An Illuminating Guide to Low Light Photography

Joel Lee 06-02-2015

If photography is about capturing light, how do you take photos when light is scarce? Low light photography is a special kind of photography that requires a few tricks and techniques to get right. The next time you’re caught in a dark place, will you know how to take shots that look great?


You run into low light scenarios all the time: grungy restaurants, late night excursions through the city, or even out in the middle of nowhere under a night sky Take Better Night Sky Photographs By Getting The Basics Right Tired of taking night-time photos that come out dark, empty, and boring? Read More . Don’t settle for blurry movements, noise, and black nothingness – here’s how to take control of these situations and get great results.

The Right Setup For Low Lighting

While impromptu low light photography isn’t impossible, it’ll turn out better if you are prepared with the right kind of equipment and mentality. A lot of the fundamentals hold true whether you have a lot of light (which is what you usually want) or not much light at all. The difference is in how you apply those fundamentals.

Learn Proper Exposure

One of the first things to learn as a photographer 7 Key Photography Tips for Absolute Beginners These photography tips will help you take better photos, whether you're a beginner or have some practice already. Read More is the exposure triangle: ISO, Aperture, and Shutter Speed. These are non-negotiable. You must know these like you know your own soul if you want to take good photos, whether they’re taken in low light or not.


If you want to capture action, raise the ISO. This makes your camera more sensitive to the light it picks up. The downside is that higher ISO usually leads to grainier photos. The trick is to find the right balance. Keep pushing it until the graininess is more than you can tolerate then back down a bit.


If your subject is stationary, slow down the shutter speed. This increases the amount of time that your camera sensor is open, thus picking up more light. The downside is that any kind of movement will register as a blur so this is not good when trying to capture action or motion.

As for the aperture, it should always be as wide as possible (measured in f-stops, a lower number means a wider aperture). The wider it is, the more light is let through the lens to hit the camera sensor. If your combination of ISO and shutter speed isn’t letting in enough light, consider buying a lens with a wider aperture (a 50mm f/1.8 “nifty fifty” is a good place to start). This will allow you to bring down the ISO and quicken the shutter speed.

Confused? That’s okay! You can practice camera exposure settings Learn & Practice Camera Exposure Settings With CameraSim Understanding camera exposure can often take the joy out of taking pictures. Cameras like the Canon 50D or the Nikon D80 are fairly affordable, but you may not get your money’s worth if you only... Read More with CameraSim.



Get a Sturdy Tripod

Since ISO can only be pushed so high before it gets grainy and apertures have a physical limit to how wide they can be, shutter speed is the main variable for low light photos. To offset the blurriness of long exposure times, tripods are pretty much mandatory.

The selection is wide so check out our camera tripod guide The Camera Tripod Buying Guide For Beginners Tired of camera shake ruining your photos? Want to take time-lapse shots or long exposure photos? Tripods allow for all of these, so if you don't have one, why not? Read More if you’re not sure what to buy. If you plan on using the tripod for outdoor shots, make sure you spend a little extra on one that’s sturdy and heavy (if it shakes or trembles, it will blur your photos).


Get a Remote Shutter or Use Your Timer

No matter how dexterous you think you are, you will always shake the camera when pressing the shutter button — even if you’re using a tripod! Since low light shots typically require a long exposure, that shake is going to show up in your shot.


You can avoid this problem altogether by purchasing a remote shutter. It shouldn’t cost you more than $10 or $20 but make sure it’s compatible with your camera body. If you’re feeling adventurous, try making your own remote shutter Make Your Own DSLR Remote Shutter Release One accessory you'll no doubt be after is a remote shutter; this allows you to place the camera on a tripod or rest it somewhere and trigger the shutter without the chance of shake that... Read More from scratch.

Don’t want to spend money or take on a DIY project? Your digital camera almost certainly comes with a self timer, which allows you to compose, expose and delay the shutter. Admittedly, this requires a little more patience but it’s essential it if you don’t have a remote shutter on you.

How to Take a Low Light Shot

You’ve gone through the proper setup and preparation. Now you’re ready to shoot a few photos. How do you do it? What do you need to keep in mind every time you snap that shutter?



The Golden Hour

Low light doesn’t have to mean no light. In photography, the “golden hour” is the hour right after sunrise and the hour right before sunset. You know when the sun is along the horizon and casting a pink-orange light across the sky? That’s the golden hour.

For many, the two golden hours are the most beautiful hours of the day. You should take advantage by planning shoots that take place during these hours. It’s the perfect balance between color and low light, allowing you to experiment in ways that aren’t normally feasible. Adjust your exposure accordingly.


