LESSON 19: LOW-LIGHT PHOTOGRAPHY

Whether it’s the dimly lit theatre stage or the celebratory glow of birthday candles, the moments we most want to document often occur in low-light settings. Accordingly, photos from those occasions may turn out disappointingly blurry, overblown, and grainy. But before you reach for your camera’s flash setting, listen up! We’re sharing some tricks and tips that will help perfect your dimly lit shots.

Photo by @justonewayticket

Flash-Free Zone

It’s no secret that low light yields blurry images that contain lots of grain (also called noise). While some shutterbugs combat this phenomenon with flash, it can be difficult for an amateur photographer to properly control the secondary light source. Many professional event photographers rely on high-quality flash equipment, but for the purpose of this article, we’ll be discussing methods of reducing blur and grain in low-light settings without the use of the flash function.

To avoid blur, set your camera to shutter priority mode and shoot at higher speeds than you typically would. Though each scenario will differ, we recommend experimenting with speeds between 1/125 and 1/500. As you adjust your shutter, consider increasing your ISO, which will make the camera’s sensor more sensitive to light. For reference: you might use an ISO of 200 to capture a well-lit, outdoor shot — in a low-light setting, you could adjust to 400 and above. That said, if you need to capture images quickly and reliably, your camera’s auto ISO function may be the way to go.

Photo by Dan Petermann
Photo by Nik Supatravanij

All About Lenses

To capture the crispest shots, you’ll want a fast lens — many photographers shooting in low-light scenarios use fixed (or prime) lenses, which tend to have the added benefits of fast response times and wide apertures. And when you’re shooting in low light, you should opt for the widest possible aperture opening (which will be the smallest numeral f/stop, like f/1.4).

Because capturing scenes in dim light is so prone to shake, grain, and blur, you’ll want to utilize any (and possibly all) image stabilization techniques at your disposal. Some cameras have an image stabilization setting (IS) that you can turn on and off, but you can also simply make good use of a tripod to keep your camera steady and your shots crisp.

Phot by Emilio Espejel
Photo by Matjaz Krivic

Shake it Up

Low-light photography presents plenty of opportunities to get creative, as well. If you’re photographing a dance floor, why not experiment with a long exposure to see what sorts of fun and unique shots you can get? You might not end up with anything useful, but you might also get interesting shots.

No matter how you decide to photograph scenes in low light, always practice with your equipment beforehand — that way, when the big day rolls around, you’ll feel like a pro.  

Women in green and yellow dresses spinning
Photo by Daniel James Clarke

KEY TAKEAWAYS:

  • Shoot at higher shutter speeds or in shutter priority mode.
  • Increase your ISO to avoid blur.
  • Open your aperture to the highest setting; use the smallest f/stop.
  • Consider photographing with a long exposure.
  • Always utilize the image stabilization setting or a tripod.

Ready to move onto another photography challenge? Check out our complete collection of guides.

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Camille Danielich
Camille is a writer, traveler, and visual storyteller from New Jersey. She has lived in the Czech Republic, Thailand and in New York. She's always looking forward to her next adventure and probably won't stop instagramming her food anytime soon. Follow along on instagram