The Best Camera Settings For Low Light Photography

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The Best Camera Settings For Low Light Photography

The amazing thing about your camera is that it can literally see in the dark. Your camera can capture things in low light situations that you wouldn’t think were possible. When you find yourself shooting in a dimly lit situation, that doesn’t mean it’s time to pack up the camera. It means that it’s time to take a new approach to your camera settings! With the right settings for low light photography, you’ll be able to capture beautiful photos no matter how dark your scene is.

The Best Camera Settings For Low Light Photography Are:

  • Mode: Manual
  • Shutter: 1″ – 1/60
  • ISO: 1200 – 1800
  • Aperture: F/2.8 or wider
  • Focus: Manual Focus (MF)
  • White Balance: AWB
  • Drive Mode: Single Shot
  • Image Type: RAW
  • Tripod: Yes

Now let’s break down the reasoning behind these camera settings to help you get better exposed photos in low light conditions.

What Is Considered As “Low Light” Photography?

Low light photography is considered as any type of situation that has a lack of available light. This could be while outside right after sunset or in a room with only one light source. Low light environments are where you can see a small amount of detail with your eyes, but aren’t yet completely dark.

Whatever the situation, low light photography offers a unique set of challenges with camera settings. This style of photography often requires a wider aperture, a slower shutter speed, and a higher ISO setting.

Since you need to let exponentially more light into the camera compared to mid-day, it can be tricky to get the settings you want. Especially when taking pictures of movement, getting a fast enough shutter speed is difficult. To help your camera out, you need to alter your settings to let as much light in as possible. For example, if you needed a faster shutter speed, you could compensate by increasing your ISO and opening the aperture.

Although more challenging, the types of photos you can capture in low light are always worth the effort. There’s a totally different feel to low light photos that you can’t capture in any other lighting conditions. With a solid understanding of the right camera settings to use, you’ll never be limited by the times of day you can shoot!

Breaking Down The Best Camera Settings For Low Light Photography

If you’re a beginner photographer, your first reaction when shooting in low light might be to use a flash. Whether that be the one built into your camera or an external flash, it seems like a reasonable option to brighten your scene. The problem with a flash is that it can wash out and completely change the look of your photos. To make things look as natural as possible, you can use the right camera settings and never need to rely on a flash again! Let’s break down each of your three exposure settings and how they play a role in low light photos.

Best Aperture (F-stop)

The aperture is one of the most important exposure settings for low light photography. Since it only changes the depth of field, it’s ideal to use your aperture as your main attack against low light conditions. Unlike ISO, which increases noise and shutter speed, which can produce motion blur, your apertures effects aren’t as detrimental. That’s why it’s the first exposure setting to adjust when shooting in low light.

Although I’ve talked about this setting extensively in my guide to aperture settings, let’s go over a bit of a review. The aperture is a small donut-shaped hole inside your lens that becomes wider or smaller, depending on your f-stop (aperture) setting. As the aperture changes diameter, it also affects how much of your photo can be in focus at once. This is known as depth of field. With a wide-open aperture, you will get a shallow depth of field that will limit how much is in focus. When you want to blur your photo’s background, this is the easiest way to do it.

For low light photography, the wider the aperture, the better. After all, it’s creating more space for light to pass through your lens. Although every lens will have a different aperture range, an optimal aperture to use in low light is F/2.8. With this wide of an aperture, you can let in twice the amount of light compared to F/5.6. Whether you’re shooting a dimly lit scene or in complete darkness, F/2.8 will get the job done for you.

Now it’s important to note that F/2.8 is a very wide aperture, which, in turn, means there’s a shallow depth of field. When you’re shooting in low light conditions, you don’t always have the luxury of having the perfect depth of field for your photo. Since you need to brighten your exposure by any means necessary, this is your best option to do it. Luckily, if you’re shooting a wide-angle shot, you likely won’t notice much of a difference in the focus.

– Is F/2.8 Fast Enough For Low Light Photography?

Although there are many lenses much faster than F/2.8, it’s still perfectly suitable for low light photography. With the help of a higher ISO and a slightly slower shutter speed, you can still capture plenty of fantastic low light images at F/2.8.

