Ah yes, shooting in low light. Something that can be terribly frustrating if you don't understand how to make the most of the situation! (And even when you DO know how to handle it, it can STILL be frustrating some times!) I remember the queasy knots in my stomach during the first SUPER DARK wedding reception that I shot when I first started shooting weddings- it wasn't a good feeling. But because I come across all types of less-than-stellar lighting situations as a wedding photographer, I've had to learn how to make low light situations my bitch.
Yeah, I said it. My bitch.
So fear not. Getting awesome shots in crappy low light IS possible! I believe one of the marks of a great photographer is one that can successfully handle low light. So here's 8 tips to take your low light shots from "Ugh that looks like a blurry pile of noisy crap I just want to cry" to "Oh hellz yes that turned out awesome!!!"
1. Use a wide open aperture.
The more you open the aperture on your lens, the more light that comes in! Think of the aperture as your camera's eye lid- the more open that eye lid is the more light your camera is going to see. Right? Right! For low light situations I will usually shoot at an aperture of 1.8 - 2.8, depending on the lens that I am using. Prime lenses can open even wider and can take you to 1.2. You do have to be extra careful with focusing at a wide open aperture however, because the wider the aperture, the more background that will be thrown out of focus.
2. Try a longer exposure.
The longer your exposer, the more light you let into your shot. Long exposures are great for shots where there is no movement being captured , OR if you want to show actual movement in your photograph. However, if you are shooting movement and do NOT want movement blur in your photo and you are holding your camera (as opposed to using a tripod), make sure to follow the 1/focal length or above rule. So for example, if your lens has a 50mm focal length, you do NOT want to set your shutter speed below 1/50 of a second or you will risk blurry photos. (And no, not even Photoshop can really save a blurry photo!)
I often use long exposures at wedding receptions to capture some of the details without losing the moody, low-lit ambience:
3. Increase your ISO.
The more you increase your camera's ISO, the more sensitive your camera's sensor will become to light. Be careful though, because the higher you crank up that ISO the more noise will be on your image. Thankfully, most professional camera bodies are pretty damn awesome with ISO performance! I can comfortably shoot at 3200 ISO with basically ZERO noise. However, on my old Canon 30D body, I couldn't shoot above 800 ISO without the image looking terribly shitty noisy.
Many times particular religious weddings prohibit the use of flash during the ceremony, (plus I prefer to use natural light whenever possible anyway!) so I will increase my ISO to get shots in dimly lit places like this:
4. Keep it steady.
Especially if you are holding your camera by hand and using a slow shutter speed!
I recently shot a wedding inside of the KC Planetarium (the first ever wedding to be held there!) but the ceremony was literally pitch black with only the stage light and the "sky." Using a flash at most times was not an option because the flash would bounce off the planetarium ceiling, causing the beautiful "sky" to loose all detail by turning white. So I got shots like this by shooting at a slower shutter speed and holding the camera very steady:
5. Use an unexpected light source.
Look for unexpected sources of light in the environment that you're shooting in and make it the subject! Maybe it's a little window, a lamp in the room or a cell phone. Unless you're shooting inside a pitch black hole (which would be a little creepy,) there has to be at least some light around! Also, if you are shooting in an area that is so dark that your camera is having a hard time focusing, you need to focus on something light first and then re-frame your image. You can also use a cell phone! For example, if I'm shooting in an area that is SUPER dark, I will set my camera's focus to manual, hold a lit up cell phone where I'd want my camera to focus, manually focus on the cell phone light and then shoot the image. (After moving the cell phone, of course!)
Here I am using a cheap $3-4 utility lamp from Home Depot as the sole source of light in both of these self portraits:
(You get mega points if you know what video game the above photo is inspired by!)
6. Try shooting a silhouette.
These can be really fun and offer an interesting and different perspective! I wrote a whole post on how to photograph a silhouette right here.
7. Use a tripod.
I almost never use a tripod except for when I'm outside shooting lightning using a SUUUUPER slow shutter speed, or when I'm photographing a landscape scene in the darker hours. Yes ... I move around too much to use a tripod. They slow me down dag nabbit! But if you're not inpatient like me you should totally try using one.
Here's an example of me using a tripod to get lightning shots like this:
8. Bring a light source.
You can bounce your camera's flash (or off-camera flash) off of walls and ceilings, or you can even use a handheld LED light. Get creative. Hell, I've even used those cheap-o work lamps from Home Depot before!
Here I am using an off-camera flash in my otherwise pitch black apartment at night:
Feeling inspired? Good! Now get out there and find a crappy low light situation and make it your b-i-t-c-h.
You can do it.