Five Tips for Taking Photos in Low Light

New York Public Library Hall Walkers in the Dark*

Photography is always fun but not always easy.  One of the things that makes digital photography particularly difficult is trying to shoot in low light.  Isn’t it irritating when the potential picture is amazing but the lighting situation is the pits?  I’ve been there.


We all want to take amazing photos and share them on our blogs but what do you do when the light is low and you need to take pictures?  This is a question I get asked all the time because lack of good light can ruin our photos!  Luckily in digital photography, if you get to know your camera, there are a few things that can help you.


Here are some tips for taking better photos in low light:


1.  Use a Flash

I’ll get the easiest solution out of the way first.  Of course using your built-in camera flash is the quickest fix.  Pop it up and you are good to go.  But, using light from a flash often ruins the photograph more than low light can. Using your flash lights your subject from the front, often washing it out, and it compresses the depth of field of your image making it look flat.  Ugh.


A quick way to soften the light from your built-in flash is to subdue it with a sheer white tissue that you can use to cover the flash.  This will diffuse the light and make it less harsh and can help you if you’re in a bind.  But, if you’re using a DSLR and you must use a flash then your best bet is to invest in an external flash, also known as a “hot shoe” flash, that you clip on to the top of your camera.  These flashes can be manipulated and turned to bounce off of a wall or the ceiling so you’re lighting your subject from the top or the side.


2.  Steady your camera

If you’re like me, you prefer to capture a moment using natural light.  Yes, sometimes the use of a flash just can’t be avoided but if you get your camera on a steady surface, you can avoid the blur that inevitably spoils your perfectly set up photograph.  My choice would be to use a tripod.  Mount your camera on top of it, use your settings the way you normally would and then snap the shutter.  Ta da!


But I don’t always have my tripod with me and sometimes it’s impractical to use one so I improvise by setting my camera on a steady surface. Use a table, a wall or the floor (if this makes sense for your picture), or even your leg if you’re sitting.  In low light, you simply cannot avoid the slight shake of your hands so just rest the camera on your knee.


Even so, this sounds like an easy fix and not one that can always help because in a lot of cases, we are shooting objects in motion – fashion shows, people on the street, kids, animals, whatever – what to do then?


3.  Open your aperture as wide as you can

A camera is basically a box that reads light and the aperture tells the camera how much light to allow in at any given time.  If you have a DSLR, or even a point and shoot that has some manual settings, then you can control your camera’s aperture.  So the larger the amount of light that is coming into your lens (the wider the aperture), the faster your shutter speed will be and the sharper your photos.  Lots of light and fast, good – low light and slow, bad.


Set your aperture to its widest setting, so that the most light available is entering your lens. To do this, choose the lowest f-number possible (the lowest that your particular lens allows) such as f/1.4 or f/1.8.


4.  Boost your ISO

The ISO controls your camera’s sensitivity to light – the higher the ISO, the more sensitive it will be. In low light, it’s almost always necessary to raise your ISO speed (like when you had a film camera and you bought ISO 200 or 400).  Your DSLR, and even most point and shoot cameras, allows you to set your ISO manually and it’s really easy to do this in your menu options.


In normal outdoor lighting you can set your ISO at 100 or 200 depending on whether it’s really bright (ISO 100 would work) or a bit overcast (ISO 200 or 400). If I’m shooting indoors or in low light outdoors I raise my ISO to 400 or 800 and sometimes even higher if it’s really dark.


Raising your ISO to 400 or 800 is usually safe because you’ll have a limited amount of noise (grain) in the pictures. At ISO 1600, if your camera goes up that high, you’ll definitely see more noise but it can often be removed or at least minimized in post-production using Photoshop or another program.  Even so, the results you get with a DSLR camera at high ISOs is pretty amazing these days so you can shoot away using an ISO of 1000 or higher (if your camera can do that) and see very little, if any, noise.


Figuring out how high to raise the ISO is pretty easy – you just need to raise it high enough so that you’re able to shoot fast enough to avoid the shake in your camera and the blur in your pictures.  A very simple and obvious way to tell if your camera settings are too slow is how long it takes the shutter to click when you snap a photo.  If it sounds like the “click” is happening too slowly, you’ll see a blurry photo in your screen.


5.  Shoot in burst mode

This is a cool way to take pictures and one that a lot of people don’t think about.  That, plus I love the word “BURST!” – Switch your camera to make continuous shots (ie. burst mode) and snap away! When you hold the shutter button down (without letting go) and take five or more shots one right after the other, you have a higher chance of getting a sharp photo.