To give you some examples, my main lens is the Canon 24-70mm F/2.8. I’ve used this lens in countless low light scenarios and never had a problem with aperture. Below are a couple images I’ve taken at F/2.8 in a variety of situations.

Although having the extra few stops of light with F/1.8 or F/1.4 is nice, it’s not totally necessary. You can still capture fantastic low light photos with F/2.8.

Best ISO Setting

The next setting you have to combat low light is your ISO setting. In a nutshell, this setting increases your sensor’s sensitivity to incoming light. With more sensitivity comes a bright photo.

At first glance, ISO seems like the best camera setting ever created. Unfortunately, there is a crucial drawback that should make you think twice before cranking your ISO. This drawback comes in the form of grain.

Looking closely at this image, you can see the heavy amounts of grain from a high ISO.

Grain looks like static that’s built into your photo. It can look distracting and make small details harder to differentiate. As you increase your ISO setting, the grain will become more and more noticeable. That’s why you don’t want to just max out your ISO setting and call it a day while shooting in low light. There’s a little more thought required than that.

For most situations, I find using an ISO between 1200 and 1800 is suitable for many low light situations. On most cameras, the grain levels at this range are still acceptable and don’t distract from your image too much. However, depending on your camera, you may be able to use much higher ISO ranges than this without worry. My suggestion is to be used as more of a broad suggestion for any level of a photographer with any camera.

If you’re ever curious about how much grain your particular camera captures at varying ISO ranges, take a series of photos with your lens cap on. As you increase the ISO, you’ll start to see more and more grain until it eventually discolors the black of your photo.

– How To Shoot In Low Light Without Grain

If grain is a big worry of yours, you can use a wider aperture and a slow shutter speed to compensate for a lower ISO. Although you may have a harder time freezing motion, it’s a worthwhile option if your subject stays still.

Especially in extremely low-light situations or even night time, it’s not uncommon to encounter a bit of grain at the very least. It’s not the end of the world, and it won’t ruin your photo in small amounts. If you feel concerned about the amount of grain in a certain photo, you can always use noise reduction in Lightroom or Photoshop!

Best Shutter Speed For Low Light

Finally comes the shutter speed. As I talked about in my shutter speed for beginners post, shutter speed controls how motion is captured. Since it is in charge of how long your sensor is exposed to light, it also will determine whether an object is blurred or frozen in motion.

For example, if you were to photograph a speeding car with a slow shutter speed of 1″ (second), it would appear blurry. Since the car moved positions during the time your shutter was open, the car creates a streak in the photo.

If you took the same situation and used a faster shutter speed such as 1/2000, the car would be frozen in time with all its details perfectly sharp. This is because your sensor was exposed to light for a shorter period of time, giving less time for the object to move across the frame.

Now when you’re shooting in low light, you’re never going to be able to use a shutter speed of 1/2000. Since the shutter would open and close within 1/2000 of a second, there needs to be a lot of light to properly expose the photo. In low light, there’s an insufficient amount of light, which means your camera needs more time for light to hit the sensor.

That’s why a good shutter speed setting to start with should be between 1″ and 1/60. Although a relatively broad range, this gives you the option to get a good exposure even in low light environments. The shutter speed you choose will all depend on what you’re trying to photograph.

If your subject is moving, you’ll need to use a faster shutter speed. If your subject is still, like a mountain, for example, then it doesn’t matter how long your shutter is open for. Since the subject never moves, you could use a shutter as slow as 30″ without a problem.

Why Shoot In Raw?

Without question, RAW is the best image file type to use in low light photography. Since you’ll have extremely dark shadows, shooting in RAW gives you the flexibility to adjust things later in post.

A RAW file has far more dynamic range than a JPEG file, which helps it hold more color and exposure information. While working in your editing software of choice, you can push a RAW file much further without losing quality. From exposure adjustments, contrast, or color, you can completely transform a RAW file, and it will still look as crisp as it did in-camera.

Since you can push these files so much further with photo editing, it’s the best choice in low light. Odds are that your exposure will look a little bit dark while shooting in low light environments. However, after using a few basic image adjustments, you can correct your exposure with ease. Although it shouldn’t be relied on to “fix” your photo, it can definitely help solve any problem areas that appear too dark.

