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Tips on Shooting in Low Light Situations

written by: Mike Piero•edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 5/23/2011

Having trouble shooting in low light situations? This article offers tips on how to get the best shots when shooting with little light. From changing ISO settings to how to hold your camera, this article has practical tips on shooting in low light situations such as indoors and at weddings.

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    We all know that one of the hardest places to shoot is where there isn’t enough light. Immediately arises a struggle within us – we need to get the shot, but we know we have to risk taking shots that might be unsharp, noisy, or even flat out blurry. In this article, we will look at a few tips on how to take great pictures when shooting in low light situations.

    Depending on what you’re shooting, if you can use a tripod, then many of your problems will be solved. For example, if you’re shooting landscape or portraits (i.e. things that don’t move too much) in low light, then a tripod would be a necessity in those situations. In that way, a longer shutter speed won’t really hold you back at all.

    In most cases, a tripod is not a realistic solution to shooting in low light situations. More often than not, we are shooting objects in motion – sports, kids, animals, etc. Although carrying a monopod might help, there are still many other tricks we can employ to get the best photos we can with limited light available.

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    The ISO setting is essentially the speed of your “digital film" as it controls your camera’s sensitivity to light. In low light, it is almost always necessary to raise your ISO speed. Most point-and-shoot cameras will allow you to change this setting, and certainly all digital SLR cameras will allow it (and make it easy). In normal lighting, I keep my ISO at 100 (or sometimes 200 on an overcast day). If I am shooting indoors or at dawn or dust, sometimes I have to raise my ISO to 400 or 800.

    With Canon and Nikon, raising the ISO to 400 or 800 is generally safe, meaning that you will have only a limited amount of noise in the pictures. At ISO 1600, more noise will creep in on many of the models. Noise is the digital equivalent to grain in the photograph. Keep in mind that noise can oftentimes be removed in the “digital darkroom" (i.e. Adobe Photoshop) after the picture is taken. So, raise the ISO when you need to and deal with the noise issues later in Photoshop.

    How do you know how high to raise the ISO? Raise it high enough so that you can shoot faster than 1/30 – 1/60 second, which is usually fast enough to avoid shake in your camera and blur in your photos.

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    Another little trick is to lean on something sturdy – the side of a building, a park bench, a wall, a car – anything that will keep you from causing your camera to shake. This can make the difference between a photo that is blurry and one that is sharp.

    This next tip may seem like a no brainer, but think about it. When you’re holding your camera, where are your arms positioned? Are they at your sides or in the air? On a bright, sunny day, it doesn’t really make much difference at all where your arms are located. In low light, it is important that at least the arm that is supporting the camera is held tight to the side of your chest. If it is not supported, then the tiniest shake or movement can compromise the photograph.

    Another tip that is especially useful in those critical, high stakes situations (such as weddings) is to switch your camera to make continuous shots (a.k.a. burst mode) and shoot away! By shooting in burst mode, shoot five or more shots of the same thing by holding the shutter button down. With pictures taken one after another, there is surely to be at least one photo out of the bunch that is sharp.

    Finally, if the situation permits it, use a flash. The built-in flash will usually suffice for subjects that are between 6-12 feet away from the camera. Anything further than that will require an external flash unit to be used. This may be necessary if it is getting very dark or you need to capture something moving very quickly. If you can shoot it without a flash by adjusting the ISO and utilizing the other tips, then do so. Try to use the natural light whenever possible.