How to Shoot in Low-Light Conditions Without Using Flash
Photography is all about capturing the subject beautifully in the available light. Sometimes as the photographer you have more than optimum light (e.g., bright sunlight, halogens, etc.) to work with while some other times you have to work in suboptimal or low-light conditions. If you are not a pro photographer then it is always a great challenge, and sometimes it’s a nightmare, to capture great shots in low-light conditions.
Exposure info: f/1.8, 1/50th at ISO 3200
In order to face the challenges that low-light conditions come with, I will be sharing five techniques that you can use to capture your subjects, effectively. For better understanding, I have divided these techniques into two categories: technical and non-technical considerations.
- Use of high ISO
- Use of large aperture
- Use of slow shutter speed
- Capture image(s) in raw format
- Use of remote shutter and a tripod
Use of high ISO
ISO is the sensitivity of your camera (sensor) towards available light. It is measured in numbers (for example 80, 100, 200, 400 etc.) The higher the number, the greater the sensitivity of your camera is towards light and thus, more light can be captured.
The amount of light captured is directly proportional to the selected ISO. In other words, at ISO 200 you can capture double the light than you can at ISO 100. Similarly, at ISO 800 you can capture 8 times more light than at ISO 100. Thus, in low-light conditions, you should use a higher ISO in order to capture your subject effectively.
Exposure info: f/3.2, 1/5th at ISO 1600
Limitations of using a high ISO
As it also impacts the image quality that your camera (sensor) produces, ISO comes with its own limitations. By image quality, I mean, the ability of your camera to produce noise (grain). At a higher ISO your camera will always produce more noise (grain) than at a lower ISO. So, you will have to test and check what the ideal ISO setting is (for your camera) at which you can capture your subject with optimum light, along with maintaining good image quality.
NOTE: ISO is a feature of the camera and not the lens that you are using.
Exposure info: f/5, 1/125th at ISO 2500
Use of large aperture
Aperture is the opening (eye or hole) in the lens, through which light enters into the camera. Aperture size is also represented in numbers (for e.g., f/1.4, f/1.8, f/2.2, f/2.8, etc). The smaller the number, the wider the opening is and thus, more light can be captured.
The amount of light captured is inversely proportional to the selected aperture. Say, for a lens with aperture values of f/1.4, f/1.8, f/2.2, f/2.8, f/3.3, f/4.0 etc., the amount of light captured at f/1.4 will be double the light than at aperture f/1.8. Similarly, at f/1.4 you can capture 8 times more light than at f/2.8. Thus, in low-light conditions, you should use a larger aperture (smaller value) in order to capture your subject effectively.
Exposure info: f/1.8, 1/5th at ISO 400
Limitations of using a large aperture
As it also impacts the depth of field (sharpness or clear visibility) of the subject in your image, aperture comes with its own limitations. By depth of field, I mean, the ability of your lens to keep the subject in focus.
Generally, using a small aperture (higher f/number) you will be able to keep your entire subject in focus which is not possible using a large aperture (lower f/number). Again, you will have to test and check what the ideal aperture size is at which you can capture your subject with optimum light, keeping it in focus.
NOTE: Aperture is a feature of the lens and not the camera that you are using.
Use of slow shutter speed
Shutter speed, also known as camera exposure, is the length of time a camera shutter remains open in order to capture the light. Shutter speed is also represented in numbers (for e.g. 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/16, 1/32, 1/64, 1/125, 1/250, etc.) The higher the number, the longer the camera shutter remains open and thus, more light can be captured.
The amount of light captured is directly proportional to the selected shutter speed. For a camera with shutter speed values of 1/4, 1/8, 1/16, 1/32, 1/64, 1/125 etc., the light captured at 1/2 second is double the amount of light than that at a speed of 1/4 second. Similarly, at a shutter speed of 1/2 you can capture 8 times more light than at a shutter speed of 1/16th. Thus, in low-light conditions, you should use a slower shutter speed in order to capture your subject effectively.
Exposure info: f/3.2, 1 second at ISO 400
Limitations of using a slow shutter speed
As it also impacts the motion or movement of your subject, shutter speed comes with limitations. If you want to freeze the motion of your subject then you should use a higher shutter speed (e.g., 1/250, 1/500, 1/1000, etc.) While if you want to capture your subject with a motion blur then you should use a slower shutter speed (e.g., 1/8, 1/4, ½, etc.) Once again, you will have to test and check what the ideal shutter speed is at which you can capture your subject with optimum light, freezing or blurring its motion.
Exposure info: f/10, for 8 seconds at ISO 200
NOTE: Shutter speed is a feature of the camera and not the lens that you are using.
Capture images in Raw format
A Raw image captures much more detail and information about the subject that you are shooting than a JPEG file. You get the luxury of improving the exposure, color, sharpness, etc., of the subject (using an editing software like Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom) while still preserving all the detail of the subject which is usually not possible while editing a JPEG file.
Exposure: f/3.2, 1/5th at ISO 400, before editing
Exposure: f/3.2, 1/5th at ISO 400, after editing
Note: the editing has been taken overly far just to show you the amount of detail in the Raw file.
Limitations of capturing images in raw format
- Not all cameras can produce images in Raw format. Only selected higher-end cameras can. Most SLRs and Mirrorless camera can shoot Raw format as well as a few point and shoot models (check your manual if you are unsure, look for file formats)
- Size of a Raw image is usually 4-5 times larger than the JPEG file that the camera produces. Thus, you will need more space for storing these images.
- Only a handful of software can read and recognize Raw format files. Thus, you need specialized software (like Adobe Photoshop, Lightroom, etc.) to edit these images.
Exposure: f/2, 160th at ISO 2200
NOTE: I believe that capturing images in raw format comes with more advantages than disadvantages and that it is always better to shoot in Raw format.
Use of remote shutter release and a tripod
If you want to capture a stationary or slow moving subject in low-light conditions then it is always better to do so using a remote shutter release and a tripod. This will help you avoid possible camera shake and you will have a greater chance of capturing your subject, effectively.
NOTE: While most of the cameras can be mounted on a tripod, a smaller fraction of them can be used syncing with a remote shutter.
I have discussed in this article five techniques which you can use in order to take great photographs in low-light conditions. These techniques are: use of higher ISO, use of larger aperture, use of slower shutter speed, capturing images in Raw format and use of a remote shutter and a tripod. Almost all these techniques come with limitations, but they are also very effective, if tested properly for the camera and lens combination that you are using.
Which particular technique do you use for taking those challenging shots in low-light conditions? Did I miss any other technique which can be equally effective? I would love to have your thoughts regarding this issue.
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