In low light situations, the flash is usually your "go to" solution. But what if you can't use it? You may be in a "no flash" zone in a museum or aquarium, or it may not be socially appropriate for flash usage. Your best friend probably wouldn't appreciate you flashing away like paparazzi while she says her wedding vows. It is still possible to take a good picture in low light conditions without using your flash. It requires a bit more work on your part, but you will likely be pleased with the result. Flashes create unflattering light, flatten digital images, and cause reflections off glass display cases so it may not be the best solution anyway.
Turning Off the Flash
You may receive the instruction to go flashless, but be unsure how to disable it. If you are shooting in auto mode, the darn thing just pops up and fires away. To disable your flash, try switching over to Program (P) mode. You can still pop your flash up manually, but it won't come up on its own. If you are taking some shots at a friend's wedding with plenty of light available then just disable your flash and snap away. In program mode with adequate light, your camera can choose a combination of aperture and shutter speed that will work. If light is low, then you need to be more in control and choose some of the camera settings yourself.
Aperture is key when shooting in low light conditions. Remember, aperture is the hole that lets light into your camera. The larger the opening, the more light that comes in. If you don't have the aid of a flash in low light, you are going to want a large aperture. Large apertures correspond to low f-stop numbers. Check out the lens you are using and see what f-stops you have available. You may want to shoot wide open, which means choosing the lowest f-stop value you can for your particular lens. Because you are shooting with a large aperture (low f-stop), your pictures will have a shallow depth of field. This means you can focus on your subject, but the background will be blurred. You really can't afford to be too picky about the depth of field in this situation, because letting the maximum amount of light in is the priority. If you just can't get your subjects in focus with the largest aperture, you can try stopping your lens down a bit (choosing a smaller aperture), but you will sacrifice light coming in.
Here's a quick summary of what you actually need to do. Switch your camera to aperture priority and choose a small f-stop number. If you are using your kit lens, choose the largest aperture (smallest f-stop number) available.
Now that you have chosen an aperture that allows a lot of light in, it is time to adjust the ISO setting. ISO refers to the sensitivity to light of your camera's processor. It can be compared to film speeds back in the film day. The higher the ISO number, the greater the sensitivity, similar to a fast film speed. In low light conditions, you need a higher ISO allowing your camera to capture the image more quickly. Try bumping up your ISO and taking some shots. If your images are still blurry, bump it up some more. You can try increasing it as far as your particular camera allows….some go to an ISO of 6400+. You do need to realize that there is a drawback to boosting your ISO too high. With increased ISO, comes increased noise or graininess in your pictures. When you take pictures at high ISO, you need to plan on reducing that noise later in post processing.
Shutter speed is just what it sounds like; the amount of time your shutter is actually open for light to come in. If you are in a low light situation, then you want a slower shutter speed. The drawback is camera shake, which results in blur. It is hard to hold perfectly still while taking pictures and with a slow shutter speed those little wiggles will result in big time blur. A general rule is that your shutter speed needs to be at least the inverse of your lens focal length. So, for example if you are shooting with an 85 mm lens, you would need at least a 1/85 shutter speed to get a clear picture. You may find that you need a shutter speed even quicker than that to avoid blur. Using a tripod is not always practical but allows you to shoot at much slower shutter speeds and maintain sharpness. For hand held photos you can try bracing yourself against something and taking in a breath and holding it while releasing the shutter.
Taking the Picture
If the light is quite low, try your maximum aperture with a moderate ISO first. In aperture priority mode, your camera will choose a shutter speed to correctly expose your picture. If you choose a large aperture and a medium ISO and still have blur, try bumping the ISO some more to allow for a quicker shutter speed. Shoot in the most stable manner possible to avoid camera shake. Trial and error is key!
The best item you can have in your camera bag for low light conditions (besides a flash) is a fast lens. Fast lenses can be very expensive! If you are budget conscious (and who isn't), consider a 50 mm prime lens. This lens has just one focal length of 50 mm, but a large aperture. Depending on how much you want to spend, you can get an f/1.4 or f/1.8. (The f/1.8 is much more economical and still a great lens!) This means that you have a maximum aperture of f/1.8, that's a large opening that allows lots of light in! This relatively inexpensive lens will rock your world if you are currently shooting with only your kit lens.
There are a few other things you can try to improve your low light, "flashless" photos. You can try shooting in RAW to give yourself more options in terms of exposure adjustment in post processing. You can also do simple things like boost the ambient light available to you. This obviously does not work in a museum setting, but in many cases you may be able to open a curtain or turn more lights on to improve your photo.
Shooting in ideal lighting conditions is always fun, but now is the time to embrace those more difficult, low light conditions. Don't let a "no flash" policy force you to put your camera away. You can make adjustments and still get a great picture. In fact, you may be surprised when your "flashless" photos turn out even better than your previous flash photography!
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