Man shooting an empty table scene in low light outdoors.

Low Light Photography Tips for High Quality Photos

low lGreat photography is all about light, even when there isn’t much to work with. Low light photography offers awesome creative potential if you know how to deal with it. With a capable low light camera, the right settings, and good technique, you can capture stunning photos in just about any environment.

How to Choose the Right Camera for Low Light

If you’re shooting primarily in low light, you will want to prioritize a camera’s ISO range over all the other specs. Look at both the native ISO range as well as the extended range. A full frame sensor, generally, will serve you better in this area than a crop frame sensor. Full frame cameras with very wide exposure latitudes include the following, in order of beefy-ness:

Nikon D6: 20.8 megapixels / 50-3,280,000 extended ISO (not a typo!) / 14.5 stops of dynamic range. Retail*: $6,496 / Rental: $345 for a week.

This is a professional DSLR that is capable of shooting speeds up to 14 FPS, 4K recording, and is equipped with an ultra-fast wired LAN communication system for seamless data transfer. While the ISO range is astounding, so is the price tag. This camera is designed with pros in mind, though serious hobbyists also swoon over it.

Canon 1D X Mark III: 20.1 megapixels / 50-819,200 extended ISO / 14.5 stops of dynamic range. Retail: $6,499 / Rental: $345 for a week.

This is also a professional DSLR that is capable of 5.5 raw recording and shooting speeds up to 20 frames per second. These features are what make this camera so expensive so if you’re only shooting in low light, it will be much more than you need. This camera is designed for high-end commercial shooting or hobbyists with a need for speed.

Sony a9 II: 24.2 megapixels / 50-204,800 extended ISO / 14 stops of dynamic range. Retail: $4,498 / Rental: $245 for a week.

At first glance, this camera looks a lot like ones below but is twice as expensive. The reason why is that this camera is designed for super high-speed shooting, with its 20 FPS, large buffer, and virtually no display lag. It also has more pro connectivity options, like a LAN terminal for really fast data delivery. It’s a good choice for serious sports, wildlife, and event shooters.

Panasonic S1: 24.2 megapixels / 50-204,800 / 14.5 stops of dynamic range. Retail: $2,497 / Rental : $140 for a week.

This is Panasonic’s first full frame mirrorless system and it has been designed with hybrid shooters in mind, with a good selection of both photography and videography specs. Unlimited 4K, in-body stabilization, full-size HDMI out, and decently fast 9 FPS. This camera combines some of the pro qualities of the Varicam and EVA1 with the portable (and approachable) qualities of the GH series.

Sony a7 III: 24.2 megapixels / 50-204,800 extended ISO / 15 stops of dynamic range. Retail: $1,998 / Rental: $101 for a week.

This is a very well-rounded camera with good specs overall. 10 FPS is fast enough for most situations. You have the option of recording 4K footage. The connectivity options are good but there is no PC Sync port – hot shoe only. But you can connect headphones, a mic, and output over Micro-HDMI.

Other models that hover around the 200,000 max ISO include the Nikon D780, the Canon EOS R6, and the Nikon Z6.

How to Choose the Right Lens for Low Light

Choosing a lens with a very wide maximum aperture, like f/1.4 or f/1.2, can help enormously but you typically only find apertures that wide in A) prime lenses (which are limited to 1 focal length/angle of view) and B) very expensive lenses. For zoom lenses, a maximum aperture of f/2.8 is considered very good.

Outside of this, look for lenses with image stabilization. The lens might not get any wider than, say, f/4 but with image stabilization you can get away with slowing down your shutter more with less risk of capturing camera shake blur in your images. Since you can’t rely on aperture as much for extreme low light exposure with an f/4 lens, you can at least lean on your shutter a bit. So if you can’t get an f/2.8 zoom, look for an f/4 one with stabilization.

Image stabilization systems are rated for different levels of effectiveness, but most will grant you somewhere in the neighborhood of three stops of stabilization. In other words, if you typically need a shutter speed of 1/100th of a second when hand holding a lens to avoid any shakiness, you should be able to shoot at 1/15th of a second when using image stabilization.

A good rule of thumb is to pick a shutter no slower than the length of your lens (unless you’re intentionally doing pans or long exposures). So, for example, if you’re using a 50mm lens, you can get away with hand-holding and shooting at 1/50th of a second without too much trouble. But for a 200mm lens, that 1/50th is going to be much too slow for you to hand-hold without shake (unless you’re very strong and very still). You’ll want something more like 1/200th of a second.

When you’re pairing your lens with a low light camera, it can be pretty moot since the camera will probably already have a wide latitude, allowing you to not have to depend on aperture at all outside of artistic reasons (like bokeh). But the point here is that it isn’t ALL about ISO. Good glass helps.

Getting Used to a Tripod

Using a tripod will solve a lot of low light problems but not all of them. A tripod will steady everything for your long exposures but if you’re shooting action, that isn’t going to help you much. Assuming you are shooting static subjects, get used to using a tripod. They feel very cumbersome at first. To help with this, look for tripods that are made from carbon fiber since they will be much easier to carry. Find one that folds down as much as possible, preferably to under 2′. Rent a few different tripods because you’ll develop strong preferences: twist lock or lever lock? Is there a sandbag hook? Do you even need a sandbag hook? Center bar or no center bar? Option for spiked feet? On-ground spreader? There is a lot more to tripods than you might think!

