digital photography tips with Digital Photo Mentor Darlene Hildebrandt

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Tips for Low Light Photography

Great shots can be achieved in low light conditions, even without spending a lot of money on expensive lenses with big apertures (although that does help). This issue comes up a lot in my classes and on my recent photography travel tours to Cuba and Nicaragua. I’ll be using images from the Cuba trip here as examples.

Low light photography exposure 08

In this article I will cover some simple things you can start doing right away to get better images in tricky, low light situations.

Tips for photography in low light conditions

#1 DO NOT BE AFRAID OF USING A HIGH ISO

Most of the example images in this article were taken at high ISO settings from 3200 all the way up to 12,800. Those are numbers that only a few years ago were unheard of, but with today’s newest cameras (even most of the entry level models) it is a real and viable option.

Yes it is true you will get increased noise (funny looking speckles) in your image but the other option is getting a blurry image due to a slower shutter speed. What cranking the ISO does is allows you to also increase the shutter speed. ISO, shutter speed and aperture are like teeter totters. If one changes, then one of the other two have to adjust to keep things (the exposure) constant.

Let’s look at a couple of examples of low light photos:

Low light photography exposure 11

In this image of the flamenco dancers I’ve used ISO 12,800 in order to get 1/160th of a second shutter speed. Even at that you can see some blur in their hands and skirts. I wanted to freeze them, at least partly but if I have used say ISO 800 (4 stops less) my shutter speed would have been 1/10th of a second. Not only would I not succeed in freezing them, but I’d probably have gotten an overall blurry image due to the shutter speed being less than the focal length of the lens.

See my article 5 Tips for Getting Sharper Images on Digital Photography School for more on that subject!

Low light photography exposure 12

Same deal with the photo of the sunglasses above. I was pushing the boundary a little on this one with 1/25th of a second and 35mm lens. But wide lenses are a bit more forgiving on camera shake, and I had my elbows firmed resting on the table.

So it’s a trade off. Perhaps you get a bit more noise, or even a lot more. So what?! Isn’t that better than an entire photo that’s blurry? Personally I’ll take a little noise over blur any day – especially since Lightroom and Photoshop and many other tools out there do such a great job at removing some, or all of the noise.

You do sacrifice overall image quality a little in that you may lose contrast and saturation, but you tell me that shot of the dancers above looks flat and colorless. I think it’s pretty darn good. Keep in mind I’m using a full frame Canon 5D Mark III which is a high end camera – but I’ve seen student images from newer model Canon Rebels, and Nikon D7000’s that do almost as good a job. It has more to do with the age of your camera and sensor as gains in good high ISO is a recent advancement. I would not have attempted this with my original 5D Classic (didn’t push it past 1600).

Here’s the same image of the singer (below) before noise reduction has been applied. Even as it is here, still not too bad for ISO 12,800 right?

ISO 12,8000 no noise reduction applied
ISO 12,8000 without any noise reduction applied
low-light-photography-before-noise-reduction
Cropped version from a larger file – ISO 12,800 without noise reduction

#2. USE A REALLY LARGE APERTURE

This sort of goes without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway as I see many newbies to photography making this same mistake. Along with no fear of high ISO, stop being afraid of using your largest aperture.

Let’s look at aperture for a second and see how big a deal going from say f/5.6 to f/2 really is – looks like about 3x more right? Wrong! Every stop you shift is double the amount of light so: 5.6 > 4 > 2.8 > 2. That’s over 3 STOPS of light. Each stop is double so that’s: 2x2x2 or 8 TIMES more light. Whoa that’s a lot!

Not sure what a stop is on your aperture dial? Generally if you camera is like most it is set to โ…“ of stop increments with every click of your dial. So one stop = 3 clicks.

If you only have a kit lens and the maximum aperture (largest opening, smallest f-number) is say f/5.6 then you are a bit limited in low light situations. But have no fear there is an inexpensive solution.

