How to Take Photos in Low Light Conditions!

One of the greatest initial challenges for most photographers is how to take photos in low light conditions.  It’s not uncommon at all for many to feel comfortable and more than capable of taking great photos outdoors and when the sun is out, but when faced with taking photos indoors all kinds of things can go wrong causing a lot of frustration.

Is this you?  Don’t be frustrated – we’ve all been there.

I have some awesome tips for you right now that will show you how to take awesome photos even in low light conditions!

Understanding the Big Picture

Before you can truly conquer the reason why you aren’t thrilled with your photos in low light conditions you first have to understand what the problem is.  So here we go…there are two primary problems going on when taking photos indoors vs. outdoors, they are:

  • Less overall light = slower shutter speeds = blurry photos
  • Indoor lighting often gives bad skin tones on your subject (look too orange?)

Not bad, there are only two main issues that you need to understand and conquer.  A problem of not enough light and the quality of light is often “ugly”.  Lets learn how to fix the problem…

How to Get More Light!

Problem #1 that we need to fix for taking photos in low light is simply: we need more light which will give us faster shutter speeds and get rid of our blurry photos.
Potential solutions are:

  • Use wide apertures – If you are not using flash and want to take great indoor photos in low light conditions, having the ability to photograph at wide apertures such as f/1.8 or f/1.4 is a must.  If you are only using your kit lens, you should definitely upgrade your kit lens and get at least 1 prime lens such as a 35 f/1.8 or 50 f/1.8.  This will give you the ability to shoot at f/1.8 vs. the f/3.5 or f/5.6 you’d be limited with on your kit lens.  This will let in significantly more light (around 4x as much light from f/1.8 to f/3.5) giving you faster shutter speeds without having to max out your ISO and giving you grainy photos.  As a reference, when working with natural light only and no flash your shutter speed should be at least 1/(1.5 x focal length of lens) when using a crop sensor camera.  Specifically – if using a Canon Rebel or Nikon D5200 or similar with a 50mm lens, your shutter speed for stationary subjects should be at least 1/80th of  a second.  If your subject is moving, I’d plan for at least 1/125th of a second.
  • Increase your ISO – ISO is simply your control for how “sensitive” the camera sensor is to light.  Put simply, when there is ample light, keep your ISO as low as possible to minimize the amount of noise/grain in your photos and in low light conditions don’t be afraid to raise your ISO which will also help yield a faster shutter speed.  Every camera is different in terms of how high of ISO becomes “too high” and a lot of that also depends on your own personal taste within your photos as some love the grainier look to their photos while others always want as clean as possible of an image.  With my D800 I am comfortable shooting at ISO 4000 when I have to, whereas on my first camera, a D40, anything above ISO 400 started showing grain.  Cameras have come a long way in the area of high ISO performance so odds are if you have a newer camera you can likely shoot at ISO 1600 to 2500 with fairly minimal noise.  Always remember this though – a grainy photo will always be better than a blurry photo.  Besides, using Lightroom 5 you can easily minimize the amount of noise in your photos after the fact.
    How to take photos in low light conditions_0001
    This quick moment was captured using all ambient light only at ISO 2500 and handheld at 1/20th of a second at f/1.8.
  • Use flash – The easiest way to take awesome photos in low light conditions is to use a flash.  Using flash causes many to be intimidated but mastery of flash is a must and really not that hard once you understand the basic fundamentals.  the disclaimer with using flash though, is you can’t use your built in flash on camera, it is just simply too small, too harsh of light and lacks versatility by always being pointed directly at your subjects – the worst thing you can do indoors if you want soft even light.  So you definitely will need an external flash.  Make sure to get one that you can swivel the flash head and you will be all set.  The easiest technique you’ll want to learn is simply referred to as “bouncing flash”.  I go into great detail on exactly how to master this technique here but just as a reminder, all that bouncing flash means is your pointing/directing your flash to bounce off of a surface (like a wall) where it naturally gets reflected onto your subjects resulting in more directional and also softer light.  For a more detailed how-to make sure to check the tutorial I did on bouncing flash, but in terms of camera settings I’d go to manual mode on your camera, ISO 400-1000, aperture f/2.8 – f/4 and a shutter speed of 1/40-1/100th.  Note that these settings will vary dependent upon your exact location and low light conditions your faced with but are a loose guide to get you started.  If your indoors at holiday party at a house with most of the lights on you can likely get away with ISO 400 and a faster shutter speed like 1/100th, whereas if your at a wedding reception and its mostly candle light you’ll want a higher ISO and slower shutter speed to let in more ambient light.  Your flash will freeze your subjects which is why you can get away with a slower shutter speed than otherwise.

Dealing with the Quality of Light

Problem #2: Indoor lighting often gives overly orange & unnatural skin tones; Auto white balance struggles.
Our solutions are:

  • White Balance Corrections – Have you ever taken photos indoors, without your flash and your subjects looked orange? If so – you have a very common white balance problem with indoor incandescent lighting that give off very orange tones.  Even with as far as DSLRs have come they still struggle with finding correct white balance under common indoor lighting situations.  Here are three ways you can fix your white balance: shoot RAW and adjust in Lightroom when editing; pick a WB preset on your camera like “Tungsten” white balance (the light bulb icon) or do a manual white balance reading which will be a perfect white balance for your room situation.  However, note that if your changing lighting scenarios often using the custom white balance preset option may hinder you if you don’t pay attention to your white balance and begin shooting in a different location.  Having your camera in RAW will give you the most flexibility for white balance corrections and you can easily batch process in Lightroom with each group of photos you have under a similar lighting scenario to save time rather than edit each photos white balance individually.  More times than not, when indoors, if you want to use one of the white balance presets on your camera, the Tungsten setting “cools off” the tones and is often the best preset to use to correct overly orange skin tones.  If you want ultimate precision, utilizing the custom white balance option can be a real lifesaver when working indoors without flash.
    How to take photos in low light
    Auto White Balance was far to orange toned from the decorative market lights but shooting in RAW allowed for an easy fix in Lightroom!
  • Use flash – Just as flash was a viable solution for us not having enough light, it also is a great solution for having better quality light too.  All of those white balance issues that you would have to deal with when shooting without your flash will go away if using a flash which make using flash once again an “easier” approach to having great low light photos.  In essence, when using flash to light your subjects you are simply overpowering the ambient room lighting with your own lighting which will give a far more neutral and natural skin tone for your subjects!
    Tips for better photos in low light
    Using a vertical bounced on-camera flash combined with 1 off-camera flash 10 ft to the left of the bride and groom gave a perfectly lit image during the best man speech.

Lets Recap!

In order to effectively learn how to take awesome photos in low light conditions we first must understand the common issues which are how much light we have & the quality of the light.  Learning how to utilize an external flash is one way we can fix both of those problems but to take better low light photos without flash we have to utilize wider aperture lenses and raise our ISO to ensure we don’t end up with blurry photos and also be aware of our white balance settings so we can have natural skin tones on our subjects.

Did this help you?  Got any questions?  Leave a comment below – I’d love to hear from you!

Cole