Camera magic: using low light to create atmospheric images

Documentary photographer Evgenia Arbugaeva, known for her ethereal low-key images, shares her passion for low-light photography and reveals her techniques and tips for capturing atmospheric photos in low light conditions.
A man with bright blue eyes and curly hair, wearing a thick brown coat, standing indoors in the dark, lit only by the light from the window he is looking out of.

Evgenia Arbugaeva's Weather Man series documented meteorologist Slava Korotkiy in his work at a remote peninsula on the north coast of Russia. Here, Slava is looking out of the window before going out to take measurements. "It was quite dark, but the snow reflection outside created a soft light on him," says Evgenia. "The white balance was a bit 'off' in my settings, but I really liked how the image came out: blue and calm, accentuating Slava's eye colour." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 33mm, 1/60 sec, f/3.2 and ISO3200. © Evgenia Arbugaeva

Photographs taken in low light have a unique appearance and atmosphere. They are muted, less cluttered with everyday details, and their colours and tones often have a strange, almost ethereal quality. Areas of shadow can enhance their overall mood and create a sense of mystery. Low-light photography can transform an ordinary subject into something unusual and compelling.

Documentary photographer and Canon Ambassador Evgenia Arbugaeva specialises in creating magical low-light photographs that are rich in atmosphere. Darkness is a central element to her style, and she's used her techniques in diverse locations around the world, from a remote meteorological station in northern Russia to a semi-abandoned scientific research institute in Tanzania.

Evgenia has been working in low light since she first began taking photographs. Initially, it started as a necessity – she was brought up in Tiksi, a town in northern Russia that's inside the Arctic Circle – but later it became an aesthetic choice.

"In the Arctic, the polar night is a few months long, so all winter there is no light," she says. "There are so many different shadows and tones that are invisible to our eyes that the camera can pick up, and for me, the camera became a tool to capture these tones. As I continued working with low light and darkness, I realised it was shaping my work. In a strange way I feel it kind of guided my style and helped me find my own photographic language."

Here, Evgenia talks about her experiences of working in these conditions and offers her tips for great low-light photography.

A building in a snowy, Arctic environment lit up in green by the Aurora Borealis. Snowflakes in motion can be seen in the air in the foreground.

This image is from Evgenia's series on Dikson, a port in northern Russia with a severe Arctic tundra climate. It shows abandoned buildings lit by the Aurora Borealis. "I waited for a few weeks for it to appear over the town," Evgenia says, "and when it finally did, everything turned neon green, heightening the already eerie feel of the place. I forgot to turn off my head torch when I shot this photograph, but it was lucky, because I love how the snowflakes in the foreground are lit and add movement to the image." Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 35mm, 15 sec, f/5 and ISO1000. © Evgenia Arbugaeva

A man in a dark room resting his head on a desk beside a window with orange curtains.

This picture was taken at the Amani Hill Research Station in Tanzania, where Evgenia was working in a very different kind of low light to her Arctic images. "The light in Amani in the late afternoon could be like liquid gold," she says. "For this series I wanted to achieve a sort of velvet feel in the images." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 39mm, 1/80 sec, f/4.5 and ISO2500. © Evgenia Arbugaeva

1. Take your time

Working in low light requires a more considered approach to photography. "It has made me work slower, because you usually need a tripod and the long exposure takes time," says Evgenia. "I have to be really careful and selective about what I photograph, but at the same time, working slower means I pay more attention to details."

Evgenia uses her experience with low-light photography to capture her images using manual exposures. She says situations in which she's combining artificial and natural light are the most difficult to get right. "The balance of light intensity is always a challenge when photographing in low light. Artificial light is always brighter than natural light in these conditions, so there's this very fragile balance to keep."

2. Use reflectors and LEDs to enhance natural light

Evgenia uses a variety of light sources to create atmosphere in her photography. She sometimes uses artificial light, including tungsten light and hand-held torches, but ideally prefers natural sources. "I like natural light rather than artificial light because then the act of taking a picture becomes an experience rather than my own construct," she explains.

In certain low-light situations, particularly when shooting portraits indoors, Evgenia finds it useful to use reflectors to bounce some extra light onto her subject. "I always carry reflectors with me now," she says. "If I'm working in an interior for some time, I leave them in place so I can see how light behaves in the space."

When on a shoot, she also carries small LED lights with her, which she puts in a white plastic bag and places in a scene for some subtle extra illumination. "I never use the LEDs as a main light – they're particularly used for ensuring I don't lose information in the shadows," she says. "The light is very soft and almost invisible, but it does count in the final pictures."

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A man standing in a tropical forest at night, illuminating an enormous tree with his torch.

While shooting the Amani series, Evgenia made her first ever visit to a tropical forest. "I was completely overwhelmed and mesmerised by it, but I struggled to make a photograph that captured its density and scale," she says. "During this night walk with John Mganga, the forest, lit by a torch, finally showed itself in mysterious grandeur. I like that the image turned out to be almost monochromatic and looks a bit like an etching." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 35mm, 13 sec, f/5 and ISO1600. © Evgenia Arbugaeva

3. Expand your options with the latest technology

For her past projects, Evgenia mainly used the Canon EOS 5D Mark III (now succeeded by the EOS 5D Mark IV) and the Canon EOS 5DS R. However, she recently began using the mirrorless Canon EOS R5, which has expanded the variety of low-light images she can shoot.

