If you were looking for this post on the Retrograde Photography website, I’ve combined the two sites into one. All content from Retrograde is now here. Enjoy!
When I asked people what they struggle with most when taking photographs in low light, the biggest issues are shaky/blurry photos (ably demonstrated by the header image above!), too much noise/grain and photos that are too dark. Sometimes, this is down to your hardware; other times, it’s just not quite knowing what to do with your camera. To improve your photography, the first step is to start understanding why your photos aren’t working so well in the first place.
So, I’ve put together a few common reasons why you might not be getting the photos you want. Have a read and see if you can identify what problems you have and where you could be looking to improve.
1. The sensor in your camera's too small
Every time we go shopping for a camera or smartphone, we’re sold on the megapixel (MP) count of the camera’s sensor. A 24 MP sensor has 24 million pixels on it. Loadsa pixels! That’s got to be better than 20 MP, or 16 MP, right?
Not always, I’m afraid, because not all pixels are created equal.
Each pixel on your sensor captures light when you press the shutter button on the camera. Much like putting a bucket out in the rain to capture rainwater. Different cameras have different sensor sizes and so the physical size of the pixels themselves can vary (think small buckets and big buckets).
The graphic below has a few of the more common sensor sizes. Small sensors, such as those found in mobile phones and some cameras, are tiny in comparison to full-frame sensors and APS-C sensors.
To give you a real-life comparison, my mobile phone, a Sony Xperia XZ has a 23 MP 1/2.33-inch sensor. My Fujfilm camera has a 24 MP APS-C sensor. Just going on pixel count alone, you’d think they should fare quite equally in low light. However, when you compare the sizes of the two sensors, it becomes obvious that the pixels on my phone’s sensor have to be much smaller than on the Fujifilm to fit in. Smaller pixels can’t capture as much light as larger ones, just like smaller buckets can’t hold as much rain.
This is not usually a problem in good light. But when light’s at a premium, you need bigger light buckets to capture what light’s available. If you have a smaller sensor, you’re probably better off with a lower pixel count, as the pixels themselves will be bigger and will capture more light.
If you’re not sure what sensor size you have in your camera, just Google your camera’s make and model + ‘sensor size’, and you should be able to find it.
2. You're not taking photos in the RAW file format
We all know about JPGs; they’re picture files. We share them on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and it’s how our photos come out of our mobile phones.
Many cameras, however, can take photos in the RAW file format as well as JPG. RAW is an image file format, just like JPG, but has a significant difference.
JPG is a compressed file format, also known as a ‘lossy’ format. This is because the data are compressed to make a smaller file. Because of the compression, some of the original information collected by the sensor is lost.
RAW files are the opposite. They contain literally all the raw data your camera has captured; there is more information in the file to start with. Unfortunately, this means bigger file sizes, plus the photos have to be processed before printing or sharing online. However, because there’s more data, you can retrieve more detail from darker areas during processing than you can with JPG. This can be a godsend when dealing with low light.
Some cameras, unfortunately, don’t have the ability to shoot in RAW. But, have a look and see if you can. It’ll be in the menu settings under something like ‘image size’ or ‘image quality’. If you like having JPGs to hand, set it to shoot in both RAW and JPG. If your JPGs come out too dark or lacking in detail, you’ll have the RAW file there to work with instead. Once you’ve processed the RAW file, save it out as a new JPG, which you can then print or share.
3. Your shutter speed's too slow
When you use your camera on automatic mode, or on aperture priority or shutter priority, you’re allowing the camera to make decisions for you. This can be just fine when the light’s good, but when the light’s low, your camera doesn’t always make the right decision for you.
Your shutter speed is, simply put, how long your sensor is exposed for when taking a photo. This is usually measured in seconds or fractions of a second. Longer shutter speeds allow more light to be collected in your pixels (like leaving your bucket out in the rain for longer to collect more water). Therefore, longer shutters speeds are better in low light.
If you’re on automatic mode or aperture priority, the camera’s going to choose your shutter speed. What your camera’s not going to take into account when making this decision, however, is whether you’re holding your camera or it’s mounted on a tripod.
When you’re using a tripod, you can go as slow as you like. Some astrophotographers, for example, will use shutter speeds of an hour or more to create those lovely star-trail photos you see online. But, when you’re holding your camera, even the steadiest hand in the world can only go so slow before blurriness from hand-shake becomes a problem.