Balance for White

What is white balance? Light is not always white. For example, fluorescent bulbs produce a blue tint while incandescent bulbs produce an orange tint. Proper white balance Are You Getting The Most From Your DSLR? A great shot is a split second event. Getting it right is knowing which camera feature to use and when. Here are ten DSLR features that could inspire you to power on your camera. Read More tells the camera the color of light at the moment so that it captures the right colors.

Use Manual Focus

When lighting is low, lenses typically have a hard time finding focus. If you’re trying to take a shot and your camera keeps shifting its focus without ever landing on a sweet spot, your situation might simply be too dark. If you can’t or won’t lighten up the scene, you’ll need to resort to focusing manually.


Skip the Flash

The light from a flash is usually too bright for low light scenes, resulting in washed out subjects and harsh shadows. Stick to exposure adjustments and avoid flash altogether. However, a cool trick is to use a flashlight to cast a softer light that illuminates subjects in a pleasing way.

High Dynamic Range

HDR is a technique where you merge multiple shots to form a single image that incorporates the various exposures from each of the composing shots. It’s a great way to emphasize different areas without over or under-exposing the rest of the photo.

Learn more about this in our HDR photography guide HDRI Photography: An Essential Skills And Workflow Primer This guide outlines concepts involved in HDR photography followed by a logical progression of steps in the production of high dynamic range images. Read More .

A Few More Tips and Techniques

Let’s cap off with a few more tips to maximize the beauty of your shots.


Exposure Bracketing

Not sure which exposure settings work best for your situation? Take multiple shots of the same scene but tweak one aspect of the exposure with each shot. Most modern camera have an automatic bracketing feature that takes a handful of shots in a row with an increasing gradation of exposure. You can then pick your favourite and discard the rest.

Shoot in RAW

Though shooting in JPG can save on storage space, it cuts out a lot of important photo data that can be useful in post-processing 5 Easy Ways to Lighten Dark Underexposed Photos in Photoshop We all shoot underexposed photos from time to time. If you're shooting in low-light or high-contrast conditions it can be unavoidable. Fortunately, it's easy to fix in Photoshop. Read More . RAW files are huge and uncompressed, which affords you greater flexibility when editing. Most low light photos need to be post-processed in some way or another so it’s preferable to shoot in RAW for best results.

Convert to Infrared

Because infrared light is invisible to the naked eye, most digital cameras ignore it altogether. It’s possible to convert these cameras to pick up infrared light, which can produce some stunning photographs when used well.


The conversion is expensive if done by a professional. You can do it yourself if you’d like, but it can be a risky procedure if you don’t know your way around a camera. That’s why we recommend using an old digital camera Got An Old Digital Camera? It Can Still Do Magical Things I have two ageing digital SLR cameras, my first originally purchased Nikon D50 from 2005 and a Canon EOS-5D which I came across second-hand a few years ago. Despite being an entry-level camera that's getting... Read More instead of your main if you go that route.

Now get out there and get comfortable with low light. Do you have any more tips to add? Share them with us below. Any questions? Don’t hesitate to ask!

Image Credits: Golden Gate Bridge Via Shutterstock, Exposure Triangle Via Bastard’s Book, Night Tripod Via Shutterstock, Remote Shutter Via Shutterstock, Golden Hour Via Shutterstock, White Balance Via Shutterstock, Light Painting Via Photography Life, Exposure Bracketing Via Wikipedia, Low Light Infrared Via Flickr

Related topics: Digital Camera, Photography.

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  1. Anonymous
    October 6, 2015 at 9:15 am

    I think we should use tripod so that we can avoid blurry photos.

  2. John Williams
    February 10, 2015 at 6:35 pm

    All good advice above, here's a few of my practical thoughts: Tripods are nice but don't fit in your pocket. Try holding the side of the camera against a wall, fence post or door frame. Put the camera down on a table, a windowledge, a wall or car. Then use the timer.
    Sharp isn't always what you want. A slow shutter can show "art" movement inside an otherwise still, sharp image.
    Graininess can be nice, but much better with real film. Shoot your digital sharp and RAW then add grain later in post. Chemical grain was made in the darkroom, not in the camera, by "pushing" the chemistry.
    A wide open aperture gives very shallow depth of focus field and can make it hard to focus. Turn your autofocus off.
    Finally, fluorescent light "white" tends to be greenish. LED light "white" is bluish. Better to fix this in post when you can see what you are doing on a screen, rather than messing about in the dark.

    • Joel
      February 13, 2015 at 7:35 pm

      I agree. Tripods are the most convenient, but those alternatives (walls, fence posts, ledges, cars, etc) can work well if you find the right height for what you're trying to do. Good advice all around. Thanks!