If you’re using a JPEG file for low light photography, you can still capture reasonable images, but you won’t have the ability to edit them as much. Since a JPEG file is more compressed with less information, a photo editing software won’t be able to nicely lift your shadows.

If you’re new to using RAW files, it’s important to note that this file type will need to be converted to JPEG before you can share it anywhere. Most websites and social media platforms don’t recognize RAW files as a valid format, which is why everything needs to get converted. Even though that sounds complicated, this is just a part of the photo editing process. Luckily it can be done in seconds no matter what kind of editing software you use.

Check out my guides on how to edit photos in Lightroom or Photoshop to get started!

Do You Need A Tripod For Low Light Photography?

Whenever you’re taking pictures in low light, having a tripod is going to be very helpful. Even though it’s not always necessary, it’s worth having with you just in case. Since you’ll be using slower shutter speeds, it’s possible that you start to use a shutter speed that too slow to use while shooting handheld. Believe it or not, no matter how still you think you’re being, the small micro-movements of your hands can translate into blurry photos. To prevent this, a tripod will keep your camera perfectly still.

As a general rule of thumb, any shutter speed slower than 1/60 will require a tripod. That means if you use a shutter speed like 1/5, you’ll need a tripod to capture a sharp photo. With the ability to keep your camera perfectly still, using a tripod makes shooting in low light incredibly easy. Rather than fussing around with your camera settings so that you can shoot handheld, just using a tripod and set any shutter speed you want. Whether it be 1/5 or 4 minutes, you’ll still get a crisp, well-exposed photo!

If you have yet to get a tripod, I share a list of my top picks on my recommended gear page!

How To Take Low Light Photos Without A Flash

Especially when you’re taking pictures of people, it can be hard to illuminate them well in a low light setting. That’s why many photographers will opt for a flash, but it’s not always necessary. By using a few simple techniques, you can better light your subjects with totally natural lighting!

– Place Your Subject Near A Light Source

One of the biggest challenges of low light photography is portraits. Since there’s already a severe lack of light, it makes it that much harder to illuminate your subject’s face. Luckily you can work around this in most situations by placing them near a light source. The light source could be anything from a street light, car headlights, a phone screen, or whatever else you can think of. By better orienting your subject towards a light, you can work with the small amount of light available to make them easier to see.

The advantage of using a natural light source is that you can use faster shutter speeds while shooting. Rather than struggling to see enough detail in your subject, the extra light helps to brighten things up. No fancy camera setting adjustments necessary!

With that said, you might be in a situation where there isn’t any available light nearby. For example, if you were on a hike and the sun had just finished setting. Even during blue hour (the time after sunset), there’s a fair amount of light left on the horizon. By making your subject face towards the brighter part of the sky, it will help to cast a little more light on their face. This is a simple trick you can use to help your exposure without the need for a flash.

– Adjust Your Camera Settings To Brighten The Exposure

If you’re not photographing people, then the shutter speed you use isn’t as important of a consideration. For this example, let’s say you want to take a picture of a mountain at dusk or the interior of a poorly lit room. In both these scenarios, the subject isn’t moving. Nothing in your frame will suddenly get up and leave. So there’s no reason why you can’t just use a slower shutter speed to allow more light into your camera! Rather than using a flash to try to illuminate parts of your scene, brightening your exposure will work equally well.

The same thing goes with any type of photos you’re shooting in low light. Rather than using a flash, there are often ways you can adjust your camera settings to brighten the photo. Whether it be slowing your shutter, opening the aperture, or increasing the ISO, you have plenty of options.

Unless you’re in complete darkness, consider how you can alter your camera settings rather than breaking out the flash.

– Use A Headlamp

The final option is to use a headlamp. Although this method only really applies to outdoor photos, it’s still worth considering. Let’s first talk about how you can use a headlamp to illuminate your scene.

When you’re using a slow shutter speed, very shadowed areas can remain completely dark. No matter what camera settings you change, these parts of your photo will still look dark. Using a headlamp, you can briefly shine a light on these dark areas to illuminate more of your frame. This works great to help improve how much detail you can see in darker areas, without the harsh hard-light of a flash.

