Low light DSLR shooting is fun, and extremely popular. Night time images have great ambience , something which is often absent in flat, daylight photos. Skillful low-light photos can look simply incredible and if youre looking for ways to make money from photography, a good option is specialising in canvass prints of dimly-lit night scenes. They are very popular.
Here we will focus on two things:
– Camera settings and skills required to take good images at night
– DSLR cameras best suited for low-light photography
1. Getting the exposure right: The basics
Every photographed scene has a correct exposure, meaning that the correct amount of light is allowed to fall on the digital camera sensor to capture the scene – i.e. without over-exposing the highlights to leave the picture too bright, or conversely, not letting in enought light to make the image too dark.
There are three camera settings controlling the amount of light let through to the sensor:
a. F-Stop / Aperture: Here is an inverse relationship: Low f-stop values mean more light is being let in
b. The shutter speed: At slower shutter speeds the sensor is exposed to light for a longer period of time
c. ISO: The higher the ISO value you choose, the more sensitive the sensor will be to light
Many combinations of these three settings will give you the correct exposure for any particular scene. Which combinations work? This is what your camera’s light meter is for – it will tell you how to combine them. For example, If you choose to fix the ISO and aperture, the camera’s light meter will determine which shutter speed to use. Or if you set the ISO and shutter speed, the aperture will be set accordingly.
In “auto” mode, everything is left over to the camera – i.e. it chooses all three elements usually aimed at enabling you to shoot sharp hand-held photos (so in darker scenes the camera will probably increase the ISO automatically).
Great night photos require a bit more skill and creative input – time to ditch the “auto” training wheels!
2.Night photography settings
Note: Using a flash is another way of taking nigh-time photos (albeit of a very different kind) – flash photography will be covered in a later article.
a. “Stopping down” with a good lens
This is a good option for street photographers who want to capture low-light (but perhaps not night-time) street photos.
You’ll need to open up the aperture to let in loads of light, so you need a lens with a wide maximum aperture – f/2.8 or even f/1.4. This will give you a nice shallow depth of field which adds dimension to your photos, whilst allowing you to shoot at decent shutter speeds. Slower shutter speeds increase the risk of blur.
This technique is especially important if your camera doesn’t deliver good quality at high ISO settings, so you’re forced to shoot at low ISO, whatever the scene. But even if your technology is up do date and your camera delivers noise-free images at high ISO settings, you may want to stick to low ISO and a wide aperture for creative reasons – i.e. getting a beautiful shallow depth of focus.
b. Setting up a tripod and exposing for longer
Consider this option if you want to take wider images of city scenes at night, where the scene is basically fixed and stationary, so you have time to set things up.
Use a mid-range aperture (say f/8) so you can get a good depth of field in order to keep close-up and far-away subjects sharp, use a tripod and let the camera choose an appropriate shutter speed. Light depending, it could be one second, several seconds or, for seriously low ISO settings, even several minutes.
Top tip: Just after sunset is a good time for night-time photos of lit-up buildings, when the sky still glows with a bit of natural light. Set your exposure by pointing the camera at the sky. Once you’ve got the reading, fix the setting and then set up the shot – you’ll get a really good exposure this way.
c. High ISO photos
Sometimes you’ll find yourself in a situation where you need to take clear photos of people in dark conditions, but where no flash is allowed, or where you want to capture the atmosphere in the room which will otherwise be destroyed by the use of a bright, ugly flash.
Increasing the ISO means that the cameras sensor becomes more sensitive to light. This will enable you to shoot hand-held shots even in relatively dark conditions. Why? You’ll be able to shoot at faster shutter speeds, which helps keep the images sharp.
But be warned: There is a price. Increasing the ISO means that you are more likely to get a noisy / grainy photo.
3. Low light DSLR camera options
Certain cameras give you more low-light flexibility because they perform well at high ISO settings – leaving you full creative control over which of the three above options you choose to make your photos.
Because DLSR cameras tend to have bigger sensors, they generally take better high-ISO photos than compact cameras with relatively small sensors (it’s a bit technical, but it’s based on the laws of physics and electronics). The latest DSLR cameras have full-frame sensors achieving superb high-ISO performance.
Some good options include
Canon EOS 500D
Canon EOS 550D
Canon EOS 7D
Canon EOS 5D MKII
Canon EOS 1D MKIV