How to prepare for night or low-light photo shoots
From choosing a lens to how to use the camera with your eyes closed, here’s how to prepare for sessions at dawn, dusk and during the dark night.
Photography is all about capturing the light, and if you’re planning sessions where there isn’t much light, you’ll need to plan ahead.
It’s worth it, because many of the most unusual, creative and inspiring shots you’ve seen have been taken in conditions that lacked light, whether it’s a sunrise in the fog, an inspiring landscape at dusk or long exposure images of “milky water” or the Milky Way at night.
Taking pictures in low-light conditions is challenging, but it is also a highly creative and rewarding activity.
Here’s how to prepare for it.
Capturing in low-light conditions produces impressive results
How to succeed in your photos in low light
Photography is directly related to light.
Light plays a decisive role in the composition and aesthetics of the image, but also in its final quality.
Indeed, when you are in shooting conditions where there is a lack of light, it may seem difficult to obtain beautiful photos.
We will see how to best master your camera to understand low light shooting.
We’ll talk about basic exposure settings, but we’ll also give you a few tips so you’ll never be disappointed when you come home from an exhibition, a concert, or a birthday party.
How to make your low-light photos a success
Basic reminders about your camera’s low light settings
Exposure settings, such as shutter speed (exposure time) or aperture, will determine the amount of light the sensor will absorb.
They also affect other factors.
The shutter speed controls the amount of movement in the scene, and the aperture changes the depth of field of the image.
Therefore, depending on the effect desired, it is often recommended to focus on only one of these two parameters.
For this reason, shutter-priority and aperture-priority modes are available on all cameras.
You can then decide to manually adjust one setting and let the other automatically adjust to achieve the correct exposure.
Here are the basics to keep in mind when you’re taking pictures and the light is rather dim.
The shutter speed
A priori, you want to get a perfectly sharp picture of your subject.
To do this, you must have an adapted speed (see Photographing a dance show in low light).
If you are freehanded and your subject is motionless, the inverse focal length rule may apply.
For example, if you are shooting with a 50mm fixed focal length lens, you can shoot at 1/50th of a second and the image will be sharp.
If you shoot at 1/30, your subject may be a little blurry.
On the other hand, if you shoot at a speed faster than 1/50 (for example, 1/80 or 1/125), you increase your chances of getting a sharp image.
But if the amount of light is low, you’ll probably have to get as close as possible to the inverse of the focal length.
Note that if your lens is stabilized (VR), you can use a slightly slower speed than the inverse of the focal length.
However, if the subject is in motion, stabilization will not help.
Also, the longer the focal length (above 80mm), the more leeway we recommend that you allow.
For example, if you are shooting at 135mm, a speed of 1/250 seems safer to ensure perfect sharpness to the subject, while at 24mm, a speed of 1/25 may be sufficient.
The aperture determines the diameter of the diaphragm through which the lens allows light to pass to the sensor: this affects the light and therefore the exposure.
But the aperture also affects the depth of field.
You can achieve a desired depth-of-field effect: for example, to have a blurred background and bring the main subject to the foreground, or conversely, to obtain an image with a sharp background.
In this case you will have to restrict yourself to using certain aperture values.
As a general rule of thumb, if the background is far enough away from the foreground subject, an aperture value of f/3.5 will suffice to bring the subject to the foreground.
If you want to preserve the background, close your aperture by setting the aperture to f/6.3 or f/7.
A deviation of one value will not greatly affect your composition but may allow you to recover more light.
ISO sensitivity defines the sensitivity of the sensor to light.
Thus, the higher the ISO sensitivity, the more the sensor amplifies the light signal it receives, and thus the more the image quality deteriorates.
Noise appears in the image: this is called digital noise (where grain is used in film photography).
Recent cameras have a nominal sensitivity value of ISO 100, which means that at ISO 100, the light signal is what the sensor sees.
At ISO 200, the sensor has amplified this signal by multiplying it by 2.
