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Lose the Flash: Top 11 Low Light Photography Tips

by Rhonda Callow on February 3, 2011 · 36 comments

We asked our Facebook fans what photography questions they’d like to see answered. One of our followers asked how to get crisp, clear shots in low light without a flash, so here are our top 11 low light photography tips for those who are anti-flash.

1. Increase ISO. Adjusting the ISO on your digital camera will determine how sensitive your camera’s image sensor is to light. Increasing the ISO to 400 or 800 will allow more light to reach the camera’s sensor than an ISO setting of 100 or 200. So why not have higher ISO settings all the time, then? Lower ISO produces sharper images, and the higher the ISO, the more image noise (grain) will be present. For low light photography, try setting your ISO at 800 and adjust accordingly.

2. Use slower shutter speeds. A longer exposure time will allow more light in. However, any sort of movement will result in blurry images, so it is crucial that you keep your camera as still as possible when using a slow shutter speed and no flash. If you plan to use slower shutter speeds, be sure to follow this next tip.

3. Reduce camera shake. When dealing with slow shutter speeds in low light situations, it is imperative that you eliminate camera shake. You can do this by using a tripod (or monopod) and either setting your camera’s timer or using a shutter release cable. You can also eliminate camera shake by using your camera’s built-in stabilization features. Depending on your camera, this option may be found on the camera body or the camera lens, and the brand of camera you use will also determine what this feature is called: Nikon calls it Vibration Reduction (VR), Canon calls it Image Stabilization (IS), Sony calls it SteadyShot INSIDE, and so on.    

4. Adjust the aperture. While ISO determines the speed at which light reaches your camera’s image sensor, the aperture determines how much light it allows in. A wide aperture, indicated by a small f-stop number, can help you capture low light images without the use of a flash.

5. Use other light sources. Low light photography doesn’t mean no light photography. To get the sharpest possible image without the use of a flash, try to incorporate as much light as you can. If your subject isn’t stationary, position it near the light source, or move the light source towards your subject if possible. You should not, however, position your primary light source behind your subject, unless your aim is to create a silhouette photograph.

6. Get a faster lens. If your camera is a DSLR and you’re considering purchasing a new lens to help accommodate your low light photography, you’ll want to buy a fast lens. As I’ve already explained, fast lenses are paramount for low light photography. A fast lens has a small f-stop number (wide aperture), typically f/1.4, f/1.8, or f/2.8, which is helpful because it allows a camera to take in more light; slower lenses typically have a maximum aperture of f/3.5 or f/4.5. A wider aperture also allows for a faster shutter speed, which results in minimal camera shake and sharper images.

7. Adjust the white balance. Shooting in low light conditions can result in your photographs looking washed out, lacking in detail and color, or sometimes having a yellow, orange, or blue shade to them. By customizing your digital camera’s white balance, you’re essentially telling your camera what white should look like in your image, so the camera can adjust accordingly and capture colors as accurately as possible.

8. Shoot in B&W. If you really don’t feel like messing around with your camera’s white balance, you can always capture your photos in black and white, which will do away with poor color issues all together.

9. Shoot in RAW. Shooting in RAW will create higher quality, sharper images than shooting in JPEG format. You’ll also have more post-processing options if you shoot in RAW, so if you can shoot in RAW, do it.

10. Post-processing. Using photo editing software can help enhance your low light photography. Post-processing your images can reduce image noise caused from shooting with a high ISO, convert them to B&W, and adjust contrast, brightness, shadows, highlights, sharpness, etc. But don’t expect miracles: if it’s a bad photo to begin with, you’re not going to be able to edit it into something amazing.

11. Experiment and practice! Unless you’re some sort of prodigy, you’re not likely to master low light photography immediately. You need to experiment and practice to become great at anything. Start by shooting non-moving subjects (to reduce your chances of getting blurry images) and take all of the photography tips listed above into consideration. If something doesn’t work for you, try again with different camera settings. With a lot of practice and experimenting, you should become fairly comfortable shooting low light photography and will have crisp, clear shots – without the use of a flash – in no time.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Cherilyn February 4, 2011 at 2:41 am

You totally made my day when I saw you wrote a post on my question! Thank you! Very helpful and I will have to play around with it more.

Toni Aull February 4, 2011 at 6:12 pm

This is very helpful for me…I am very intrested in night shooting then anything and have gotten ALOT of unadjusted results… Now I know what I am doing incorrectly….
Thank you

Dave Holly November 10, 2011 at 4:01 pm

A good article by Frank Düpman about Low light and wrong gear is here:

http://manfrottoschoolofxcellence.com/2011/11/10/frank-dupmann-low-light-wrong-gear-never-give-up/

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