Alternatively, when you’re photographing people, they can wear a headlamp to help shine a light on their bodies. This will only really make sense when shooting hiking photography, but it’s an easy trick that I love using. By wearing the headlamp, it helps to illuminate their face while reflecting light that will illuminate their whole bodies. In the above example, the climber would be pretty hard to see without the light reflecting on the rock. By creating some extra ambient light, you no longer require a flash!

How To Take Sharp Photos In Low Light Conditions

With all your camera settings sorted out, we can’t forget about one of the most important parts of any photo: focus. Without a sharp photo, it’s not going to matter how perfect your camera settings are. Since autofocus doesn’t work very well in low light, it’s best to switch over to manual focus (MF). Now that you’re in charge of making the photo sharp, what’s the best way to do this? Just use this easy 3 step formula for setting focus in low light!

Step 1: Go Into Live View And Digitally Zoom In

The best way to set focus is by using Live View and zooming into the image on your LCD. If you’re unfamiliar, Live View is the mode that lets you see a real-time display of what your camera sees via the LCD screen. In this mode, you can magnify the image to better see certain parts of your frame.

Step 2: Find A Bright Light Source In Your Frame

While in Live View, find and zoom into any light source in your frame. This should be anything that you can see clearly enough to get focus on. Ideally, this will be some kind of light that sits nearby your subject. That way, your focus will be set properly for your photo.

If there aren’t any light sources to zoom into, try using the flashlight on your phone to light up parts of your scene. This will help to show more details that you can use for focus points.

Step 3: Manually Set Your Focus To The Bright Area

With a light source or from the help of a flashlight, adjust your focus ring until the area looks sharp on your camera screen. Once this is done, zoom out of Live View and begin taking photos! After taking a few shots, it’s a good idea to double-check the photos to see if they are actually sharp. Sometimes your focus can be just slightly off the first time. Luckily it’s an easy fix if you catch it early in your shoot!

Low Light Photography Ideas

Your camera settings are set, your photos are in focus, and now it’s time to start taking amazing low light pictures!

But wait, there’s a problem… what is there to take pictures of? Here are a few easy (and fun) ideas to practice your low light photography with.

1. Light Painting

Light painting is created by using a slow shutter speed while moving a light through your frame. With a glow stick or a flashlight, you can move around your frame to create different shapes or even text with the light. Since this effect requires a slow shutter speed, a low light environment is perfect for this. Just make sure to use a longer shutter speed to give yourself more time to paint!

2. Fireside Portraits

One of my favorite low light photography ideas is fireside portraits. There’s nothing that beats the warm glow of a fire in portraits. It creates a feeling to your photo that’s hard to replicate in any other way. Next time you have a fire with friends, break out your camera and start snapping some great low light portraits!

3. Lantern Photos

Lantern photos are another fun idea that work well as portrait styled images or just of the lanterns themselves! Since they create such a widespread glow, they work as the perfect light source to include in your low light photos. You can find a lot of these kinds of lanterns at a local antique shop or used online. They’re definitely a fun prop to experiment within your photos.

4. Traffic Trails

red rock canyon nevada

If you live near a city, traffic trails are another fun, low light photography activity to try your hand at. With the help of a slow shutter speed, you can blur the headlights of passing cars into continuous streaks of light. This looks great with landscape or cityscape photos!

Learn More: Best Camera Settings For Traffic Trail Photography

5. Capture Bokeh

Since you’re already using a wide aperture, try to capture some bokeh! Bokeh is the light orbs created by out of focus lights sources. This looks exceptionally nice in portrait photos and adds a unique look to any background.

With a solid understanding of the best camera settings for low light photography, all that’s left is to get out there and shoot! With more practice shooting in low light, it will become easier to nail your exposure in every shot. Above all else, always try new things and see what happens. That’s the fastest way to learn and is a surefire way to improve your low light photography.

Happy Shooting!

Brendan 🙂

Photo of author
I'm a Canadian photographer and photo retoucher turned founder of bwillcreative.com. Around here I help you to decode the mystery of photo editing with no-fluff videos and written guides to help you achieve your creative goals. Outside of shooting photos and my passion for educating, you'll find me mountain biking or on the trails with my dog, Sunny!

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