At ISO 400, the signal is multiplied by 4, so at ISO 3200 for example, the signal is multiplied by 32!
The objective is always to obtain the lowest possible ISO sensitivity to favour image quality.
However, with today’s sensors that have made huge advances and image processing software that reduces noise, you can easily go up to ISO 1600 or ISO 3200 and still maintain good image quality.
Ask about your sensor’s capabilities to find out how high you can go without worrying about too much loss of quality.
Let us take a concrete example.
You are using an unstabilized 85mm lens mounted on a camera with a full-format sensor.
The maximum aperture offered by the lens is f/1.8.
You want to photograph a still person with a blurred background, and you are indoors so the amount of light is quite low.
First, use Aperture Priority Mode and set the maximum aperture of your lens to f/1.8.
Then look at the recommended shutter speed.
If it is faster than 1/80 you can shoot.
If the shutter speed is slower, for example 1/50, then you will use a higher ISO sensitivity.
Increase it until you can get the shutter speed fast enough to get your subject in focus.
Also, feel free to make good use of available lighting by moving around your subject until you find the best angle.
For the image below, at 85mm at f/1.8, we’ve chosen to raise the ISO sensitivity to 800 (instead of 400) to allow us to shoot at a speed of 1/160 to ensure perfect sharpness.
The light sources available on the left side and in the background helped us to illuminate the girl’s face.
What are the tips for low light photography?
Now that we’ve reviewed the main basic settings for getting the right exposure, we’ll present some tips and tricks for getting perfect photos even in low light.
The stability of the camera body
When you trigger, even the slightest movement can introduce a blur of movement.
That is why you should use the fastest possible speed.
But if you can’t use a sufficiently fast speed, you must remember to stabilize your camera as much as possible.
If you have the possibility to use a tripod or a monopod, don’t deprive yourself of it! You will then be able to use a slower speed.
But not all circumstances allow you to use a tripod.
The grip of your camera is very important: you must hold it firmly.
You can also rest your elbows against your torso to stabilize yourself a little more.
Also, don’t hesitate to lean against a wall or a railing.
This will help you move less.
And when you’re ready to fire, gently squeeze the trigger so you don’t move around too much.
Use light sources to your advantage
Low light means that the lighting is dim, but not non-existent.
Therefore, do not hesitate to integrate as many light sources as possible.
In the image below, we have chosen to turn on the lamp above the potter in order to illuminate the scene, even if we actually want to highlight the craftsman.
Without this lamp, the amount of light was not sufficient to obtain a fast speed and a sharp picture.
Thanks to this additional light source, we were able to use a faster speed.
In some cases, if the lighting conditions are really low, you will use the built-in flash on your camera.
You can then have a fast speed and get a perfectly sharp picture.
However, the colors will be distorted because of this artificial lighting.
Try to avoid this as much as possible.
The possibilities offered by post-processing
If you are used to processing your images after shooting, then you can enjoy many significant benefits.
But for this we strongly recommend working with RAW files.
The RAW file allows you to access all the information recorded by the sensor at the time of shooting.
So, if some data seems to be lost when you look at a JPEG file, with a RAW file you will be able to recover a lot of information.
In low light, don’t hesitate to underexpose your images to have a faster speed and therefore a perfect sharpness.
Afterwards, post-processing will correct the exposure and recover lost details.
In this image, we have deliberately underexposed the scene to have a fast enough speed and obtain a sharp image.
The lighting conditions being very low, we chose to use an ISO sensitivity of 800 rather than going higher.
But the image is now quite dark.
Thanks to post-processing, we will be able to correctly expose the photographed scene and recover information that seemed lost.
The post-treatment allows a rather spectacular noise reduction.
This function can allow you to raise the ISO sensitivity to very high levels without having a final image that is too noisy.
Here is an example of an image made at ISO 6400.
On a global image display, noise is not very visible.
But if you zoom in at 100%, you can see the effectiveness of the noise correction.
