When it comes to low light photography, there are many, many things you can do to improve your photos or — let’s be honest — even be able to make pictures in the first place!

Many low light tips are obvious, or at least seem obvious if you already know them. These are the kinds of things you can do that make the difference between no photo at all, and a photo you can keep. Others are more advanced, clever little things that you can do to improve your photos just a little bit. But when you add up several of these little tips, those little changes can add up to big improvements.

Let’s start with some of the really easy ones. Easy to remember, easy to execute, and that won’t cost you a penny. Then we’ll move into some more advanced tips, to take your photos to the next level.

 

Three really easy low light photography tips you can do tonight

Tip number

Stabilize your camera

It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about a smartphone or a big dSLR; when you’re in low light, you want to hold the camera extra steady. Why? Because even a shutter speed of 1/30th of a second, which doesn’t sound very slow at all, will show lots of movement if you’re hand holding the camera. So, put it on a tripod, set it on the table, prop it up on some pillows or a stack of books, the hood of a car, even the ground to keep it steady.

Handheld at ⅕ second
Stabilized at ⅕ second

Tip number

Keep your ISO as low as you can

Even if your camera supposedly has amazing low light performance!!!, no matter what camera it is, a lower ISO means cleaner photos. High ISO introduces noise, which makes photos lose detail, not appear as sharp, and adds a noise pattern to your photo that rarely looks nice. A lower ISO however also means a longer shutter speed. So, see tip #1. Stabilize the camera so it doesn’t move. Even if you’re photographing people, if they’re posing for a photo in low light, and the camera isn’t moving at all, as long as they hold still they’ll look great in the photo. Yes they will move a tiny bit (no one is a statue), but if the camera is steady, it’ll be OK.

High ISO @ 25,600
Low ISO @ 200

Tip number

Take a moment to find the best light available, and position it to your advantage

This does depend on your subject, but when possible, look around for a bit more light and try shooting there. If you’re photographing a building at night, then no, you can’t move the subject. But if you’re photographing your friends after dinner one night, have them stand where the light is shining on their faces, not on top of their heads, or behind them. Position a person near a street lamp, or move a candle on the table to illuminate their face. When you start actually looking for light, you may be surprised at how much you can find.

Yeah, those were easy. But still important! Now, let’s do three harder ones.

Two slightly more advanced low light photography tips

Tip number

Consider using a flash AND a slow shutter speed

Sure, using your flash is an obvious choice when in low light. But many of us don’t like the look of straight flash photography. The light is harsh and unflattering, and usually the background disappears! However, if you use a slow shutter speed, which will allow the ambient light of the restaurant / city scape / street scene fill in the background, and use a flash to illuminate the main subject, you can actually get best of both worlds! The exact setting will depend on your camera, but what you’re looking for is called “slow sync”. It may be a setting on the flash or the camera itself. On my LUMIX G9, from the Quick Menu, under the Flash options, I see a lightning bolt (flash) with an S next to it, and it’s called “Slow Sync.”. In one test, in fully automatic mode with the regular flash option enabled, the camera chose a 1/60th of a second shutter speed. With Slow Sync enabled, it chose a 1/6th of a second shutter. That’s a huge difference and lets a lot more ambient light illuminate the scene.

Standard flash at night
Slow sync flash at night

Tip number

Remove noise using DxO PhotoLab

Sometimes, noise is simply unavoidable. To capture the photo you want, you have no choice but to crank the ISO. Fortunately, it’s easy to remove even some of the most egregious noise from your photos! Simply open the photo in DxO PhotoLab, and… uh… that’s it. Noise Reduction will automatically be applied! But if you want to take it to the next level, with one click you can enable PRIME Noise Reduction, cleaning up the image even more. And unlike many noise reduction tools you may have seen before, DxO PhotoLab doesn’t chunk up the image making it look like a highly compressed JPEG. You’ll have to see it to believe it! In the sample photo below, I grabbed one of the highest ISO images I had in my library — ISO 25,600. You can see here the original RAW file with NR turned off, the basic noise reduction, and then the PRIME effect.

Four stages of noise reduction in DxO PhotoLab… Off (original), minimal, Auto HQ, and Prime 

What’s your favorite low light photography tip?

Do you have a technique you swear by to get the best results — in camera or in post — to make your low light photos sing?

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