How To Take Sharp Photos In Low Light Without A Flash

If you’re anything like me, then one of the reasons you’re interested in photography – and why you shelled out on a nice camera – is to take some lovely shots of your family and friends. And, most of the time, I find that these photographic opportunities occur inside, where the light is low. Sure, there are the occasional barbeques outside, and holidays in the sun, but for the most part, I find I’m taking photos of my loved ones indoors.

Sharp photo in lowlight without a flash

And do we want to use our flash? Of course we don’t! As Scott Kelby says, and I’m paraphrasing here, “If you have a worst enemy, make sure you take a photo of them with your flash’. Shots taken with our little pop-up flashes look dreadful – either washed out, too dark, and always flat and just ugly looking. (By the way, you can check out my digital photography book review, a fantastic book written by Scott Kelby, if you like).

So, what can we do to take great photos indoors – where the light levels are often less than ideal – without using a tripod (as families and friends don’t stay still all the time, unfortunately!), and all this without using our flash?

The good news is that there are quite a few things we can do to attain this, including the use of Aperture, ISO, