Learning how to take pictures in the dark without a flash can seem like magic to non-photographers. It usually takes a combination of skill and the right equipment to accomplish, but when done well, the results can be pretty incredible.
Let’s get one thing out of the way right up front. If it truly is completely dark (meaning no light) then you’re not going to get a decent photo with any tricks or gear. You need something to work with. So what we are really talking about here is low light photography.
Low light photography can be tricky though. So we are going to talk about some ways to take pictures in the dark without a flash. Some of these are more technical and some are really just a matter of changing your perspective and approach.
Lower Your Shutter Speed
I won’t spend too much time on this but the fastest and easiest way to let more light into the camera is to lower the shutter speed. But that approach has its limits.
When you lower the shutter speed, you risk adding motion blur to the image. That can be from movement of your subject but it can also be simply from handholding the camera.
If your subject is stationary, then a good rule is to use the reciprical of the focal length of the lens to determine what the lowest usable shutter speed is. If you’re like me and start panicing when you hear math terms…it’s easier than it sounds. Just make it a fraction with a 1 over the focal length. For example, if you are using a 50mm lens, try to keep your shutter speed at or above 1/50 of a second.
If your camera and/or lens has image stabilization, then you may be able to get away with going below that number, but it’s a good rule to follow if you want to be safe. Like everything, test it with your camera and learn what you can and can’t do.
However, if your subject is moving, then you may have to use an even higher shutter speed. it depends on how fast they are moving. That is something you will learn to predict with practice, but when you’re starting out, just make sure to check the image on your camera for any blur.
Open The Aperture
The second best way to make the most of less light is to use a wider aperture.
The aperture is how wide the opening of the lens is (to put it very simply). The lower the number, the wider the opening, and the more light is let in. You’ll typically see this refered to as the f-stop (f/5.6 for example).
Pretty simple, right? But there are some things you need to be aware of.
First, not every lens has the same range of apertures. Generally speaking, it takes more money to develop and manufacture a lens with a very wide aperture. So getting an f/1.8 or f/2.8 lens will cost you a little more (though a 50mm 1.8 lens is often inexpensive and a great way to get started shooting at wider apertures).
Second, when you shoot at wider apertures, you’ll let in more light, but you’ll also have less of the photo in focus. We often refer to this as depth of field. That means the distance (in depth) of a scene that will be in focus. At very wide apertures, you may only get a few inches of sharp focus in a photo (depending on how far you are from the subject). That can work fine when photographing people, but if you want more of the surrounding scene in focus than a wide aperture won’t give you the result you want.
Aperture is a practice in compromise. You have to decide what aspect of the image is most important to you and make your decisions accordingly. But it does get easier with practice, I promise.
Use A Tripod
Using a tripod (and a very slow shutter speed) is both the most effective and most limited method of taking pictures in the dark without a flash.
The positives of this approach is that you can still shoot at a low ISO and keep all the image quality. However, it really only works when you are shooting a stationary (or mostly stationary) subject, are willing to let any motion in the frame turn into a blur, are in a place where you can use a tripod, and actually have a tripod with you!
If you shoot often, you know that that last one is often the biggest problem.
Using a tripod solves the problem of camera movement as a result of your hand shaking. Everyone’s hand shakes to some degree (some more than others). So if you set your camera on a tripod, then you can set the shutter speed to a slow as you want. You can even get into the world of long exposure photography, which can be a lot of fun. Shutter speeds up to multiple minutes are possible with a good tripod.
But a tripod doesn’t help if your subject has any movement.
Remember, a person will always be moving to some degree, no matter how much they try to stay perfectly still. So if you’re photographing a person (or anything else that isn’t a stationary object), then keep reading.
Increase The ISO
If I was writing this 5 years ago, increasing the ISO would have been at the bottom of the list. But if you have a relatively recent camera then you can push the ISO up and still get a very usable image in dark conditions.
For those of you just learning photography, ISO is a setting on the camera that represents how sensitive the sensor is to light (it’s like using an amp but for light instead of sound). But the more you aplify the light, the more distorted the image gets. At some point, increasing the ISO too much will render the image useless. Some cameras handle this better than others so you need to practice with your camera to see how far you can push the ISO before you don’t like the results.
When you can’t use a tripod and have reached the usable limits of shutter speed and aperture, then increasing your ISO is the best bet.
Learn To Maximize Available Light
A good photographer will learn not only to capture light, but also to find the light.
You may find yourself in a dark setting, but if you can still see where you’re going then there should be some light sources around.
Find them and use them to your advantage.
Streetlights at night, lamps or candles in a dimly lit room, or even a television can serve as viable light sources.
If you’re shooting a portrait of a person, just position them near the light source. Make sure you look to see how the light is showing up on their face and turn or reposition them to avoid harsh looking or unflattering shadows.
If you are shooting in a city or town at night and it’s getting dark, don’t just point the camera at dark areas because you can see them. Look for lit scenes under streetlights or by lit storefronts. This is something I find myself doing often when I’m on vacation. Forcing yourself to look for the light has the added benefit of giving you a unique perspective on a location. You’ll find yourself capturing scenes that are different from the ones that every tourist captures.
Use Motion Blur Creatively
Ok, I’ll admit, this one is cheating a little bit. I’m basically telling you to just accept the blur and move on.
This doesn’t work in most situations. When you need a clear sharp photo, you’ll need to use other methods. It’s also not a great way to shoot landscapes and cityscapes handheld. Those don’t tend to look great with intentional blur. But something like a local band playing in a small dark venue might look cool with some motion blur as the guitarist moves across the stage.
If you’re not dealing with a situation where you need to get a specific result, then use it as an opportunity to experiment and learn.
Lower your shutter speed until you can get a halfway decent exposure, even if that speed will introduce blur into the image. Then try and capture some movement. That can be movement of the subject or even moving your camera as you hit the shutter to create movement. If you have a zoom lens, try zooming in or out as you take the photo with a slow shutter speed.
Upgrade Your Camera
If you read a lot of my articles, then you know that I don’t think you need the latest and greatest gear to create amazing images. But when it come to low light shooting, I’ll admit that higher end cameras do a much better job than less expensive or older models.
In recent years, sensor developers have made some amazing strides in developing technology that works great in low light. The downside is that, for the most part, the best low light sensors are also the bigger and more expensive sensors.
So the flagship camera models for the big brands such as the Nikon D850 and Z6, the Canon 5D Mark IV, and the Sony A7RIII are going to also be low light beasts.
So if you find yourself shooting in low light situations often and the solutions above just won’t work for you then you may want to look into upgrading your camera. A common example for this is wedding shooters. They always find themselves in poorly lit venues and not able to use flash for at least some parts of the day (and their income depends on getting great images in low light). So wedding photographers probably need the better gear more than most.