Photographing in low light can be challenging, but there are several things you can do to help improve low light photos. Low light photography is a very broad term that can refer to many different poor lighting conditions. Indoor photography with little to no natural light and concert photography are both examples of low light photography.
You may notice that many low light photos are not clear or blurry. This is a result of a slow shutter speed. In order for the camera to properly expose the shot, the camera leaves the shutter open long enough to collect enough light. In poor lighting conditions the shutter is often open for a relatively long time.
Low Light Photography Tips-
1. Shoot at a low F-Stop- When shooting with an open or wide aperture you can shoot at a higher shutter speed resulting in clearer pictures. The wider the aperture the less time the shutter needs to stay open to correctly expose the picture. One thing to remember is the wider the aperture (lower f-stop) the shallower the depth of field.
You can adjust the F-stop by shooting in Av (aperture priority) or M (manual). Both camera modes allow you to manually adjust the F-Stop.
Not all lenses are created equally. Generally speaking, the lower the F-Stop the more expensive the lens. It is not uncommon to see fast lenses (lenses that have a low F-stop) cost thousands of dollars. There are relatively cheap fast lenses, and it is worth shopping around to find one that fits your budget. I currently own the Tamron 17-50mm 2.8 ($450) and Canon 1.8 (100). Both lenses have good low light capabilities.
2. Shoot at a high ISO- Similar to shooting at a low F-Stop, by adjusting the camera’s ISO you can reduce the amount of light needed to properly expose the photo. By increasing the camera’s ISO you are increasing the camera’s sensitivity to light, resulting in less time the sensor needs to be exposed. This allows you to shoot at a faster shutter speed. As technology changes the camera’s ISO capability is improving. My 7D had the ability to shoot at 6400 ISO.
However, the higher the ISO the more noise you will see in the photo. It is best to find a balance between the F-stop and ISO. Just because a camera can shoot at 6400 or 12800 doesn’t mean you should set the ISO as high as possible and shoot away. Test your camera and lens capability and find what you feel is an acceptable image quality.
3. Use a tripod if possible- I understand it is not always possible to use a tripod but if at all possible, use one in low light situations. Using a tripod is one way to reduce the blur created by a shaking camera. A tripod can be a photographers best friend, but it is important that you select the correct tripod to fit your needs. There are so many tripods on the market, and if you cheap- out on a tripod you will find yourself leaving it at home rather than taking advantage of it’s benefits.
4. Post Process / Noise Reduction- As discussed earlier, shooting at a high ISO results in increased noise in the photo. There is noise reduction software that helps reduce the amount of noise in your photos. I am currently using Adobe Lightroom 3 for most of my post processing. Lightroom 3′s noise reduction is easy to use and can make a world of difference. Be careful not to overdo the noise reduction. Noise reduction will also soften your photos, resulting in a unsharp photo or detail loss.
Notice the noise in the upper eyelid and in the shadow cast on her face from the hairband (click to enlarge). You can see the noise reduction menu in the far right. This photo has no noise reduction applied.
I over did the noise reduction in this next photo to make it more easily visible. Notice in the noise reduction menu it is at 100. Normally I would not apply this much noise reduction because you will also notice a lot of details have been lost. It is important to find a balance between noise reduction and desired details.
5. Use a flash when acceptable – Many times a flash is not allowed or appropriate in low light situations. For example, you don’t want to use a flash at a concert or play. You will often see signs that read, “no flash product photography.” That being said, there are times when a flash is acceptable, and it can make a huge difference. The on-board camera flash can be harsh and limiting but can get the job done if needed. I would recommend an external flash. They are much more versatile and can dramatically improve your photos. You can find a comparison I did Here, which compares the on-board flash to an external Canon Speedlite 430EX II.
This photograph of my Goldendoodle was taken in my living room using the a Canon 7D / Canon 50mm 1.8 / Canon Speedlite 430EX II. The external flash allowed me to bounce the light off the ceiling which lit up the dim room.