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Home » Photography Tips » Low Light Photography: The Ultimate Guide to Shooting in Low Light

Low Light Photography: The Ultimate Guide to Shooting in Low Light

Do you struggle to capture amazing low light photography? Do you want to take incredible photos, even indoors and at night?

Don’t worry.

Because while shooting in low light is a common problem, there are a few easy solutions that will allow you to consistently get gorgeous photos, even if you’re working in dark situations.

Are you ready to start doing beautiful low light photography?

Let’s dive right in.

Low Light Photography: Still Subjects Versus Moving Subjects

Low light photography comes with two unique challenges for photographers:

  1. Camera shake
  2. Motion blur

Camera shake refers to situations where the camera actually moves while you take a photo. This causes blur, even if your subject is stationary.

Here’s an example of camera shake:

In this case, the camera shake was for deliberate effect. I moved my camera with the wave, in order to create an artistic look. However, camera shake generally doesn’t turn out looking good, and it’s best avoided.

Motion blur, on the other hand, occurs when your subject moves, no matter how still your camera stays.

Here’s an example of motion blur:

Notice how the people in the shot have a ghostlike appearance; that’s because they were moving when I fired the shutter.

Related Post: Best Low Light Mirrorless Camera

Camera Shake

Camera shake is a problem for photographers of all stripes. If you’re a street photographer, action photographer, landscape photographer, still-life photographer, any photographer–you’ll have to deal with the effects of camera shake.

Fortunately, there are some easy ways to combat this (as discussed below). But first, it’s important to understand the nature of camera shake.

When your camera takes a photo, the sensor is exposed to light from the outside world. The length of time the sensor is exposed is referred to as the shutter speed. And shutter speed is represented by fractions of a second.

You can have a very short shutter speed, such as 1/2000s. Shutter speeds in the area of 1/2000s are so fast that you’ll have absolutely zero camera shake.

You can use a very long shutter speed, such as 1s (that is, one second). With a one-second shutter speed, you’re practically guaranteed camera shake, because your hands will move a tiny bit while holding the camera (unless you take deliberate steps to eliminate camera shake, of course).

Here’s a shot taken with a long shutter speed:

In this article, I’ll address camera shake directly, and tell you five excellent ways to reduce it or eliminate it completely–so that your photos are consistently sharp.

Related Post: Best Low Light Cameras

Motion Blur

Motion blur is the complement to camera shake.

While camera shake occurs due to a moving camera, motion blur is due to a moving subject.

And unfortunately, it’s a lot harder to control motion blur than camera shake. The only way to prevent motion blur is to use a high shutter speed, but this is difficult; when you shoot in low light, there’s not enough light to achieve a high shutter speed without making some sacrifices, which I’ll discuss below.

Note that your photos can suffer from both motion blur and camera shake at the same time. It’s also possible to have camera shake and not motion blur, or motion blur and not camera shake.

It all depends on the situation. So pay careful attention and you’ll do just fine.

How to Prevent Camera Shake in Low Light Situations: 5 Tips

There are two general methods of preventing camera shake.

Either you can stabilize your camera and lens so that there is absolutely no shake…

…or you can shoot with such a high shutter speed that the shake isn’t noticeable.

And that’s exactly what you’ll learn below.

1. Stabilize Your Body to Create the Sharpest Low Light Photography

Here’s your first and most important tip for eliminating blur due to camera shake:

Stabilize your body.

In fact, I recommend you stabilize your body all the time, not just when you’re shooting in low light scenarios. This will keep your shots sharp and give you a generally higher keeper rate.

Here’s how you stabilize your body:

Start by gripping your camera with your right hand. Your grip should be fairly tight, with your index finger resting comfortably on the shutter button. Cup the lens with the palm of your left hand. You don’t have to squeeze, but curl your fingers around the lens.

Next, bring the camera close to your face. In fact, if you’re struggling to shoot in low light, I absolutely recommend shooting through the optical viewfinder. Avoid Live View mode, which often compels you to move your camera out in front of you (which is very unstable).

Third, tuck in your elbows so that they’re close to the sides of your body. This will also enhance stability.

Fourth, find something to lean against. A tree, a wall, a car, it all works just fine. The key is to use a solid object to keep yourself steady–and, as a consequence, your camera! If you can’t find something to lean against, that’s okay. You can always get down low to the ground so that you’re lying on your stomach. If you’re willing, I recommend getting down flat on the ground, with your elbows pressed against the earth.

It may be a bit embarrassing to be seen that way, but any camera shake problems should melt away!

I was only able to capture this low light aster shot by stabilizing myself against the ground.

Related Post: How to Shoot Sharp Portraits

2. Use a Tripod to Avoid Camera Shake Entirely in Low Light

It’s a pretty clear solution, but it bears mentioning:

Tripods are designed to reduce camera shake. That’s the reason why they’re made, and it’s the reason why professional photographers are always carrying them around, despite how heavy they start to feel after several hours in the field.

