As I begin to write this post, I can see freshly carved jack-o-lanterns, “cobwebs” hanging from front porches, and I can see the sun setting much earlier than it did only a few weeks ago. It must almost be Halloween.
This holiday offers photographers unique photo opportunities both indoor and outdoor, and night and day. When I think of Halloween, though, I think mostly about Halloween after dark. Many people would think that this is when you would typically use a flash. I’m suggesting that this is one holiday when it would be better not to use it.
In this post, I will provide tips on how to take pictures in various low-light environments, whether indoors or outdoors.
Here are some pointers on how to take great photos in low light settings:
Expose for available lighting
This might seem obvious but don’t get too concerned about the poor lighting on Halloween. It’s not going to get any better than the street lamps or candles, so you might as well just work with what you have and set your exposure accordingly.
Increase your camera ISO
A common question that I’m asked is, “What if I’ve already decreased my aperture to the lowest number and I’m still getting slow shutter speeds?” The next steps is to increase the camera ISO (sensor sensitivity), to make the sensor collect light faster. If you are shooting at ISO 100 and your camera is telling you that the shutter speed is 1/25th of a second, you will need to increase your ISO to 400 to get the shutter speed of 1/100th of a second. A general rule is this: in low light, adjust your settings to a higher ISO. Try settings like ISO 1600, 3200 and higher. Remember, the greater your camera’s ISO, the greater its sensitivity to light will be. Be aware that the higher your ISO levels, the greater noise you will get.
Use a lens with image stabilization technology
Use a lens that has VR (Vibration Reduction) or IS (Image Stabilization)? The latest “VR II” technology by Nikon lets you shoot up to 4 times slower when it comes to shutter speed without adding any blur to the picture compared to non-VR lenses.
If you don’t have a VR or IS lens, then use a prime lens. One of my favourite primes is the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G. Another one of my go-to lenses, although much more expensive, is the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II. These are both great choices for low-light photography.
Use a monopod or a tripod
Anyone who is truly serious about capturing the best possible results when shooting in low light, will use a tripod, or at the very least, a monopod. When you use a tripod to keep your gear still, you’re able to set your ISO to the lowest number to decrease the amount of noise and shoot at very slow shutter speeds. Of course, you will get a lot of motion blur with a low shutter speed, but in many cases it’s not a problem and sometimes it even creates the desired effect. I’ve been testing out the Manfrotto MK190GOC4B-3WUS 190 GO! 4 Section Carbon Fiber Tripod with 3 Way Head lately with good results.
Shoot in RAW and slightly underexpose
I always shoot in RAW, because I can recover some detail from a picture if I overexpose or underexpose it. JPG images provide you with very limited options to recover details within an image. A little trick that I use is to intentionally underexpose an image by using the exposure compensation button, which increases camera shutter speed. I wouldn’t recommend lowering the exposure by any more than 1-1.5 stops. If you do, you might not be able to recover the details that you want.
Be careful about autofocus
Don’t rely too much on your camera’s autofocus in low-light environments. When there isn’t enough light, most cameras can’t differentiate between objects anymore. If you’re using a DSLR camera, press the “AF assist” light in front of the camera that lights up just like a flashlight when there is not enough light to illuminate the subject. You might find the AF feature more trouble than it’s worth. In those situations, I would recommend switching over to manual focus (MF). In many cases, you won’t be able to tell if your images are in focus until you look at them on rear LCD of the camera.
Use a full-frame camera
Using a camera with a full frame sensor is very helpful in low light situations. The camera that I most often use is the Nikon D750. I spend a lot of my time during the summer months capturing the magical lights of Paris after dark. After I finish writing this post, I’m going to have another look at the new Nikon D850 – a powerhouse of a camera. Many years ago, before I bought the D750, I used a DX format camera and I was never pleased with the results. Although a full frame camera is more expensive, it’s well worth the extra money.
Do you have any low light photographs that you’re really proud of? If so, I’d love to see them. Contact me here.