How To Take Better Photos at Night

by Jon on February 1, 2011

Night shots can be tricky for lots of reasons: not enough light to get a good capture, people in back disappearing into the gloom, flash ineffective because the subjects are too far away, or working too well making everyone washed out or red-eyed.

If you’ve ever experienced these and other joys of low light photography, this one simple rule will make your life a lot easier:

Turn off your flash.

It’s not more complicated than that. If you want to take candid party shots of everyone in groups, mostly drunk and laughing like hyenas, take your compact camera instead, and shoot for the moon. If you want to take great shots with your dSLR though, it’s time to learn how to do it without the aid of a flash. Why?

  • Low-light pictures look cool. When you get it right, the tones and colours of light show up naturally. The mood and ambience of a scene is reproduced in your photo. This is especially great in expensive restaurants – they pay millions for the space, you get to steal it as part of your art.
  • Flash photography is for product shots and supermodels. If you’re shooting products professionally, you probably already know more than I do. If you have the option to shoot supermodels you shouldn’t even be here.
  • A flash pretty much ruins everything. Unless you’re using a pro setup specifically designed for flash photography, a flash will blanket your subjects in an evenly-distributed wash roughly equal to the intensity of one million suns. People will become disoriented. If they are drinking, some may fall down. This makes for funny pictures, but not usually good ones.
  • You can shoot where you aren’t supposed to shoot. Museums, churches and concerts come to mind – you can sneak photos without degrading the pigments in famous paintings, offending foreign deities or causing rockstars to set themselves on fire, all while security guards are none the wiser. And in my experience, they often don’t care if you’re shooting – as long as you don’t use a flash.
  • You’ll learn to be more sensitive to light. No, not like owls or World of Warcraft players. Shooting sans flash means paying attention to the light in a scene and working with what’s there to get great photos. You’ll learn to understand and appreciate light in a whole new way.

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Learning to take good pictures in low light is a great gateway to shooting without the safety blanket of the auto modes – most dSLRs, if you switch to auto, will insist on using your built-in flash. We don’t want that. When I’m shooting in low light, these are the steps I take, in order of priority:

  1. Use a fast lens. The faster your lens, the better shots you’ll get in low light (if you’re not 100% clear on what ‘fast’ means in this context, check this out.) While the vast majority of new dSLR users will happily go on using the kit lens their camera shipped with, the real truth is that your dSLR desperately wants to make friends with a 50mm prime (lots more about this in our lens buying guide.) Both Canon and Nikon have excellent f/1.4 50mm lenses that are super fast and won’t cost you this month’s rent money.*
  2. Use the lowest f-stop possible. In aperture-priority mode, using the lowest f-stop gives you the biggest aperture, meaning more light makes it to the sensor. The faster your lens, the lower you can go. Don’t forget that this will have an effect on depth of field.
  3. Use a longer shutter speed. Not so useful when shooting people, such as at a party or restaurant, but if the subject is static (eg. a city at night) or a long shutter is desirable, set up a tripod and try taking a long exposure.
  4. Bump up the ISO. ISO is a measure of the sensitivity of the sensor in your camera. Higher ISO means more sensitivity, means more light gets captured – a useful little trick in low-light situations. There’s a trade-off though: more sensitivity means more grain or noise, just like with old-school camera film, so unless you like the grainy look, the trick is to find the right balance. If your camera has an auto ISO mode, it’ll help you find the optimum ISO level. In any case, lots of grain is not always a bad thing.
  5. Clean up the noise in post. If things get out of hand, most post-production software has a noise-reduction feature that’ll help clear up the extra grain you acquired getting the shot. Adobe Lightroom is particularly adept at this.

The truth is, your flash is not usually your friend: more often than not it’s a cheat that can suck the finesse out of your photos. Next time you have a chance to shoot in the dusk or dark, stay out of auto mode – start with aperture priority, bump up your ISO, and see where the evening takes you.

* Note: if you live on a beach in Thailand, your new 50mm may cost you many times this month’s rent money.

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