In this guide we will be looking at some of the techniques for taking great low light and night photographs.
First, let’s look at what we mean by “low light”. Low light generally refers to indoors (even with lights on) or outdoors before sunrise or after sunset. There will be other environments of course but these are the situations where your camera responds differently.
If you are using your camera on one of the Auto modes, the pop up flash may activate. The flash is your camera’s solution to low light, and using it will ensure well lit images. However there are times that flash can interfere with your shooting moment, at a wedding, for example, or where flash photography is not allowed, such as a museum or gallery. You may also feel that flash, especially the built in flash, doesn’t always produce the most pleasing images. If you don’t want the flash to fire automatically, turn the Shooting Mode dial to “Flash Off”.
In this indoor image a high ISO was set along with a large aperture allowing the camera to absorb the maximum amount of light.
Taking photos in low light without the flash is possible but your camera has to compensate for the lack of light, it does this in one of three ways:
1. Shutter stays open longer: Your camera slows the shutter speed to let in more light. As we saw in the last guide if your shutter speed is slow and you or your subject moves whilst the picture is being taken your picture will appear blurred.
2. Increases its sensitivity: Your camera can increase the sensitivity of the sensor by raising the ISO number. At higher ISO figures you are more likely to experience “noise” on the image (see Digital noise), which can look unsightly.
3. Aperture widens: Your camera can instruct the lens to open to its widest setting, know as maximum aperture. This will let in as much light as possible. Using a wide aperture also increases background blur. (see What is aperture?)
As you can see there are implications to shooting without flash in low light. Try to get as much light as possible into your picture. A simple technique is to change your position. Moving toward a streetlight or switching on an overhead light can be all your camera needs to take better pictures without the flash.
As we explained in Guide 2, Getting to know your camera, Scene Modes can be of help in communicating your shooting subject to your camera. Try “Handheld Night Scene” to keep your shutter speed high and avoid blurring.
This scene was captured after sunset, with a long shutter speed of 30 seconds and a tripod to keep it steady.
Another scene to try is “Night Portrait”, this mode uses the flash to illuminate a nearby person or subject and uses a slow shutter speed to gather light from the background. Use with a tripod for best results.
To use your camera in Av mode, rotate the Main dial until the aperture number is at its smallest setting: you have just set the maximum aperture, the best setting for shooting handheld in low light. If you are interested in handheld low light photography you may want to try using a different lens. The Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM lens lets in 4 times the amount of light than your standard kit lens. And because of its very large maximum aperture you can get amazing background blur. In addition raise the ISO to increase your camera’s sensitivity.
There may be times that you have no option than to use the on-camera flash (see On and off-camera flash). A great way to get more pleasing images is to raise the ISO to increase the sensitivity and get more light into the background of your picture. Also use the Main dial to slow the shutter speed, although too low and your pictures may turn out blurred. Bear in mind the flash only works over short distances, up to a couple of metres is fine.
You can see the effect of flash in these two pictures. In the first the flash is illuminating the whole scene and delivers rather harsh light from the front of the image. For the second image a higher ISO and slower shutter speed were set balancing the light from the flash with that from the interior lights.
A very useful accessory for shooting landscapes in low light is a tripod or similar support. Having your camera in a fixed position allows you to get really long shutter speeds without worrying about the blurring (see Long exposure). Use Tv mode to control your shutter speed and point the camera at a moving light source for a creative effect.
Using a tripod and a shutter speed of 10 seconds made for interesting light trails from car brakes and headlights
As you start to become more aware of your lighting options you can start to make great decisions about taking pictures in low light. Using slow shutter speeds especially gives rise to some interesting and creative effects, push the boundaries and try lots of different settings and subjects to see what interests you.
It does help to familiarise yourself with the more technical sides to your camera. Learning how Shutter Speed, Aperture and ISO affect your image is a great place to start. In the meantime try as many of the techniques covered in this guide (and the previous ones!) and be prepared for some creative results!
Noise is the term used to describe visual degradation in an image quality, usually down to using high ISO. Using high ISO instructed your camera to amplify the light hitting the sensor, which can result in grainy distortion.
Aperture is the size of the lens opening. Each lens is given a rating referred to as an f/number such as f/3.5. The smaller the number the larger the opening. f/2.0 is 8 times larger than f/5.6 so can let in more light.
“On-camera” flash refers to using either the built in flash or an external flash positioned in the hot-shoe of your camera. “Off-camera” refers to a wired or wireless flash triggered by your camera.
Long exposure photography refers to using long shutter speeds to capture a scene usually at night. Using a tripod fixes any static objects while allowing moving elements to streak across the picture. Look for examples of fireworks, waterfalls, rivers, stars, cars and lightscapes.
Don’t forget to share some of your low light and night images with other EOS camera owners on the Facebook page. Try taking a shot indoors with the flash switched off, using one or more of the techniques outlined. Then upload it. Have you checked out the comments other photographers have made about your previous pictures?