When you take a picture one shot at a time you’re always introducing a vibration to the camera – your hand and fingers are causing a shake.  But, if you use burst mode and press the shutter, that vibration will only really affect the first photo of the five or more you take.  So, basically every photo except the first one will be a little bit sharper than the one before it in the continuous series.


One of the greatest things about digital photography is that you can just shoot and shoot to try to get the image that you want.  It’s not always practical if you’re trying to capture a spontaneous moment or if you’re at a fashion show and just need to get the photos, but just practice and have fun with it!  Don’t forget to zoom in to check out the details and to see whether the picture really is sharp, since pretty much all photographs look awesome on your little screen.  Learn about and test out your camera settings and remember that whatever photos don’t turn out to be so fantastic you can just dump in the virtual trash or at least use them as a learning tool.  And, finally, have fun!


*The photo that I shared up top was taken using ISO 1000 and I set the camera to burst mode.  I took it inside the New York Public Library where tripods are not allowed without a permit and the only light coming in was from the dimly lit chandelier above and the huge window at the end of the hall.  A flash would have totally ruined the picture because it would have blown out all that cool and moody natural light, but the high ISO combined with a fast shutter and a wide aperture gave me this result.

Feel free to email me any questions at monicalshulman (at) gmail (dot) com !


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55 Responses

  1. Ashley

    This was so helpful! I’m always looking for ways to make low-light pictures less blurry/grainy. Definitely going to try to adjust my ISO next time, and see if my camera has the “burst” option. Thank you for the tips!!

  2. Rhoda

    Really helpful tips. I know eh? Taking pics in the dark is really fustrating, well for me. I will put into practice some of the tips and see what happens. I can’t wait to get good photos. My readers deserve it.

  3. stella

    you have NO idea how helpful this is! ok. well now you do:) 3 & 4 are about to save my life. all melodrama aside, i’m going on a roadtrip down the pacific coast next week and my friend always makes fun of me b/c i can’t get a clean shot at night with my DSLR. well, watch out people, i’m so on it. if i get any amazing pics i’ll post them. so so helpful. thanks!

    • MonicaShulman

      I am so glad you found these helpful! have so much fun on your trip and just remember to keep shooting and check your images on the screen if you have doubts.

    • Marissa

      I just bought a G11 yesterday on Craig’s List, and I’m beyond excited about it! Have you been happy with it?

  4. Gayatri Kumar

    Great tips! Thank you! I’ve only used a point/shoot because im scared of so many different controls on DSLRs. Especially the aperture ones – I find that on the screen they look great but get very grainy when you try and blow em up – like for my blog – 515×687 or so.. thanks for these tips tho!

    xx G

    Look who’s Wearing (LwW)

    • MonicaShulman

      hmmmm..maybe you have them set for a sie that is too small on your camera? a digital camera will give you the option to set your files at a certain size. If you shoot with a dslr I would suggest shooting RAW (if you plan on post processing later since this gives you the most freedom to make changes) or large jpeg (a Nikon calls it “Fine”). You should take a look at your manual and see how to set the size. A lot of times people will want to make big prints of their images but they can’t due to a small file size that could be easily fixed in camera. Does this sound like it might be what you’re experiencing?

      Don’t hesitate to ask if you have any other questions! :)

  5. Christy

    I am a total moron when it comes to photography and typically get lost in a sea of befuddlement when trying to understand the technical aspects. These tips were so easy to understand and didn’t make me feel like an idiot so big thanks and I’m looking forward to more posts like this!

    • MonicaShulman

      Don’t get yourself nuts over the technicalities. Take a look at your manual and just go out and practice. A big part of it is learning how to use your camera and trial by error when you play with all the different settings. I’m so glad that you found these tips useful! feel free to email me directly if you have any questions. And you can also read a post I did here on tips for self-portrait photography.

  6. Vyque

    love this! Now how about fashion show photography where the lighting is weird and models move and surprisingly blurry speeds?

    • MonicaShulman

      so glad you found these helpful! fashion shows can be VERY tricky. I will definitely put together a post on that. thanks for reading.

    • Monica Shulman

      glad you find them useful! you just have to play around with your camera and also read over your manual if you ever wonder what something means or what a button is for:)

  7. kavery

    Very well-written. I knew about the ISO before and will try it next time with a copy of this post. Thanks!

  8. Karoline

    The options aside from using flash are really helpful. Though very technical, amateurs should take note of these basics because great photos come out if you understand how your camera and its relationship to light work (of course you should have a great eye, too1). Thanks for sharing!

    • Monica Shulman

      yes, these tips are very basic. there are also some other things you can play with like metering and white balance, but these others can be really helpful too:) basically your camera reads like so understanding how to best set up your camera to capture it will make a big difference.

