Photographing in low light: Keys to keep in mind

As you know, photography is the art of writing with light, so making pictures with poor lighting would be something like doing with the minimum elements that can be used. The fact is that taking pictures in precarious conditions of luminosity is a practice that we must all carry out at some point in our learning because it is a challenge for our knowledge and a challenge to creativity.
Whether it’s a sunset and/or sunrise, a night landscape or a scene in a dimly lit interior, this kind of situation requires us to know the fundamentals of photography technique well to know how to apply them correctly and achieve correct images, without trepidation and with the necessary sharpness.

In this article, we are going to talk about what are the keys to get this type of photography in a broad sense, showing how to act when we are in situations where there is very little light and we want to take a picture. However, what we are going to list can be perfectly translatable to other types of shots such as low-key images or long exposure photography, areas where we normally also find little light and we will have to apply similar resources.

The necessary elements

To face this type of situation with guarantees is essential to have a suitable equipment, basically a camera that allows us to shoot in manual mode and RAW format. In addition, it is also advisable to have a sensor that offers a good response by shooting at high sensitivities and possibility of burst firing.

As for the objective, it is obvious that our recommendation is to have a set of lenses as bright as possible, ie with a diaphragm ƒ2.8 or greater and preferably with stabilizer included (the camera is also useful). In the field of accessories, the tripod would surely be the most important external element to which we would add a remote trigger and, in certain cases, an external flash.

How to set up the camera

For shots with low light it is almost essential to shoot in manual mode to be able to choose the settings of the exposure triangle, you know diaphragm, shutter speed, and ISO sensitivity, depending on the brightness. Of course, we are assuming that you already know these concepts well, but if it were not so, we refer you to our photography course.

As we are talking about situations with very little light, unless we use the flash we will have no choice but to open the diaphragm as far as possible, use a slow shutter speed or raise the sensitivity of the sensor … Or maybe all three things time, everything will depend on the situation as we tell you below.

Indoor Settings

If we are in a dimly lit interior we have several possibilities. If we want, an option is to use the flash , but in this case we advise against the one that usually comes in the camera for its scarce reach and it would be better to use an external one to which we can couple a diffuser to soften the beam of light and to avoid an artificial result .

Although the normal thing is that we do not use the flash but try to capture the environment according to the light we have. For this we will have, as we said before, to resort to ISO pull, diaphragm or speed. Here the tripod would come into play, because if we have it (or some other element that supports us) we can make a long exposure avoiding having to raise the sensitivity or open the diaphragm a lot.

If it is not the case, and we have to do the photo by hand, we will have to use a relatively high speed according to the focal that we use and the element photographed to prevent the image from moving. Of course, it is not the same to photograph a still life as a scene in which there are animated elements.

Shooting by hand almost certainly we will have to pull the other two components of the triangle to achieve adequate exposure. Thus, we can open the diaphragm to the maximum and/or raise the sensitivity until it is sufficient for the taking. Always taking into account what happens in each case.

As you know, a diaphragm open to the maximum produces a certain loss of sharpness and, above all, that there is less depth of field. On the other hand, raising the sensitivity of the image sensor causes, from a certain level, the always undesirable noise in the image to appear. It is true that sometimes this noise can serve to characterize the image and that with the photo processing programs can be corrected in part, but normally too noticeable noise is not desirable.

In any case, the choice of these adjustments will depend on our equipment and the specific situation, so that sometimes we have bought that valuable 50mm lens with a diaphragm ƒ1.4 will save us from the situation and others will not be enough and will have to open diaphragm and still shoot an ISO above 3,200, a figure that is usually not recommended to exceed.

Outdoor Settings

If we like street photography and we decide to practice it at night or when there is not much light, what has been said before is perfectly valid with the particularity that there will be almost impossible to use a tripod with which there will be no choice but to compensate diaphragm base and ISO.

Even so, it is very advisable to seek support to make the photos, for example by supporting our body on any element of furniture, trying to relax the body and gently squeezing the trigger while we expel air slowly (and after taking a deep breath). It is also useful to shoot in the burst to get several simultaneous shots because it is likely that the second and consecutive shots will out better than the first shot.

If we like to take pictures of the city lights or the starry night skies, here we must put the tripod in the equation so we can use the techniques of long exposure that allow us to close diaphragm and not have which raise the sensitivity a lot. This will also apply to what is known as light painting and consists of illuminating areas of a photograph with flashes of light during a long exposure.

Other general advice

Finally, we offer you a list of useful little tips for taking shots in very low light situations:

Focusing on these situations can be very complicated for our camera so a good trick for these cases may be to use an auxiliary light to which we can focus preferably in manual mode and then turn off before taking the photo.

Given the need to raise the ISO to higher levels than recommended, when there is no remedy our advice is not to cut yourself. Better a picture with noise than any.

If you have to use the flash and you do not have a diffuser you can resort to bouncing light on some white surface such as the ceiling of the room.

Using a slow exposure time, even if this causes the final image to appear scaled, it can be a creative resource so do not discard it and try to see what results you get.

Take advantage of the stabilizer of the camera and/or target to shoot at speeds lower than recommended. If on the other hand, you use a tripod to make sure to disable it.

And above all do not be afraid to be wrong . You will have to fail many times (and in fact, it is the best way to learn).

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