Photography is always fun but not always easy. And trying to get great results with low light photography can be downright frustrating. Isn't it irritating when the potential picture is amazing but the lighting situation is less than ideal? 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. In low light situations 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. You can also lean against a stable item (like a wall or barrier) and steady your hands/arms on that before you snap. Or hold the camera very close to your body, take a deep breath, exhale, and then hold your breath while you take the photo. This isn't as good as a tripod, but it's surely better than having a blurry photo.
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. More expensive lenses often have larger apertures and have those wonderfully low numbers. You can also buy point-and-shoots vlogging cameras with apertures as low as f/1.4. However, sometimes your budget doesn't allow for new cameras or lenses. So, what then?
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 photography, 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. (also, note that the this is one of the areas camera companies continue to advance in. It's getting more and more common for the newest cameras out there to go offer incredibly high ISOs. You'll just need to experiment and see what's realistic for your camera before the grain makes the shot unusable.)
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.
Related Article: The Camera Lens Every Fashion Blogger Should Use
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.
6. Bonus idea – Use your phone's flashlight from a different angle
One little hack you can use is to introduce an outside light source. I've seen people turn on their camera flashlight and position it as an always-on flash. This allows you to adjust it with precision, allows you to highlight certain things while diminishing the light in other areas, and it's a cheap tool that we almost always have on hand (although, obviously this doesn't help if you're *using* the phone's camera. But, in a pinch, we all get creative with the resources available to us at the time.
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!
Feel free to email me any questions at monicalshulman (at) gmail (dot) com !
Note: This article about low light photography was originally published March 31, 2011. It was updated on Nov. 21st, 2016