This allows you to use high ISO sensitivities at the time of shooting to achieve good exposure while subsequently reducing noise with appropriate software.
Camera and lens selection
When choosing the camera and lens for this type of photography, two things are particularly important: aperture and ISO.
The aperture determines the amount of light that reaches the camera’s light sensor and is expressed by the symbol “f”.
The lower the number, the more light is captured at a given shutter speed, but at the maximum capacity of the lens you are using.
Although all lenses are capable of handling an average setting of f/11, few go down to f/2.8, which is the point from which it becomes possible to capture decent images of the sky.
ISO – the light sensitivity of the camera’s photographic sensor – is also critical when taking night and low-light photographs.
Compact and entry-level SLR cameras tend to produce pictures with more image noise when used in low-light conditions or at night.
For twilight shots, you will probably need to use aperture priority mode, experimenting with both shutter speed and high ISO settings.
If you plan to take pictures of the night sky, try getting a full-format SLR camera.
These models have a relatively large photographic sensor that captures more light than smaller models, and can therefore be used more effectively at high ISO settings.
In other words, you will be able to capture more light without image noise becoming a problem.
Shutter speed is just as important in getting good night or low-light photos; it refers to the time the photo sensor is exposed to light.
Most handheld cameras will allow you to open the shutter for at least 30 seconds, which is more than enough for most low-light images.
However, for specialized night sky shots, you may need to activate the “bulb” mode, which keeps the shutter open for as long as you want.
Equipment and accessories needed
When you’re getting ready to go out for a photo shoot in low light or a dark environment, it’s worth bringing along a few essential tools for both safety and stability.
A flashlight or torch is one of the things you will definitely need for your night or low-light photo shoot, both to find a location at night or before the sun, or to leave an area safely after sunset.
However, when the brightness level drops it is also useful for lighting a subject so that you can perform autofocus.
A headlamp keeps your hands free.
Since you’re going to have to keep your camera’s shutter open for long periods of time – and certainly longer than the maximum possible for hand-held shots – stability is a vital ingredient in night and low-light photography.
That’s why a sturdy tripod is an essential component of your photographic equipment.
A tripod is essential in low-light conditions.
Choosing a tripod is not easy, especially if you are planning to travel abroad and need to keep the weight of your luggage to a minimum.
Choosing an ultra-light travel tripod is tempting even though, in addition to being made from lightweight materials such as aluminium or carbon fibre, they tend to be quite low, measuring about 105cm at the highest.
This can make it difficult to look through your camera’s viewfinder without constantly bending or kneeling on the ground.
Although a tripod is primarily designed to keep your camera stable, not for your comfort, in quiet conditions it is always best to make it easier to adjust your camera.
A tripod that can be extended to a height of about 132cm will be high enough for most people.
Bag or backpack
There are many ways to maximize stability.
Once all sections of the legs of your tripod have been locked in place, the center column should only be extended when completely immobile.
In windy conditions, using this column can create vibrations.
If there is a small hook at the bottom of the center column, use it: hanging a backpack from the handle will increase stability.
However, although it is very useful in windy conditions, make sure the bag is heavy enough, otherwise a gust of wind could push the bag against the tripod legs.
Soft release or wireless remote control
Two other elements add to the puzzle of tripod stability.
The first is to use a soft shutter release button or wireless remote control (or the camera’s self-timer) to avoid pressing the camera’s shutter release button, which creates a jerk.
The second is even simpler: don’t jostle the tripod when the camera shutter is open.
The tip may sound silly, but it happens easily in the dark.
If you’ve just spent an hour or two capturing the trajectory of a star, it’s an easy way to ruin a night’s work.
When your camera’s shutter is open, move away from the camera.
You’re likely to be taking pictures in Raw format, so take a high-capacity SDHC / SDXC card with you, or even a spare card.
SD cards and spare batteries
Since you will probably be using high ISO settings, it is likely that your photos will be affected by image noise.
