Photo Tips

Photo Tips for Shooting in Low Light!

Me Ra Koh

I’d like to share some tips and an 8 step exercise for shooting in low light using a beautiful wedding we shot in NY at the Sagamore.

Set the Scene…

There were two images I thought you might enjoy talking about. Both images were taken in extremely low lighting. Shades were drawn to the one- windowed room. Rain beat the window to make sure we knew it was a down pour. The main source of light was a lamp, and lamp light tends to cast a yellow glow on everything. Have you ever witnessed the yellow glow come up in your photos? If so, you know what I mean, huh!

What do you do when shooting in low light? ย The obvious is to think about the technical factors. Do I pop my flash? But the flash creates a different look all together. And the technical questions go on. Addressing the technical issues makes the most important question “What is the story of this moment?” addressed after the fact, and sometimes never at all.

For me the story of an image is every thing. If the image isn’t technically perfect it doesn’t matter. What matters is I served the viewer in effectively communicating the story. But I have to know the story, find the hidden stories, for my viewer to ever follow.

The story of this brief pre-ceremony moment was an old world, timeless experience that every bride feels. Shachar was waiting for the final word that said, “Okay. It’s time to walk down the aisle.” The anticipation of a bride, the one (often two) last looks in the mirror, the fresh fluffing of the veil, the nervous look at her dad, the deep exhale with eyes closed… These are the timeless steps every bride acts on in the last few minutes while waiting to walk down the aisle. The story of how beautiful, how timeless, how innocent, this moment is…this was the story I wanted to capture for Shachar.

Thinking through the story first means not holding the camera up to my eye, but letting the camera rest as I look at the situation, the subtle dynamics unfolding all around me. And then when I see that shimmer, the shimmer of an existing story, then I lift up the camera and get the shots.

This is when the technical pieces comes into play.

Now that I have my story, how do I capture it?

1. I don’t want to pop my flash so I can capture ambient lighting.

2. I know the lamp light is going to make Shachar more golden colored than I prefer, but that’s okay b/c of Step 3.

3. Shoot the image in color and later turn into BW so I can help reemphasize the old world look of the image with BW toning.

4. Meter on Shachar and use the lamp’s light to add drama and shadows to the image.

5. If I’m not going to pop a flash, I need to bump up my ISO for enough light.

Here are two images that describe the story of that pre-ceremony moment.

Me Ra Koh shares her photo tips for shooting in low light with these gorgeous wedding photos.

It’s time. Shachar’s sister helping her fluff the veil, moments before walking down the aisle.

Me Ra Koh shares her photo tips for shooting in low light with these gorgeous wedding photos.

For all my Photo Recipe lovers, here are both recipes for shooting in low light;

Image #1 of Shachar by herself:

Aperture/Fstop was 2.8. Shutter Speed was 1/200 or 200th of a second. ISO was all the way up to 4000. For being at 4000 ISO, doesn’t the image look pretty grain free? The Sony DSLR-Alpha 900 is the reason why. I also shot this image at 50mm.

Image #2 of Shachar’s sister fluffing her veil:

Aperture/Fstop was down to 1.7. I focused on Shachar’s eyes. The eyes are often the most important focal point, especially when using super low fstops. The Shutter Sped was 1/160 or 160th of a second. ISO was again at 4000. This was also shot with the Sony DSLR-Alpha 900. And I used the 85mm, f1.4 Carl Zeiss lens. (my favorite lens right now)

Metering is a big part of how these images become possible. And as our CONFIDENCE workshop ladies know, metering is not so bad after all. In fact, it’s quite easy. It just depends on the teacher. ๐Ÿ™‚

8 Step Exercise for Shooting in Low Light:

1. How well do you know your camera’s limitations? How high can you go in your ISO before the image suffers in quality? Is it 800, 1600, 4000, 6500? Experiment with taking pictures at these different ISO settings so you can see how far your camera will go.

2. Set up a low lit situation. Don’t wait for it to come to you and catch you off guard. Practice now so you’re ready for the real thing!

3. Put your camera in Manual mode. (I know. I said the M word but go with me on this. :))

4. Go as low as possible in your fstop. If you can’t zoom in on an object and go lower than 3.5-5.6, consider taking our workshop so you can learn why a different lens would suit you better. For instance, the 50mm fixed lens will often go below a 2.0 fstop. It might be worth the $100 investment.

