The Blog

Understanding light : low light

Remember those time when you were in this warmth, romantic, nicely lit restaurant, you took a picture with your camera, and what happened? The subject in the picture is washed out, and the background is dark, or in some other occasions, It’s evenly lit, but the subject is blurred. It’s frustrating, but it seems like the camera only works best during the day, outdoors. Well, here’s some tips that could help you take photos in low light condition better.

Romantic, nicely lit restaurant means darkness to your camera. And if you set your camera on auto, the built-in flash most definitely will kick in, replacing the ambient (available light) with high density light that doesn’t reach far. The results just don’t resemble the nice restaurant as you remember. So, try to avoid ‘Auto’-mode in difficult lighting condition, because only you know what is it that you’re trying to capture.

Everything other than front lit (your subject is facing the light, not against it) daylight situation, is considered difficult lighting condition. That’s why in most compact digital cameras, there is the ‘scenes’ mode (pre-set exposures) which will help you define the best exposure for whatever it is that you try to capture.

Valentine’s day dinner with my Keira, the lighting was too nice to pass. I set my camera on high ISO, resting my hand holding camera on top of the camera bag on the table to keep it steady, and use the 2 second self timer. (click on image above to enlarge)

For something like this situation (the romantic, nicely lit restaurant), you set your camera to ‘indoor’ mode (each brand differs in the naming departments, some have specific modes for indoor situation, i.e. ‘party’, ‘birthday’, ‘candle light’). And then what happened? The subject still comes out blurry, or sometimes even the whole picture is blurry. That’s because the camera decided to lower the shutter speed to get as much light as possible for the perfect exposure in those low lit conditions.

The slower the shutter speed, the more likely the image is affected by movement. When we press the shutter release button, our finger motion shakes the camera a bit. A small movement within a large fraction of a second is enough to make a blurry picture. Thus, the waving hand (no shake, please) icon appears in your display to warn you when the shutter speed is slow.

Same goes for a moving subject. If the shutter speed is fast, it stops the moving subject in the picture. But if the shutter speed is slow, you’ll get the subject in motion blur. So the key is to keep the camera as steady as possible, and ask the subject to be still during the point of shutter release.

Differ in some brands, in Lumix LX3 you can set the scene to the ‘party’ mode.

You can do reduce this shutter release shake by using the self-timer and by hand-holding the camera against a steady ground. You can lean your camera holding hand against the table, or on top of the purse that you stack on the table to lift it higher. Sometimes you can use the wall beside you, or the top part of the chair, or anything that will keep your hand steady. Try to use the 2 second self-timer, instead of the 10 seconds, because people’s smile rarely look natural when they have to hold it for 10 seconds. :) (Unless you want to be inside the picture, then 10 second self timer will give you the time to get into place)

On her 5th birthday last year, with her cousin. Had I used flash, the candle couldn’t be the focal point as I intended to here.

Some compact digital cameras already have a built-in stabilizers to counter shakes. There are two types of image stabilizer, the real, mechanical one is the optical image stabilizer which makes some part of the lenses inside react to your movement. And the cheaper version is the digital image stabilizer which only push the ISO number, or open the widest aperture possible to keep the shutter speed fast to minimize blur. If it’s within the budget, get the one with optical image stabilizer. The moments you capture are irreplaceable, you wouldn’t want many blurred mementos, would you?

Many ways to improve the quality of pictures, I’m sure you got other real-world tips on how to take better pictures in low-lit places. Please do share. :D

by ingimg
ingenious imaging

Comments ( 8 )
  • Bing says:

    Great tips! I couldn’t agree more on your technique. Two more things that I like to do in low light settings with my DSLR – use a fast lens (f/1.4) and reduce the Exposure Compensation by 1 or 2 notch. The latter gives me more speed as a result, and thus more sharpness. The shot will seem under exposed, but I can “brighten” up the shot in Photoshop later.

    Now we need a separate discussion on how to get children to stay so obediently still like you got the girls to. THAT is my biggest problem. =)


  • vanillaseven says:

    Good advice! Another technique that can be very useful when there are nowhere to lean on is:
    1 Tuck your elbow to your front chest.
    2 Inhale and hold.
    3 Shoot with 2 sec timer.

    Bing, according to net review, today’s image stabilizer produces better quality than large aperture. I have to try this myself.

    Keep shooting guys! :)

  • Ratty says:

    This post came at just the right time for me. I was just thinking about how to improve my low light photography. This should get me off to a very good start.

  • rainfield says:

    Yes, the rest are easier to be achieved, except the little girl’s patience.

    You must have the magic to get her staying so steady for your picture.

  • June Zach says:

    Wow! Awesome tips!
    As a person understanding and learning photography, this is a sure help to me. Super thanks to you, ingimg. :D


  • lina says:

    Great tips! Thanks for sharing :)

  • lifeshighway says:

    Great tip on low light photography. I am always struggling with those types of situations. I have your tips in hand, and will begin improving my skills tonight.


  • ann says:

    Great advice. Now if I can only remember to adjust the settings on my camera…lol Too often I’m in too much of a hurry and don’t think about changing settings to match the lighting situation.

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