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3 Tips for Low Light Photography

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Photographing during daylight hours is quite simple. There’s plenty of light so you shouldn’t find yourself running into problems with slow shutter speeds causing blur in your photos.

The situation quickly changes though once the last light disappears.

I found myself in this situation many times, and for me it seems natural to take photos in these conditions as I’ve learned from MANY of my own mistakes.

However for a beginner, having no light can be a photographic nightmare waiting to happen! So, here’s three tips you can follow to help you take a better photo once the lights are out.

 

Use spot metering instead of evaluative, matrix or multi-metering. 

Typically the default metering mode on most cameras is set to multi-metering (called Evaluative on Canon cameras and Matrix metering on Nikon). What this setting does is measure the highlights, shadows and mid-tones in the whole scene and creates an average exposure. This exposure then dictates what your camera’s shutter speed should be based on the average exposure. The problem is when you use this metering mode in low light you’ll typically encounter blurry photos. That’s because the camera measures all the darker light and the shutter speed increases to a larger amount of time to compensate. Now, if you’re walking around hand holding the camera this isn’t a good thing. You’ll find capturing photos will be difficult as any shutter speed longer than 1/60 will come out blurry. To fix this problem, you can do one of three things…

  1. You can spend some extra cash on a more expensive lens that has a stabliser that will allow you to hand hold the camera for a longer period of time.
  2. You can purchase a tripod and carry around your extra set of legs the whole night – no thanks!
  3. Or, you can simply turn your metering mode to spot metering.

Once you have selected spot metering all you need to do is point the centre of your viewfinder to the brightest point in the frame, half press and hold your shutter button, recompose your image and then take the photo. What you are essentially doing here is telling the camera that you want to exposure your photo for the brightest point in the frame, rather than the darkest or average light reading in the frame. The result will tell the camera to decrease the time the cameras’ shutter is open, meaning you’ll have a faster shutter speed. With this faster shutter speed you’ll find there will no blur present in your photo.

 

Try using a Mirrorless camera

Mirrorless cameras are fantastic in low light, that’s because they have a little trick up their sleeve.

If you use a Digital SLR camera (non Mirrorless) with an optical viewfinder you may find it difficult to see any detail at night through the eyepiece. That’s because you’re using your naked eye to see the scene. Mirrorless cameras on the other hand have electronic viewfinders that ‘boost’ the light electronically through the LCD viewfinder to make it look almost like daylight. This added benefit makes it much easier to compose your image with greater skill, so if you find yourself photographing against a photographer with a Digital SLR you’ll certainly become a ‘more enlightened’ photographer – oh that was bad!

 

Go wide or use a fast prime lens

Have you seen those numbers on the front of a lens before? Look at the front of your lens now and you’ll see numbers like 18-55mm 1:3.5-5.6. What these numbers mean to a beginner can be gibberish, however to the pro they can be very insightful. Let’s break them down to explain them further and see how they can help in your low light photography.

The first numbers 18-55mm relate to the focal length of the lens. The smaller the number (18mm) the wider the shot will be. So, it’s true to say you’ll be able to capture more of the scene at 18mm than you will at 55mm.

Next comes the 3.5-5.6 numbers (disregard the 1:). What these numbers refer to is the aperture (or f-stop) of the lens. These numbers are measurements called ‘f stops’.

What’s an aperture I hear you say? Think of it like the iris of your eye. The darker the scene means your iris in your eye opens up to let more light in, and it’s exactly the same when it comes to photography. Within your lens you’ll find there is sort of a diaphragm (called an aperture) that can open and close to let more or less light in. The f-stop numbers will control just how big or small that aperture is. For example a smaller number (like 3.5) will allow more light to enter the lens. Whereas a larger number (like 5.6) will allow LESS light to enter the lens. Now that we know this we can combine the two sets of numbers together…trust me it will make a lot more sense!

Let me explain it further. Remember how we talked about the focal length of 18mm? The first number ‘3.5’ is the corresponding aperture of that focal length. So it would be true to say at 18mm you will have an aperture of 3.5 (or f3.5). Now if we zoom in on the lens to 55mm to get closer to something you’ll find the lens will actually let LESS light in. That’s because at 55mm the corresponding aperture becomes 5.6 (or f5.6). Oh no! That’s not so good for low light photography! You don’t want less light entering your lens because you’ll find the cameras’ shutter speed will increase in order to get enough light to the sensor to make a photo.

Here’s what you should do: If you have a lens that has a variable aperture (like 3.5-5.6) then it’s best to photograph at the widest part of the lens – 18mm. That way you’ll be using the lens at it’s brightest point – f3.5.

Now, there’s another side to the coin, if you find you have a fixed aperture on your lens zooming in or widening the scene won’t matter. There’s a reason why you paid a lot more for your zoom lens because on the front of it you’ll most likely see 16-55mm F2.8. So, no matter if you are photographing at 16mm or 55mm you’ll find you will have a ‘fixed’ (or constant) aperture of F2.8, and we all know that having a smaller aperture allows more light to enter through the lens!

Hopefully you find these three tips helpful – if you did make sure you share them to someone else.