"How do I shoot a pic in a dark area with minimal light without using a flash/flashlight and without camera shake?" is one of my most commonly asked questions. In this article, I'll show you a few ways you can do it.
It’s a situation I’m in all the time as a photographer. It’s late at night, and I want to take a picture of something, but I don’t want it to look unnatural due to the brightness of my flash. I also don’t want it to be blurry from camera shake if I don’t use a flash. Because my camera doesn't work as well with minimal light, it's usually very hard to take a fantastic photo. No matter what I do, it seems like I just can’t seem to find the right set of settings. Have you ever experienced this? Do you know what I’m talking about?
John Benson's photo above uses most of the tips I suggest below. However, it's still not perfect as I'll explain below. The EXIF details for the shot are: Shutter Speed 1/40sec; Aperture F4; ISO 6400.
The easiest way to make sure your night shots work fantastically is to use the flash.
Cameras do wonderfully at shooting images in low light, but they need some help. When they sense there isn't enough light available, they either turn on the flash to flood the scene with lots of light, or they open the shutter for longer to allow more light on the sensor.
If we disable flash because we don't like the way the flash overpowers images, or our subject is too far from us for the flash to reach, the camera has no option but to leave the shutter open for longer. And that can make your images blurry.
And that's our conundrum. With no flash, we can't use our camera's main inbuilt remedy for low light images.
What's required is compromise. If you're not willing to (or can't) compromise on flash, you must compromise elsewhere. There's no magic “trick” to make your photo work without sacrificing something.
Here are some of the sacrifices you can make, what they entail for the photo you’re taking, and why they aren’t a perfect solution (sadly there isn’t one).
Bring a tripod
This seems to be the simplest and most straightforward answer. It doesn’t involve using a flash, and it can result in some very natural looking photos. When your camera is resting on a tripod, it isn’t shaking as you take the picture. You can open the shutter as long as you want and collect as much natural light as you need to give yourself a nice looking exposure.
But tripods aren’t the perfect solution. What if the thing you’re photographing is moving? Even if your camera is sitting completely still on a tripod, anything in front of you that’s moving will still be blurred in the final photo. I’m not saying you can’t make it work. I’ve seen some gorgeous candle light portraits taken without a flash. It’s just that you’ll need a lot of cooperation from your subjects to pull it off.
With tripods, you sacrifice some personal freedom as well. It’s no fun lugging around a nice tripod. It’s just more weight to carry. On top of that, there’s setup time. All of this is okay if you’re doing a serious shoot. But a casual party is not the right place for it. People will be moving around, and most of them will be too impatient to work with you and make the shot right.
John's photo at the top was likely taken with a tripod. A shutter speed of 1/40 was fast enough to take the shot hand-held if you kept your hands still, but it's unlikely as the mic in the shot is very sharp. Even with that, his subject moved slightly while the shot was being taken. See the closeup of her hands under the Aperture section below and you'll see they are blurry. This is motion blur caused by her hands moving while the shutter was open.
Increase your ISO Speed
You could also increase your camera’s ISO speed setting to the maximum it will allow. You won’t need to use a flash, but you will probably need to hold your camera very still or balance it on something while you’re taking the actual shot. An increased ISO speed makes your camera more sensitive to light, which means you can use a somewhat faster shutter speed in low light situations.
Is it an ideal solution? Far from it. As you increase your ISO speed, your images become more grainy, which can either be a good or bad thing. If you’re an optimist, it’s a cool looking artsy sort of effect. If you’re a pessimist, it’s an overall reduction of image quality. I won’t tell you which side of the fence I sit on. I just don’t think it’s perfect.
Plus, it doesn’t improve your situation that much. I still run into camera shake problems, even when I’m on the highest possible ISO setting my camera offers. Of course, I’m usually trying to shoot in very low light. I can see how an ISO speed change might help you out in moderate light. You might not need a tripod then, especially if you combine it with the next thing.
John's camera allowed him to use a very high ISO value of 6400. This is a higher number than most cameras will let you go, but it also adds noise. Below is a portion of the image at the original size. Notice the blotches in the singer's skin. That's the noise.
Use a very wide aperture
Light travels through the aperture of your camera to get to the image plane where the image sensor is conveniently located. The bigger the hole, the more light you’re allowing in. If you have a lens with a very wide aperture (that's a low F-number like F4 or lower), you can take clear pictures in low light situations without using a tripod or a flash.
It does work, but it comes with its own limitations. Some of you are aware that as you increase the size of the aperture (decrease the F-number), you lose out on depth-of-field. That’s the amount of foreground or background in-focus. So, if you were to use an aperture big enough to avoid camera shake and use of flash indoors, you would probably lose a lot of depth - a lot of your image will be out of focus.
Now that’s okay if you’re just trying to take portraits. Actually, that’s exactly the sort of effect you want. But if you want the background to be sharp, it’s going to be a problem. Sometimes you can lose so much depth of field that parts of a face remain out-of-focus. Cool effect or loss in quality? I’ll let you decide.
I don’t like this option because it requires you to purchase more equipment. Lenses with very big apertures come at a premium, especially if you want to zoom with them. That’s another limitation this approach can place on you. To get an affordable wide aperture lens, you usually have to sacrifice the ability to zoom.
John Benson's image of the singer above suffers from a shallow depth-of-field. The microphone and singer's head are correctly in focus, but look at her clothes in the below image. They're quite out of focus. That's because her clothes are not at the same focus plane as her face. The wide aperture (F4) helped keep the shutter time short, but meant some of the image was out of focus.
Get a nicer flash and/or bounce it off the walls
I know this answer sort of betrays the spirit of the question, but this is a legitimate solution. The reason you probably don’t want to use flash is because most beginners use flash in a harsh and direct way. They shoot it straight at their subjects. When you avoid shining a flash directly on your subject, and you opt to illuminate them with light reflected off the walls, you get a much more natural looking result.
It helps to get a flash that mounts on the top of your camera (the hotshoe) and swivels around. Once it you get it working, it’s up to you to experiment with it. Try turning the flash all the way around and aiming at the ceiling. Take a picture of your subject, and pay attention to where the shadows fall. It takes a bit of adjusting, but with time and practice, you’ll learn how to bounce the flash correctly and get rid of weird looking shadows.
Does this method involve some kind of sacrifice. Yes. Definitely. Once again, you’ll probably have to purchase more equipment. Good flashes are not cheap. I once purchased a cheap one and found it was not compatible with my camera. What a bummer. In some cases, you’ll need to upgrade your camera. Yet another expense.
But not all is lost. I’ve seen some rather effective do-it-yourself flash bouncing tutorials using household materials. You use the flash that comes with your camera, bounce it off a card, which then bounces off the walls and onto your subject. If you get the angles right, it can look pretty professional.
I know I probably didn’t give you the answer you’re looking for. There just isn’t one. You can’t eat your cake and still have it. Or as I like to say, you can’t make light materialize out of thin air.
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