Photo Project: Low Light Photography

Photographers are intrigued by light. One situation that every photographer struggles with, and wants to master, is the skill of taking low light photographs. So, we’re here with a low light photography project. This is a photography project in which you will have to push the limits of what you can do with your low-light photography skills, and in the process, learn the basics of low light phtography. We also have other photo projects that you can try out.

A night-time portrait of a man silhouetted against fog and lights in the background, with a water reflection. Low Light Photography is a challenge.
Photo By Charlietyack

Photography is all about light. How you see it, how it affects a scene, and how that affects the person viewing the photograph. The dark black & white photograph taken with fast film, with its characteristic grainy ‘texture’ will always draw people to it…

Let’s take a peek into what equipment you’ll need and what you can do with it…

Photographs that are primarily dark are called low-key photographs and photographs that are primarily bright are called high-key photographs. However, low-key photographs need not necessarily be low-light photographs. And vice versa.

What is Low Light Photography?

Low light photography is the practice of capturing photographs in challenging, sub-optimal lighting. Because of this, photographers need to learn special techniques, and use special equipment like tripods to counter the specific challenges that these environments create, yet be able to consistenly capture images that are sharp, well defined and aesthetically pleasing.

Some of the challenges that low light photography poses are:

  • difficulty in focusing correctly in dim light
  • achieving correct framing as it may be too dark to see certain elements in the frame
  • high levels of sensor noise due to the long exposure and/or high ISO setting
  • visualising movement
  • visualising the frame while the shutter is open during a long exposure (the viewfinder/screen is usually dark)

Progressing In Your Low Light Photography Project

As the scene that you’re photographing becomes darker, you will have to modify your exposure appropriately. I always make changes in this order…

  1. Open up the aperture step by step until the lens is fully open (or as much as feasible for the photograph)
  2. Slow down the shutter speed if possible. Use support like tripods, turn image stabilsation on, and use a remote trigger as shutter speeds get lower and lower.
  3. Increase ISO. Modern cameras have so little noise that one should no longer be afraid of digital noise. If the noise makes the photo unusable, consider using an AI noise reduction tool. Always Shoot RAW, so that you have as much of the originally captured information in your image files.
  4. Use software techniques like image stacking to improve image quality and reduce noise.

What Are the Challenges in Low Light Photography?

Low light photography, as mentioned earlier, requires a few specific technical skills to tackle the unique challenges that are posed. Here are some challenges, and under each, I will list the skills needed to tackle the challenge.

Motion Blur

Motion blur occurs when a point of light moves across multiple pixels while the shutter is still open. Slow shutter speeds, or fast movement contribute to motion blur.

  • Fast Shutter speed
  • High ISO
  • Large aperture
  • Smaller focal length / wider lens

Limited Depth of Field

Opening up the aperture to allow more light through the lens reduces the depth of field in the scene. A photographer must balance the need for light, and a fast shutter speed with the depth of field needed for the photograph to look as it should.

  • Small aperture
  • Brighter light sources

Focusing Accurately

In dark scenes, achieving accurate focus can often be difficult. The autofocus sensors may not have enough data to accurately gauge the distance to the subject, even though the sensors have becomes quite accurate over time. To focus accurately, use manual focus while zoomed in fully to see the 100% sensor readout on your screen while focusing.

  • Insufficient light to focus
  • Manual Focus Mode / Manual Focus Lenses

Dealing With Digital Noise

When there is insufficient light in a scene to get a reasonably exposed photograph even after the apoerture and shutter speed have been changed, then it’s the time to increase the ISO. ISO works in a similar way to audio gain… by ‘turning up’ the overall signal. At the same time, noise is also increased. The higher the ISO, the higher the brightness of the photgraph, and higher the noise levels.

  • Increase shutter speed. duration
  • Lower ISO setting
  • Use camera support

How To Get Sharp Photo In low-light Situations?

Low-light photography usually needs 4 things to get sharp results:

  1. A sturdy tripod for the camera
  2. Fast lenses
  3. Cable Release / remote trigger
  4. Fast Media – fast film or a digital camera with a high ISO ability.

1. Sturdy Tripod

Pin-sharp photographs will always stand out in a crowd. How do you get sharp hotos when low light levels mean that your aperture and shutter speed will be at their highest? Using a sturdy support such as a tripod, will make all the difference. Make sure you have a sturdy tripod if you’re trying out low-light photographs. I’m lucky to have a Manfrotto 058B tripod for images like this. You can make do with less sturdy tripods, but be careful not to bump them.

2. Fast Lenses

“Fast” lenses are ones that allow more light in, and enable you to use faster shutter speeds. They usually have larger apertures than comparable lenses. However, when using a fast lens, on a dlsr camera in advantagesous even if you’re not using it fully open. Having an f/2.8 lens will help you in low light photography even if you’re shooting at f/5.6. How? By letting more light into the viewfinder while you’re composing the shot (the aperture is stopped down only when taking the photograph), letting you see your subject and make your composition better, giving your camera more light to focus with.

3. Cable Release

You can always set the self-timer and use a slow shutter speed. Typically, cameras have shutter speeds down to 30 seconds. However, a cable release or remote trigger gives you the flexibility to handle unforeseen changes in the light that need you to shorten or extend the exposure duration. They also allow you to get those 3 or 4-hour exposures for star trails.

