Low Light Photography – How to

A recent question that was posted on the blog “what’s your advice in taking picture in the dark?” This is an excellent question and I thought it would make for a great post. There are a few things to consider when taking photos at night or in low light.

How much available light is there?
Whenever you pick up your camera you always need to consider the available light. Look for sources of light, the color and amount. The amount of light is a big influence on what your exposure will need to be set to.

Marengo Caves

Exposure 8 Seconds / f4.5

Exposure how long (shutter speed)?
The shutter speed (exposure) is the amount of time that your camera’s shutter remains open allowing light to hit the sensor. With digital photography, the shutter speed is how long we expose the sensor to the scene allowing the camera to produce an image. Shutter speed is also referred to as exposure.

Shutter speeds (or exposures) are measured in fractions of seconds such as 1/1000, 1/50, 1/15 etc. Exposures which are slower than 1/60 of a second require the camera to be perfectly still, if not you will have a blurry image. Some cameras will allow you to set your exposure in full seconds from 1 second all the way up to 30 or more seconds. With night photography, we will need to keep the shutter open for several seconds.

Take a meter reading to determine what your exposure should be. On my camera, I set focus to manual and switch to aperture priority and half press the shutter release. The camera will then display the exposure. Alternatively, you could use a light meter and get your meter reading.

For night shots, I like to set the camera’s aperture small (a large number) as I typically want  to keep my shutter open longer allowing for more light. I will set my ISO between 100 to 400 as I would like to have less noise in the image. With a low ISO, I will need a longer exposure somewhere between 3 to 30 seconds depending on available light. When the shutter remains open for a long period of time anything that moves will show up as a blur. This includes the camera or your subject, if the camera moves the entire scene will blur, this is known as camera shake. In the picture above, the exposure was set to 8 seconds, the people continued to move an appear as ghosts.

Camera shake how to avoid it
To avoid camera shake and ensure that your scene is sharp you will need to stabilize your camera. The best way to do this is to mount your camera on a tripod. If you don’t have a tripod place the camera on a stable surface. If the wind is blowing even the camera strap hitting the tripod will cause some vibrations and can produce blur.  Pressing the shutter release on the camera can cause vibrations and may produce blur from camera shake. To overcome this, you need to trigger the camera without touching it. You can use either a remote shutter release or set the camera’s automatic timer set to a 2 second delay.

Advanced steps include locking the camera’s mirror in the up position since mirror movement can cause some vibrations and have some blur. I will do this on occasion here is an example a stitched photo (3 photos in one) of the Toronto skyline.

Toronto Panorama

No tripod? Stabilize the camera by placing it on a stable surface like a bench, railing, table, etc. Here is a photo I took with the camera (Canon powershot SD500) setup on a garbage can.



How to focus at night?
When taking photos at night you may have a hard time using the auto-focus mode since the camera will not necessarily be able to see your subject.  There are a few options, first try to manually focus the scene, another option is to have a small light that you can place just in front of your subject then focus the camera on that light. Once you have your scene in focus, be sure to set it back to manual focus as the camera will try to refocus the scene when you press the shutter release.

Once you are all set, trigger your shutter and experiment, experiment, experiment that is where the fun begins.

Night photography

Night photography - ISO 400 / exposure 3.2 at f7


I hope this has been helpful and now you have some useful tips to take better photos at night or in low light. The important thing to remember is that you will need a long exposure to get enough light for a good photo. This means that you will need to stabilize your camera either by using a tripod or stable surface (i.e.: table, bench etc.). Use a low ISO as this will help reduce noise in your photo. Take control of your camera, shoot in manual mode then experiment, experiment, experiment.



Posted on April 30, 2012, in Photograph, Photography and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. good stuff…ill try it next time!

  2. Great tips! I like to experiment with the ghost effect with a stable camera and moving subjects. I also love the unique contrast in low light photos.
    Your Toronto Panorama is phenomenal! Remarkably sharp.

    • Thanks, that is one where I did take a bit more time to setup. The one other thing about that photo is that it was so cold. On a roof top in the fall at midnight in Canada is not very warm.

  3. This is so helpful! I’m an amateur photographer and this information is quite knowledgeable, thanks!

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