10 Best Low Light Photography Tips and Camera Settings

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Low Light Photography Lesson

In our previous articles, we wrote about night photography and flash painting, explaining the application of low light photography techniques that combine slow shutter speed. You will notice that you are using more or less the same techniques and camera settings whenever you are shooting in low light conditions.

There may be some minor changes here and there, but by and large, the techniques will be the same.

In order to take better low light images, we will pay attention to two aspects. A technical aspect, where the focus is more on camera settings. The other is a practical one, where the focus is more on actual practice and the art of seeing.

Using these approaches, you will come out of this with important knowledge which will improve your overall low light photography.

Understanding the intricacies of low light photography is necessary for taking your low light photos to the next level.

Here we will tackle things such as the importance of manual focus, fast and slow shutter speed, aperture, low and high ISO, and other key camera settings and small technicalities.

Essential Camera Settings and Tips for Low Light Photography

Your camera’s settings are your best friend when it comes to low light photography. Understanding low-light environments, slow shutter, avoiding blurry images, creating motion blur, and zoning in on exterior light sources will help you become better at shooting low light photography. Let’s take a closer look.

1. Shoot with a Fast Wide Angle Lens

light trail on the road at night.

If you intend to shoot cityscapes, fireworks, light trails, night street photography, and any other type of low light photography pursuits, then you will need a wide angle lens. Wide angle lenses are very versatile in the sense that they are perfect for a wide variety of shooting needs and not just low light photography. They capture a wider area of the scene which is what you want when photographing the above.

Another advantage of wide angle lenses is that they have a faster aperture. A faster aperture has quite a few advantages. It gives you that beautiful background blur during daylight and can be very beneficial for low-light shooting. A fast lens means you don’t have to jack up the ISO number in order to capture more light. Low ISO makes for more sharp photos and reduces grain, thus increasing image quality.

A fast lens lets in more light, thus allowing you to use a faster shutter speed creating a more stable and less blurry image.

2. Use a Tripod

milky way.

Chances are, unless you have a lens with a very wide aperture, and as soon as you block out natural lighting, then you’ll experience a camera shake where the use of a tripod can be required. Not only will you need a tripod to hold the camera steady but you’ll also need whatever you’re shooting to stay still in order to take a sharp photograph.

The use of a tripod in low light settings can be a very important tool, but that depends on the photo you are attempting to capture. A tripod can help in image stabilization, letting as much light as possible in low light situations.

For example, a tripod allows you to expose using a very slow shutter speed and get very unique images. Such as that of stars or any moving subject in low light.

3. Don’t be Afraid to Use High ISO

A man admiring a late sunset - ISO 2500.

ISO refers to the sensitivity of the image. In film photography, once you select a film, you have no way to change its ISO until you have exhausted the roll. Digital cameras give you the luxury to change the ISO after each exposure, which is a huge plus.

Choosing high or low ISO depends entirely on what you are shooting. If you are using a tripod, high ISO is not necessary since you can compensate by bringing more light using a slower shutter speed.

However if you are shooting handheld and on the move, a high ISO can help. High ISO in low light conditions can be a great tool as it allows you to shoot using faster shutter speeds and avoid motion blur, granting you more control over your photos. However, there is one issue with high ISO, which is a high amount of image noise.

4. Use Flash

A portrait of women using flash at night.

If your camera does not come equipped with a built-in flash unit, you can always buy an exterior flash and attach it to your camera’s shoe.

Using flash in low light settings can be a great tool. Flash allows you to use any aperture and shutter you choose without worrying about under-exposing your image at all.

It can be of great benefit, especially for portraits taken at night. Any issues with red-eye can be easily fixed with post processing software.

5. Go Full Manual

Manual setting screen on a canon DSLR camera.

It is necessary to understand your camera and its settings well. But first, it is equally important to understand anytime you are shooting in low light, the objective is not to get sharp images, unless of course you are using a tripod, which does not make much sense if you are shooting on the go, on the street or at a festival for example.

In low light, you must be prompt and understand how to dial in your camera. A very good tip here is to control your shutter speed. Controlling your shutter speed gives you more control over all available light and reduces camera shake.