4. Fast Medium

Every extra second that the shutter is left open means a greater level of reciprocity failure in film or higher noise levels and hot pixels in digital cameras. Increasing the ISO setting of your digital camera will actually increase the noise levels, but reduce the chances that you will have “hot pixels” in your image. Of course, you could always nitrogen-cool your sensor, like some astro-photographers do(Scroll to page 10 of the PDF that downloads)

What Can You Photograph In Low Available-Light? The Project

You now know what you need for your low light photography, but what are you going to do with your newfound skills? Here are some low light photography ideas for subjects that you can try photographing right today!

Try to create a portflio of 15 photographs from each of these sub-sections, and share just three of each with us.

1. Star Trails

star trails on a dark night by Bob West

I’m sure you’ve seen photographs like these if you’ve ever thought of photographing those minute speckles of light from oh-so-far-away. If you’ve ever been in the countryside on a clear moonless night, without the lights of a city to interfere with the stars, you’ll know how truly beautiful a star-filled sky can be. There’s no resisting the urge to photograph this…

All you have to do to get a star-speckled sky is to keep your shutter open for a couple of seconds at your widest aperture and manually focussed at infinity. Experiment with the duration if you want the stars to be brighter. I’ve found that a 30 Second exposure is usually enough. Remember to use a tripod.

If you want trails of light as the stars make their daily sojourn across the inky sky, be sure to use a smaller aperture. You should decide the length of your exposure in advance and then work out the corresponding aperture. You can do this keeping in mind your earlier short-duration star exposures.

Also, keep in mind that the focal length of your lens will decide how long your exposure should be before you see some significant movement in the stars. If you’re using a telephoto lens, the duration will be less. If you’re using a wide-angle lens, you could end up with an exposure that’s a couple of hours long. Your cable release with a built-in lock is very useful for this. Here’s a Canon Astrophotography primer

2. Light Trails

streaks of differently coloured light in the middle of a city by Chris H

Streaks of light moving down a highway, or down a country lane, or a path between two fields lit by a shoulder-high, hovering light source. How you photograph this is your call. There are no limits, there is no right, there is no wrong. There are only good pictures, and not so good pictures. There are no bad pictures.

Remember that composition and the way the light streaks move are the most important factors here. If you’re photographing a cityscape with many roads and you want to keep some detail in the buildings and sky, remember to take your photographs just after the sun has gone below the horizon and when the lights are on. Experiment with exposure durations and times at dusk/night.

It’s Important that lines, form and colour become a central part of your compositions because the streaks of light, the way in which they weave around stationary objects and light them up are what make these photographs work. It will be important to use a tripod if you want the stationary objects in your scene to be seen clearly, but there is no real restriction here either. You can use streaks of light…

3. Moon-lit scenery

This is possibly one of the faintest light sources, and one of the most difficult to photograph scenes. A fast lens really helps in your composition and to cut the number of objects that could move while the shutter is open. Remember that if you’re shooting with film, Reciprocity failure is always a problem because of the long shutter speeds. Here’s how to correct for reciprocity failure. If you’re shooting with Digital, Noise could be a problem.

4. Use Light as a Subject by Itself

Write with your light. Here’s an interesting picture taken with two coloured torches. You use torches, covered with coloured gel give you different colours of light. Remember that your lens should never have the torch pointed directly into it, as it is sure to have flared in the final picture.

No Limits on Your Photography

There really are no limits on photography these days. Once you convince yourself that this is true, you’re restricted only by your imagination. If you are confronted with failure, find a way to get past it. each failure teaches you a little more about what not to do. Try something else instead.

Do remember to share your portfolio of 12 low light phtographs (3 from each section above). Congratulations! You’re already on your way to mastering low-light photography.

If you enjoyed this low light photography project, here are some of the other Photo Projects that you may enjoy too.

Susheel Chandradhas

Susheel Chandradhas

Susheel Chandradhas is a Product Photographer and Filmmaker based in India. He has been taking photographs (almost) all his life. He has a diploma and a bachelors degree in Visual Communication, where his classmates all believed that he would write a book on photography... Instead, he writes on this website (because - isn't a community more fun?).

His passions include photography, parkour, wide-angle lenses, blue skies, fire extinguishers, and fast computers.

In addition to writing for Beyond Photo Tips, Susheel is a staff writer for Fstoppers.com, and owns and runs ColoursAlive, a photography, and video production studio.

You can connect with Susheel on Twitter, Instagram, or LinkedIn.

Articles: 158

3 Comments

  1. Hi,
    I felt Nikon’s VR or Canon’s IS comes in very handy at times if u want to hand hold the camera.
    – Rengarajan.J

  2. Yes,

    But from personal experience, even these only reduce shake when you’re shooting at 1/4th of a second or lower. I’m guessing that most of these shots will be at a slower shutter speed. Remember that a person lit by a tube light at 400 ASA/ISO needs a shutter speed of about 1/25th of a second at f/3.5. Digital cameras usually need a faster shutter speed than film because almost every photograph is viewed at 100% magnification while that almost never happens with film.

    Point noted though! Thanks.

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