The head will really matter, too. Ball head or pistol grip? Do you need a pan bar? Can you use your own camera’s L-bracket on it? How quickly can you switch from horizontal to vertical view? Using this stuff out in the field and getting frustrated with it (or falling in love with it) will tell you what to actually invest your money in.

Give Yourself Some Lessons in Lighting

Modern cameras have incredible ambient light-capturing capabilities but, whether for artistic reasons or because you’ve reached the limit of what technology can capture, over time you’ll realize you need to learn how to work with artificial light.

There are ways to incorporate artificial lighting into your images in a very ambient-like way. For example, a trend right now is doing night portraits where the model is illuminated only by neon signs. Neon signs don’t put off a huge amount of light but they may illuminate the scene sufficiently if you get close enough. Use the inverse square law to your advantage: moving two times closer to a light source will give you four times as much light on the subject.

If you’re brand new to using flash, skip the popup flash on your camera and instead try out a Speedlight and practice bouncing the light off a ceiling, wall, or white board. This is a great first step working with indirect lighting effects. Other quick lighting laws to learn:

• The bigger your light source, the softer your shadows. This is why portrait artists tend to love those larger softboxes.
• The fewer angles your light is coming from, the harsher the shadows. Want a spooky Halloween lighting effect? Use 1 small light on your subject at an extreme angle for some harsh shadows.
• White reflects. Use this to your advantage when you practice bouncing your flash.

Learn more in Easy Lighting Laws to Boost Shooting Performance.

Photographer doing low light photography portrait using light bulbs in garage.

You can stay really lo-fi and still play with artificial lighting. Any light source combined with a sensitive camera is going to get you something to work with. Don’t let the idea of big flashes intimidate you! Household lamps and even just computer monitors can light up your subject enough for a moody effect.

Use AF Assist (or a Flashlight) To Help Focus

Camera autofocus systems struggle when it gets dark, even on really great low light cameras. Without having enough contrast, your camera probably won’t be able to determine whether or not you’re in focus.

The good news is that many cameras have an autofocus assist feature that shines a little light while focusing. But if your camera doesn’t have one, don’t worry! You can use another light source (such as a flashlight or the light on your phone) to light up your subject long enough to focus. Once your focus is set, turn off the light and set the lens to manual focus (so it doesn’t search for focus again) and take the shot.

Shoot in Raw Format

With all of the challenges involved in low light photography, shooting in raw can give you the flexibility to save a picture that might be unrecoverable if you shot it in JPEG. When saving a JPEG, the camera performs its own processing of the image. When you import the image, you can’t really undo the processing your camera performed. Raw files, on the other hand, are completely unprocessed. When you import them to Photoshop and Lightroom, you have more control over adjusting exposure and white balance. In underexposed scenes, it is amazing what you can recover from a raw file.

Prioritize Gold and Blue Hours Over Other Times of Day

Fortunately, the day doesn’t instantly go from light to dark. As a photographer, you can plan out what time of day you want to shoot in order to make it easier to get a specific effect. Go at the wrong time of day and it might require substantial editing or even just be impossible to get your shot.

Aim for blue hours (just before sunrise or just after sunset) or golden hours (at sunrise and sunset). When you’re out and about during the blue hour, it won’t really feel like you are doing “night photography” but your images will still express “night” to the viewer. You want to mix that waning (evening) or emerging (morning) light with the faint glow of a city or the barely-there stars. Night images can most certainly be pretty but twilight is often even better, especially for cityscapes.

Bordeaux Pont de Pierre example in early evening and at night.

Photography is an art and it simply takes practice to achieve your goals. With experience, you’ll learn what settings work best in what situations and what gives you the results you’re looking for. A low light camera certainly makes the job easier but it won’t just do it all for you. The more you practice and reflect, trying to figure out what did and didn’t work, the more pictures you’ll be happy with.

Low light photography can be challenging, but it’s also incredibly common and worth getting good at. Wedding receptions, sports games, street photography – not to mention all the times you’re stuck shooting indoors – all these situations typically present you with less-than-ideal lighting. The good news is that none of the challenges of low light photography are insurmountable. With a little practice, the right equipment, and some understanding of a few techniques, you can be prepared to take on any lighting condition you face.

*All quoted pricing is at the time of this writing and subject to change.

Mark has been passionate about photography for over ten years and has photographed subjects ranging from fine art landscapes and portraits to commercial and product photography. Mark studied photography at Parsons: The New School For Design and earned his Bachelor's of Fine Arts in Photography from the San Francisco Art Institute studying under photographic legends like Jack Fulton, Henry Wessel Jr, and Darcy Padilla.

1 Comment

  • Carla Sanchez

    Brilliant tips! This is a cost-effective way for those people who wants to save money. Some people prefer to DIY their photoshoot because they think they need a thousand dollars. Well, they must read this article. Thanks a lot!

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