Lighting conditions aren't always ideal for photography. As photographers, we don't always have a lot of control over these conditions either. When you're touring a dimly lit cathedral or attending a wedding in a low light reception hall, you can't exactly bring in a bunch of lighting. Sometimes shooting with a flash solves the problem, but sometimes it doesn't. For certain types of photography, you don't want to use a flash. In other instances, flash isn't allowed, such as during a dance recital or in a museum. Learning to take great pictures in low light will help you make the most of low light shooting situations, producing crisp, high-quality photos with minimal noise and grain.
Select a lens with a wide aperture
The wider the aperture, the more light you're letting into the camera. In low light conditions, the difference between f/4 and f/1.8 is huge. Whenever possible, choose a lens with a maximum aperture of 2.8 or wider (i.e. 1.8, 1.2). When shopping for new gear, look for lenses with image stabilization (IS) or vibration reduction (VR). For many photographers, shooting with a prime lens is the best solution to take great pictures in low light without a flash. You get the wide aperture you need without breaking the bank.For less than $200, you can pick up the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM, Nikon AF FX NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8D, or Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 STM. For less than $500, the Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM is another great option. If you're a professional photographer who shoots in low light settings (i.e. wedding reception venues, concert venues) on a regular basis, it's worth spending more and investing in a zoom lens with a wide aperture as well, such as the Canon EF 24-70mm f2.8L II USM or Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM.Related: Recommended Canon Prime Lenses
Slow down your shutter speed
The slower the shutter speed, the more light you're letting into the camera. For handheld shooting, it's recommended not to shoot longer than 1/60. If you're trying to freeze action, keep your shutter speed at or above 1/200. Depending on the given conditions, flash may not be allowed, but you may be able to use a tripod. Shooting with a tripod enables you to slow down your shutter speed significantly below what you would be able to accomplish handheld. Using a remote shutter release further minimizes shake. When you shoot with a tripod, turn off image stabilization or vibration reduction. When you're shooting in low light without a tripod, you can keep your shutter speed low by bracing yourself against a wall or other solid object. Relax as much as possible to keep your hands steady.Keep in mind slowing down your shutter speed is preferable for compositions without people or moving objects, such as night landscapes and city skylines. Unless you're trying to create motion blur, your images will be soft without much detail. There are certain scenarios where you may not want tack sharp images or may even want a certain amount of blur, such as creative portraiture or other fine art photography. However, it's important to be aware of the effect you're trying to achieve, so you can dial in your settings accordingly.Related: Shutter Speed Basics
Bump up your ISO
There is a stigma in the photography industry against high ISO. While it's always preferable to keep ISO as low as possible to avoid noise and grain, high ISO range exists for a reason. In low light, it's worth the sacrifice of a little bit of noise and grain to create a well-lit image. When you're shooting with a DSLR camera and fast prime or zoom lens, the noise will be minimal, particularly when you shoot at ISO 1600 or lower. Unless you're printing images larger than 5x7, it's unlikely the noise will be much of an issue. Additionally, a noisy image is always better than a blurry image. You can brighten an image in post-production, but you can't fix blur. Set your shutter speed, and then raise or lower your ISO accordingly.Related: Raise Your ISO for Better Quality Photos
Shoot in aperture priority or manual mode
In low light conditions, some photographers prefer to shoot in aperture priority (A or Av) mode. Selecting aperture priority mode enables you to dial in the widest aperture available, ensuring every single shot will be at this aperture. You get a peace of mind knowing your shots will have a wide aperture without having to select shutter speed and ISO for every single image. If aperture priority mode doesn't give you quite enough control, switch to manual mode. For example, sometimes in low light settings, the camera will automatically select shutter speeds slower than 1/60 to accommodate for the low lighting, greatly increasing the risk of motion blur. Shooting in manual mode and selecting both aperture and shutter speed eliminates this risk.Related: Making the Transition from Auto Mode to Manual Mode
Shooting RAW gives you full control over your image. When a JPEG image has detail lost in blown out areas or heavy shadows, the detail is lost forever. When a RAW image has blown out areas or more likely in the case of a low light environment, heavy shadows, you'll be able to recover some of the detail in post-production. While it's still important to strive to create properly exposed images, you'll be able to retain and recover a lot more detail in your RAW files than you will in your JPEG files.Related: Why You Shouldn't Be Afraid of Shooting RAW
Embrace the opportunity to shoot a long exposure
Shooting long exposures isn't an option in all low lighting settings. However, in the right settings, it offers a whole new world of photographic possibilities. Blurring moving water, clouds in the sky, the headlights and taillights on vehicles, or people in a crowd creates a distinct, striking aesthetic that isn't possible with a shorter exposure. Make sure to bring a tripod if you want to experiment with long exposures.Related: Photographing WaterfallsWhen you know you'll be shooting in low light, plan ahead. Bring at least one prime lens and a tripod as well as a small flashlight or other portable light source, so you can access your camera controls without fumbling in the dark.
Do you have any additional tips to help photographers take great pictures in low light without a flash?
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