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Lighten Up: 7 Tips for Low Light Photography

August 25, 2017
low light photography
Marc ChalufourA tripod helps cut down on camera shake when shooting low light photography.

It happens to the best of us. You’re playing outside with friends at dusk, and out of nowhere the sky explodes into an intense canvas of color and light. You fumble for your camera, envisioning your next smash-hit Instagram post, and begin to shoot. But by the time the tie-dye skyline has faded to deep ocean blues, you realize your photos are too blurry and dark to be worth saving. Fear not: By practicing the following tips in low-light conditions, you can turn your next sunset into a social media sensation.

1. Shoot RAW. Shooting RAW, an uncompressed file format, with a digital camera or even with some smartphones lets you preserve large amounts of data that you can use later in photo-editing software. Sure, RAW files are much larger than compressed JPEGs, the most common photo file type, but the extra information—especially in a low-light situation—might let you rescue a poorly calibrated shot in the digital darkroom.
Pro tip: Want to shoot RAW or in manual mode on your smartphone? You guessed it: There are many apps for that. We like Manual for iPhones, but some research will help you find the best app for you.

2. Use a tripod. The less light available, the more a photographer should think about using a tripod to keep photos sharp and to avoid unintentional blurring. Backcountryfriendly models exist that fold up small and even cling to branches to get that great shot. In windy conditions, consider weighting your tripod with heavy objects (a stuff sack full of rocks works great in the outdoors) to keep your camera as still as possible when the shutter opens. Even pressing the shutter button can cause imperceptible camera shake, so use your camera or phone’s timer or remote trigger to trip the shutter instead.

3. Master the shutter. The camera’s shutter acts as the gatekeeper of light. The longer the shutter stays open, the more the camera’s internal sensor is exposed to light, brightening a photo. Get creative with your camera (don’t forget the tripod!) by experimenting with slow shutter speeds to blur moving objects while keeping stationary objects in focus; think star trails over a rocky landscape. Pro tip: Shoot in manual mode to adjust your camera’s shutter speed and aperture.

4. Ace the aperture. While the shutter controls how long light is let into the camera, the lens’s aperture controls the size of the opening through which light enters. The wider the opening, the more light comes in, the brighter the photo. In low-light scenarios, set the aperture as large as possible (usually 1.4 to 5.6). Not all lenses are created equal, however; those with wide apertures (1.4 to 2.8) usually come at a cost.

5. Boost ISO. Shooting in low light can be challenging when holding a camera by hand. If you don’t have a tripod handy, a workaround is to increase the ISO value, usually found under the camera’s menu options, which makes your camera’s sensor more sensitive to light. The higher the ISO, the faster you can set the shutter speed. One possible drawback of a high ISO is grainy noise in the photo. Experiment shooting at various ISOs to see where the noise begins to take over.
Pro tip: When holding your camera by hand in low light, use a shutter speed of 1/60 of a second or faster to prevent blurring.

6. Paint with light. Get artsy by “light painting” the subject of your photo with a headlamp or a flashlight. Using a tripod, set your camera to a slow shutter speed and a low ISO (100 to 200). While the shutter is open, paint your subject with light, experimenting with exposure time, varying angles, and light intensity. The creative opportunities are endless.
Pro tip: To achieve sharper images in low light, lock in the focus by lighting your subject with a headlamp before shooting.

7. Befriend the flash. Depending on who or what you’re photographing, a flash can bail you out of low-light entanglements. In cases where your subject is backlit—say, by a setting sun—a flash will illuminate your subject, bringing it out of the shadows. Whether you’re using a built-in or an external flash, experiment with the intensity to minimize harsh, direct light.

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Ryan Smith

Ryan is the managing editor of AMC Outdoors magazine and contributing professional photographer. He has worked for AMC as a backcountry caretaker, trail crew member, Mountain Classroom educator, and Teen Wilderness guide. His passions include hiking, mountain biking, backcountry skiing, and climbing.