it comes to low light photography. Like any other genre of photography, you will improve the more times you take photos in these scenarios and you will learn techniques you can use (and things not to do) to increase your chances of capturing better photos in low light conditions.
Photo credits: Kav Dadfar – All rights reserved. No usage without permission.