A former photography workshop student contacted me the other day with a really great question:
I have a quick question for you that has been bothering me for awhile. What steps do you typically take to address a low-light situation? Do you start by lowering shutter speed? Then f-stop? Then ISO? Anything else? In what order? Or what combination? And what amount of adjustment do you start with in each instance?
So, low light is always tricky. When I step into a dark room or am in the outdoors when the sun isn’t shining, I usually consider the following points, fairly instinctively in this order, when I want to shoot in Manual mode:
- Can I use bounce flash? If not (like, there are no white ceilings or they are super high)….
- Can I use off camera flash (like, a softbox or diffused speedilte)? If not (like, I don’t have any)….
- Can I use a tripod (like, if there are no moving subjects)? If not….
- Can I use a wider aperture lens (like, do I have a lens that will allow me to shoot at f/2.8 instead of f/4.0, etc.)? If not….
- I make sure I’m shooting RAW quality.
- I set the mode dial to M.
- I set the aperture to as wide an aperture as possible (lowest number possible).
- I set the shutter speed to as slow as possible (though as fast as necessary, like 1/100th if there are people that are just milling around, but faster if there is faster-paced action….you’ll get the hang of it).
- I frame my shot and adjust the ISO until the needle lines up to around -1 in the exposure indicator.
- I take a shot and examine it. (It’s going to be underexposed because I told it to be -1, but that’s ok because I can edit it to be brighter in post better because I’m shooting in RAW.) If it’s blurry I adjust to a faster shutter speed. If it’s not blurry, I ask myself if I can use a slower shutter speed.
- With every shot I frame up, I adjust the ISO so the needle lines up to around -1. (I could line it up to 0, or +1, or whatever….it depends on how dark/light I want the photo to be.) It’s ok if the ISO goes super high….it’s the best you can do.
- I try not to zoom in as much as possible while I’m shooting in low light (since the more you zoom in the more likely your photos are to be blurry).
- I always try to hold the camera as steady as possible in low light.
- I always pan with the subject if it’s moving in low light.
So, that’s how I usually shoot in M in low light. I do it differently in Av and Tv, and every situation is usually different. Here are the settings from a two-camera setup I used when shooting a wedding in a fairly dark venue a couple weeks ago. I took these two shots with my phone to help me know what settings to return to between taking pictures indoors and outdoors…
Can you make any sense out of those?
I started shooting another way in M, depending on the camera I’m using, but Lenspiration members can learn more about that technique here.
And since of course no post is any fun to look at if it doesn’t have any pictures, here are a couple of my favorite shots from that difficult, low-light wedding.