How to Get Better Digital Photos in Low Light Conditions

Thursday, 12 August 2010 09:31

Low light photography can be a lot of fun. And you don’t need to trade your soul for an expensive camera to do it. You just need to have one that has some manual setting options.




Low light photography can be a lot of fun. And you don’t need to trade your soul for an expensive camera to do it. You just need to have one that has some manual setting options. I ’m focusing on digital here, but I think most of what I’m going to talk about will apply to film cameras too. The only real difference is that with digital you get to view your results instantly, which allows you to adjust your settings on the fly and you can switch ISO without changing your roll of film.

You’ll have to adjust your methods to accommodate for film a little and keep better notes to track what you’re doing. I recommend keeping a small notebook with you no matter what you shoot with to track what you did so you know what works and what doesn’t.

OK, so before we get started there’s a few things you’re going to need. Here’s a list:


2. Tripod


4. Remote shutter release (this is optional if you have a timer on your camera)

5. A subject to shoot. This can be anything; a person, landscape, an object, whatever. I recommend starting with landscapes or inanimate objects to keep it simple.

So, get your camera mounted on the tripod and either set it to timer mode or attach your remote trigger. You want to trigger the shutter remotely or use the timer to keep from jiggling your camera when doing long exposures. The remote is the best way since you never actually touch the camera, but I’ve also found that a solid tripod, a light touch, and a two-second timer work just fine. That gives the camera/tripod combo some time to stop moving if you bump it. If it’s not enough time switch to the ten-second timer.

I shoot with a Canon 1D Mk2n in Manual mode, so at this point I’m going to tell you what settings I use and you can tweak as needed to fit your camera’s capabilities. I use the following settings as my starting point:

ISO 100, 20 second exposure, f-stop 22. If you want a shallow DOF, you’ll have to cut your exposure time down drastically when you open your aperture. I use a small aperture to keep the subject sharp and I’ve come to the conclusion that 20 seconds is a good starting point for my camera and lenses. Usually the only thing I change is the shutter speed. I only change the aperture if I can’t get enough light with a 30 second exposure. I don’t use the bulb setting very often. I’m kind of ADD and my mind wanders after about ten-seconds of waiting for the shutter to close.

What’s the flashlight for? Well, it’s for two things. The most important function is for focusing. If you’re shooting in extreme low light conditions you’re going to need some light for your autofocus to work, especially if you’re using a point & shoot camera that won’t allow manual focusing. Even if you have the option to focus manually, you might still need the light to see whether or not your focus is sharp. It’s easy to be close and still be out of focus when its dark.

The flashlight is also for painting with light. This is a lot of fun. You can use a flashlight, a laser pointer, a hand held flash fired manually, basically anything that emits light. I like using a mini Maglite for still life subjects. One of the things I like about the Maglites is that you can adjust the beam diameter from a tight focused spot to a soft wide glow.

So, now you are ready to experiment. Keep it simple to start. Just pick an object from around your house and rig a black backdrop for it. I usually do this after dark so I don’t have any stray window light. I also like to go down to the waterfront late at night. The glow from the city lights and the street lights in the parking lot are more than enough light to shoot by. And experiment with light painting. It can be a lot of fun.

Take Low Light Photos

Spider Baby 02

Exposure: 0.02 sec (1/50)

Aperture: f/5

Focal Length: 70 mm

ISO Speed: 800

Single light source (clamp type shop light) from stage left. Lots of layers and adjustments in CS2 afterward, but no dramatic changes to the basic lighting effects from the original.

Take Low Light Photos

Red Queen & Black Queen

Exposure: 5 sec (5)

Aperture: f/4

Focal Length: 17 mm

ISO Speed: 100

These are the same photo, except I converted one to B&W. This is an example of painting with light. It’s an abstract style and not normally my thing, but it was a fun experiment. I set the camera for a 5 second exposure and waved it around. When I got home I uploaded the photos, picked the most interesting area and then cropped it and mirrored it. Some of them I mirrored bilateral and others quadrilateral. Outside of contrast and curves adjustments in CS2, I didn’t alter anything else.

Take Low Light Photos


Exposure: 5 sec (5)

Aperture: f/5.6

Focal Length: 75 mm

ISO Speed: 100

One of my favourites despite the fact that it reminds me of a Journey album cover.

Take Low Light Photos

Waterfront at Night

Exposure: 20 sec (20)

Aperture: f/4.5

Focal Length: 22 mm

ISO Speed: 100

Tripod, remote trigger, and a hint of sunlight on the horizon. For all intents and purposes it was dark. I mean, we’re talking just barely a glow on the horizon.

Last Updated on Monday, 13 December 2010 14:41