Shoot smart

If you're fed-up of finding that photos you've clicked in low-light are blurred or too dark, read on as WINDOWS explains how to overcome these problems and click like a pro.
Shoot smart
By Jason Saundalkar
Tue 16 Dec 2008 04:00 AM

If you're fed-up of finding that photos you've clicked in low-light are blurred or too dark, read on as WINDOWS explains how to overcome these problems and click like a pro.

If you own a camera, be it digital or an old-school film camera, you've no doubt experienced the frustration (at least once) of finding out that a picture you've clicked in low-light has come out looking like a black background or is so blurred that you can't actually see anything.

In low-light conditions these problems are caused by a number of factors ranging from insufficient light getting to the camera's image sensor, to incorrect settings in terms of ISO, aperture etc.

Thankfully, there are steps you can take to ensure you end-up with quality images in poor light but on the flip-side, it isn't as simple as putting your camera into a certain capture mode. Rather, you'll have to take a hands-on approach and shoot in manual mode where you have control over a number of your camera's settings.

In the past, you'd have to shop for a high-end SLR camera if you wanted access to settings such as ISO, shutter speed etc but today, even certain point-and-shoot models offer this flexibility, meaning there's a very good chance that you can finish with some great low-light photos. So, without further ado, lets get on the road to great low-light photos.

Step 1

An ISO speed of 100 was used on this photograph and as a result, it is free from noise.

When shooting in low-light conditions, one of the most important settings to keep an eye on is ISO. This is always specified as a number and indicates how sensitive a camera's sensor will be to light.

Generally, most cameras automatically select an ISO setting but this ideal only if you're shooting in bright conditions. In low-light, it's best to shoot after you've manually selected an ISO appropriate to the conditions you're shooting in.

Low ISO settings require more light entering the camera or else the pictures will appear dark. The benefit of shooting with a low ISO setting is that the images are free from visible noise (graininess). Higher ISO settings add more noise to a picture but produce brighter images when shooting with low ambient light.

The most common ISO settings offered are 50, 80, 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600 and 3200. Shooting with an ISO of either 50-80, you can expect great, noise-free images in bright light. These settings produce great results when shooting close-ups, landscape or portrait images. ISO 100 is similar to 50 and 80 though it offers slightly more brightness with no real increase in visible noise.

ISO 200 offers higher still image sensitivity and is best used outdoors in overcast or cloudy conditions. It offers slightly reduced image quality with some visible noise. ISO 400 produces very noticeable noise and is best used for action shots (sports).

ISO 800, 1600 and higher are viable options when working with extremely poor light but unless these settings are used in tandem with modified shutter speeds, the images will likely be very disappointing and saturated with noise.

We recommend testing your camera to see how it handles very high ISO settings such as 800 and 1600 before taking photos that you intend to print or store to look at later.

Step 2

Another very important setting in photography when shooting in low-light is shutter speed. This defines the amount of time the camera's shutter will remain open and allow light to reach the digital image sensor. Shutter speed is generally measured in seconds, or fractions of seconds such as 1/2000 of a second or 1/125 of a second etc.

Using very high (fast) shutter speeds (1/500 of a second) generally give the effect of an object standing still. So, if you were to shoot a person running say, he would appear to be frozen in a running pose.

The right tools

In the past you'd need a top-end camera if you wanted to have control over ISO, aperture, focus and exposure settings. Now though, most mid- and high-end point-and-shoot models offer manual mode options that grant access to these functions.

Shooting this same subject but using a very slow shutter speed, such as one second, the picture would appear blurry giving the viewer the impression that the subject was actually running rather than posing.

In low light however, very low shutter speeds allow more light to enter the image sensor and thus give a brighter image. So if you intend to shoot outdoors, consider using settings of 1/8 of a second and lower. We recommend using a tripod or any other form of camera support when using slow shutter speeds to prevent blur.

Along with modifying your shutter speed, you'll also need to change the camera's aperture settings accordingly. This is so that the image you capture won't be under- or over-exposed.

Generally when shooting with fast shutter speeds, you'll need to use a larger aperture (small F-stop number) to prevent your images from appearing under-exposed (dark). On the flip-side, if you want to avoid clicking snaps that are too bright (over-exposed) when using slow shutter speeds, opt for a smaller aperture (large F-stop number).

Some cameras also feature a ‘shutter priority mode', which is essentially a semi-automatic exposure mode. You simply select the shutter speed and the camera then automatically configures its aperture for the best exposure to the subject.

Step 3

In some instances, using the camera's flash is an option when working with poor ambient light. Keep in mind however that a flash doesn't have infinite range. In most cases, a camera's flash is good for lighting subjects that are about six to 10 feet away from the camera. On certain higher-end models this range can be as high as 15 feet.

So, if you want to light something using the flash make sure it is within range and then make sure to set your exposure settings, shutter speed and aperture accordingly. Get it wrong and you'll wind up with photographs that are overly bright or, on the other side of the fence, end up with under-exposed images.

Step 4

Digital cameras feature auto-focus and while this works great when there is plenty of light on a subject, auto-focus doesn't work as well (just like Auto ISO) when it comes to low-light photography.

This is especially true if your camera doesn't have a focus-assist lamp that will light the subject so the lens can properly focus. Therefore, if you want sharp and focused images, manually adjust your camera's focus where possible.

Another advantage of manually focusing a lens in low-light is that you can click photos much quicker. Generally auto-focus systems will struggle to decide on an appropriate focus and will constantly adjust the lens for well over several seconds before settling on a focus. If you've ever clicked a photo and your camera didn't respond straightaway, it's because it was trying to auto-focus on the subject.

All about Histogram graphs

Most new digital cameras can display histograms either when they are capturing or playing back images or motion video. This graph essentially tells you how many dark or bright pixels the camera can see or has captured. In a histogram, the left side always represents the dark side whilst the right represents the light side.

If the graph sticks to the left side, then your image or video will appear very dark or, alternatively, if the graph is right biased, then you'll end up with an over-exposed capture. Ideally, the graph should evenly sit between the left and right side, as this indicates a correctly exposed image.

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