Photography Under Low Light Conditions

A lovely formal portrait, in black and white, of a young boy in his father's print workshop in Kolkata, India

Under low light conditions (e.g., at the edges of the day, indoors or under heavy shade) it’s often best to photograph with a wide aperture (e.g., f4). This will provide a faster shutter speed than would otherwise be the case. As a result you have more chance of being able to reduce camera or subject movement and minimize the need for a tripod or flash.

A wider aperture may also concentrate the viewer’s attention on the subject by de-emphasizing their surroundings through a shallow depth of field.

For more contemplative work (e.g., landscape, environmental portraiture) the use of narrower apertures (e.g., f/11) to increase depth of field and display more detail throughout the scene may be appropriate. Of course narrower apertures allow less light to reach the film and the resulting slower shutter speeds may require the use of a tripod and or a higher ISO to prevent camera movement.

It’s important to note that the quality of light produced under low light conditions can provide a beautiful soft, wrap-around type of illumination. It’s often the most flattering light under which to make photographs.

I was the only customer in this suave pub late on a summer's night in Christchurch, New Zealand. I had a few drinks and, together with the barman, solved the problems of the world.

6 Ways to Minimize Camera Shake

Under low light conditions camera shake is a problem when using the camera hand-held. To minimize camera shake, try utilizing the following technique:

  1. Stand steady with your legs slightly apart, a little like a tripod. Some folks stand straight on to their subject, others prefer to stand slightly side on with one foot in front of the other. The important thing is to be comfortable and well balanced, without drawing too much attention to yourself.
  2. Hold the camera steady, turn your head slightly to one side so that your nose doesn’t touch the camera’s rear Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) and your eye fits snuggly into the viewfinder. This allows you to more clearly see and compose your image and also allows you to steady the camera with part of your forehead rather than your nose, which is softer and not such a firm platform to rest your camera against. By keeping your nose away from your camera’s rear LCD you’ll be amazed at how much cleaner the LCD will remain, which will make viewing photos to be a much easier and more positive experience.
  3. Provide extra support by taking the weight of the camera and its lens on your left hand. Try not to grip your camera so tightly with your right hand. Over time that can cause stiffness and pain in your hand and may also limit your ability to easily and quickly move dials and access buttons on your camera. I understand this approach is probably opposite to how you’ve been holding your camera in the past. Just give it a try. With practice you may well find it to be a much easier, less fatiguing and more pleasurable experience.
  4. Many photographers push their elbows outwards as they bring the camera up to their eyes. This puts undue strain on your arms and fails to support the camera. Try tucking elbows into your body, slightly to the front (rather than the side) of your stomach, and allow the weight of your camera and lens to run through your arms and down into the core of your body.
  5. Take a few deep breaths exhaling in a slow, gentle manner. On the final breath, exhale around half the air so that there’s enough air in your lungs to steady both mind and body. This should give you a few seconds of relative calm and stability before your body feels the need to either inhale or exhale.
  6. Gently squeeze the shutter release without pushing down hard on the camera. Some camera’s allow you to roll your finger over the shutter release button rather than pressing down on it.

While nothing beats the use of a quality tripod, particularly with mirror up engaged, many folks will be able to achieve acceptably sharp results down to and including 1/8 second. This is particularly the case with good camera technique, such as that defined above, and an image stabilized camera and/or lens.

Children, just before their daytime nap, in a nursery on St. Thomas Mount in Chennai, India.

Due to a lack of impact/vibration cushioning inside the camera, this may be reduced to around 1/15 second with cheaper DSLR models. To confirm images made at slower shutter speeds are actually sharp it’s necessary to view them on the desktop at 50% magnification or higher. Making test prints is also advisable.

Of course some folks simply shake when making photos. Everyone’s different and you need to run tests to determine what camera handling technique works best for you.

If the above list of techniques seems too much to deal with simply try the breathing technique outlined above. It can make a significant difference to the sharpness of photos made hand-held at relatively slow shutter speeds.

From my own experience I’ve had considerable success photographing, hand-held, down to 1/8 second. Back in the day this was particularly the case with brilliantly engineered equipment such as the traditional SLR-styled Leica R8 camera and the Leica M6, M7 and MP rangefinder cameras. But I’m also able to make very sharp images hand-held down to ⅛ second with the better built Canon and Nikon DSLR cameras and, as there’s no mirror flapping up and down during exposure in a mirrorless camera, with my Sony A7Rii camera.

A candle on the edge of the altar at Berliner Dom (Berlin Cathedral) in Berlin, Germany.

Are Photographers Your Audience?

It’s worth noting that, back in the days when I used to subscribe to the venerable National Geographic magazine, I’d occasionally notice images published that were somewhat soft. But I understood immediately that, despite this apparent lack of sharpness, these images were published primarily for their communicative power, part of which may have been due to the mood associated with the low light conditions under which they were made.

My point is that, while perfect technique is desirable, it should not come at the expense of the emotive power of the image. Scoring, for example, 7 out of 10 for technique may be more than enough when married to an emotionally powerful image.

Perfection Comes Through Practice 

Try making some images of non-critical events under low light conditions. While on occasions you may have no choice, where possible avoid your camera’s very highest ISO settings. That’s because noise is more pronounced at higher ISO and also in the darkest areas of your images.

Just as important as maintaining sharpness when photographing under low light conditions is the need to get used to looking at contrast and the variety of light sources you’ll find, both indoors and out, when light levels are low.

Just Because You Can Doesn't Mean You Should

If you’ve purchased your camera over the last few years you can probably set your camera to an ISO of around 800 without too much concern. You can certainly photograph at higher ISO's, but be aware that, in addition to higher levels of noise, you may also end up with images with higher levels of contrast than you'd prefer. 

I would advise you to only increase the ISO above 800 when you've reached the point where your image is susceptible to unwanted blur through either subject movement or camera shake.

Waters edge near Wanaka in the south island of New Zealand.

Being Adaptive is Critical to Making Great Images

With practice you’ll learn the skills necessary to make wonderful, luminous images without the need for a cumbersome external flash or tripod. Of course when absolute image quality is essential (e.g., still life, macro, architecture) it’s best to employ a good tripod, and associated technique, to achieve optimal sharpness and help control composition. However, under certain circumstances, images made hand-held may be more inventive, more dynamic and more emotive than images made with the camera fixed to a tripod. Food for thought.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru