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Tips for Better Pictures

Today's e-tip:

Night and
Low-Light Photography

Night and Low-Light Photography

Sometimes you’re presented with the opportunity to shoot in low-light conditions.

These could include:
  • Street Photography
  • Cityscapes
  • Moonlit night photography
  • The starry sky
  • Inside buildings
  • Etc., etc.
Your first decision is whether or not to use flash or just use the available light. Flash can add an artificial look to images – sometimes this is what is required, as with event photography. But, sometimes flash just isn't an option, such as when shooting a cityscape.

Relying on the available light can provide wonderful results, especially with cityscapes at night. This e-Tip has to do with shooting in low-light without a flash.

Since you'll be shooting in a darkened environment, the first tool you should consider is a small flashlight - the smaller the better. It doesn't need to be bright - just bright enough to be able to see your camera's dials and buttons.

The image of the Eiffel tower is a vertical panorama of 6 images - each was taken with a Nikon D700 set to an ISO of 1,100 with a 105mm lens. The aperture was f3.2 and the shutter speed was 1/25 second. The camera was braced against a railing using a Green Pod bean bag.
Night and Low-Light Photography


The following tips will help you get great night and low-light images.


We recommend that you shoot in Aperture Priority mode (A or Av on your camera’s dial). In this mode, you get to choose the lens’ aperture and the camera automatically decides on what shutter speed to use. This allows you to use a wide aperture (f2.8, f4, etc.) that will capture more light.

The shutter speed that the camera selects will depend on the camera’s ISO speed and the amount of available light. It may be a very slow shutter speed – up to 30 seconds, which could require stabilization of your camera, otherwise there will be blurring!

If your camera has an internal flash, shooting in Aperture Priority mode assures (in most cameras) that the flash won’t pop-up automatically - which is something you don't want.

You may also find that the images come out too light or dark. When shooting with limited light, the camera's exposure metering system won't always get it right, which means that you may have to use some exposure compensation (see http://www.photocheatsheets.com/eTips.aspx?et=52). You may need to experiment with the exposure compensation until you get a good image.

In addition to using Exposure Compensation, you may want to bracket your images. This involves taking 3 or 5 images at different exposures. Most cameras have an option to do this automatically. By bracketing, you can decide later, when reviewing your images, which one you like best. It will also provide you with the ability to combine the images into a single HDR image (requires special post-processing software). HDR images can have more detail in the shadows and highlights.

When exposing, you’re always better off to underexpose (darker image) than to overexpose (lighter image), especially if you plan on post-processing your images. (It’s generally easier to extract image details from shadows than from highlights.)

ISO Speed

If you’re not shooting with a tripod, or your exposure is going to be more than about 10 seconds, you should increase your ISO speed. Your camera will take its best-quality images at low ISO speeds, but when shooting in low-light, you will need to increase the ISO speed. Digital cameras continue to get better at shooting at higher-ISO speeds. You shouldn’t be afraid to increase your ISO speed. I routinely shoot between ISO 1,600 and 6,400 when shooting in available light (see our e-Tip on ISO speeds: http://www.photocheatsheets.com/eTips.aspx?et=51).

Increasing your ISO speed will help eliminate blurred images.

Typical ISO menu
ISO Menu

This very low-light image was taken at ISO 6400
It was shot as a RAW image, which provided more detail
in the shadows and highlights than the camera's
JPEG image could have provided.
Low Light Photography

This image shows how "noise" can impact an image with very high-ISO.
Low Light Photography

Physical Camera Stabilization

When shooting in low light, you will need to have some way to physically stabilize your camera. A sturdy tripod is best (the operative word here is “sturdy”). But, there are many other ways to stabilize your camera during the exposure. Although, depending on the length of the exposure, different methods have certain limitations.

Tripods: The best way to stabilize your camera is with a “sturdy” tripod (note that the word “sturdy” is critical). With a sturdy tripod and good tripod technique (see our e-Tip on Tripods: http://www.photocheatsheets.com/eTips.aspx?et=56), you can use any exposure time you want without worrying about camera movement. This will result in a sharp image.

Bean Bags: A Bean Bag (or Green Pod) is good for longer exposures. You basically place the bean bag on a sturdy surface (rock, table, fence, etc.) and you place your camera on the bean bag. You can then aim your camera by adjusting its position on the bean bag. Using the self-timer or remote on your camera can help prevent you from “pushing” the shutter button manually .

Natural Objects: Bracing your camera against a tree, pole, car roof, table or other solid surface isn’t as good as a tripod or bean bag, but, in a pinch, it can work if you’re careful.

Night and Low-Light Photography

Tripod and Head

The Green Pod
(bean bag)
Green Pod (bean bag)

“IS” (image stabilization) or “VR” (vibration reduction) can be useful when shooting with a reasonable amount of light (e.g., indoors with sufficient light), but aren’t very useful when shooting outdoors at night. And you should NEVER use "IS" or "VR" when manually stabilizing your camera.

