5 Tips for Taking Photos in the Dark

Shooting photos at night or in low lighting is one of the hardest things to do well. Cameras have gotten better at seeing in the dark, but without knowing what you’re doing these photos tend to turn out blurry or too grainy! Typically you don’t want to use a flash because the lighting just looks bad without using a professional speedlight with custom controls. Here are 5 tips for taking better photos when there isn’t much light. This could be night photography or simply taking a photo inside.

beach at night horizon sunset photography

  • Open up your aperture. If you are using a DSLR camera or a camera that has a lens with manual aperture (f-stop/iris) controls, open it up by going to a lower f-stop. A lower f-stop like f/1.4 – f/2.8 will allows the maximum light through the lens. This means having a more shallow depth of field (which isn’t a bad thing) that might make it harder to get sharp images of a moving object. But if you have a steady subject, then a very fast aperture is good for low light. When you hear the term a fast lens, they are talking about the ability for a lens to open up to a wide aperture.
  • Use stabilization. Depending on your situation, you can carry around a tripod of monopod to help stabilize your shot. Since you’ll be using a slower shutter speed (see next tip), you’ll need the camera to be more steady to avoid camera shake and a blurry result. A tripod is best for long exposures (slower shutter speeds), and is great for night photography. If you’re walking around, you can use your environment. Set the camera on the ground or a railing. If you need to hold your camera with your hands, rest against a wall or tuck your elbows in to make sure the camera has as stable a base as possible.
  • Slow that shutter. As we mentioned above, choosing a slower shutter speed is good for night photography because a slower shutter allows more light. Aside from opening your aperture and bumping up your ISO (see next tip), the shutter is the easiest way to allow more light. Some cameras have shutters that can stay open for 30 seconds or more! Of course when using a slow shutter, use stabilization. Also, if you are shooting moving objects, you may not want a slow shutter. Anything moving in your frame will be blurry. On the flip side, this might be a desired effect. You can get really great motion shots with a slow shutter like lights on a freeway (see below).

    long shutter slow shutter freeway lights

  • Increase the ISO. My least favorite way to take photos in low light is by increasing your ISO. The ISO is your camera sensor’s sensitivity. The more sensitive means the more light it sees. But in really low light, boosting your ISO from 100 to 3200 is only digitally increasing the brightness of your camera (not manually like with aperture or shutter speed). And the result also increases the noise or digital grain (see photo below) in your image. Of course, having noise/grain in your photo can be an artistic choice. In a pinch, boosting your ISO is a quick solution. Some cameras are better than others at seeing in the dark and ISOs can safely be increased to 6400+. Take some test shots to see how your camera does.

    high iso noise photo

  • Use the flash – creatively. While we try to stay away from using the flash, it can be used creatively. By lowering your shutter speed but also using the flash, the camera can capture a sharp image of your subject but also get that beautiful blurry background. The cool image below from DawsonDigital Photography shows off this effect.

    motion flash photography night

There you have it! I hope these 5 quick tips will help you know how to take photos when there isn’t enough light. As a rule of thumb, I always change settings in the following order when shooting in low light. 1) Aperture 2) Shutter Speed 3) ISO. Of course, changing these settings will have an artistic effect on your photo as well, so there is no set rule!


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