How To Photograph In Low Light And Night?

In this post, I am sharing simple techniques of photographing in low light and in the night without the use of flash. 

There are a few challenges to overcome but with some basic technical know-how, and spending more time out there will help you to master the techniques. Once you have got that, low light and night photography can be quite addictive.

Let’s start with sunset photography

Sunset is my favourite time of the day. There is a moment that the colour of light changes to red at either sunset or sunrise. It gives that satisfying warm feeling to end a day. 

Although such effect can also be enhanced with filters, I prefer to photograph the natural phenomenal change of light without filter.

Capturing silhouette of subjects with that warm red background can be quite stunning. The above image showing silhouette of children at a basketball court was captured at a small town called Ende on the island of Flores in Indonesia. 

Silhouette is nice when the shape of the subject is recognisable. Sunset and silhouette are perfect combination to photograph. 

For sunset photography, my shooting mode is aperture priority so I can control the depth of field. I use small aperture (large number) between f/11 to f/16 to ensure that the background and foreground of the landscape are in focus. ISO is kept low, between ISO100 and ISO200, to avoid noise in the picture. Tripod is a must for all low light and night photography to get a sharp and crisp image.

In Myanmar, one of the best sites to view breathtaking sunset is at Lake Thaungthaman near Mandalay. Sometimes, there are hundreds of photographers on site to capture the sunset.

In all cases, I would always get to a location way much earlier. It gives me ample time to scout for a few perfect spots, to find the best composition, to understand the positioning of lighting on site and to set up.

At this beach in Malaysian Borneo, I composed this scenery based on the nice flow of sand ripples. It leads the viewer’s eye out to the sea then to the dramatic sky. The tiny pool of water with reflection from the partial blue sky complements the shot. 

Note that camera settings will change from picture to picture due to the changing of lights. 

Blue hour

is the phenomenal half hour after sunset.  Images captured during this time of the day are atmospheric and vibrant, in particularly cityscape. The colours are drawn from all the different artificial light source. 

The above image was photographed with aperture priority mode. The aperture  was set to f/11. This is to ensure that all subjects are in focus, near and far. ISO is kept low to avoid noise in the image. In this case it was ISO200. With these settings, the camera  shutter will open longer. This means, lights from moving traffic will be transformed into light trails. This effect is known as long exposure. Tripod is a must to avoid camera shake and to get a perfect shot from this effect.

Photographing low light without a tripod

is challenging as it sounds. There are ways to photograph in low light without a tripod and to avoid camera shake. 

This photo of Thimphu dzong (fortress) in Bhutan was shot without a tripod. I was given a last minute permission to photograph at night within the compound. A chance that I do not want to miss.

In this situation, I had to gradually increase the ISO and to be very careful not to end up with too much noise in my images. I was working between ISO800 to ISO3200 with a wide aperture between f/4 and f/8. The aperture and ISO settings have to complement each other to avoid camera shake. The exposure compensation helps with the light control as well. 

I depended on the vibration reduction on my lens. My body was my tripod. This means I have to hold both my elbows in, stand still, control my breathing when I press and release the camera shutter to minimise shake.

Noise is present in this image at ISO1250. This was shot on a Fujifilm XE2, one of the earlier generation of mirrorless camera. The latest version of DSLR and mirrorless cameras does not create much noise even at ISO 4000. Most cameras would also have a noise reduction setting, which is an added benefit to reduce visibility of noise in the image.

Composing with colours gives your image a certain kind of mood. 

Just imagine this image without the blue light. There will be nothing unique about it.  The blue light created by the water light show made a difference. It is like a stage light. The lighting was perfectly set on the cluster of people. Some people are noticeable while some are silhouette. Such colours and lights made this image interesting and lively. It looked like a theatre scene. 

This was shot without a tripod. The ISO was set at 800 with aperture at f/8.  My metering mode was on spot, vignetting the sides so the focus is on the blue light centre stage. This camera settings was to make sure that the camera shutter open and closes fast to avoid camera shake. With a faster shutter speed, the shape of the people are captured clearly without any blur motion.  This is another example of low light photography with no tripod.

Experimenting with different light source is interesting for low light photography. 

In this image, I captured lights from different sources. I depended on the pavement lights shining onto those gers (Mongolian yurts). Another source of light came from inside of the ger, which was reflected onto the man who is seated outside. The light from his mobile phone is reflected onto his face. Then I have the blue hour sky, which is another light source visible below the storm cloud. The ISO was increased to ISO800 with aperture set at f/8 so I could capture the starry sky without creating any star trails. Also, to avoid any blur motion on the man incase he moves a little. 

As a result, this image of wilderness glamping under the dramatic starry sky of Mongolia was created. 

The effect of long exposure at night 

would create light trails like this and silky water. ISO is kept low to prevent noise and to reduce light sensitivity so that the shutter opens longer to get such effect. 

Morning low light.

I spend a lot of time travelling on rivers in the early morning for wildlife photography and participating in wildlife surveys. 

This image was shot on a misty autumn morning along the Rapti river within the Chitwan National Park in Nepal. The sun has not risen yet and thick fog is covering the landscape. In this situation, the camera will try to capture all light source while I, on the other boat was trying to capture the best composition of this boatman. 

This moment of blue hour may just turn to orange in a split second.  So, I set the white balance to auto. That would also maintain the blue tint for a bit longer while I took a few shots on a moving boat to get the composition that I preferred. I kept the ISO at 400 so I can still grasp the fog or mist in the picture without overexposing my image. Shallow aperture was used to complement the ISO so I have enough light coming into my camera to prevent camera shake. Shallow aperture is great for portrait shot like this too. 

Finally, I managed to get the reflection of the boatman into my composition which made this image much more interesting.

Creativity is endless for low light and night photography. 

To learn more about low light and night photography, join one of my Singapore night photography workshops or any one of my photography expeditions around Asia. 


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