5. Slow your Shutter Speed down as low as possible without getting motion blur from hand holding the camera. If you have one of the Sony Alpha cameras, like the AWE-mazing Sony a7RIII, your lucky b/c you’ve got the built in Super Steady Shot feature which allows you to handhold the camera at 1/20th of a second! That’s craziness when most the world can’t go under 1/60th of a second. If you don’t have the Sony Alphas or an expensive Image Stabilizer lens, your going to need to stay above 1/60th of a second. Any lower and your image won’t be sharp b/c of the motion it picks up in your hand.

6. Now that your aperture is wide open and shutter speed is slow, take a picture of an object or person in the low lighting you’ve set up. Have them stand next to the lamp like Shachar happened to be.

7. Is the image too dark or too bright? If it’s too dark, slow your Shutter Speed down more. Here is one process of elimination: If you’re already at 1/60th of a second bump up your ISO. If you can’t bump it up any more without the image quality suffering it may be time to upgrade the camera if shooting in low light is in your future.

8. If the image was to bright, easy fix. Just speed up your shutter speed a little. Go from 1/60th to 1/100th or 1/200th. See if that makes the image a little less bright.

9. And don’t look now b/c your pretty much metering, you just don’t know it. ๐Ÿ™‚

Now it’s your turn. Post a comment with questions or comments about today’s post topic. Was it helpful to hear what I’m thinking behind the scenes? What my settings are, etc? What are your thoughts after reading this? Or post your successful attempts at shooting in low light in our private Confidence Facebook group. ย Do share! Hearing from you helps me keep a good read on where you are all at and how I can continue to give to you.

Me Ra

p.s. A big thanks to Shachar for letting me use her as my beautiful example of shooting in low light.

For MORE Photo Exercises and Tips…

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  1. lora says:

    I have a canon 30d and 40d, when you say that noise may be a problem and you might need to upgrade, can you be more specific? I just don’t know at what point my camera becomes too grainy… so I try to stay at 800 or less. ๐Ÿ™‚ Thanks for these examples, love the recipes…you always amaze me with your pictures.

  2. lora says:

    ps, been in manual for the last month…getting good at it, and wow the difference it makes!

  3. Erin says:

    This is a great post! Thank you! It’s exactly the info I needed without being technical overload.

  4. michelle s. says:

    You are so generous for sharing these tips and recipes. One of the MANY reasons I come back to your blog every single day. ๐Ÿ™‚ Thanks Me Ra

  5. Love this post! Thank you Me Ra. I am trying to shoot manual and just not sure I am doinging everything right, but after you post seems like Ia m on the right track.
    Thanks, and gorgeous photos.

  6. Jo LeFlufy says:

    Hey Me Ra and Me Ra’s blog peeps! I just want to say that upgrading the camera (from say a Nikon D40 to a Nikon D700 or even a D200 or whatever camera you use’s equivalent) makes a huge difference in the amount of grain. I used to shoot with a D40 and thought it was great (when I used a tripod at low shutter speeds), but when I upgraded, it opened up a whole new world of photography for me. I can jack that baby up to an ISO of 6400 or higher and there is virtually NO grain. I used to hate shooting with a flash, but I had to with my D40, now I hardly ever use my flash, unless there is a really specific shot I’m aiming for and flash is needed to achieve it. And, low aperture lenses make a huge difference too. Thanks Me Ra, your blogs are always helpful and make me smile. Jo

  7. Kristin says:

    What a find! I stumbled on this blog the other day when i was searching “seattle blogs” (I am relocating from chicago). being an aspiring photographer i was so thrilled to find this site. Me Ra i love how you explain things so helpfully and conversationally, especially when it comes to manual shooting (something I have moved over to in the past few months). i have been visiting daily and plan to do so in the future. great post!

  8. Sharon says:

    I can’t wait to see more of this wedding!

    To all of you blog readers not shooting in manuel yet…

    If I can do it, YOU can do it!

    And when you do you will be amazed! Like tears-in- your-eyes-can’t-believe you took that photo- amazed!

    Get Beyond the Green Box or a book and just decide that you are going to do it! You won’t ever put your camera on auto again!

  9. Sarah says:

    These are gorgeous! I love the lighting from the lamp and I agree that a lot of times black and white lets you really feel the emotion. awesome.