Although it takes time, Photoshop or a similar program can be used to clean up the images, but only if you take pictures in Raw format rather than JPEG.
This means that a lot more data will be captured, so take extra SD cards with you to all your low-light photo shoots.
It’s also worth bringing a few extra batteries, especially if it’s cold, as low temperatures tend to reduce battery life.
Planning a low-light session
Know where you want to go and go at the right time to take advantage of changing light conditions.
It’s because the light is dimmer that photographers try to focus on being in front of a landscape during the “blue hour”, just before sunrise or after sunset.
Blue hour is a fantastic time to take pictures.
Whether you arrive before dawn or leave after dusk, it is likely that you will have to do some of your work in total darkness.
This means that you should familiarize yourself in advance with the location of your photo shoot.
Visit it during the day to look for a few shots and potential locations for your camera, taking a compass with you if necessary to find out where the sun will rise and set.
Planning a night shoot
During a night session, you might want to capture the Milky Way.
From the northern hemisphere, it is only possible to photograph it in spring (after midnight) and summer (before midnight), when its bright core is visible to the southeast.
Moonlight can dramatically change the brightness levels, regardless of location or time of night, so plan the moon phases well in advance.
For example, a long exposure taken during moonlight may look as bright as daylight – but with bright stars clearly visible (which can be a wonderful effect) – while the new Moon ensures a completely dark night sky.
If you want to create an exposure long enough to get a star trail or a composite image that shows the Earth’s rotation relative to the night sky, you need to know how to locate the North Star.
Since the Earth’s axis points in its direction, all the stars in the northern hemisphere seem to revolve around this star which is in the north.
This means that you will need to point your camera north if you want to create a circular pattern.
Point it south and the star trails will form curved lines.
To determine when to position yourself, the Blue Hour Site is very useful, as is The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE), which allows you to see exactly how the light will fall, no matter where you are.
The Sky Live application is excellent for finding the Sun and Moon rising and setting times, as well as the conditions for observing the stars (i.e.
the chances of having a clear sky).
The Light Pollution Map and Dark Site Finder are also useful in night photography to find locations away from light pollution.
To find the North Star, the Milky Way and to identify the constellations, any planetarium application will do, including Stellarium, both of which are free and reliable, as well as the website.
Getting ready for an overnight session
Photo shoots at dawn, dusk and at night involve lower temperatures, so dress accordingly and, perhaps most importantly, bring thin gloves that allow you to handle the camera easily.
It is also worth thinking about the temperatures your equipment will be exposed to.
Lenses can easily be subject to condensation when they go from hot to cold temperatures, so once your equipment is outside, leave it where it is.
If you take it to a warm room after the session, leave everything inside your camera bag so that it gradually warms up.
To practice astrophotography, learn how to use your camera in the dark.
It may sound like a strange skill, but knowing how to use your camera in the dark without looking at it can make your life a lot easier when taking pictures in the dark.
It makes a huge difference when you’re trying to photograph something fleeting like, for example, the Northern Lights.
When they suddenly appear in the sky above you or take interesting shapes that last only a few seconds, you need to be able to adjust ISO and shutter speed as quickly as possible without having to fumble for a flashlight.
If you don’t know exactly where the essential dials and menu options are before you leave for a night shoot, you can practice at home by simply standing in a dark room with your camera (you can also try to make adjustments with your eyes closed).
While adjusting ISO and shutter speed is most important at night, it’s also helpful to know how to reduce the brightness of your camera’s LCD screen.
This simple gesture will prevent glare and protect your night vision, allowing you to handle your camera more easily and use the viewfinder.
By using the right settings for your camera body and subject, you can take good quality pictures in low light conditions.
Newer camera bodies deliver images with very low noise levels up to ISO 3200 and fully manageable in post-processing up to ISO 12,800.
Another good reason to dare to photograph in low light!
QUESTION: What is the main problem you encounter when light is missing? Leave a comment with some details and we help you!