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How to Take Amazing Photos in Low Lighting

Looking at Christmas tree

Reading Time: 5 minutes read

We’ve all been there—you see an amazing shot and snap the perfect pic only to find later it’s indiscernible, and those bold colors you saw in person are nonexistent in your photo. Taking pictures in low lighting is tricky in general, but have no fear: we’ve got you covered. Here are a few tips and tricks that can help take your low-lit photos from drab to fab.

When in low lighting do NOT use flash

Flash is the easiest way to quickly light a too-dark situation. However, it usually comes with undesired side effects, like red eyes, flattened images with shallow depth, and other strange lighting consequences (think yellow streaks over your photos). External, manual flashes lessen the likelihood of experiencing these, but we caution against the built-in flashes you’ll find on phones and digital cameras. Your best bet is to simply avoid them. Instead, use your camera’s other settings and options.

Check your camera settings

If you’re using a traditional handheld camera, you have the benefit of being able to manually control your camera settings. Photography is all about controlling your light and how it comes through your lens, so it stands to reason that lack of light is naturally tricky. When you take pictures of rapidly moving subjects like children playing or animals in nature, you’re likely to capture your best shots with a fast shutter speed, which essentially means light quickly moves through your lens and the shutter moves quickly to capture that light, thereby reducing blur.

To better understand this, consider the inverse. We’ve all seen those really cool night shots that show buildings beautifully illuminated, surrounded by dark with motion-blurred vehicle lights. This is more or less the inverse of a high shutter speed. By using a slower shutter speed and keeping a very steady camera, the lens captures the movement in the photo in an intentional way.

Now the middle ground: your photos in low lighting. If you’re using a fast shutter speed with low lighting, you’re likely to miss the shapes and colors because the light can’t make it through your lens in time to make sense of it. That said, you need to slow down your shutter speed to allow more time for light to make it through—without slowing it so much that you experience a motion blur. If you’re capturing people or other moving subjects and don’t want the blur, shutter speed alone cannot fix it. This is where using a larger aperture or increasing your ISO can help.

Your aperture controls the field of depth in your camera. You could study this for hours, but the long and short of it is—the wider the aperture, the more isolated your subject is. Remember, the lower your f-stop, the larger your aperture: it works in inverse. While your shutter speed controls how quickly the image captures, the aperture controls how much light gets through during that time. A large aperture lets more light through, affecting exposure, so increasing your aperture helps better capture those low-lit photos. However, it also impacts your field of depth (how much your main focus pops from the background and how blurred the background appears), so you need to be careful. Also, too large of an aperture can over-expose your photos. Play with this setting to learn the comparisons, and see what you can create.

Finally, your ISO. This is something of a wild card and, while fun to experiment with, is anything but easy to give a rule on. Basically, the ISO affects your photo’s brightness—but it does so without affecting the exposure. It also comes with a consequence: graininess. When the ISO is set too high, your photo can appear somewhat pixelated. In most cases, your goal is to correct the brightness in low lighting by first adjusting your shutter speed and aperture and, if you cannot do it by those alone, then attempt to raise your ISO.

Look for “night mode”

Chinese lantern

While you can manually adjust every aspect of your camera if you’re using a traditional hand-held camera, many of our best moments are captured on-the-go with our phones. Phones are becoming more and more sophisticated, offering easy access to beautiful photos in every situation—even low lighting.

For example, several of the recently announced iPhone 11 models feature a “night mode” specifically intended to help when taking pictures in the dark. By taking an extra moment to switch to that mode, your phone’s camera will automatically shift to settings to optimize your photos. Certain DSLR cameras have similar features to this as well, but the newer phone models make it easy to make use of spur of the moment.

Look for alternate natural lighting sources

Moose in fog

In some cases, you might be able to find alternative sources of light you can use to illuminate your subject. For example, if you’re taking photos of a birthday party and the lights are out as everyone sings “Happy Birthday” to the guest of honor, it’s dark—but the candles are likely lit. Position yourself to maximize that candlelight and capture what it illuminates. If you’re outdoors, look to position near streetlights or even for ways to use the moon for additional lighting. It won’t be the same as a fully lit room, but this subtle lighting can influence your photos greatly if you practice using it properly.

Consider portable lighting

We’ve already discouraged you from using flash, but that doesn’t mean you can’t intentionally light your scene. Of course, there’s plenty of photography equipment for just this purpose, but if you’re more on-the-go, heavy investments don’t make sense. So consider what you can come up with (that doesn’t interrupt natural photos) to take with you.

Small flashlights placed strategically can illuminate the highlights and shadows to give your photos fantastic depth, something particularly valuable in black-and-white shots, for example.

Focus manually

Auto focus can be a great tool in your pocket, but in low lighting situations, it can work against you as it shifts with even the smallest change in light. Since you’ll likely need to reduce your shutter speed, that small change can cause a major blur. Instead, look through your camera and focus based on your eye.

The best way to master low lighting photography is to practice, practice, and practice! Hopefully these tricks will help you cut down your practice time and allow you to capture perfect low-lit shots.

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