When shooting in low light, your camera struggles to gather enough light to produce a well-exposed image. This challenge often results in images that are dark, grainy, or blurry.
However, with the right camera settings and techniques, you can create stunning low-lit images that truly capture the mood and ambiance of the scene.
Camera Settings for Low Light Photography
So let’s break down into a list the various camera settings that you should start with if shooting in low light (and adjust to match your specific scene). Then I’ll go a little more in depth to explain each one.
File Type: RAW
In difficult situations like low light, you’ll need to do some post-processing anyway, so shoot in RAW to give yourself the best opportunity to get the best possible results.
When shooting in low light, you’ll want to use manual mode. This gives you full control over your camera settings, allowing you to adjust the shutter speed, ISO, aperture, and other parameters to capture the best possible image.
Shutter Speed: 1″ – 1/60
Choose a slower shutter speed when shooting in low light, typically between 1″ and 1/60. Keep in mind that slower shutter speeds can cause image blur due to camera shake, so using a tripod can be beneficial to maintain stability.
ISO: 1000 – 3200
Increase your ISO to a range of 1000-3200 in low light. This makes your camera’s sensor more sensitive to light, but it can also lead to increased noise in your images. Be sure to review your shots and adjust if necessary.
Aperture: F/2.8 or Wider
Use a wider aperture, such as F/2.8 or wider, to let more light into your camera. This can help you achieve better exposed images in low light situations. Fast lenses with wide maximum apertures (like f/1.8) are ideal for low light photography.
Focus: Manual Focus (MF)
Auto-focus systems may struggle in low light, so switch to manual focus (MF) for better control. By manually focusing, you can ensure your subject is sharp and avoid focus hunting in challenging lighting conditions.
White Balance: AWB
Set your white balance to Auto White Balance (AWB) when shooting in low light. This will help your camera accurately adjust the colors in your images based on the lighting conditions. You can always edit the white balance later in post-production if needed.
Drive Mode: Continuous
This one may seem odd, but in low light situations, I use continuous drive mode because taking multiple shots with each press increases the chances of getting one without any blur from handholding the camera.
(if you’re using a tripod then single shot mode is just fine)
Importance of Using the Right Camera Settings for Low Light Photography
The main struggle with low light photography is adjusting your camera settings to allow it to capture more light without compromising image quality.
This typically involves employing a wider aperture, a faster lens, higher ISO settings, and slower shutter speeds. A tripod and shutter release cable can also help you achieve sharp, steady images.
Remember to shoot in RAW format whenever possible, as this allows you to preserve maximum image details and provides greater flexibility during post-processing. This way, you can effectively reduce noise, balance exposure, and enhance your photo’s overall quality.
Next, you should pay attention to the aperture. Using a wider aperture (such as F/2.8 or wider) allows more light to enter the camera, which can help you capture better-exposed images in dim conditions.
This is dependent on your lens, of course. Some lenses have a wider maximum aperture than others. I recommend having a mid-range prime lens with a wide aperture handy that you can use in low light situations.
You can also get more light to your sensor by using a slower shutter speed. But be careful here.
If you use a speed slower than 1/focal length of the lens then you risk introducing blur from camera shake.
A lens and/or camera with image stabilization or using a tripod can prevent this as long as your subject isn’t moving.
Another important settings to consider in low light is the ISO. Increasing your ISO to a range of 800-3200 helps your camera sensor amplify the the light that is present without creating too much noise with most cameras.
Many more expensive full frame cameras can go much higher without much compromise to the image quality, but be cautious about cranking it up too high. The best approach here is to test your camera at each higher ISO level to determine where the image degrades from noise to a level that you find unusable.
Something you may not realize is that focus can be difficult to obtain in low light. Autofocus systems can struggle in low light, so switching to manual focus gives you more control over the sharpness of your images but means you’ll have to be more skilled in dialing in the correct focus (especially if it’s difficult to see a dark subject in the viewfinder.
You can also consider adjusting the white balance to give you a more accurate image on the back screen of your camera. Though as long as you’re shooting in RAW, you can change this later without degrading the quality of your image.
These are just general guidelines and every photography situation is unique, so it’s essential to experiment with these settings and find the right balance that works for you.
Don’t be afraid to try different combinations – sometimes, you may find that the perfect shot comes when you least expect it. Just keep practicing and adjusting.
Let’s dive a little deeper into some other settings you should consider and ways to get the most out of your camera in low light.
Using Ambient Light
Before you even start shooting in low light, look for all the sources of light around you.
If you have the option of shooting near light sources or moving your subject closer to light sources then do that. The closer your subject can get to what little light there is, the better chance you have of getting a quality image.
In many instances, you can incorporate the light itself into the scene, like this image of a dancer I shot after sunset. I used the streetlight to set up the shot.
