Photography is all about lighting, and sometimes the lack of light is what makes a photo interesting. Capturing a photo that requires darkness can be a problem, especially if you’re used to trying to get as much light in the lens as possible. Indoors can be the bane of the photographer, where you’re dying to catch the light, but using a flash will ruin it and it’s too dark to hand hold. Whether you’ve got no way to improve the lighting, or whether your camera just can’t see what you see in the dark there are ways to deal with low-light environments that mean you’ll still get the exposure you want.
Levels of Light
How dark is dark? Identifying your level of lighting is the first step to understanding how you can fix the problem There’s a huge range of light which you might encounter but for clarity let’s divide “low light” into the three most common categories you’re likely to come across.
- Dark – aka night, total lack of light or only bright objects are visible.
- Low-Light – indoors or after sunset during the terminator zone (yes, it’s really called that) where you can still see but the light is definitely fading and no longer daytime.
- Visible Shade – It may be full daylight but there’s not enough light or the lighting is a combination of very bright and very dark where your exposure is going to be difficult. Shadows, under canopies, alleys, and under trees in full sun fall into this category.
You’ve probably come across any number of difficult lighting situations dealing with darkness and shadow but it’s still plausible to take good images in all of the above situations. If you’re not already familiar with the exposure triangle then I suggest learning more about it. Mastering the balance of shutter speed, aperture, and ISO sensitivity is key to getting any situation exposed correctly.
Visible Shade/Difficult Light
Our eyes see a much broader dynamic range than the camera sensor, so while we might look at something as having “plenty of light” the camera sees something different. If you’ve ever tried to take a shot under a tree or in shadow hoping to avoid midday glare, only for it to come out blurry it’s likely that your camera tried to compensate for the poor light by slowing the shutter to the point where the speed wasn’t good for handheld.
There’s two things you’re going to find when taking a visible shade image – either high noise or blur depending on how your camera compensates.
The shutter speed determines just how long the sensor is exposed to light. The slower your shutter speed the more likely you are to experience blur. Anything less than 1/100 when you are hand holding is risking blur and while you might be able to get away with as low as 1/50 if you’ve got some sort of support and the right lens you’re probably better off compromising on the exposure triangle and using a faster shutter to stop the risk of blur at all. For full daylight you’re likely to be using 1/200 or 1/250 shutter speed so increasing your exposure to 1/100 or higher will fix blur as long as you compromise elsewhere.
Increasing the shutter speed alone will not get you a better exposure. You’ll have less blur but you’ll also likely have a dark underexposed image. Unless you have a fast lens lowering your aperture will help counteract this. The smaller the aperture the more light will pass into the sensor still allowing you to get the same amount of light for less shutter opening time. You can change to aperture priority mode to over-ride your camera’s tendency to increase ISO and lower shutter speed and put it to the lowest aperture possible then move up until you get the right exposure.
The lowest aperture you’re going to have is going to depend on how fast your lens is. Most consumer grade lenses, especially zoom lenses, stop around f/3-5 while professional lenses will go to f/2.8 and some prime lenses will go as low as f/1.2. Decreasing the aperture will double the speed of your shutter while still letting in the same amount of light, as long as you have a lens that allows this.
If you’ve already decreased the aperture and increased the shutter speed then the only part of the exposure triangle left to adjust is the ISO. The ISO is how sensitive the sensor is to light. For each stop you increase the ISO you’ll double the exposure and double how fast the shutter speed is. While the maths isn’t exact it’s enough to understand how that works. The issue with doubling the ISO means that you’re risking noise. Most cameras can acceptably take pictures up to ISO 800 or even ISO 3200 without having noise issues but at the highest ISO levels of 32,000-51,200 you may have an image that’s so noisy that it’s unusable.
Low light is the most complex of all situations because you want to use the available light, but you’ll quickly max out your aperture. Using the same steps as above you may still have blurry images, so you have to compromise further or get creative
Increase ISO More
As mentioned before, like aperture there becomes a point where you just can’t increase the ISO more. The higher levels mean significant noise, and this can’t always be filtered out in post processing so your choice is either to stack images (something that is impossible if hand holding) or to try something else.
If you can get closer to your light source you’ll have more usable light. This is especially important for indoors. Standing a subject near a window or door that lets in light from outside can create enough light that your camera can function with a fast shutter. You may still need a flash to fill light but that’s a different matter.
Stabilize and Technique
Proper hand holding technique will go a long way to getting your images clear. Your camera should be held similarly to a rifle with your arms close to your body and supported. Exhaling as you gently press the shutter can release some of the shake from pressing it, and if all else fails support yourself or brace yourself against a solid object. Leaning against a wall, a tree, a door, or table can help add precious time to your shutter speed.
If you can’t get the ISO to a reasonable level the option is to simply underexpose. By underexposing to some extent you can still bump up the exposure in post processing without reaching the level of noise you would by using the on board ISO. Negatively exposing by 1 to 1.5 stops risks losing detail but you may also be able to recover it.
Especially when it gets very dark your autofocus likely can’t figure out what you want to see. Autofocus almost exclusively relies on contrast and in a dark image there’s very little so it will try and find the brightest thing it can or simply choose the center. Turning your auto focus to single point or continuous can help re-acquire the right point though in many cases you won’t be able to “see” where you’re focusing.
Full frame sensors perform better in low light situations. They’re expensive and the sensors do have a higher dynamic range so in a situation where a crop sensor would have to have a tripod an fx sensor may still be handheld.
Full darkness is almost impossible to shoot handheld. The exception is when you are in dull darkness but the area you are in is brightly lit, giving enough light for the camera to expose.
Use a Tripod
Almost exclusively you will have to have the camera sitting on something to stabilize it. A sturdy tripod is essential if you’re shooting at night. Slow shutter speed and even slight vibration in full darkness can cause blur and vibration. A timer or shutter release cable is also important as it will stop your camera shaking from your hand pressing/releasing the shutter. While a remote control can work just as well, you may end up having to be in the frame to set it.
Using light and a slow exposure will do one of two things – create motion when you move the light or light up the subject alone without the background. Adding light can also work for a double exposure where you expose a brightly lit subject then combine the image with a correctly exposed dark background.
If all else fails you can also try adding manual focus. Autofocus just doesn’t work in full darkness, and adding vibration assist will only go so far in this case. Illuminate the subject and focus the camera before removing the illumination and exposing.
If you’re still not familiar with the exposure triangle this is your greatest weapon for correct exposure. The key is getting the shutter speed fast enough to expose without blur, but you’re going to compromise aperture or ISO and knowing which will make all the difference.