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Low Light Photography

Photographing during low light conditions (on a dark, grey day, or at night, or under any other circumstances that may present themselves such as when caving or photographing a night time concert) is exceptionally challenging. As you probably understand the basis of photography is using light to create an image, be it with traditional wet film or with a more modern photo sensor in a DSLR camera. The absence of light presents a unique set of challenges that need to be overcome before you can take images correctly. Low light photography is very unforgiving; unlike during the day or in conditions of bright light where photographs will range from superb to average, during low light conditions you will produce image after image all of which will be bad unless you are used to photographing with little light available.

Creativity is the key to low light photography; in the vast majority of circumstances there will be light available to use to take photographs no matter how dark it may appear to you. You simply have to learn how to utilise this light for maximum effect when taking your shots. The most important thing for low light photography is that you will have to be intimately familiar with your camera equipment. If you are not you will be unable to successfully shoot during low light conditions. Many DSLR's come with a night setting but this is usually insufficient for true low light and night time photography so can be effectively discarded as a means of achieving that perfect low light photograph. If you wish to do well when there is little ambient light available then you will have to learn about aperture and shutter speed controls, white balance, ISO adjustment, bulb mode and other features and how they all effect one another in your finished photographs. Use of a tripod (or discovering some other inventive way to keep your camera steady) is another essential since you will be using very long shutter speeds at times.

A word on camera settings. You will find that settings that only had a subtle effect on your photographs during daytime conditions will effect the image greatly during low light photography sessions. Setting the correct ISO is particularly important; since ISO determines how sensitive your camera is to light you will be using a high ISO, but also trying to balance the ISO correctly so you do not get “grainy” pictures (a side effect of shooting with a high ISO). You will also have to balance your ISO with your shutter speed setting. It goes without saying that the longer your shutter stays open the more light it lets in to the sensor, however if you let too much light in it will completely wash out your image. Finally you will have to balance both your ISO and shutter speed with your aperture setting. A high F-stop number will result in a small aperture, and less light getting through, however a low F-stop number will result in a large aperture with more light getting through to the sensor. Be aware however that your aperture setting will also effect your depth of field, and if you have a narrow aperture you will find foreground objects blurry. It is up to you to work within the confines of your camera equipment and practice as much as possible, eventually setting your camera will become second nature and you will instinctively know what settings to use under certain conditions depending on how low the light level actually is and what you are attempting to take a photograph of.

You will often find that during low light conditions your autofocus will not function correctly, so you will have to get to grips with manual focus in many circumstances. This is because there is simply not enough light available for the camera to adjust the focus itself to any degree of accuracy for high quality photographs. Many cameras contain some useful features that will help with low light photography, if your DSLR has exposure compensation you should take advantage of it. It will allow you to adjust the exposure (a combination of aperture, ISO and shutter speed) after you have set up your camera to take a shot. Many cameras also feature a bracketing mode that will take repeat photographs but manually adjust the exposure level by a small amount each time in the hope that of a sequence of three or five images one will turn out to be perfect. With digital storage being so cheap there is no excuse not to fully exploit this useful feature. When composing your images you should try and be creative as possible at night, with a little bit of thought you can create some wonderful abstractions, by adjusting your settings constantly and trying out new techniques you will eventually become familiar with working in low light environments and produce image after image that are all of a very high quality.