Using ambient light like this can actually enhance your image and give it a dramatic feel.
Manual Mode vs Priority Modes
Let’s explore the pros and cons of using Manual Mode versus Priority Modes like Aperture Priority (Av/A) and Shutter Priority (Tv/S) to help you make the best possible choice for your low light photography.
Manual Mode gives you complete control over your camera settings, specifically aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. This is the best way to get the highest quality results IF you are comfortable shooting in manual mode.
Manual mode can seem complicated for many beginners, but it’s actually easier to figure out than you think. Here’s how you can master manual mode in a week.
On the other hand, Aperture Priority mode lets you choose the aperture while your camera sets the shutter speed automatically.
This makes things a little easier because you don’t have to manually choose all the camera settings, only the aperture.
It can be useful when you want to prioritize depth of field in your shots but can get frustrating when the camera is choosing a shutter speed that is too slow and causing a blurry image.
Shutter Priority mode is the opposite; you set the shutter speed, and your camera chooses the aperture.
This mode is great when capturing motion or freezing action is your priority, but for shooting in low light, it wouldn’t be my choice.
Advantages of Using Manual Mode in Low Light Conditions
Manual mode comes in handy when shooting in low light because it gives you total control over the camera. By using manual mode, you increase control over your camera settings, allowing you to produce higher-quality photos in low light situations.
The ability to adjust the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO independently gives you more creative freedom and flexibility in low light conditions. For instance, you can choose a slow shutter speed to capture light trails or increase the aperture to get sharper, well-exposed images.
Manual mode also allows you to manage the ISO yourself which makes it possible to maintain an ISO range that is acceptable to you.
In low light photography, it’s common for autofocus to struggle. However, manual mode allows you to switch to manual focus, giving you full control over the focus point in your images ^3^. This can help you to ensure that your subject is sharp and in focus, even if the lighting conditions are not ideal.
Lastly, manual mode provides the opportunity to learn and understand how different camera settings work together to create a well-exposed image. As you experiment with various combinations of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO, you’ll develop a better intuition for how to achieve the desired results in any lighting situation.
So, go ahead and embrace the power of manual mode when shooting in low light conditions. With practice, you’ll find yourself capturing beautiful and unique images that fully express your creative vision.
Why You Might Want To Use One of The Priority Modes
When shooting in low light, it’s essential to have the right camera settings to capture beautiful photos. So if you’re less familiar with how to use the camera settings you might be able to achieve this better by using one of the priority modes.
They give you more control over specific settings, allowing the camera to adjust others automatically for the best exposure. But it’s important to choose the right one.
In most low light situations, if you aren’t going to use manual mode, then I recommend using aperture priority.
Set the camera to the widest possible aperture and then you can allow the camera to choose the best shutter speed. You may also want to adjust the ISO setting to one that is high enough to get a good exposure but not too high that will degrade the quality of your image.
You can already see that shooting in low light get’s complicated even in aperture priority mode.
PRO TIP: Avoid using auto ISO when shooting in low light unless you can limit your auto ISO to a maximum setting. Setting a max ensures that your camera won’t automatically set the ISO so high that it ruins your photos.
I would generally avoid using shutter priority for low light situations unless you’re trying to shoot action in low light but at that point you should just use manual mode and set the aperture to the widest setting and the ISO to the highest usable setting to get a fast shutter speed.
Featuring The Light Itself
Another approach to low light photography is to make the light itself the subject.
This may be more of an abstract type shot but the results can quite stunning.
Use of a Tripod and Shutter Release Cable
When you’re shooting in low light, using a tripod and a shutter release cable can be a game changer. Having a stable camera is crucial for capturing sharp images, as even the slightest movement can cause blur in your photos.
But keep in mind, this only works if your subject is still also. If the subject is moving then you need a fast enough shutter speed to freeze their movement.
A tripod ensures that the camera remains perfectly still, allowing for longer exposure times without sacrificing image quality. When choosing a tripod, opt for one that’s sturdy, durable, and easy to use.
Also, don’t be afraid to use a tripod to shoot portraits. This is something that many portrait photographers overlook but it can be a big help, especially in low light.
A shutter release cable allows you to trigger the camera shutter without pressing the button on the camera itself. This avoids any blur that might be caused from you pressing it. Many modern cameras don’t even need a dedicated shutter release cable as they can be triggered by an app on your smartphone.
Remove Noise With Software
When you find yourself shooting at higher ISO settings, you’re going to get some noise.
The good news is that editing software has made huge advances in recent years in terms of removing noise from images.
I use Topaz Photo AI as a plugin for Lightroom to remove noise from my images. It works better than any other solution I’ve tested. If you shoot in low light often than having a solid noise removal program is essential.
I made this video showing how its helped me…