One of the first lenses I recommend my students purchase is the 50mm f/1.8. Whether you use Canon, Nikon, Pentax or whatever – it is generally an inexpensive lens ($100-190 depending on your camera brand), it’s light weight, and very versatile with the large aperture.

Low light photography exposure 01

This shot in low light with a kit lens at f/5.6 would not even have been possible. Even with the ISO cranked to 12,800 at f/5.6 the shutter speed would be 1/5th of a second. WAY too slow for hand holding and a moving subject. If you have the f1/8 version of the 50mm lens your shutter speed would still be okay at 1/50th.

Sure I could have used flash but it takes away from the stage lighting and distracts everyone else watching the show. Not to mention blinding the performer. So I choose to do this type of thing “au natural”.

Low light photography exposure 07

The image above was taken at an outdoor dance party in Trinidad, Cuba. The dancers were really moving fast and in order to freeze them I needed both a high ISO and large aperture. See how that comes together?

Take another look at the street scene at the top of the page. I did not have a tripod with me in this case so once again the higher ISO and large aperture helped me get the shot. I also was squatting down and put my elbows on my knees for more stability.

Same with the B&W shots below. I could have used a smaller aperture but I wanted the really shallow depth of field. In this case I could have used a slightly lower ISO but I was balancing the camera almost on the ground, used Live View to focus manually, and shot from there. NOT the most stable position.

Low light photography exposure 15

Low light photography exposure 16

#3. USE A TRIPOD

Many newcomers seem to have an aversion to using a tripod. YES it slows you down. YES it’s more cumbersome and you have to haul it around. But it’s the best way to get a crisp, sharp image in any exposure length. It’s essential to night photography where exposures over up to and over 30 seconds are not uncommon.

Slowing down isn’t a bad thing either, in fact I recommend it. Rushing often results in missed shots due to wrong camera settings, poor composition, bad lighting, or all of the above. Take your time. Choose your settings and do it right. A tripod is your friend, I promise.

Low light photography exposure 13

Low-light-photography-exposure-18

Look at my exposure times on these two images (left and above). With shutters speeds of 15 and 4 seconds these shots are not possible hand held. They would be one big blob of blurry mess. I wanted the extra depth of field in the shot of the old car so that the church in the background was relatively sharp also.

#4 SHOOT RAW FORMAT IF POSSIBLE

The noise reduction I mentioned above is far more effective if you are working with a RAW format file, so if possible start using that format. If you aren’t ready for that yet you could look at some other options like the Topaz DeNoise which does a really nice job on JPGs as well.

ACTION PLAN

So here’s my challenge to you. If you’ve struggled to take photos in low light get out there and try it using these three tips. If a new lens is in your budget and you haven’t already got a 50mm, give that a consideration. Here’s some links to a few other articles (and products) that may help you out:

Have some other tips or suggestions? Please leave them in the comments section below and remember to share your images as well!

I’ll leave you with a couple more images of Cuba. I love this trio! Javier on the right is our tour guide’s husband. He traveled with us most of the tour and his trio sang for us the last night in Trinidad. They are amazing! Got the CD!

Low light photography exposure 10

Low light photography exposure 14

Cheers,
Darlene-1-250x130.png

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  • terrellcwoods

    Fantastic, easy to understand and get shooting quickly. Tips I will use immediatly

    • awesome!

      • Fiona

        Great article, I like the tip about Topaz DeNoise as I don’t have Lightroom or Photoshop. You mention getting a 50mm lens, I got a 35mm f1/8 included with a kit lens when I bought the camera so would a 50mm be useful? I have Nikon 5100 so the crop factor is 1.5.
        Fiona

        • if you have the 35mm f/1.8 that’s the same as the 50mm on my full frame. Use that!

          • Fiona

            Thanks. I find it confusing when people mention 50mm to know if they mean 50mm on a full frame camera or 75mm on a camera like the 5100.

          • Sorry about that I usually do mention that, I’ll try to make sure I do that in future.