  9. Eli

    Some times messing with your ISO makes your photos kind of grainy. Shooting with a 50mm lens allows more light in but then you have to compensate with having super zoomed in portrait type shots.

    What works for me is ALWAYS shooting in RAW with my slr. I know a lot of people are scared of using it (if you aren’t, I suggest shooting and the very highest Large setting you have to get the maximum quality out of your photo when you upload it. Yes there will be less room on your card for hundreds of other shots, but your photos will be much better). Because shooting in RAW gives you the best manipulating options when you are ready to edit and you’ll be able to pull more light out of your photo as opposed to a smaller, compressed JPG.

    • Monica Shulman

      shooting in RAW is absolutely the best way to have control over your images in post-processing. I am with you in that I don’t know why so many people are afraid of it but it’s so great once you try it. a great thing is to shoot in raw and jpg if you want to have both before starting to process and saving a copy (and if you have space on your card) – of course it takes up even more space but it is by far the best way to get the most out of your images.

  10. Marissa

    I wish I had known about the tissue trick! Until yesterday, I was using a complete crap camera from 2004, and that trick would have served me well since I couldn’t set the aperture low enough to shoot without a flash indoors. Yesterday, though, I finally bought a Canon G11 on Craig’s List and I’m beyond excited! Thank you for this – very helpful. Maybe next you’ll do a post on photo editing and what’s out there for free software?

  11. Portrait Cafe

    Very useful tips…even pop-up flashes can be set to different strengths on DSLRs, but I avoid using if I can. I also dislike direct sunlight on my subjects, and how metering can be just as difficult in bright conditions. So I’ll often try to find some light shade.

    • Monica Shulman

      thanks! yes, and I always stress playing with all the different options on your camera – when you set the white balance there are varying options in each too (including flash). direct sunlight on subjects is often way too harsh but you know, sometimes you can’t help it bc those are the conditions you have. you just have to try and do the best you can. :)

  12. northwest is best

    Thanks for the tips! I’m gradually learning more about photography through my blog, and you’ve helped me even more.

  13. Faridah

    This is such a great article! Really well explained, and covers some really helpful basic tips to help with that inevitable blur that creeps up on you.

  14. GawgusThings

    Thanks for these tips – I’m still really struggling trying to get decent photos for my blog so need all the help I can get! Thanks again :)

  15. sarah

    great tips, I’m trying to improve my photography and tips like this come in really handy especially as I’ve just bought a DSLR.
    thanks for sharing.

  16. Rosy Pichardo

    EXTREMELY helpful. this has alwayssss been a problem of mine! Thanks so much!

  17. Emily

    Such great tips!! Thank you :)

    Like the tip re “bursting” – if you have a remote you can try using that – even if the camera is in your hand as it stops the shake when you press the shutter! (My dad told me that one!!)

    • Monica Shulman

      yes, the remote can be amazing too. of course you have to have the camera on a steady surface when using a remote and that’s not always possible but if it is, then absolutely go for it!

  18. Pearl Westwood

    Great tips, mine always look blurred or grainy. Not sure if my basic camera has those settings but I will be sure to take a look at my manual, thanks!

  19. Martins

    iReally enjoyed this tutorial because iHave a traditional wedding to cover and iWas about spending the little dime iHad to buy an external flash but with this few tips, am sure rocking without a flash…… expect my mail soonest sir

  20. Michael

    I love the burst-mode tip. I will try it this afternoon at a wedding. Thanks!

  21. Tommy Macca

    I tried to take a photograph of a band performing in a dark Jazz Bar.

    I put my camera on a tripod
    I changed the setting to A
    I turned the f-stop down as low as I could (F4)
    I turned the ISO setting up to 6400
    I set the shutter speed to 1/2000
    I am not using a flash.
    I tried continuous shot.
    Image quality = fine
    white balance = incandescent
    I have a Nikon D5100 with 18-55mm and a 55-200mm lenses

    90% of my images are blurred

    Can anyone help please?

  22. cynthia frohlich

    Why didn’t anyone respond to Tommy M’s question? I have the same problem shooting in a similar situation. Would like to know the answer myself. And it looks like Tommy has been waiting almost a month now.
    The info above though, is very helpful.

  23. Monica

    Hi, Tommy and Cynthia– apologies for not seeing these questions until now. Tommy, if your subject is moving you will have blur especially if you have low light. I am guessing that it was dark at f/4 just wasn’t wide enough. Also what was your focal length when shooting? Thanks for your questions and sorry for taking so long to get back to you.


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