Thursday, February 12, 2015

An Illuminating Guide to Low Light Photography

By Joel Lee
If photography is about capturing light, how do you take photos when light is scarce? Low light photography is a special kind of photography that requires a few tricks and techniques to get right. The next time you’re caught in a dark place, will you know how to take shots that look great?
You run into low light scenarios all the time: grungy restaurants, late night excursions through the city, or even out in the middle of nowhere under a night sky. Don’t settle for blurry movements, noise, and black nothingness – here’s how to take control of these situations and get great results.

The Right Setup For Low Lighting

While impromptu low light photography isn’t impossible, it’ll turn out better if you are prepared with the right kind of equipment and mentality. A lot of the fundamentals hold true whether you have a lot of light (which is what you usually want) or not much light at all. The difference is in how you apply those fundamentals.

Learn Proper Exposure

One of the first things to learn as a photographer is the exposure triangle: ISO, Aperture, and Shutter Speed. These are non-negotiable. You must know these like you know your own soul if you want to take good photos, whether they’re taken in low light or not.
If you want to capture action, raise the ISO. This makes your camera more sensitive to the light it picks up. The downside is that higher ISO usually leads to grainier photos. The trick is to find the right balance. Keep pushing it until the graininess is more than you can tolerate then back down a bit.
If your subject is stationary, slow down the shutter speed. This increases the amount of time that your camera sensor is open, thus picking up more light. The downside is that any kind of movement will register as a blur so this is not good when trying to capture action or motion.
As for the aperture, it should always be as wide as possible (measured in f-stops, a lower number means a wider aperture). The wider it is, the more light is let through the lens to hit the camera sensor. If your combination of ISO and shutter speed isn’t letting in enough light, consider buying a lens with a wider aperture (a 50mm f/1.8 “nifty fifty” is a good place to start). This will allow you to bring down the ISO and quicken the shutter speed.
Confused? That’s okay! You can practice camera exposure settings with CameraSim.

Get a Sturdy Tripod

Since ISO can only be pushed so high before it gets grainy and apertures have a physical limit to how wide they can be, shutter speed is the main variable for low light photos. To offset the blurriness of long exposure times, tripods are pretty much mandatory.
The selection is wide so check out our camera tripod guide if you’re not sure what to buy. If you plan on using the tripod for outdoor shots, make sure you spend a little extra on one that’s sturdy and heavy (if it shakes or trembles, it will blur your photos).

Get a Remote Shutter or Use Your Timer

No matter how dexterous you think you are, you will always shake the camera when pressing the shutter button — even if you’re using a tripod! Since low light shots typically require a long exposure, that shake is going to show up in your shot.
You can avoid this problem altogether by purchasing a remote shutter. It shouldn’t cost you more than $10 or $20 but make sure it’s compatible with your camera body. If you’re feeling adventurous, try making your own remote shutter from scratch.
Don’t want to spend money or take on a DIY project? Your digital camera almost certainly comes with a self timer, which allows you to compose, expose and delay the shutter. Admittedly, this requires a little more patience but it’s essential it if you don’t have a remote shutter on you.

How to Take a Low Light Shot

You’ve gone through the proper setup and preparation. Now you’re ready to shoot a few photos. How do you do it? What do you need to keep in mind every time you snap that shutter?

The Golden Hour

Low light doesn’t have to mean no light. In photography, the “golden hour” is the hour right after sunrise and the hour right before sunset. You know when the sun is along the horizon and casting a pink-orange light across the sky? That’s the golden hour.
For many, the two golden hours are the most beautiful hours of the day. You should take advantage by planning shoots that take place during these hours. It’s the perfect balance between color and low light, allowing you to experiment in ways that aren’t normally feasible. Adjust your exposure accordingly.

Balance for White

What is white balance? Light is not always white. For example, fluorescent bulbs produce a blue tint while incandescent bulbs produce an orange tint. Proper white balance tells the camera the color of light at the moment so that it captures the right colors.

Use Manual Focus

When lighting is low, lenses typically have a hard time finding focus. If you’re trying to take a shot and your camera keeps shifting its focus without ever landing on a sweet spot, your situation might simply be too dark. If you can’t or won’t lighten up the scene, you’ll need to resort to focusing manually.

Skip the Flash

The light from a flash is usually too bright for low light scenes, resulting in washed out subjects and harsh shadows. Stick to exposure adjustments and avoid flash altogether. However, a cool trick is to use a flashlight to cast a softer light that illuminates subjects in a pleasing way.

High Dynamic Range

HDR is a technique where you merge multiple shots to form a single image that incorporates the various exposures from each of the composing shots. It’s a great way to emphasize different areas without over or under-exposing the rest of the photo.
Learn more about this in our HDR photography guide.

A Few More Tips and Techniques

Let’s cap off with a few more tips to maximize the beauty of your shots.

Exposure Bracketing

Not sure which exposure settings work best for your situation? Take multiple shots of the same scene but tweak one aspect of the exposure with each shot. Most modern camera have an automatic bracketing feature that takes a handful of shots in a row with an increasing gradation of exposure. You can then pick your favourite and discard the rest.

Shoot in RAW

Though shooting in JPG can save on storage space, it cuts out a lot of important photo data that can be useful in post-processing. RAW files are huge and uncompressed, which affords you greater flexibility when editing. Most low light photos need to be post-processed in some way or another so it’s preferable to shoot in RAW for best results.

Convert to Infrared

Because infrared light is invisible to the naked eye, most digital cameras ignore it altogether. It’s possible to convert these cameras to pick up infrared light, which can produce some stunning photographs when used well.
The conversion is expensive if done by a professional. You can do it yourself if you’d like, but it can be a risky procedure if you don’t know your way around a camera. That’s why we recommend using an old digital camera instead of your main if you go that route.
Now get out there and get comfortable with low light. Do you have any more tips to add? Share them with us below. Any questions? Don’t hesitate to ask!

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