Photo Tip Friday: Shooting in Low Light, Part 1

by Mary Denman
Twitter: @MaryDenman

Today's tip is about taking shots in dim lighting.

This week is Part 1 and we're going to cover photography in an outdoor setting.
Next week in Part 2, we'll cover indoor shots.

Taking photographs in low light can be challenging. We've all taken a shot in a low light situation, thinking it would be okay. But after you looked at the shot, it was too dark to be worth much.

So then you turned on the flash.

Either it didn't help at all (because the subject matter was too far away) or it washed out the shot (because the subject matter was too close).

And, you came away disappointed. Well, let's try and remedy that.

A quick reminder.

Time Value        = how long the shutter is open to let light in
Aperture Value = what size the aperture (shutter) is: 
                                f/5.6 lets in more light, f/22 lets in less
ISO                    = "speed" of the film: sunlight uses 100 
                                                              candlelight uses 1600 or higher

Let's go over some photos. You'll notice I put the Time, Aperture Value (Av) and ISO on each photograph. This is to help you learn these terms so you can start to experiment on your own!

Mary Denman Photography
Here's a nice, warm fire. Flames are never the same in any picture. Writers say they dance for a reason.

The flash wouldn't have resulted in the warm red and orange tones you see here. So I held the camera for 1/4 of a second. If you look closely, it's not crystal clear. But for me for this shot, that's okay. This is a "family" shot.

Mary Denman Photography

We were sitting around the fire with our kids. 

Notice the difference in the ISO I used in this particular shot? When I was focusing in tight on the flames in the picture above, I used a lower ISO of 200 because fire burns so bright.

But in the second shot, I used a faster ISO of 800.

Why? I had to take into account both the very intense light of the flames and the reflected light on my son's face.

Digital gives you a great chance to learn quickly!

Mary Denman Photography
Okay. I love storms. I've wanted to get a shot of lightning for quite a while. 

Last summer, we had a massive storm come through and I took this shot from my front door. On a tripod. Even so, I, my lens and my foyer ended up soaked. But it was worth it.  

This shot required a lot of patience. Lightning is so fast and bright, that you can't just "snap" a shot when you see it. Notice I left the shutter open for 4 seconds. Knowing I had to leave it open for so long, I m
ade the Aperture f/22 which means the shutter opening is smaller and lets in less light. 

I played around until I found that ISO 1600 worked well. 

Mary's Cheat Sheet: Take more than one shot! 

Please know that I probably took 30 photos during that storm to get 4 or 5 that were really good. Digital is free for taking shots, so take plenty, sort out later! 
Mary Denman Photography

This is an urban, nighttime photograph. 

The sun had been below the horizon for a while. But the city lights and the spot lights on the falls made for a tricky picture situation. And, I wanted the water to be milky which meant I had to leave the shutter open longer.

I didn't have my tripod, so I used the rail of the bridge as my stabilizer. 

I even used the railing as my "tripod" to get this picture of the bridge itself. 

Notice the people on the bridge are a little blurry? That's because of how long the shutter was open. I like the sense of movement they bring to the photo. 

Remember for low light, outside shots, you'll need to play with your settings to get the right combination. Go outside tonight if you have time and play around with your camera. Experience is the best teacher. 

OVERALL TIP: In low light situations, you need to consider which way to handle the light.
1) Leave the shutter open for longer to allow more light in = slower Tv 
2) Open up the aperture for allowing more light in = Av f/4 (for example)
3) Increase the ISO on your camera so it needs less light= 800 or 1600 

Then, when you want to know what to do when you see a gorgeous sunset, or fireworks, you'll be better prepared.

FOR BLOGGERS: Nighttime or low light shots can be very powerful. Look at the effect of the fire shots. The flames shine brightly in the dark. That's what your writing can do. It can illuminate the darkness. Bring light or hope to someone in a dark time. How does your blog affect others? Help them? Brighten their lives?

FOR CELL PHONE USERS: If you focus on the actually flames, the part around it will be darker, unless you're lucky enough to have a very current cell phone. If you focus beside the light, the light part may have a little less detail. Take a few shots and play around with your phone. 

Hope this tip helps! 

Keep on clicking.


TWEETABLE: PhotographyTips Learn how to take great shots in low light (click to tweet)


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  1. Great post, Mary! One day I hope to get a "real" camera but until then I'll use my new phone when it arrives. I decided to go with the 6 plus just to get the better camera.:)

    1. That's awesome Cathy! I though about the plus, but went with the 6. That camera was very, very tempting....

      Thanks for dropping by!

  2. I just have my camera phone, so I can't do too much; but I have learned how to lighten photos on the computer after they come out too dark.

    1. I'm so glad can do that! What phone do you have Joyce?

  3. Hi Mary, Thanks for sharing your photo technique tips on Friday Feature Linky Party this week. I currently use my Iphone for all my photos. I admire you for your photography skills, I dont have the patients to learn all of the techniques, Im afraid to say, I have a point and shoot technique. I take 2 or 3 pics to make sure one turns out, lol, but it serves me ok. And I like Joyce have learned how to manipulate my photos to make them work for me.

    Have a great weekend, karren