  10. Sandy says:

    Me Ra you are a gem! thank you so much for sharing and explaining in terms I can understand. I haven’t tried manual yet! thank you again…and the photos are gorgeous.

  11. JaneB says:

    What beautiful pictures. I’m amazed at that ISO. I am lucky enough to have the Sony A700 and it certainly is a step up from the A100. I can happily shoot at ISO 800 now – maybe I should try to go even higher.

    One thing I wanted to say, is that when you talk about “is the picture too bright” you don’t mention the histogram. That’s what I’d use rather than trying to judge from the LCD. I don’t know if you’d agree.

  12. Jill says:

    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! Great post!

    Jill in AZ

  13. Christina says:

    Me Ra,
    Everything you said made perfect sense. Thank you for making it so easy to understand! I do have one quick question that I would love for you to cover in future posts. How do you do all this ‘figuring out’/metering when these priceless shots you want to get are quickly passing you by? I get so nervous whent the action is happening and by the time I get the correct exposure by looking at my LCD several times, the moment has passed and I have to re-meter. How do you correctly meter and still catch those priceless moments that are coming and going so quickly?
    Thanks for all you do Me Ra!

  14. What a wonderfully helpful post, I can’t wait to experiment!!

  15. Julie says:

    Thanks Me Ra for explaining in a way that others can understand. I would love to see more posts with specific recipes like this one.

  16. Me Ra Koh says:

    Great questions ladies, and I’m so glad you liked the post. Isn’t Shachar beautiful!

    If any of you own Canon equipment, the 5D or anything model higher, what’s your experience with ISO and how high you can go?

    In trying to figure out when to upgrade, I would think though how much you will be in low lighting situations where ambient light is important. If your new to weddings, hold off and invest your money in better lenses with better glass. That will allow you to shoot in low lighting much better too. After you have your arsenal of lenses, then I would upgrade to the new camera body.

    And how do I know what my settings should be in the moment of shooting? That’s what we do at the workshop friends! Teach you the answer to that question! It’s a whole weekend of answering all dynamics of that question.

    xoxo, Me Ra

    p.s. See you tomorrow for PDN’s talk at 8amPST/11amEST! I’m going to have Photo Recipes galore! ๐Ÿ™‚ Registeration details on the blog post before this one.

  17. Mandy says:

    This was a very helpful post! I shoot in low light quite often, and it always helps to hear tips/tricks. Thanks so much!

  18. Jen Sulak says:

    yep this post just makes me desire a better lens…i have a 2.8 17-55…but honestly…my grain is pretty bad at 800 in low light. No matter how much i would love to, i just can’t capture these types of images w/o a lil grain. There are days i long for better cam/lens…but until that day…i’m dealing with what i can. ๐Ÿ™‚

    love it!

  19. denise karis says:

    wonderful post! I love how you listed everything. I always get frusterated in low light, not because I can’t get the right settings, but because my lens takes forever to focus and even then, at low f-stops, I get a lot of out of focus shots. Is there a lens that focuses really well in low light?

    If the image isnโ€™t technically perfect it doesnโ€™t matter. I love that you said that – If I were tyring the lamp photo, Id be worried about what people would say when they see blown out highlights and ‘ohhhh no, there’s clipping’ and whatever else – but when you just look at it, it’s a beautiful photo! and it totally tells a story!

    what a lovely bride too! thank you again for this post!

  20. Hi Me Ra! Do you ever use a tripod? Thanks for the recipes. Beautiful shots!

  21. Suzanne says:

    Me Ra!! I’m listening to you right now at the PDN virtual trade show. You are amazing and I’m so glad that I didn’t miss it (even though I’m at work ๐Ÿ™‚ shhhhh….

    Thanks for letting us know about it!

  22. shawna says:

    Thanks for all these tips! You couldn’t have had better timing since I’ll be photographing a friend’s birth in a few weeks. I usually avoid low light photography because, well, it’s harder! But you’ve just reminded me that I need to start practicing so I’ll be ready. Thanks so much, I can’t wait to see what I can do with these tips.

  23. Shooter says:

    I really enjoyed reading your interesting yet very informative insight. In the book of life every page has two sides: we human beings fill the upper side with our plans, hopes and wishes, but providence writes on the other side, and what it ordains is seldom our goal. Thank you for sharing and I am looking forward to reading more of your very current blog postings!!! ๐Ÿ˜€ Shooter Game