"The EOS R5 changes everything, really, in terms of low light," she says. "It has such amazing image stabilisation and high ISO performance that you don't need a tripod in some situations. It's really liberating, because it gives me more chances to capture fleeting moments, rather than always being restricted to carefully setting up my camera. I'm really excited about changing my process of working in low light."

Evgenia usually pairs the EOS R5 with the Canon RF 24-70mm F2.8L IS USM lens, but also the RF 70-200mm F2.8L IS USM. The wide apertures on these lenses, together with 5-stop optical image stabilisation, are an important benefit when working in dimly lit conditions.

Sharpness is particularly important for Evgenia, as she prints her images at large sizes for exhibitions. "Previously, if I was hand-holding and shooting at slower than 1/125 sec I'd be worried about camera shake," she says. "But now with the EOS R5 I can go slower and my images are still sharp. As I print big, I don't usually go over ISO4000, though that's playing it safe – I know the EOS R5 can easily handle higher ISOs for editorial work or smaller prints."

An abandoned room with a piano, the floor covered in snow. The light of the Aurora Borealis can be seen through the shattered window.

Another picture from Evgenia's Dikson series. "This room in an abandoned building looked completely dark to the eye – perhaps only the stars and the neon tone of the aurora were barely visible," Evgenia remembers. "I instantly recognised the potential of the scene and I stayed in this room for a while, trying different exposure times." Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 33mm, 79 sec, f/3.2 and ISO2000. © Evgenia Arbugaeva

4. Allow yourself to be surprised

When you're shooting in near-darkness, what you see with your eyes and what the camera's sensor records can be quite different. For Evgenia, the unpredictability of the results is part of the magic of low-light photography.

"It's always so hard to tell what will really work," she says. "Sometimes you can see what looks like an amazing picture with your naked eye, then you take the shot and it doesn't work. At other times, it's pitch dark and you're shooting into the space and hoping something will come out, and when you see the image it's beautiful.

"I'm amazed every time I take a picture with a long exposure and the camera captures something I didn't see – it's so exciting. It's like the camera is a kind of magic wand that helps me capture things that are invisible."

A shot taken in a dark, wooden shed, full of snow. A view of snow and evening sky can be seen through the open door.

"My favourite things about the polar night are the unusual tonalities of snow and the shimmers of stars," says Evgenia. This image is part of her Weather Man series. "It was taken at the Khodovarikha meteorological station, where Slava lives and works. I used a tripod and long exposure to capture the delicate colours here." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 30mm, 55 sec, f/3.2 and ISO2500. © Evgenia Arbugaeva

A man is lit by spotlight-like lighting in a dark jungle, carrying a bindle, looking up towards the canopy.

"In the deep forest of Amani it can be very dark, even during the day, because of the magnificent canopies of trees," says Evgenia. "But then there were some openings that created a light which resembled a stage spotlight. The contrast of darkness and light allowed me to capture the texture of the leaves and roots, and at the same time isolate and emphasise the protagonist, John Mganga." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 30mm, 1/160 sec, f/5.6 and ISO500. © Evgenia Arbugaeva

5. Enhance details in post-production

Evgenia limits the amount of work she does on her images at the post-production stage, so she can be true to the scene she experienced. Most of her work is done in-camera, but once back home she uses Adobe® Photoshop® to bring out additional shadow details and tone down highlights where necessary.

"I also play with colour temperatures and tones and try to give a consistent colour atmosphere to a series," she says. "It's always a tricky balance – how do you stay truthful to colours the camera saw in the dark, and how do you interpret them when you work on the image?

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"Often the original colours that the camera captures, even if they're not completely accurate to what I perceived, give me clues about how to build the tonalities in other pictures. In post-production I aim to just help those colours to shine more, rather than make them something else."

6. Be persistent and keep an open mind

Shooting in low light and creating well-exposed and aesthetically pleasing images is a skill that takes time to develop. "My main advice for photographers working in low light would be to have patience, not get frustrated with technicalities and just keep trying," Evgenia says. "If you're in difficult conditions and it's cold and dark, it's easy to give up. But low-light photography requires experimentation and really taking time with your camera.

"I'd also advise that you remain open to anything invisible that becomes visible to you. The camera picks up some very subtle things that add to the images' atmosphere. Then, when you see your images on a computer monitor or in large prints, it's just such a fulfilling experience."

*Adobe and Photoshop are either registered trademarks or trademarks of Adobe in the United States and/or other countries.

David Clark

Evgenia Arbugaeva's kitbag

The key kit that the pros use to take their photographs

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Canon EOS R5

Whatever you shoot, however you shoot it, the EOS R5 will let you be creative in ways you simply couldn’t before. "The EOS R5 changes everything, really, in terms of low light," Evgenia says. "It has such amazing image stabilisation and high ISO performance."


Canon RF 24-70mm F2.8L IS USM

Give your full frame mirrorless photography an edge with a 24-70mm zoom built to exceed expectations. Superb optical engineering, a fast f/2.8 maximum aperture and 5-stop image stabilisation helps you stay creative in all conditions.



"When working in very low temperatures, batteries run out quickly," Evgenia says, "so I take about 15-20 of them with me, depending on how heavy my bag becomes."

LED light

"I mostly use available light, but I carry small LED lights with me to add a little fill light and ensure I don't lose information in dark spaces."


Evgenia uses reflectors to help make the most of available light. "I always carry them with me now," she says.


When low light levels demand long exposures, a tripod is indispensable. With the image stabilisation and high ISO performance of the EOS R5, however, Evgenia is increasingly experimenting with shooting more spontaneously and without a tripod.

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