How do I take sharp photos with low light?

Whether you’re shooting under bright- or low-light conditions, the surest way to capture sharp photographs is to use a tripod, and depending on your subject, maybe even a flash. The trouble is that in the real world, this is not always possible. But this doesn’t mean you can’t take sharp pictures without the benefit of a stable shooting platform or flash system.

Before the advent of six-digit ISO ratings, four and five-way image stabilisation, and advanced HDR technologies that enable capturing sharp, handheld photographs under any lighting conditions, the accepted rule of thumb was to shoot at shutter speeds no slower than the numerical equivalent of the focal length of the lens you were using. 

Case in point: When shooting with a 15mm lens, a 50mm lens or a 500mm lens, your shutter speed should be no slower than 1/15th, 1/50th and 1/500th-second, respectively. Faster shutter speeds are even better, but unless you have a naturally steady hand or brace yourself in some manner, it’s better to avoid slow shutter speeds.

This doesn’t mean you can’t get sharp results hand-holding at slower speeds (you can), but you should take precautions, such as bracing yourself against a sturdy surface like a pole, car roof or side of a building, and slowly exhale before gently pressing down on the shutter button. (When you exhale, your body relaxes. Conversely, when you inhale and hold your breath before pressing the shutter button, your body is tensed, which amplifies your pulse and other body movements, making it less likely you’ll capture a sharp picture.)

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If your camera has a high-speed burst mode, now is an excellent time to turn it on because there’s a better chance of nailing a sharp picture within a fast burst of images captured in the course of a few fractions of a second, as opposed to trying to determine the shot in a single frame. 

Types of Low Light

Visible

These are the dark areas you’ll find in the daytime. Shadows created by large buildings or trees can be down to -2 stops of light than the well-lit areas.

Low Light

After sunset, areas may still be visible yet too dark to capture.

Dark

This is when only the brightest objects are visible at night-time.

How to Capture Great Photos in Low Light

Shooting low light photography can be incredibly challenging. It requires you to use new skills that go beyond your camera’s Auto Mode.

Use a Slow Shutter Speed for Low Light Photos

So how do you shoot in low light? It all starts with shutter speed, which determines how light can enter the camera. The lower your setting, the more light will come into your sensor.

But a slow shutter speed also causes motion blur, especially without a tripod. So how do you take a sharp photo with low light? As a rule of thumb, the average person can take a short, blur-free image by setting the speed to a fraction of the focal length when shooting handheld.

For example, to take a photo at 30mm, you would set the shutter speed to 1/30 of a second. Any slower and motion blur is likely to occur. It’s worth noting that this rule is only relevant to full-frame cameras. If you use the same 30mm lens on a crop sensor, you’ll need to use 1/45th of a second instead of 1/30th due to your sensor’s crop factor.

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Image Stabilisation Allows You to Drop Your Shutter Speed Down

When it’s dark, sometimes 1/30th or 1/40th of a second wouldn’t suffice to capture correctly exposed pictures. But at the same time, going any slower also causes motion blur.

So how do you solve this issue when hand holding a camera? The answer is ‘image stabilisation. Nikon, Canon, and even third-party manufacturers make lenses that reduce camera shake. Not all lenses have this feature, but most kit lenses come with it.

Image stabilisation is so effective that it can allow up to 4.5 stops of compensation. In other words, it lets you shoot at 1/15th of a second or lower without motion blur. This impressive feature works best in conditions with visible light. 

Find Ways to Stabilise Your Camera Without a Tripod

If you are capturing a low-lit scene and do not have a tripod, a few methods help keep your images well exposed and sharp.

One is to stabilise your camera by using your camera strap around your neck. Making it taught allows you to minimise camera shake.

To add additional stability, you can also rest your back against a wall. Doing so eliminates even the slightest movement you make while shooting. But the best solution is to set your camera on a table or a ledge to ensure it doesn’t move while you’re taking photos.

These techniques work best in low light conditions.

Use a Tripod for Shutter Speeds Lower Than 1/60

How do I take sharp photos with low light?

The techniques I showed you on how to avoid motion blur when shooting handheld aren’t foolproof. Even a slight camera shake from your hands can ruin our shot. So if you don’t want to take any chances, use a tripod. And always bring it any time you want to shoot some low light photography. 

