How to master low light photography

Master low light photography

You don't need daylight or studio lighting to capture great images with your Canon; experiment with low light to uncover new possibilities

← Works best with EF 24-70mm f/2.8L IS USM lens

Shooting in daylight is something we take for granted, after all it's when the majority of our shots are taken, but when it comes to mood and setting, low light is hard to beat. Shooting in low light is a skill that utilises your camera's sensor capabilities for noise reduction and ISO sensitivity, as well as your lens' aperture range. When you set the ISO on your camera, you adjust its sensitivity to light. On a standard DSLR your typical ISO range would be 100 to 1600, and on higher-end DSLRs the range would be from LO 1.0, lower than 100, to HI 1.0, higher than 6400.

Low light doesn't mean no light
By shooting in low light, it doesn't have to mean the dead of night. In this image a warming filter and a cool colour balance have been used to shoot a model in uncovered low lighting conditions

Know your ISO
A general guide to understanding ISO is that 100 is suitable for the brightest sunny day or studio lighting; 400 is for a typical day - slightly overcast, but still bright. ISO 800 would be for indoor use and anything higher, 1600 or upward, is used in darker conditions such as night or music photography. The interesting thing with ISO is that when it is increased, you see better results from some other values such as shutter speed and aperture. This allows you to shoot at a faster frame rate; a boost for wildlife and sports photographers, or those who want a narrower aperture for extensive depth of field.

Go for bokeh
Ensure your lens goes down to f2.8. When you shoot at that aperture, your background will fall out of focus, creating a bokeh effect

High ISO can, however, create digital noise. This is the same as the grain you would have received from your film choice back in the day as it is individual pixels of the sensor reading data. However, with camera sensors now having a higher megapixel rating and construction becoming more advanced, digital noise is becoming a moot point. This is also true if you are familiar with editing software, because any noise can easily be removed using dedicated tools.

Achieve stunning portraits in low light
Use bounced flash or LED lighting, coupled with your camera sensor's ability to handle low light situations and create stunning imagery


Low light shooting

1 Pose your model
Set your camera on a tripod in a suitable location with ambient light behind your model. 

2 Adjust your settings
Tweak settings for low light shooting, so a wide aperture, a high ISO and a slower shutter speed.

3 Shoot for bokeh
With your camera's aperture at its lowest, the aim is to have a bokeh effect dominate your background. 

4 Use a torch for lighting
As your flash could be too harsh for low light, why not use a simple torch to create soft lighting?


Essential equipment
To get the best results from low light shooting, you should always carry a sturdy tripod with you. Because you are taking from one to give to the other in exposure value terms, be prepared to sacrifice your shutter speed first. If you are shooting a landscape and the air is calm, you can afford to drop your shutter speed so that you can let light into the sensor for longer, reducing the noise and keeping a narrower aperture. This is why you will need a tripod; you can keep the camera perfectly still and ire the shot either remotely or using the timer option.

By using torchlight to light your model, you can create a soft shadow to your image, or a hard light - the choice is yours. In this image an LED light was used to light paint the model


Three steps to remove colour casts

1 Set camera to tungsten
Most low light location shoots will have an orange glow, so set your camera's white balance to tungsten, or if you can customise your Kelvin scale use somewhere in the 4000k range

2 Use a cooling and warming filter
Alternatively, most flash guns will have cooling and warming filters with them. These are designed to alter the colour temperature of an image by slotting on the flash head and tinting the image manually.

3 Edit in Raw
Use the colour temperature slider controls in Raw to reduce and alter the colour tone manually. When combined with the split toning panel also in Raw shadow and highlights can be toned, removing casts easily.

As with most techniques, there is a caveat and that is the extra light being let in will have a warmer tone, setting the colour temperature to a warmer point on the Kelvin scale. To fix this, assess the lighting and adjust your white balance accordingly.

Create a sense of atmosphere
By shooting in low light, already you add a sense of story telling to your imagery, but what about pushing that story further?

Obviously the art to low light shooting is that you aim for a true rendition of what the eye sees at night by using available light. You want to see the ambient lights and colours, so that rules out using a lash, right? Wrong. If you have a lash gun that can pivot at an angle, be powered down manually or can be fired remotely, you can bounce the light back into the model's face. Firing directly at the model will bleach out detail and darken the background, so be cautious of your angle.

Carry a torch with you; not just to see where you are going, but so you can light paint your subject.


Always be prepared to shine
If you are travelling to a location, always make sure you have a torch at hand. Not just to see where you are going, but also so you can light paint. Light painting is a technique where you steady your camera on a tripod and by using either a shutter release cable or a long exposure time, you then expose your image to the available light and define your subject by washing over it with torch light. Cool LED lights are the best to use for this, as the cooler temperature of the LEDs cut through the natural warmth created by long exposure to light.


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