Low light makes photography more difficult. The difference between taking one of your favorite shots ever and a bunch of junk you delete from your point & shoot cameras before getting home is how you deal with that challenge. You can view it as an obstacle to be overcome or you can think of all the aesthetic advantages of available light photography and turn your kit into one of the most convincing low light cameras with just a bit of practice and moxie. These tips can help those who are interested in harnessing the subtle beauty of low light.
You have to decide if you’re solving low-light photography or shooting available light photography. If it meets your goals, increasing the amount of light is a great solution. However, if your priority is to capture the actual setting and environment, then you have to figure out how to take good photos using nothing other than the (low) light that is already available – no flash, no turning up the light, and probably no time or opportunity to restage the shot to meet your lighting preferences.
Starting with your gear, everything you do can prepare you to take advantage of an awesome shot when it presents itself regardless of the light. You need a fast lens, meaning one with an aperture that opens up much wider than a kit lens, ideally up to f/1.4. This lets more light hit the camera’s sensor, meaning your camera can operate at faster shutter speeds even in low light.
You should also choose one of the more known low-light cameras, or at least one with a good range of manual settings so you can control the f-stop, shutter speed, and ISO to capture that light you want.
Find the best light source in the space. It’s called available light, meaning find the best light available in a space that appeals to you as quickly as possible so you can take shots that are imbued with the light, tone, and energy of that space, all of which come from its light. You can’t capture those elements if your camera can’t “see” them. Also be aware of the contrasts and effects of strong backlighting. If you can set yourself up at an angle to the light so it’s not directly behind or in front of the lens, you will get more natural shots.
2. Get the settings right
Available light photography is all about maximizing the impact of the light that is there. Use ISO (or film speed), shutter speed, and the aperture to get the right amount of light into your camera.
ISO – some people say you shouldn’t go about 1600, other suggest using the most powerful ISO your camera offers if that’s what a shot requires to get enough light. A higher ISO will allow you to capture hauntingly soft shadows in a dark room where no other collection of settings would, but it introduces digital distortion, called noise, which you either have to ignore or edit out afterwards. If you won’t bump up the ISO, you have to make up for it with the other settings.
Shutter speed – most people can’t shoot a crisp shot with shutter speeds slower than 1/60 of a second. Try your hand and see what works for you. The slower the shutter speed, the more light gets in, so it’s often either shutter speed or ISO doing the legwork.
Aperture f-stop – You probably just want to open your aperture as wide as it will go, meaning to the smallest number. This does shrink the depth of field, making it impossible to get more than just one narrow area, somewhere in the fore-, mid-, or background, in focus. So if you have to have clear details all the way from right in front of you to far away, such as if you’re taking a shot of a group of people in a bar, you have to decrease the aperture opening.
It’s also a good idea to shoot in continuous drive mode, because this lets you keep taking photos without moving your finger to repeatedly press and release the shutter button. This is a main cause of blur at slower shutter speeds, so taking several shots continuously increases the chances of at least one that is sharp and in focus.
Learn to distinguish good blur from bad. If the whole shot is blurry, you probably can’t see anything. If many of the details are sharp but one person is blurry because they were moving, your shot may look better for it. So don’t fear the blur.
You have to strategize to find the right moment. That could be a half-second when the light of a flickering candle perfectly illuminates a person’s face giving you the light you need, or the pause between breaths when your subject is still. The lower the light, the more important timing is for the beauty of your shot.
You don’t need the best low light cameras to become an available light photography lover. Just use these tips and practice and you’ll see the power of a darker shot.