Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Shooting in Low Light

By Brendan Keenan, Penn Camera Tysons Corner
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Shooting in low light can be one of the most challenging things in photography to do well. It takes practice to know which combination of f-stop, shutter speed, and ISO will be sufficient in any given low light situation. There are of course a few rules and guidelines that will help you take much better photographs in low light.


First there is the issue of using the right equipment. Let's start with lenses. Lenses are of course a very important aspect of any part of photograph. For low light photography, you will want a fast lens, meaning a lens with a wide maximum aperture, like f/2.8 or f/1.8. Faster lenses allow for faster shutter speeds, since more light is gathered during the exposure. This can be important in digital photography because it can allow you to hand-hold in low light conditions, and exposures lasting too long can sometimes introduce noise into the photograph. Image stabilized lenses can also help with by allowing hand-held shots at slower shutter speeds than a non-stabilized lens.

Of course in many cases, a tripod will be your best tool. Even a portable mini tripod can give you the stability you need when shooting on the go. A tripod is a necessity for very long exposures. It is also a good idea to use a shutter release cable to further reduce camera shake. A flash is obviously a good option for adding light to a scene, but can be tricky to use properly. Direct flash will often illuminate too much, causing overexposure and blowing out details in the scene. On camera flashes can work, but your best bet is an on or off camera flash that can be angled to reflect or bounce off of a ceiling or wall. This will help to get even, diffuse light without overexposing or losing any detail.


- If shooting handheld, use the inverse rule between focal length and shutter speed. If your lens is 100mm for example, you will need a shutter speed no slower than 1/100th of a second. Any slower and you will need a tripod.

- If you have a point and shoot camera, most have special scene mode settings that automatically adjust for low light situations, like night portrait and night landscape. Typically these setting need a tripod to work well.

- If you can, start by avoiding "late night" photography, and limit your low light shooting to the times just before dawn, or just after sunset. This will let you get the hang of things before you try really low light photography.

- Get creative. Use long exposures to capture the trails of light created by cars moving through the city. Flashlights and glow sticks can also be used to create artistic effects during long exposures.

- Most importantly, practice. Take multiple shots of the same scene, with varying exposures and continue to check your progress. Stick with it, and you'll be a low light expert in no time.

For more information on exposure, and tips for using flash effectively, check out our Exposure Control and Off-Camera Flash blogs for more hints on getting good exposures in tricky lighting, and tips on using flashes to improve your photos. Stay tuned for our lens buyers guide if you’re thinking of picking up a new toy. Until then, keep shooting!