top of page

How to: Low light photography

Updated: Feb 17, 2023

The art of low light photography lies in patience and perseverance, and a little bit of knowledge.

Low light photography, is somewhat of a passion for me. The dramatic effect of the lack of light displaying deep saturation. Regardless of what people might think low light photography is not only for when it is total dark, e.g., the night sky. Indoor photography with lack of direct sunlight or added lighting aslo demands the same aspect of settings and attention to shooting technique. This "how to" will give you some pointers of where to start your journey for capturing the lack of light. In general you can divide low light into three levels or conditions, depending on the available light.

  1. Normal low light conditions. Shooting during daytime outside in shadow condition. Or when shooting indoors without the use of a flash or added light.

  2. Blue hour or dim conditions. The period after the sun sets, where you can still see whats around you. This also include the period just before the sun rises. Indoor this will be at night but with available light source, like a small lamp or candle.

  3. Night sky photography. This requires a lot of your camera and use of technique. only the brightest objects are visable, e.g., stars, moon etc.

Tip #1 - Step away from jpeg

If you are a beginner, the first thing you have to do is set your camera to shoot in RAW format, and step far away from the auto setting. When shooting in RAW, use auto white balance, this gives you more control in edit.

You can use aperture or shutter speed mode, if you want to not have to much fuzz. These settings gives you control of either the aperture or the shutterspeed, the camera will take care of the rest. But I really recommend getting familier with manual mode. Here you have full control.

RAW format can show your photos as somewhat bland in the preview. But the photo file retains all its information that you can retrive later in edit. Shooting in jpeg and auto, will take away a lot of this valuable information, when processing the image in the camera. When shooting low light you need this information to get the image back to where you want it to be. e.g. when shooting night sky.

Tip #2 - Don´t be afraid of the dark

Regardless of which of the above conditions you are shooting in. The use of your cameras settings only differ in value, not in which you use. These are: shutterspeed, ISO value and aperture value. You will learn by practice how to adjust these to what you need to get the best image possible.

Tip #3 - Shutter speed, ISO and aperture

Shutter speed defines how fast or slow your camera will shoot the image. The longer the shutter speed is, the more light the sensor will capture. This means that you have to adjust the length for what condition you are in. The darker, the longer it has to be. The drawback of having a long shutterspeed is potential noice and blurry images. For handheld shooting, I rarly go below 1/60. If going lower I recommend using a tripod to stablize your camera. If you go above 15 sec shutterspeed you will get trailing stars.

ISO, is a setting that controls how sensitive your camera is to the light presented. The higher the number thus more sensitive and brighter your images will be. A drawback with using a high setting on ISO is grain and noice in the image.

So what number to you use. Sunny days, go as low as you can. Most cameras goes to 100 as lowest setting. This gives you the best dynamic range on your camera. Cloudy days and indoors you can use around 400-800, and darker higher than that. Some newer cameras goes above 20000 in ISO.

A rule of thumb regarding ISO is: If you double the ISO, you double the shutterspeed.

an example: You have correctly exposed your image with ISO 100 - sh.speed 1/100, by changing the ISO to 200, you can now shoot the image with a sh.speed of 1/200, by changing ISO to 400 equals sh.speed to 1/400 and so on.

Aperture, is how much light is let through your lens. Aperture is set in whats called f-stops, and range from around 1.4 and up. Budget lenses with zoom will often not go under 3.5 as lowest, and can also have variable lowest f-stop with what zoom level you are using. e.g. a lens that is 18-55 mm f. 3.5/5.6, means you have 3.5 as lowest at 18 mm, and 5.6 as lowest at 55 mm.

If you are serious about low light photography, investing in a good lens with a low f-stop number throughout its zoom range is advisable, for obtaining sharp and bright images.

Changing the aperture setting has major impact on what shutterspeeds you can use to correctly expose your image. As an example, let’s say you have correctly exposed your image, by setting you camera settings to f/8.0 aperture and 1/125 shutter speed. If you then open up the aperture to f/5.6, this will in result double your shutter speed to 1/250 of a second, by opening even more to f/4.0, will quadruple the shutter speed to 1/500 of a second. As a sidenote lowering your F-stop number will also reduce your depth of field, and narrowing your range of focus in the image.

How does these three interact with eachother?

You might have figured it out already, but here it is in short.

"It all depends on the level of available light, and how fast you want to capture it".

A fast moving northern light will get washed out it you use a long shutterspeed, this means that you have to capture it fast, and thus need to boost the other settings that gives you a brighter image. When shooting night skies, my aperture is always set to the lowest number, giving the sensor the maximum of available light. I take practice shots to dial in my shutterspeed and ISO setting, with time and practice, where to start comes more natural.

The picture below is a RAW file to the left, and edited to the right of a fast moving northern light. To capture the vertical bands you need have a fast shutterspeed. The photo is capture in the fall, without snow on the ground. This gives quite a dark fore and background. Finding a lake to reflect the light is a good tip on how to bring more light into the photo. See settings below the photo.

Settings: 24 mm, shutterspeed 6 sec, F-stop 2.8, ISO 2000. Camera Sony A7RIII, Sigma 24-70 mm F2.8 DG DN

Tip #4 - Stabilize

Running around with a tripod is not always great, for the obvious reason it takes time to set it up. Although being the best option for creating sharp images, you can get away with shooting handheld in normal and blue hour low light settings. But shooting handheld requires a stable position. Rest the camera in your none shooting hand and keep it close to your body. crouching and resting your elbow on your knees is also an option to create better stabilisation on the go. A monopod is also very effective of taking away a lot of motion, being just a single leg gives it no time wasted in setting up when on the move.

Using the ground as support

Tip #5 - Use a timer

Using a timer can be nice to get rid of the motion in the camera created by clicking the shutter button. Especially important when shooting long exposures. Most cameras has an buildt in timer than you can vary the time before it takes the photo.

Tip #6 - Autofocus

Although a very nice thing to use, you will realise the autofocus can create hassel when shooting in dim to dark conditions. This happens because the cameras abbilities to differentiate between objects is lost because of the lack of light. Therefor a good tip is to become good with using the manual focus. Newer cameras has functions that you can make in focus point light up in a contrast colour. This is very handy when shooting night sky, where you often use the stars as focus points.

Tip #7 - Using software

These days it looks like no limit to what AI or other programs can recover. But of course they also has their limits. As said early on you need to shoot in RAW, this also means that you need to edit the photos afterwards. Lightroom, Photoshop etc has features to reduse noice and grainyness. Topaz Labs has many very nice programs that works wonders on your photos.

Tip #8 - Practice

This goes without saying. Practice is key to pretty much everything. You will experience getting alot of crappy, noicy, blurry shots amoung the few that was great. But by practicing and messing around with the setting, you will get more and more of the good ones. Go crazy, mess around and you will gain knowledge and get better and better with what you do.

Shot from a helicopter, requires a stable grip to counter the vibration in the heli



bottom of page