Capturing a moment in low light can be a thing of real beauty. It manifests in many different ways – the first rays of dawn, a dimly lit market, a neon sign – that go far beyond just long exposures of the night sky.
When photographing in low light, it’s important to remember that your camera is, in essence, a light-gathering device. Modern cameras have evolved into owl-like gadgets; now, more can be seen by a camera than the naked eye. But when there’s minimal light available it can be a struggle to snap a clear image – if you’re not equipped with the right knowledge.
Here are a few tips to get the most out of your low-light photography.
It’s In The Details
I could tell you about expensive lenses and cameras, but low-light photography is not as complicated as it seems – these days, virtually any camera is capable of snapping great shots when the light dims.
Make the most of your camera’s capabilities by shooting in raw. This format captures maximum detail and offers you flexibility post-shoot to recover some image elements you may have lost due to over or underexposure, as opposed to lower-quality formats like JPG, which are more limited.
Once this is set up you’ll need a wide-aperture lens (like a prime lens); this will gather a greater amount of light than a regular lens and should be set to the widest aperture possible. Next, select a slower shutter speed to allow more light to enter your camera. Finally, choose a high ISO, as this will make the sensor more sensitive to light. Get familiar with these, as they are the three key areas you’ll be using when shooting in low light.
Head Towards The Light
Although we’re talking about how to shoot in low light, you still need to be conscious of having as much of it as you can. One way to hunt for light to set the scene is to become familiar with the different phases of the day. Blue hour, when the burgeoning and lingering sunlight takes on a distinctly blue shade in the morning and evening, is one such phase to keep in mind.
Also be sure to keep your eyes peeled for a light source. It could be anything from street lights, a candlelit room or a lone light bulb to a crackling campfire, city skyline or the moon. In darkness, these are all things that can shine more light on your subject, or be the subject of the image itself.
Find Your Balance
When things get darker, it’s time to whip out a tripod. You might have steady hands, but even the slightest movement can interfere with the clarity of a shot. This is when a tripod is the best solution. If you find yourself caught without one, though, any surface can become a ‘tripod’. Simply set up your camera and make use of the two-second timer to avoid any residual camera shake.
That said, it’s still possible to shoot a killer image by hand. I’ve captured sharp low-light images with a shutter speed of up to five seconds with the M.Zuiko 12–100mm f/4 IS PRO lens and Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II, but I would consider this to be one of very few combinations that could handle this type of long exposure without a tripod.
Embrace The Darkness
Think it’s too dark? Don’t abandon the shoot just yet. You’ve got this! Most professional cameras don’t have built-in flashes, but if yours does resist the urge to use it, you’ll get a better result by keeping your photos dark and moody instead. If you’re shooting in the dark you’re likely trying to capture the essence of that, so let the darkness be the hero.
In these moments, you’ll need to consider switching to manual focus, as autofocus will likely no longer work. This is one of the very few times you will be better than your camera at telling if the scene is in focus.
For something different, shoot in black and white. This will remove the distraction of colour and train your eye to compose a photo using contrasting highlights and shadows. Some cameras, like the Olympus OM-D series, have this as a built-in feature and allow you to look at the scene in black and white as you compose your shot.
Low-light photography offers a vast range of creative possibilities that push the boundaries of conventional imagery. There are truly talented artists out there who create magic with ‘light painting’ – the art of a moving or immobile hand-held light source that illuminates the dark during a long-exposure shot.
Occasionally I’ll try it by adding a torch light or glowing smartphone to a scene to create a unique point of interest. Google it for a dose of inspiration, then try it yourself: simply mount your camera on a tripod or stable surface, set it for a 15 to 30 second exposure and treat the darkness as your canvas. Because who doesn’t like having fun in the dark?
Chris Eyre-Walker is a member of the Olympus Visionary Program, a team of award-winning photographers supported by Olympus.