And this is why so many people come home from museum visits with slightly blurry photos.
If you have this problem, try using your camera on shutter priority mode or on manual, and experiment with different shutter speeds to see how slow you can go before hand-shake becomes a problem. That way, when you’re next in low light, you can make sure you don’t go slower than this minimum speed.
4. Your aperture isn't wide enough
Every lens has an aperture. There’s a set of circular blades inside the lens with an opening (the aperture) that can open and close, much like the iris in your eye. You might know it as the ‘f-stop’.
To state the obvious, the wider the aperture, the more light you’ll let onto your sensor (in the same way that your pupils dilate in the dark). So it makes sense to open your aperture right up in low light (just be aware that the f-stop scale goes in what feels like reverse for aperture: smaller numbers = wider aperture).
However, different lenses have different maximum apertures. The worst offenders are often the kit lenses that come bundled with your mirrorless or DSLR camera.
To give you a sense of scale, f/22 is a very narrow aperture. Lenses classed as ‘fast’, i.e. very wide apertures, will have a maximum of f/2.8 or less. I have lenses with a maximum of f/1.4 which are fantastic for low light. Many kit lenses and other zoom lenses don’t go wider than around f/3.5, which means you’ll have to slow down your shutter speed and/or crank up the ISO to get a well-exposed photo in low light.
The trade-off with a wide aperture, however, is that you’ll have a narrow depth-of-field. Simply put, this means that not so much of your photo will be in focus; think of those portraits you see where the person’s face is in focus, but the background is pleasantly blurry.
5. Your camera's a few years old and doesn't handle ISO well
ISO is a measure of the sensitivity of your sensor, and is found in digital cameras only (it’s a little like the ASA of film in analogue cameras). When you increase the ISO in your camera, it doesn’t change the amount of light hitting your sensor; rather, it amplifies what’s already there (like plugging a guitar into an amp). This, unfortunately, amplifies everything, including what’s known as ‘random fluctuations’ in the photo – which you might know as ‘noise’. Therefore, higher ISO = more noise.
ISO capability is something that digital camera manufacturers having put a lot of work into in the last few years. Cameras released since around 2014-ish deal with higher ISO much better than older ones. If your camera’s a little older and you come back with grainy pictures with little coloured flecks, that’s your camera not dealing well with higher ISOs.
How can you improve your low-light photography?
It depends, really, on what problems you’re experiencing. Some of the issues, such as small sensors, an inability to shoot in RAW and owning an older camera can really only be cured by an equipment upgrade. If your lens doesn’t have a wide-enough aperture, consider adding to your lens collection. Look at fixed lenses (lenses that don’t zoom); they often have much wider maximum apertures than zoom lenses. Buying better lenses can often offset the need to upgrade the actual camera, and can be a much cheaper option.
If you can’t afford new equipment, start learning how to use your camera on manual mode to have more control over the photos you take. Your pictures may not be perfect, but you decide which settings will be best, not the camera. Even if your camera’s not what you want it to be, by taking control, you will find you start taking better photos.
If you’re struggling with something like shutter speed, learning to take your camera off automatic mode and having more control over the settings can get you out of a fix.
If you’ve never used RAW before, give it a try. You’ll need a few basic processing skills and software that can deal with RAW. However, you don’t need to be a Photoshop maestro to get your photos looking great. Have a look around on Google for software, if you don’t already have software such as Lightroom, Photoshop or Capture One. Many camera manufacturers have their own free software for processing RAW files. It may not be feature-rich, but it’ll get you started (once you start getting the hang of processing photos, it can be really fun!).
The thing to remember with low-light is that when you can’t get extra help from a tripod or external lighting, there’s often a trade-off. You may need have your ISO a little higher and have a bit of grain in your photo. You may need a wider aperture and have less of the photo in focus. But, selective focus and a bit of grain, in my opinion, is better than shaky, blurry photos. Much better.
What do you struggle with when taking photos in low light? Me, it’s often shutter speed; with my dyspraxia, I don’t have a particularly steady hand, so I have to increase my ISO and have wide apertures to compensate. Share your problems or ask my advice in the comments below.
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