Understanding the Basics of Low Light Photography


There are times when you have to use a flash when shooting a wedding or portrait session. For example, if you are shooting outside and the sun has gone down completely, or if you are shooting inside with dim overhead lighting, a flash is a necessity. But whenever I can avoid it, I prefer taking advantage of natural light, even if it is waning in the half hour after sunset.

To get the most out of your camera, follow these guidelines:

Gear Does Matter

You simply can’t get a perfect shot in near-dark settings with a kit lens and cheap body. High quality gear is a must-have. You’ll need a camera body that will allow you to use a high ISO setting without significantly damaging the quality of the image, and you’re going to need a lens with a wide aperture to let in as much light as possible. I combine the Canon 5D MK III camera body with either the Canon 50 mm f/1.2 lens or the Canon 35 mm f/1.4 lens.


Keep Still

The tripod is a very helpful tool that helps you stay steady and shake free. The beauty of the tripod is that you can set your ISO and aperture wherever you want them to give you the highest image quality possible and a longer depth of field. You’ll be able to set your shutter speed as slow as you wish, allowing light in without camera shake. Be conscious, however, that any moving subject in your frame will be blurred.

If you don’t have a tripod, or if you are rushed and don’t have enough time to set one up, you can stand with both feet firmly planted on the ground with elbows tucked into your sides (or better yet, crouch into a tight ball) and hold your breath while shooting. Set your ISO high and take several shots in a row on continuous mode to catch one that will be sharp. I usually only use this technique at dawn or dusk and with a shutter speed no slower than 1/15 of a second.


Mind Your ISO

A higher ISO means your camera is able to capture more light. Go ahead and crank it up, but not so much that the image will be pixilated and noisy. However, you don’t want to go too high if you are concerned about quality. I generally try not to shoot beyond ISO 2000, and only do so when absolutely necessary, but cameras are advancing each year to allow better quality images at higher ISO settings.

Shutter Speed is Everything

Shutter speed stops motion. It also determines the amount of light you can capture in your frame. Doing both is not always possible without a flash. But when you’re working with enough natural light and don’t need a flash, you generally don’t want to use a slower shutter speed than the millimeter of your lens. For example, if you are using a 100 mm lens, you need to use a minimal shutter speed of 100. If you want to stop motion with any lens, you need your shutter speed to be at least 250. When using a shutter speed slower than the mm of my lens, I resort to the tripod or “holding my breath” technique mentioned earlier.


Use Remote Flashes and/or Reflectors to Create Fill Light from an Angle

You will not always achieve the look you’re going for without a flash. Working with off-camera lights takes practice, but once you get the hang of it, you’ll love knowing how to handle any lighting situation. The simplest solution is to put your external flash on the shoe mount on top of your camera.

I rarely point the flash directly on my subject. Instead, I bounce the light off a ceiling or wall for a softer, less harsh look. You may choose to place a diffuser on your flash for a softer look, or bounce the light off a white card that you strap to the flash. Some flashes come with a white card built in.

Once you’ve gotten the hang of using your camera’s external flash, you can purchase multiple flashes and experiment with an off-camera shoe cord or remote system like those offered by PocketWizard.

I hope this helps you feel more comfortable working in low light conditions. As with anything else, practice makes perfect!

Hunter McRae’s photography career has taken her around the world, with projects from China to South Africa. Now a full-time wedding photographer in Charleston, S.C., Hunter frequently shares tips and insight in articles and photo posts forĀ BorrowLenses.com.



  1. Jim says

    “I combine the Canon 5D MK III camera body with either the Canon 50 mm f/1.2 lens or the Canon 35 mm f/1.4 lens.”

    Really??? It only takes 4-5 thousand dollars worth of equipment to get a good low light shot? What a disappointing comment from someone writing to a wide audience. Any idiot can take a good low light shot with a camera body and lens combination that costs 4-5 thousand dollars. How about offering a reasonably lower priced option that can still obtain very good images? There are several out there.

    Thanks for an article full of nothing

  2. Tom says

    Jim: aka Mr Nasty
    Everything is relative. The principles are the same no matter what your equipment. For example, if your “thing” is sports/action then high iso won’t matter as much as the image per se. However if you are into more deliberate images, then a prime lens will offer a faster lens for less money than an equivalent zoom. JUDICIAL use of your resources in tool selection, paying attention to the objectives described in the article will move you forward. If, however, you already know everything, why bother reading the article, unless you simply need to rant.

    One aspect of my personal philosophy includes the idea that every situation I encounter offers me the opportunity to learn something. EVERY TIME! An open mind is a receptive mind.