So if you’re serious about completely eliminating camera shake, then a tripod may be your answer. Tripods are especially important for landscape photographers. This is because landscapes require an ultra-deep depth of field, and to achieve this, you’ll need a correspondingly long shutter speed. In other words, you can’t shoot a wide, completely-sharp landscape in low light–unless you have a tripod.

But beware:

There are plenty of tripods out there that aren’t actually stable, or are so heavy they’re just not worth lugging around. The best tripods tend to made of carbon fiber, because they’re super stable and reasonably light. But they’re also super pricey, so it ends up being a compromise.

For those who want an ultra-stable tripod but don’t want to pay for a high-end carbon fiber tripod, aluminum is the next best material. But aluminum is much heavier than carbon fiber, and so you’ll start to feel the weight after some time.

Related Post: The Best Beginner Tripods You Can Buy Right Now

Plastic tripods or tripods under 50 dollars are rarely worth even looking at. They tend to be unstable and prone to breakage.

When it comes to tripods, you get what you pay for.

So choose wisely!

And speaking of landscape photography:

3. Use a Remote Shutter Release or a Self-Timer to Get Sharp Low Light Landscape Photography

Whenever you press the shutter button on your camera, you cause vibrations.

And vibrations are one source of camera shake.

This is true regardless of whether you’re using a tripod. A tripod can’t save you from internal camera vibrations, after all!

So, if you want to take sharp low light landscape photos, especially with a tripod, you need to eliminate these vibrations.

You can do this in two ways:

First, you can use a remote shutter release. This connects to the camera, either through a cord or wirelessly, and allows you to press the shutter button without touching the camera. Just a tap of the remote release and the camera shutter will fire.

Second, you can use your camera’s self-timer. You can set the self-timer through your camera’s dials. Basically, you set the timer for a specific interval (usually two seconds and ten seconds). Then, when you press the shutter button, the camera starts counting down. Then, two seconds (or ten seconds) from the moment you’ve pressed the button, the shutter fires.

And it’ll be sharp–because the internal vibrations have faded away!

I used a self-timer to capture this low light urban landscape photo:

Related Post: Easy Landscape Photography Tips

4. Use a Camera or Lens With Built-In Image Stabilization

Did you know that some camera equipment is built to avoid camera shake?

It’s true. Pretty much every camera company has their own form of camera shake prevention:

  • Canon: Image Stabilization (IS)
  • Nikon: Vibration Reduction (VR)
  • Tamron: Vibration Compensation (VC)
  • Sigma: Optical Stabilization (OS)

You get the idea.

The way it works is that the lens or the camera is built with moving parts. When the camera body or the lens body starts to move, the electronics inside the equipment move to counteract the movement. And you end up with sharp shots, even when your hands shake, even when you’re using a slow shutter speed.

Now, Canon and Nikon, the two biggest camera manufacturers, have used image stabilization built into their lenses thus far. But camera in-body image stabilization has grown more popular as of late, and has already made an appearance in Nikon’s new mirrorless camera lineup (and Canon is rumored to include in-body image stabilization in an upcoming DSLR).

So if you want to avoid camera shake, check potential cameras and lenses before you actually make a purchase. Look for indications of lens stabilization or in-body image stabilization. And choose this equipment over the non-stabilized alternative.

The best image stabilization technology will allow you to handhold your equipment at dramatically lower shutter speeds and still get sharp shots.

Related Post: Best Lenses for Nighttime Photography

5. Shoot With a Fast Shutter Speed to Prevent Blur in Low Light Photography

Here’s your final way to prevent camera shake in your low light shooting:

Use a fast shutter speed.

After all, the faster your shutter speed, the less time the camera has to take a blurry photo. And if your shutter speed is sufficiently fast, you should be able to avoid camera shake entirely.

What counts as sufficiently fast?

Safe shutter speeds for handholding depend on the lens. The bigger the lens, the faster the corresponding shutter speed. This makes intuitive sense because bigger lenses are harder to keep still.

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I recommend using the reciprocal rule to get an approximate shutter speed for each of your lenses. The reciprocal rule states that you should take the focal length of your lens, and you should find its reciprocal. That will give you the shutter speed at which you can handhold safely.

For those who prefer not to think about math terms such as reciprocals, simply take your focal length (e.g., 50mm) and put a one over it. So if you have a 50mm lens, you add a one, getting 1/50. Hence the safe shutter speed for a 50mm lens: 1/50s.

Note that, as expected, the longer your focal length, the shorter the necessary shutter speed. If you’re using a massive 800mm lens, you’ll need a shutter speed of 1/800s to get a sharp shot.

Also, note that these are lower limits. So you need a shutter speed of at least 1/800s for a sharp 800mm shot.