The better you get at this, you then might transfer over to fully manual shooting mode. Here, you can open up your aperture as wide as possible, set your ISO to around 3200, and expose using the shutter speed, but don’t forget to go too low, keep the shutter at around 1/80 of a second or higher. Any lower and you can’t eliminate camera shake, at this point crank up your ISO and go for the shot.

Any issues regarding too much noise can be addressed using a photo editing software.

6. Capturing Motion and Moving Subjects

Light trail created using slow shutter and a tripod.

Taking photos of moving subjects will help you understand how photography embraces motion in a long exposure. The stereotypes you’ve surely seen are typical of merry-go-rounds, city landscapes at night with cars making colored red and white lines down the street. Taking pictures of the city lights can be great for learning and experimenting.

Be more creative than that and make the ordinary extraordinary! Realize that while your camera’s shutter is open, the camera is a canvas for the moving light to paint on, and use that knowledge to your advantage.

7. Use Different Sources of Light

Hands of a man outstretched over a fire at night.

In order to become better at low light photography, you must train your eye to see how to incorporate whatever available light into your image.

In night street photography with no natural light, for example, practice using a background with bright light, and wait for your subject and the light to converge before taking the photo. In this scenario, your subject becomes evident and clear, but will likely come out in silhouette form.

In sum, using whatever light source is available in the street can help you understand how to compose a photo in very limited conditions. Not only will images be creative, but it is excellent training for your seeing ability.

8. Shoot More in Black and White

Using whatever available street lights to show subjects.

Take yourself out of your comfort zone and shoot in varying low light situations. Understand the impact of how a yellow light might affect your photo differently than a bright white light.

Sometimes it can be a great idea to shoot and think in black and white, since low light conditions organically promote good black and white photography.

So, the more you practice seeing the impact of different kinds of light as well as in black and white, your low light photography game will dramatically improve.

9. Use a Camera with a Large Sensor

Canon DSLR camera.

Technically speaking, a large sensor gets more light than its smaller counterpart. Modern cameras with APS-C sensors are smaller than full frame cameras and sensors.

A larger sensor is excellent for low light settings. Large sensors have much higher light-gathering capacities and produce images with less noise.

10. Practice!

Settings, numbers, and technical jargon, although necessary, are not everything. Going outside and shooting in low light, dim light, or ambient light, is the most important thing.

Understanding is one thing, but the application is even more important. There is no better teacher than practice. Theory can only take you somewhere, but actual practice is key.

The most important thing is to practice in these low light conditions, as practice makes perfect.

low light city nightscape.

How to Take Photos in Low Light – Practice Exercise

One of the concepts all beginners need to understand is that all your camera can do is capture light. This exercise will help you understand how your camera sees the light. The easiest time to take photographs is during the daytime when light is plentiful. If you can take good photographs at night, you can take photographs at any time.

The city nightscape is a great place to begin practicing low light photography. Because of the low light settings as well as the lights the city adds to your photography, you have plenty to work with and learn about.

  1. Have a camera tripod ready.
  2. Wait until the sun has gone down.
  3. Find a good place, such as the city lights in the distance, a darkened road, or anywhere to experiment.
  4. Turn your flash off and set your camera up on a tripod or secure location.
  5. Meter the light (there may not be much, but it’s there) and set the shutter speed and aperture accordingly. Try your first shot with the aperture as open as possible.

Conclusion

Mastering photography in low light situations is an excellent skill that any photographer can benefit from. However, it is not easy to achieve this skill without repetitive practice.

The more you shoot in low light, the better you get at developing a natural photography eye. You also develop a sense of understanding of how to compose photos, given the presence of very little light.

In this day and age, modern cameras and lenses help in making low light photography just a bit easier. High ISO and wide maximum aperture allow you to take sharper low light photos faster. Master shooting in low light and you’ll find yourself a better photographer in no time.

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I am Mahmoud, a freelance professional photographer with a huge passion for the craft. In my work, I tend to lean towards the artistic and poetic side as I was inspired by some great b&w photographers of old.
I am Mahmoud, a freelance professional photographer with a huge passion for the craft. In my work, I tend to lean towards the artistic and poetic side as I was inspired by some great b&w photographers of old.
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