  • sgaud

    Great pictures! I really like your car picture in long exposure! I was wondering if you also performed tone mapping or other post processing on that picture? What is your opinion on post processing in general!
    thanks,

    • That one is not tone mapped it is a single exposure. I am PRO post processing, but not overdoing it. I am not a fan of plastic people that have been over retouched. I’m also not a fan of overdone tone mapped images that have neon colors, no black in site and make my eyes bleed.

  • Rob Gipman

    Nice Write up! But what about the EOS 7d and low light. I’m told by many to not use an iso above 800 to avoid bad noise. For low light i’m using my Tokina 11-16 /f2.8 and mu 50mm F/1.4 a lot and more recently a vintage 18 euro only 28mm mini-wide F/2.8 by sigma with an OM mount ๐Ÿ™‚ http://www.flickr.com/photos/gipukan/8253740826/

    • Only you can know for sure by testing! No one can know your own personal comfort zone on how much noise is too much – only you! So my advice is don’t listen to their advice and do some testing and decide for yourself. They could be the very people I’m referring to that fear high ISO for no reason. People used to LIKE film grain. It’s really not that bad and most people only ever put photos online and you can’t tell the difference at that size anyway. Make a 40×60″ print and then tell me?

      • Rob Gipman

        Thanks Darline, will give that a go on my 100-400L that’s f/5.6 at the 400mm on early morning walks. I never seem to get enough light in here in the Netherlands as I was used to while living in Africa to get enough shutter to freeze the bird or a running leopard.

  • Bill Hewitt

    Hi Darlene. I just bought a Sony Nex 7 to use on my trip to Europe this summer. This camera is the bomb for shooting in low light. Using raw and manual you can be very creative and come up with lots of great results. ISO 6400 produces sharp clear photos even when shooting Musicians on a dark stage. One night I couldn’t sleep so at 3:30 a.m. I got up and tested the low light ability. With only a 15 watt light behind my head and using no flash, ISO 3200, and manual, the results of the pop cans on the table in front of me were quite acceptable, But when I set the camera to hand-held twilight mode the result was perfection ! The white balance was perfect, no noise was visible unless 100% crop then it was well controlled . In this mode the camera fires off 3 or 4 rapid exposures , then processes them and the results are unbelievable . I have always liked to set everything my self , but Sony has made it so easy, WHY NOT go auto when your in a hurry, or maybe because it works so well.

  • same issue I had with the older 5D classic – it’s just old. That camera was released in 2009.

  • Let me address your comments one at a time.

    First the noise issue: look at the image cropped close above of the singer. That’s pretty much at 100% before noise reduction. Doesn’t look so bad to me. Yes my camera goes to ridiculous numbers too.

    Why I didn’t use flash in Cuba? Two reasons. #1 the 5D doesn’t have a build in flash and I did not bring a speedlite. I wouldn’t want to anyway, it would change the lighting.

    Remote controlled slave units? Not realistic. Then I’d have to have brought 2-3 flashes, taken an hour to set up (which I didn’t have) and take over the entire show (not by place to do so) ruining the experience of everyone watching. Sorry that’s not my style. I find being unobtrusive, especially in a foreign country, at a show where other people are present – is much more appropriate. This was not a show just for us.

    Sorry no other tips other than use a tripod. I try and give real world tips, for real people. I can’t imagine even that if I had done a complex set up with multiple flashes and remotes to capture the show – that is not a situation that many of my readers could duplicate!

  • Fantastic Images and information about low light photography, I must Say.
    You mentioned about reducing noise in post processing. So can you guide something about reducing Noise? Because in ISO 6400 and above you get considerable noise. So your guide would helpful for novice like us ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Honestly I just use the sliders in Lightroom. If you don’t have LR you could try the Topaz software I mentioned in the article.

  • What ISO did you use? What camera settings? Without knowing what you did it’s hard to give suggestions. Please tell me:

    ISO –
    aperture –
    shutter speed –
    focal length used –
    what camera mode? program, auto, manual, aperture priority, etc?

    then we can see what’s happening. Post one here so I can see if possible.