Mirror Lockup: With DSLR cameras, you should always lock the mirror up when shooting long exposures, especially when shooting between 1 second and 1/30 second (this is the range where the mirror vibration has the most impact on an image). Many cameras allow you to lock the mirror up with a dial or menu choice on your camera.

How to release the shutter without moving the camera
Remote release: Some cameras allow you to remotely release the shutter with a remote-control - often this is an extra purchased option.

Self-Timer: You can set the self timer and press the shutter. After a set number of seconds, the shutter will trigger without any camera movement.

Cable release: You can purchase a wired cable release that connects to your camera. Often, these accessories allow you to either take a single image or hold the shutter open as long as you want (BULB mode on the camera).


You have two options for focusing. The first is useful when hand-holding your camera. It is to use AutoFocus (AF) with a single AF point in Single Shot (or One Shot) mode (see our e-Tip on focus modes here: http://www.photocheatsheets.com/eTips.aspx?et=5). This way you can select what you want to focus on, lock focus by pressing the shutter button half-way, re-compose and take the image.

But, when stabilizing your camera with a tripod, bean bag or other method, you will want to shoot with MANUAL focus. This will help assure that you focus on what YOU want to focus on. This typically requires making one or two settings: one on the camera and sometimes, one on the lens.

Remember, when shooting with a wide lens aperture, you won’t have a lot of depth of field, so accurate focusing is important.

The handheld image on the right was taken at ISO 4,500 at f4.5 and 1/160 second.

Night Photography
White Balance

When using Auto White Balance, your camera will rarely get the white balance correct when shooting at night. So, you have two choices:
  • Shoot JPEG, but manually set the color temperature. When shooting outdoors at night, or indoors with light bulbs, a setting of anywhere between 2,000 and 4,000 degrees Kelvin will work – you will need to experiment.
  • Shooting RAW provides you with the best option as you don’t need to decide what white balance to use when shooting. The white balance is set during post-processing RAW images, which makes it MUCH easier to decide on the color temperature, and you don’t have to worry about it when shooting.

Here's an example of an image taken indoors under an unknown light source. The JPEG image taken with auto-white balance (on the left) obviously got the white balance wrong.

The image on the right was taken as a RAW image and post-processed. During post-processing, the white balance was set to 2000 degrees Kelvin. The difference is significant.
Auto ISO Post Processed RAW file

Night Skies & Fireworks

Shooting Night skies requires a sturdy tripod, as your exposures will be longer than you could stabilize your camera with any other method.

Fireworks are similar, as you often want to shoot more than one burst, which requires a longer exposure.

Night Photography Fireworks Photography

The "500" rule
When shooting the night sky, you can choose to shoot "Star Trails" or just the night sky. When shooting star trails, you need to use a long exposure - typically 10 minutes or more. This will capture the apparent movement of the stars in the sky (as we know, the stars don't move, but the earth does).

However, you may choose to capture a picture where the stars don't move. There is a formula used by astro-photographers to determine the longest exposure you can use so that there WON'T be star-movement. This is called the "500" rule (sometimes called the "400 Rule" or "600 Rule"). This rule indicates that you divide 500 (or 400 or 600) by the lens focal length. This will yield the longest exposure you can use before stars start to "trail". Many consumer DSLRs have a sensor that is smaller than what is considered "full frame". These sensors often have a crop factor of about 1.5x. This will affect the longest exposure (see the chart below).

Here's an example shot deep in the Everglades taken with a 20mm lens shot at f2.8, ISO 3200 with a shutter speed of 3.4 seconds with a full-frame sensor camera. (the lights in the background are from Miami, FL - about 50 miles away):


 Longest Exposure (based on the Sensor Size) to prevent star "movement"
Lens Focal LengthFull-Frame SensorAPS-C Sized Sensor (1.5x crop factor)
10mm50 seconds33 seconds
16mm31 seconds21 seconds
20mm25 seconds17 seconds
24mm21 seconds14 seconds
35mm14 seconds10 seconds

As you can see, the exposure time is dependent on the "effective" lens focal length. It is difficult to get a good exposure with anything greater than about 35mm, as the maximum exposure time is significantly reduced, which would require extreme ISO speeds.

To get a good image, you'll probably want to shoot with your lens at it's largest aperture (e.g., f2.8, f4, etc.)and will have to experiment, varying the ISO speed and exposure length.

Shoot RAW and Post Process

In addition to the advantage of deciding the White Balance AFTER shooting, RAW images provide a lot of other advantages (see our e-Tip on RAW vs JPEG here: http://www.photocheatsheets.com/eTips.aspx?et=30).

Post Processing isn’t very difficult, plus it provides you with a way to create professional-quality images – something that just isn’t possible with the JPEG images digital cameras produce.

JPEG images shot in the camera will yield just OK results - RAW images will yield MUCH better results - especially with low light, high contrast photography. Here's an example of the above image shot in RAW and post-processed (on the left) and the JPEG image right out of the camera. (Click for a larger image)


In Summary...

With the right techniques and tools, night and low-light images can become an integral part of your photography.

Check out these e-Tips for more information:

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