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Low light photography can be used to create some amazingly unique images. By practicing and remembering some key techniques, you’ll be able to master capturing scenes in complex lighting situations such as low light.

The Exposure Triangle 

A combination of ISO, shutter speed, and aperture are key settings in any type of photography. Though they are all connected, it is important to know what they are and what combination works best for what situation. In low light photography the ingredients are made of a high ISO setting, a fast shutter speed, and a wide aperture. 

Shoot with a High ISO

The ISO measures the cameras sensitivity of the light sensor which determines how fast your shutter speed will be. The higher the ISO the faster the shutter speed. Be aware that the higher the ISO is set, the grainier the image. Bracket and vary your shutter speeds to see what effects you achieve with different settings. Save these as reference shots. For reference, 100 is generally a good ISO to shoot at without any graininess. Once you get past 400 the quality of the image can go down depending on the lens.

Fast Shutter Speed

Shutter speed (or exposure time) is the amount of time that the camera’s shutter is going to stay open and how much light its going to reach the light sensor. In the case of low light photography, you want your shutter speed to be fast meaning a shorter exposure time. This setting has the most possibilities out of the exposure triangle.

Wide Aperture

The aperture is how wide the camera is going to open up for the lens to let light in. It’s described by the f-stop which affects the shutter speed. The higher the f-stop, the smaller the opening is, and the slower the shutter speed. For example, if the f-stop is set at f/1.4 then the shutter speed is going to be 1/15 of a second, opposed to an f-stop set at f/8.0 with a shutter speed of 2 seconds. In low light photography you will want to have an f-stop between f/2.8 and f/1.4. It’s important to remember that aperture also affects the depth of field, meaning with a wide aperture setting the smaller the depth of field is going to be. 

Use a Tripod (for a noiseless motionless shot)

A fast shutter speed means more blur so you need to stabilize your camera to get a clearer image. A good option for this would be to use a tripod. They can be fairly inexpensive and they will help a great deal. If you decide to use a tripod, you should  take multiple exposures and see if you like the effect. Another way to avoid any blurriness is to use a remote shutter release. A remote shutter release will eliminate any unwanted camera movement when you squeeze the shutter.

Adjust the White Balance

Color values can shift depending on your light source, and what you are shooting, from cool to warm values. Take advantage of your white balance setting on your camera to adjust for the effect you want to achieve. It’s also easily correctable after the photo is taken, so make sure you shoot your photographs in the RAW setting on your camera. When shot in that setting you can adjust the white balance of the image later on using software such as Adobe Photoshop CS6 or Lightroom 5. Artificial forms of light will most likely be present in you low light photographs no matter how you shot it. Play around with the settings after you take the pictures to find your desired white balance for your shot.

Low light photography can be problematic at times. The best solution is finding the right combination of the exposure triangle with the general guidelines of a high ISO, a fast shutter speed, and a wide aperture. Don’t worry, there is a lot of room for trial and error. Any errors or aspects of the image you want to change or correct, such as graininess and white balance can all be corrected afterwards with the right software. 

Cheryl Woods

Cheryl Woods is an accomplished photographer, designer and branding consultant with a career spanning 20+ years. Her photographic work includes editorial, fashion, portraiture and product photography for major companies in the consumer products field including QVC and Hanover Direct. She received a B.F.A. in Photography from the University of the Arts and an M.F.A. in Media Design from Full Sail University. Cheryl's work has been exhibited at the Lowes Museum of Art in Coral Gables, FL, The New York Independent Film Festival and the Rosenwald Wolf Gallery in Philadelphia, PA. Check out her website here!


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