The reciprocal rule isn’t perfect. If your lens is unusually heavy or light for its focal length, or if your hands are unusually still or unstable, you’ll need to adjust the rule.

But it should give you a good baseline for capturing sharp shots.

Related Post: Eight Great Lenses for Nighttime Photography

How to Prevent Motion Blur in Low Light Situations: 3 Tips

If you want to prevent motion blur, then you’ve got a few options.

And I’ll give you all the details below:

1. Use the Right Shutter Speed for Your Subjects

If your subjects are moving, then you’re going to need to shoot at a certain shutter speed to prevent motion blur.

But what’s that shutter speed?

Unfortunately, the perfect shutter speed depends on the speed of your subject. A walking dog requires a slower shutter speed than a diving falcon.

But here are a few general guidelines:

  • Walking people: 1/400s
  • Running people: 1/800s
  • Moving cars: 1/1000s
  • Flying birds: 1/1500s

Of course, this list is hardly exhaustive. Which is why I encourage you to experiment on your own. Try out various shutter speeds, and make notes of the results.

I needed a faster shutter speed to prevent these people from blurring as they walked along the beach:

Unfortunately, there’s one big problem with this shutter speed tip:

The faster your shutter speed, the less light the camera sensor will take in. And when you’re shooting in low light, you can’t afford to let in a reduced amount of light. If you do, your photo will turn out too dark.

Or it would turn out too dark…

…if it weren’t for this next tip:

2. Use a High ISO to Counteract a Fast Shutter Speed

If you’re using a fast shutter speed to keep your photos sharp, then you need a method of making your photos brighter.

You don’t want to get stuck with a sharp image, but one that’s so dark you can’t see its contents.

Which is why, when you’re doing low light photography, you should consider boosting your ISO.

You see, ISO is a camera setting that determines how sensitive the sensor is to light.

A low ISO means that it takes a lot of light to produce a bright photo.

But a high ISO makes the sensor ultra-sensitive to light, so you only need a little light to create a bright photo.

This is how low light action photographers respond to situations with limited light:

They boost the ISO.

Now, ISO is represented by round numbers, like this: ISO 100, ISO 200, ISO 400, ISO 800, etc.

ISO 100 or 200 are good settings for shooting in daylight. But if you want to get sharp photos of moving subjects at night, you’ll likely need to shoot at ISO 1600 and beyond.

You should know:

While ISO does brighten up dark photos, allowing you to shoot at fast shutter speeds, it comes with a tradeoff. The higher your ISO, the more noise (also known as grain) that appears in your photo.

That’s why you should only boost your ISO as much as you need, and never go further. You want a bright image, yes–but you want it to be noise-free, as well!

Related Post: Exposure Triangle (Shutter Speed, Aperture, ISO)

3. Use a Wide Aperture to Allow for Fast Shutter Speeds

Here’s the final way to capture sharp images of moving subjects in low light:

Use a wide aperture.

In other words, choose an f-stop in the area of f/1.4 to f/4.

You see, the wider your aperture, the more light that hits the camera sensor. And the brighter the overall photo.

So if you use an aperture of f/2.8, you’ll let in lots of light. Which in turn allows you to shoot with a fast shutter speed, so that you avoid motion blur.

One thing to note:

The wider your aperture, the narrower your depth of field.

In other words, as you widen the aperture, the background of your photos will start to blur, like this:

Notice how the background takes on a creamy appearance. That’s what a wide aperture will do to your photos.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with a wide aperture. It can be useful for artistic purposes. Plus, it’s often a worthwhile tradeoff: You capture bright, sharp images, and your background is rendered blurry.

Here’s the bottom line:

You can capture sharp images that look nice and bright.

Just don’t be afraid to use a wide aperture.

Related Post: Working With Aperture Priority

Low Light Photography: Next Steps

Now you know all about shooting in low light.

You know how to deal with camera shake.

And you know how to eliminate motion blur.

So get out there and start shooting!

Low Light Photography Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How do I shoot sharp photos of moving subjects in low light?

To shoot sharp low light photos, you need to use a fast shutter speed. But the faster your shutter speed, the darker your photos will appear–which is why it’s crucial that you use a wide aperture or a high ISO to counterbalance the effects of the high shutter speed.

How do I shoot sharp photos of stationary subjects in low light?

To shoot sharp photos of stationary subjects, you need to eliminate camera shake. Eliminate camera shake by holding your camera carefully, tucking in your elbows, and stabilizing your body against the ground. You can also consider purchasing a tripod if you want to capture low light landscape photos.

Do I need a tripod to do low light photography?

You don’t need a tripod to do low light photography. There are other methods of stabilizing your camera (as discussed in the article), and you can use a wide aperture or high ISO to increase your shutter speed. But if you’re shooting landscapes in low light, then yes, a tripod is essential.

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