12 Tips for Shooting in Low Light Photography Situations

hawaii sunset
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Light is essential in photography. If you don’t have light, you can’t take a picture.

But not all light is created equal. Some light can be harsh or dim, golden or blue.

Sometimes we can control the light by choosing the time of day to shoot or using artificial light. Sometimes we just have to go with the natural light we are given.

Today, we are going to talk about low light and how to manage shooting in low light photography situations.

3 Types of Low Light Situations

When we say low light, we often think of dim, indoor light. But there are actually 3 types of low light we are going to work with today.

Semi Light: during the day when you can see fine with the light available but the camera struggles because you are in the shade of a tree or a large object.

Low Light: near or after sunset when there is still a glow in the sky but it is getting dark or when you are shooting indoors with artificial light.

Night: After dark when the only light available is artificial light.

*As we discuss the tips below, I will mention what type of situation it will work best for. Hopefully this will help you get the best shot no matter the time of day or night.

12 Tips for Shooting In Low Light

1. Scout it out ahead of time

If you have a chance to see what you’ll be working with ahead of time, it will give you the opportunity for better planning during your photo shoot.

Now of course, if you are shooting your kids at someone else’s house, in more of a candid setting this might not be practical.

But if you have a scheduled photo shoot, whether it is a landscape shoot, real estate shoot, portrait shoot or anything else, preparing in advance for the light you will have can always help you streamline your process and get you prepared for what is to come.

*This is true for semi-light, low light or nighttime shoots.

2. Use a longer exposure

The longer your shutter is open, the more light you will let in the camera. So if you are in a situation where you need more light, you need to decrease the shutter speed for a longer exposure.

When you use a longer exposure, you will want to make sure your subject isn’t moving, otherwise your image will be blurry. You may also want to use a tripod, depending on your subject and surroundings.

To find out more about long exposure photography, check out this blog post —> 14 Best Uses for Long Exposure Photography.

*This is true for low light or nighttime shots.

boy with iPad

3. Shoot for black and white

When you shoot with low light or in very dark situations, your photos may be grainy (see #5) or your colors may be off because of overhead lights.

One way to fix this in your photo in post processing is to change the photo to black and white.

Black and white photos aren’t expected to look as sharp because they give an old time feel. Also, taking away color usually fixes the color issues you might have with artificial light.

*This is true for low light situations.

4. Shoot in manual mode

I believe very strongly that to get the most out of your camera and to stretch it’s abilities, you should be shooting in manual mode. No situation is more perfect for manual mode than low light situations.

Being about to change the exposure triangle (ISO, shutterspeed and aperture) can help you take a photo in even the darkest conditions.

They make an iPhone now that can take photos of stars, but I can’t imagine it would be anywhere close to the quality that you would get from your DSLR in the same conditions.

To find out more about the exposure triangle, read this post —> How to Use the Exposure Triangle to Improve Your Photography.

*This is true in all three types of low light.

5. Crank up the ISO

When you first learn how to shoot in manual mode, one of the main things that is taught is to keep your ISO as low as possible. And I don’t disagree!

But when you get into low light situations, cranking up your ISO may be the only play you have left. So if you have to choose between getting the shot or not, crank up the ISO!

It is better to use a higher ISO in camera than to try to bump up the exposure in post processing. You will introduce noise either way, but it will be worse after the fact.

To find out more about ISO, check out this post —> 10 Steps to Manual Mode: ISO Basics.

*This is mostly for low light or night photos.

hawaii sunset

6. Get closer to a light source

Light is key to any photography. Natural light is the best, but it can be finicky. Artificial light can work, but it may give you funny colors, depending on the light.

If you are in shade and you need more light, step closer to the sun (think more open shade).

If you are indoors, in a low light situation, try to find a window if it is light outside. If it isn’t light outside, find an artificial light source. This could be a lamp, tv/computer screen or any other light available.

If it is night, get close to a light source such as a street light, lights from a building or even car headlights. Whatever you have will work.

Light is key and it will make or break your photo, no matter what time of day it is.

*This is true in all three types of low light.

7. Use a flashlight to paint light

When taking photos outside, you may need to bring extra light with you to get the shot. This is when a flashlight might do the trick.

If you are taking a landscape photo of the stars, but you want to include an object in the foreground for scale, it will need light to be seen in the vastness of the photo.

Take a large flashlight and shine it on the object while taking the long exposure to get the stars correctly exposed. This can be a great shot that seems hard but isn’t really.

*This is mostly for night photography.

8. Open up your aperture

Changing your aperture can also effect the amount of light that your camera can use. The smaller the number, the more light is let in. The bigger the number, the less light is let in.

So if you need more light in your photo, you may want to decrease the aperture number. Just be aware that this will also limit the amount of your photo that is in focus.

How low you can decrease your aperture depends on your lens and it’s aperture setting. Typically the more expensive the lens, the lower the aperture, but not always.

To find out more about aperture, read this post —> 10 Steps to Manual Mode: Aperture Basics.

*This is true in all three types of low light.

9. Use manual focus

When in extremely low light or shooting at night, your camera may have a hard time finding focus with auto focus.

This is because auto focus uses contrast to focus, and with less light there is less contrast.

If you are shooting the night sky or other night objects, it may be better to use manual focus to find your focus. This can take some practice getting used to, but it will keep the camera from constantly trying to focus or not taking the shot because it can’t focus.

*This is mostly for night photography.

Texas state capitol ceiling

10. Shoot in RAW

I almost always shoot in RAW and this is one of the reasons why.

If I am shooting with limited light, I may have to do some post processing after the shot to get things the way I want them.

By shooting in RAW, you have more information in the image to work with in Lightroom or Photoshop. You can adjust many things in the image that you won’t have if you shoot jpeg.

To find out more about shooting in RAW, check out this blog post —> 10 Steps to Manual Mode: RAW vs. Jpeg.

*This is true in all three types of low light.

11. Use bracketing

If you aren’t sure if you are getting the proper exposure, or you want a more dynamic range in your photo, then you might want to use bracketing to get the shot.

Bracketing allows your camera to take the shot with 3 different exposures (or more), one right after the other. That way you have an underexposed, properly exposed and over exposed photo with each scene.

Then when you get to your editing software (I prefer Lightroom), you can either choose the one you like best or merge them together for an HDR (high dynamic range) composite shot.

To find out more about bracketing, check out this blog post —> 10 Steps to Manual Mode: Bracketing Basics.

*This is true in all three types of low light.

cliff dwellings at night

12. Use the histogram

My last tip is here to help you evaluate your photo after you take it, in camera.

Many of us are accustomed to looking at the back of our camera at the LCD screen to see if we got the shot (this is called chimping). That is a fine practice and can be helpful in regular light situations.

But in low light, your screen may look brighter than usual because of the low light around it. So your photo may appear brighter than it actually is as well.

To help you determine if you got the shot, switch your LCD screen to the histogram setting. Then you can tell by the histogram if you got the proper exposure and won’t have to just go by what your eyes are seeing.

To learn how to read a histogram properly, check out this blog post —> 10 Steps to Manual Mode: Histogram Basics.

Examples of Low Light Photography Done Right

I have some low light photos, but I would also like to share with you other people online that are rocking the low light photography. So here are some examples from Pinterest. If you want to know more about the photographer, just click on the pin.

Semi Light

Low Light

Night

Hopefully these examples will give you some ideas for what you can do with your photography in low light situations.

Low light can be challenging, but who doesn’t like a challenge? Use these tips above to get great photos in any light.

You can do this!

What is your favorite low light situation to photograph? Let us know in the comments below. And if you found this post helpful, please share. Thanks!

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