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A Beginner's Guide to Shooting in Low Light

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As photographers, we're always being told that light is the most important element of our work, that the shots we produce are dependent upon the light available and the artificial light that we bring to a situation. Whether we're tired of hearing it or not, it's true.

However, photographers are often posed with tricky situations in which the lighting is less than adequate and doesn't match with their intentions. This tutorial will hopefully offer you some creative ideas for dealing with low light scenarios and making the most of the light that you have to work with.


Why low light?

Many photographers avoid dealing with low lit situations because it often doesn't make sense to work without adequate light. If you are a produce photographer, there are no demands upon your work to shoot in situations where you don't have the correct light sources on your chosen subject. However, as a photographer who works with a large variety of subjects, I am met by a whole array of situations that require me to know how to work best with the light on offer.

As you read through these tips, consider how they might be best applied to the photographic work that you undertake, whether any of the creative ideas might be worth considering for your own work. Hopefully this practical advice will come in useful when you are next confronted with a low lit situation.


Photo by jliba

What about flash?

I can hear you saying it already. In this modern age, we have a vast array of lighting options so that we no longer have to struggle with a lack of light. I don't want to detail here how to approach a low lit situation and compensate for that by using artificial light.

Obviously, in any given scenario you have the option to use flashguns, studio style lighting or even something basic such as a torch to make up for the lack of natural light, but I want to focus on the ways in which we can use situations with limited light to our advantage and make the most of the scene we are faced with.


Photo by lightknight

Dealing with low light by using camera settings

So first things first, when confronted with a low light situation, there are means by which you can alter your settings in order to get the shots you want. One of the main things you can do is make the most of the ISO settings. Turning up the ISO will let in more light, the only downside being that it will increase the noise in the shot.

You can also work with the shutter speed in order to let more light in, select shutter speed priority on your camera and experiment with the settings according to the situation and the light available. It can also be beneficial to try using bulb mode on your camera, a feature that will keep the shutter open for as long as the shutter button is depressed. When using bulb mode, it is very beneficial to have a remote shutter release so as not to apply any pressure or vibration to the camera while the shutter is open.


Photo by yazmdg

Step 4 - Equipment to help with low light

If you are working with long shutter speeds and bulb settings, then it is essential to use a tripod. If you try employing shutter speeds of anything under around 1/50, then you'll begin to see the deterioration and lack of focus in your shots if you're just holding your camera.

However, if your shutter speed doesn't require it, then please don't feel bound to your tripod, I often find my tripod stifles my photographic eye and is a hindrance to my creativity, so if you can, pop the ISO up another notch, select your shutter speed at around 1/125 and go handheld!

You may also have heard the term 'fast glass' in reference to lenses that have wide apertures. My favorite lens to use in low light situations is my Canon 50mm f/1.8, which was amazingly affordable, is very light and is extremely 'fast' with it's f/1.8 aperture.

For me, this lens makes the difference when it comes to working in low light scenarios. It can let in a lot of light and I don't have to worry about noise by turning the ISO up quite so high.


Photo by linh_rom

Urban evening shots

It's a common presumption from photographers that as soon as you start talking about low lit situations, they will automatically starting thinking about night cityscapes and urban shots with neon lit streets. Now I've nothing against these types of shots, they just have to be taken tastefully and creatively.

When you head out to shoot a night cityscape, go out before it gets dark, just before sunset. This way, the light will be low enough to look dark, and the lights will be on, but you'll have enough light to highlight the necessary detail in the buildings and architecture.


Photo by simonbray

Working with landscapes

I'm sure you've read many times that the best times to take landscape shots are during ‘The Golden Hours', essentially, the time around sunset and sunrise, in which the golden sunlight is poured sideways onto the subject matter. Well, utilizing the extremes of the golden hours, just before sunrise and after sunset, can also prove extremely rewarding.

The low lit hours before sunrise are filled with an air of expectancy for the day, as light begins to seep through the sky and light your subject matter. However, my favorite time of day to shoot is twilight, having watched the sunset, and just for a short while, the atmosphere changes, as the diminished light becomes less adequate, visual judgement reduces and everything looks slightly unreal.

For me, it's all about picking your moment. Be sure you have plenty of time on location, firstly to appreciate the amazing natural surroundings, but also to take in the details of the scene. Don't wait too long before getting your camera out, as where sunlight is concerned, the scene and the light will be changing constantly.

Try utilizing long exposures for your low lit landscape shots, especially when involving water, in order to smooth out the scene, you could even use a low grade neutral density filter to enhance this affect.


Photo by simonbray

Try black and white

Low light shots naturally lend themselves to black and white processing because without the color distraction, the focal point of the shot changes. The importance of the light involved in the shot increases as the light and dark draw the attention of the eye without the intrusion of the color.

Working in black and white also draws more attention to the composition and subject matter of the shot, I wouldn't recommend shooting directly in black and white, but it should be an important consideration for when you come to process the shots. This can be particularly useful if you've had to crank up the ISO in order to achieve the correct exposure and are suffering with a lot of noise in the shot. The increased 'grain' may lend itself to the atmosphere of a black and white shot rather than intruding upon a color shot.


Photo by justinmclean

Working with people in low light

It is often assumed that working with portraits and trying to capture shots of people in low lit situations isn't going to work, but there are in fact ways to capitalize on this scenario.

Try using motion creatively, especially when looking to capture a crowd of people. Experiment with shutter speeds and find a setting that's long enough to blur those moving, but short enough to capture those standing still. Also, consider any jobs or scenarios that involved people working in situations with a light source. For example a welder provides his own light source.


Photo by dk_spook

Use HDR

Another option to make the most of shooting in low light is to try merging two or more shots taken with different exposure settings in order to ensure that none of the shot is under or over exposed. This way you are using the atmosphere of the low light situation without compromising the quality of the exposure of the shot.


Photo by kennytyy

Over to you

So hopefully you're now well equipped practically and are full of creative ideas of how to work in challengingly lit scenarios. I think it's a real shame when photographers shy away from low lit shots. Some of my favorite photographic work is quite sparse and shot using minimal light and there is an awful lot of potential within low lit scenes for creative and eye catching shots.

If you're not sure where to start, why not begin with a simple personal project such as capturing light trails from stars using long shutter speeds, or possibly using minimal lighting for a portrait project, maybe using a solitary lit match or a single lamp.


Photo by benny4bs
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