    • Liz

      To be honest I started just trying the different auto settings. The auto without flash and then the sport setting. I was not doing well so i figured i needed to do some research before i continued. I also tried video but I will mention that again at the end.
      The few pictures i still have (deleted most) looks like the settings range (with the auto settings)
      ISO – 3200 to 6400……f-4.5 to 5…….1/5 to 1/20…..and I used the 18-55mm.

      I have, since this weekend, been playing with how to set the manual modes without lights in my family room so to try and understand what everything does better. I have always used point and shoot cameras with good zoom but have always got a lot of noise in dance performance pictures which is a big reason i upgraded.

      Which leads me to my next issue. I also always video tech rehearsal and had many issues with my new dslr. The first day I came home and watched them and they are pretty blurry and faces are not very focused at all. They are also very grainy. The second day I was able to do a bit better (not as grainy). Is this something I should continue to use a different devise to get the videos? If so thats ok, i am just wondering.

      The other lens I have came with the camera as well. It is 55-200mm that I got with the purchase of the camera. I would be ok getting another lens specifically for performances but i can’t really afford $1500-$2000 for one.

      • Liz – okay so that was all done with the 18-55mm? Yes those shutter speeds are too slow and you’ll get blurry images not just from camera shake of your hands holding it but the movement of the dancers. That is the limitation of such a lens – it doesn’t have a large aperture so you are forced to increase the ISO even higher. Ideally you want a shutter speed of 1 over the focal length – so on that lens 1/50th or faster shutter speed.

        I would suggest that you get yourself a faster prime lens (it does not zoom). Faster means it has a larger aperture and as a result you can use a faster shutter speed. For example: if you get a 50mm f/1.8 it will give you 3 stops (or 8 times) more light than your existing lens can. So setting it to f/2 even would mean you could then increase the shutter speed to 8x faster or 1/160th instead of 1/20th. Still not great but way better.

        Give this a read and see if it doesn’t give you some ideas on what lens to get that won’t break the bank. A 50mm f/1.8 you can get for under $200.

        http://www.digitalphotomentor.com/what-lens-should-i-buy-next-and-other-faqs-about-camera-gear/

        • Liz

          Thank you so much for the information! I will definitely look in to that lens! One more question…we are on the way to Disney this weekend…could you give me a couple suggestions on settings so that i can play around. The weather is good but i would like to get some decent shots at night as well as day. What is the best day settings to play with as well as night. I am also checking out articles on your site here. You are very helpful! I also think after this vacation i am going to look into your online photography course ๐Ÿ™‚

        • Liz

          Also, what i stour opinion of buying a used lens off something like amazon? Is that a good idea or not?

          • On Amazon or ebay – NO! In person where you can go SEE it and test it, maybe. If you find one in a camera store or online locally go see it. Attach it to your camera. Make sure the connection is good. Look for scratches on the front and back elements of the lens itself. If you shake it gently does it rattle? If so – run! Does it focus smoothly, zoom smoothly? If it’s a zoom lean your camera/lens forward as in pointing down (lens zoomed in) – does it creep or slip or does it hold its position? Same thing pointed up while the lens is extended out. It is sharp from edge to edge? Take a newspaper and photograph it flat against a wall, with you square to the paper (level with the middle, on tripod). Take a test shot then zoom in to see if it’s sharp all the way around. It should be.

            See how it looks in general. Does it look well cared for, in the case still, not all scuffed up. THEN if they are asking a reasonable price (50-60% of new for the same item) make an offer. Don’t pay more than that – otherwise you might as well get new and a warrantee.

            If they try and tell you it’s still under warrantee they are incorrect – they are not transferable. Soon as they sell it the warrantee is void according to the manufacturer. I know I worked at a camera store for 3 years. It is only valid with the original purchaser!

    • Liz

      did my long post not post on here?

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