1607042_10152228959399808_1457484835_n Photography by: Shane Drummond

Low light poses problems for many photographers even with the best DSLR cameras because it leads to a tradeoff between enough light to see the subjects, overexposing the lighter parts of the shot, washing out colors with the on-camera flash, and struggling with blurry images due to slow shutter speeds. Plus, many of the ways to compensate for low light make accurate color depiction less likely. Every situation calls for a different solution, but you are always working with the same tools, whether you have fancy digital SLR lenses to help or just a point-and-shoot: aperture, shutter speed, ISO, flash, and exposure compensation.

You can either change the camera’s settings to let more light in, create more light for the shot, or make the light that hits the sensor more powerful through digital changes in how the camera processes the shot.

Letting in more light – Aperture and Shutter speed

The very first thing to do if you’re struggling with any situation, low-light or otherwise, is to switch your camera off full auto and take control. You need to be able to control all the settings to get your camera to function the way you want it to in each situation.

For low-light shots, you can open the aperture, the hole that lets in light, more by decreasing the aperture number, and you can slow down the shutter speed so the iris stays open longer. Both of these will let in more light, helping to create photos in which you can actually see the subject. But each has a tradeoff. A slower shutter speed makes it more likely that you won’t get anything in focus because you can’t stay still enough to avoid image blur. For most people the cutoff is about 1/60. A wider aperture makes it difficult to get everything in focus because it shrinks the “depth of field” that the camera can keep in focus, which might not be what you want. Also, the standard kit lens that comes with DSLR cameras only goes up to about f/3.5 and you need about f/1.8 or f/1.2 to really open up the iris, which means buying a better DSLR lens such as a face, 50mm prime lens.

Adding light

If it’s dark, find more light. Sometimes it’s just a matter of the angle, and by moving you can eliminate backlight to reduce contrast so natural highlights show up better. But usually, you have to actually find light. The best thing to do is find ambient light in the space and get your subjects in front of it, whether it’s a window or a candle. If that doesn’t work, you have to use your flash. However, the standard flash that comes on most DSLR cameras is very disappointing. Either learn some diffusing and bounce tricks with your on-camera flash to help control the harshness and direction or buy an off-camera flash you can control and hold in your other hand.

Change light processing

Film speed or ISO, and exposure compensation are the two final options to capture a beautiful exposure in low light.

ISO used to be something you controlled by the physical film you bought. With DSLR cameras, it’s just a setting, and higher film speeds register light more strongly, producing brighter photos from the same low-light shot. The cost is that any ISO above 800 or 1600 ends up with distortion or “digital noise” that makes the shot look grainy. Preventing this is one of the many reasons you should use a manual setting instead of full auto. If you can’t get a good exposure using the other techniques listed, try increasing your film speed, but only go above 800 is you have no choice but to sacrifice a bit of quality so you get enough light.

You can also change the exposure compensation setting on your camera as a last resort. This applies other digital processes to the photo to increase or decrease how light it looks. It should be used sparingly because it introduces inaccuracies, but the cost can be worth it.

Great low light photos require some creativity and experimenting with your DSLR camera as well as effective application of these techniques. Just remember that if the setting is dark and you want to truly capture it, it’s OK for your photo to be slightly under-exposed.


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