How To Photograph In Low Light And Night?
Updated: Feb 15
In this post, I am sharing simple techniques of photographing in low light and in the night without the use of flashlight.
There are a few challenges to overcome but with some basic technical know-how and spending more time out there to photograph will definitely help you to master these techniques.
Low light and night photography can be quite addictive and therapeutic once you get the hang of it.
Let's start with sunset photography
This is my favourite time of the day. There is a moment that the colour of light changes to red at sunset. 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.
This image was captured at Ende, a small and laid back town on the island of Flores in Indonesia. Children were rounding up a game of basketball as the sun started to set.
Sunset and silhouette are perfect combination to photograph. Silhouette is nice when the shape of the subject is recognisable.
I shoot in aperture priority most of the time so I can control the depth of field. For sunset photography, the aperture setting is between f/11 to f/16 (small aperture, large number) 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. Do take note that camera settings will change from picture to picture due to the changing of lights.
Lake Thaungthaman near Mandalay in Myanmar is one of the best sites to view breathtaking sunset. Most of the time, there are hundreds of photographers and travellers on site, waiting for the sunset moment.
In situation like this, I would try to avoid the crowd. I will get to the location way much earlier. It gives me ample time to scout for a few perfects spots and to give me an idea on the positioning of light.
I walked around quite a bit on site to find that perfect composition. At this beach in Malaysian Borneo, I settled for this spot. It was low tide and that nice flow of sand ripples appeared to be a good composition to lead the viewer's eye towards the dramatic sky.
This is the phenomenal half hour after sunset. Images captured during this time of the day are atmospheric and vibrant, in particularly cityscape. Colours are drawn from all the different artificial light sources.
The above image was photographed with an aperture setting of 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 crisp shot from this effect.
Photographing low light without a tripod
This is challenging as it sounds. There are ways to photograph in low light without a tripod and to avoid camera shake.
I took this image of Thimphu dzong (fortress) in Bhutan 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.
My camera shooting mode was set to aperture priority. As the night was approaching, I gradually increase the ISO while being very careful not to end up with too much noise in my images. I was working between ISO 800 to ISO 3200 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 helped 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 as still as possible, control my breathing when I hit that shutter button 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.
The blue glow in the background draws viewer's attention to the group of people on the platform. Some people are noticeable while others are silhouettes. Colours and lights in a dark environment could make an image look interesting and lively.
This image was shot without a tripod. The camera was set at 1SO 800 and aperture was at f/8. I used spot metering mode to create the vignetting effect to the sides. The focus point is on the cluster of people with the blue glow in the background.
This camera settings was to make sure that the camera shutter opens 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.
The above image was shot in the remote steppe of Mongolia in early summer. Twinkle stars in between those dark clouds and the man seated outside his ger (Mongolian yurt) with the light from his mobile phone reflected onto his face was the moment I wanted to capture.
My camera was mounted to a tripod. The aperture was set at f/8 with ISO 800 so I could capture the starry sky without creating any star trails incase the cloud clears. This settings will also prevent motion blur just incase the man moves.
The combination of different light sources, from the dim pavement lights to the last few seconds of nature's blue hour skylight has resulted in this image of wilderness glamping under the dramatic starry sky of remote Mongolia.
The effect of long exposure at night
It would instantly 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.
Aperture between f/11 to f/16 with ISO 200 would give you a nice streak of light trail.
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 and thick fog is covering the river 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 concentrated on taking more shots on a moving boat to get the preferred composition.
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 of 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. Practice makes your shot perfect too.