Use a Fast Lens for Low Light Situations

The choice of a lens is crucial when it comes to the maximum achievable aperture.

Choose the broadest possible apertures to capture images in the dark. An f/1.4 value will give you four times as much light as f/2.8. Most kit zoom lenses find their limit at f/3.5-f/5.6 for maximum aperture. Meanwhile, professional zoom lenses often have a maximum aperture of f/2.8 or wider. High-end prime lenses can be expensive. But you can also buy cheap options such as the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II if you’re still starting in photography.

Many prime lenses can reach f/1.4, and even some of the most specialist lense can drop down to f/0.95. The wider the aperture (the lower the f-number), the faster the lens is considered.

Go for a Wide Aperture to Let More Light In

The aperture is the hole the light passes through in your lens. The wider it is, the more light comes in. Bear in mind that the wider the aperture, the lower the f-number and not the other way around.

This step isn’t beneficial if you’re still using your standard kit lens because it a maximum aperture of somewhere around f/3.5. Unfortunately, that value won’t let in enough light for good results. I suggest buying that cheap prime lens we talked about earlier since it has a maximum aperture of about f/1.8.

You are setting your lens at f/1.8 lets in 4 times more light than f/3.5. That means you get to expose your photos faster to avoid motion blur. But it would help if you also remembered that a wide aperture would produce a shallow depth of field.

So if you’re taking photos of groups of people in dim environments, don’t use f/1.4 or f/1.8. Doing so would make the background and some faces blurry. Instead, use a higher value such as f/8 to ensure sharpness.Create lasting memories through your Yarra Valley wedding photography that will be cherished forever. 

Adjust Your ISO to Get the Right Exposure

If you’re struggling to get the correct exposure just by changing the shutter speed and aperture, the best thing to do is raise the ISO.

ISO is responsible for changing your camera sensor’s sensitivity. The higher the value, the better your camera can take pictures in dim situations.

But ISO is also tricky to manage because the higher the ISO, the more digital noise you’ll have in your photos. Don’t raise my ISO above about 1600 because the images will start looking muddy and unusable if you go any higher.

Use a Large Sensor Camera to Capture More Light

The sensor is what captures the information that makes your image. It goes without saying that the larger the sensor, the better the quality and resolution.

Smartphones and point-and-shoot cameras typically have the most miniature sensors. The next in line is the Micro Four Thirds, named after its size compared to a full sensor. And the most common one is called the APS-C, which you can find in most consumer DSLRs and mirrorless options. At the top of the line is the full-frame sensor, which is inside professional cameras. At 35mm, it’s more or less the same size as 35mm film cameras.

So which camera is best for low light photography? The quick answer is a full-frame camera such as the Canon 5D Mark IV. Due to its sensor size, it can easily capture scenes with less noise. In return, it allows you to increase the ISO without having to worry about too much digital noise.

Shoot in Raw to Add More Exposure Stops

You need to shoot RAW all the time because it offers more flexibility when it comes to editing your image. So why use RAW in low light photography? The most straightforward reason is that it lets you add 2/3 stops or more to your exposure without affecting your file’s quality.

AF Assist Will Help You Use Auto-Focus in Low-Lit Situations

Shooting in dim conditions may mean that your camera will find it difficult to auto-focus. Sometimes it’s just too dark for the camera to determine how far a subject is.

Thankfully, many modern digital cameras have an “AF assist” feature. The AF assist lamp is often in front of the camera. It turns on to illuminate the scene if it’s too dark. You can activate this feature on your camera’s menu. It will automatically turn on when you half-press your shutter in dark environments.

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Zoom In While in Live View to Focus in the Dark

Your “AF Assist” may not work in some situations, especially if your subject is too far away. In this case, a flashlight may help illuminate the scene to get a focus lock.

It would also help a lot if you turn on Live View and zoom in on the subject digitally to see the details better. Using your screen as the guide, twist the focus ring manually until your main point of interest is sharp. Now all you have to do is press the shutter, and voila!

Play with Flashlights to Create Colorful Effects

Even when your camera is stable, any movement in front of the lens will still register as a blur. The photography process that uses controlled use of light is called light painting.

