Workshop: 7 tips for taking better photos in low light

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So you’ve taken your camera out for a night on the town, and you’ve decided that turning off the flash produces a more natural and pleasing result. The trouble is, you’re getting a lot more misses than you are getting hits. Your photos are blurry and grainy, or sometimes the subject you’re shooting is completely overblown. And you can’t figure out any rhyme or reason for this.

There is, actually, a very simple reason: chances are, you’re shooting in Auto mode. Basically, in response to your movements and changes in the lighting around you, your camera is bouncing between so many different combinations of its possible settings that, well, what you’re getting is pot luck.

Rather than explain how this is all going wrong for you, I’ll explain a few simple steps you can take to do it better.

 

1. Make sure your subject is lit

There’s a lot of talk about how digital cameras are so sensitive that they can practically shoot in the dark. It’s nonsense.

At the most fundamental level, every photo requires light. If there’s no light, you have no picture. These cameras that claim to “shoot in the dark” are really just amplifying every skerrick of light they can detect. That said, make sure whatever it is you’re shooting is well lit.

 

2. Under-expose

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At left: the meter on the Fujifilm X10 tells you whether you’re about to over or under-expose a photo. At right: the exposure meter appears on the Nikon D700’s LCD and in the optical viewfinder.

If you’re shooting in Auto mode, your camera is trying to get a good exposure across the entire frame. The thing is, if you’re shooting a well-lit subject in the dark, it’ll be compensating for the darkness that it detects around the rest of the frame. This is what causes your subject to look washed out and overblown.

Your goal, then, is to control the amount of light reaching your sensor. So set your camera to under-expose. There’s no hard and fast rule for this – just under-expose to taste.

In the above picture, I’ve highlighted where exposure information can be found on both a DSLR and a point-and-shoot camera. Below, an illustration of just how easy it is to change your exposure – particularly on a point-and-shoot.

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Many point-and-shoots feature the dial circled in green. It’s a very easy way to control your exposure. But there are other dials too that give you superior manual control. Try using them!

 

 

3. Stop shooting in Auto mode

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Left: Justin Bieber, shot in full Auto-mode with a standard point-and-shoot.
Right: Justin Bieber shot in full Manual mode, with a D800E with a 50/1.4G @ f/5, 1/100s ISO1600.

If you want to take even greater control of how much you under-expose by, you need to stop shooting in Auto mode. You don’t have to go full Manual –just switching to Shutter or Aperture control can make a difference. Here’s how…

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That little circle formed by the aperture blades is what controls the amount of light hitting your camera sensor.

4. Close the aperture

A lot of people will tell you to open up the aperture to capture as much light as possible, so naturally that means going all the way to f/2.8 or f/1.4 or whatever your lens will allow. However, in my experience, that captures so much light that it blends into each other, causing the background detail to lose definition.

I tend to go slightly in the other direction, to somewhere around f/5.6 or thereabouts, which lets me capture the lights without sacrificing detail.

 

5. Increase the shutter speed

Reducing the shutter speed would increase the amount of light captured by a camera, but it increases the chances of introducing motion blur. You could address this with a tripod, but it won’t help if you’re shooting a moving object. In those cases, you just have to bite the bullet and start shooting at 1/100s or 1/120s or even faster, depending on what you’re shooting.

 

6. Increase your ISO sensitivity

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With the right amount of sensitivity, we can see the lights being projected on to the sails of the Sydney Opera House. Had the sensitivity been set too high, the frame would’ve been awash with a blue blur. Too low, and you wouldn’t see them at all.

The drawback of using a high ISO is that it creates a lot of grain in your photo. Some people don’t like that. Also, if you’ve made it too high, and the lighting conditions are too unpredictable, you run the risk of blowing out the exposure anyway.

On the flipside, reducing the ISO sensitivity to produce a “cleaner” shot prevents the camera from picking up a lot of ambient light and detail. It also severely limits what you’re able to do with your shutter speed and aperture, which results in blurry, rubbish photos.

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Nikon D7000, 70-200/2.8 @ 80mm f/4, 1/100s, ISO1100

Personally, I’m usually happy to shoot at anywhere between ISO800 to ISO1600 – but that’s because my camera produces virtually no noise at those settings. If I had to, I’d reluctantly push it to ISO6400.

The thing about noise is that there’s no getting around it. It’s one of the non-negotiable ‘laws of physics’ aspects of photography. If you’re unhappy with the amount of noise your camera is producing, the bottom line is this: you need to buy a better camera.

 

7. For Pete’s sake, put the mobile phone away

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A candid of Kevin Smith, taken with an iPhone 4S.

The latest mobile phones and tablets use BSI sensors that are more sensitive to light and, in theory, better for low-light conditions. But, as should hopefully be clear from the above advice, light sensitivity alone isn’t enough. DSLRs and above-average point-and-shoots can do everything I’ve discussed here. Mobile phones, as far as I’m aware, do not.

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2 thoughts on “Workshop: 7 tips for taking better photos in low light

  1. Pingback: Six simple rules for taking unforgettable photos at the Sydney Vivid Festival | idiot.with.camera

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