Ever wondered how to take photos of light streaks, here’s what you do:

  • Place your device on a tripod and choose a slow shutter speed (between 2 to 30 seconds).
  • Get in front of the camera and trigger the shutter using a remote or a self-timer. 
  • Once you hear the click, start moving your flashlight around to create patterns.

Use Flash to Freeze Images

If you can recall, slow shutter speeds cause motion blur while fast shutter speeds freeze motion. So, where does flash fit in this scenario?

The beam that a flash produces is powerful enough to let you shoot with fast shutter speeds. That means you can use 1/250th of a second even if it’s dark and still get sharp pictures. But just because you’re using a flash, it doesn’t mean that you can set your ISO back down to 100. If you do, you’ll start to lose background detail in the dark.

The pop-up flash on your camera often produces unflattering results. Nonetheless, it still works well if you want to freeze motion. If you’re using an external flash, it’s best to bounce the beam off a wall or ceiling. But you can also use a diffuser to make the light appear less harsh.

Motion Blur

How do I take sharp photos with low light?

The most likely culprit for blurry photos in low light situations is motion blur. This happens when the camera’s shutter is open long enough that any movement by the subject or the photographer is captured by the sensor and causes blurry images. This can occur in two ways: either the subject moves too much while the shutter is open, or the camera moves too much while the shutter is open.

That said, motion blur isn’t always a bad thing, and it is often used to show the speed, action, or movement of a subject. For example, if shooting someone playing the guitar, a slight blur of the hand shows the motion of playing and tells more of a story than a hand that doesn’t show the blur. But when you were expecting a nice sharp picture, and it comes out blurry, it’s disappointing and impossible to fix in post-processing. So if you want sharp images in low light, you need to get them right on camera.

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Here are a few ways to help reduce motion blur in low light situations.

Shoot in Manual Mode

As mentioned above, when shooting in auto mode, the camera will control the shutter speed, aperture and ISO to create a balanced exposure. The camera doesn’t know if the photo will be blurry because of the motion or shaking. Therefore to get the sharpest possible images, you need to take control of the camera’s features.

You could use Aperture Priority mode or Shutter Priority mode, but I prefer to use full Manual mode to give me the most control. As you will see shortly, to maximise sharpness in low light, you will need to control the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.

Adjust the shutter speed for moving subjects

If you take a picture in low light, you need to ensure that enough sunlight hits the sensor to create a proper exposure. Therefore, there is a fine line between a too fast shutter speed that will freeze the motion but make an underexposed photo and a slower shutter speed that will blur. Take control of your shutter speed by either shooting in Shutter Priority mode or Manual mode.

What is the best shutter speed to use in low light?

That depends on the situation and focal length. Longer focal lengths need extra consideration, which I’ll tackle the focal length a little later in the camera shake section.

For shutter speeds at focal lengths under 85mm, where you are hand-holding and taking pictures of static subjects, semi-static people, such as those sitting around a table or standing and posing, generally try to stay at least 1/60s but prefer 1/120s. Anywhere in that range will usually give sharp images in that situation.

If the people are moving faster, running, dancing, or even laughing and shaking, you need to speed up the shutter more; I find 1/200s to 1/400s may be required depending on how fast people are moving.

Open the aperture

I am opening the aperture on the lens to let in more light to increase the exposure. A single stop difference in gap doubles the amount of light entering the camera. For example, shooting at f2.8 will allow in twice as much light as f/4. So I will widen the aperture as much as possible in most low light situations.

Sometimes if it’s even a little dark, I will start at the widest aperture even before the shutter speed because I know that’s where I will most likely end up eventually.

Raise the ISO

If you have your aperture open as wide as possible or as wide as you can go before the depth of field becomes too narrow, and part of your scene is out of focus, then you should increase the ISO.

Increasing the ISO will, of course, add noise to the image, but most modern cameras can shoot at ISO 1600 or higher, and the noise levels are still pretty acceptable. Plus, a bit of noise in an image is better than blurry vision because the shutter was too slow. Don’t be afraid to increase the ISO on your camera if it stops motion blur.

Conclusion

Like everything else, practice makes perfect. By understanding the various lighting conditions, you will see what is possible and where the limitations lie. Taking photos in low light conditions is one of the most exciting areas you can cover.  If you’d like to work with professional photographers for your wedding, book with us at Wild Romantic Photography.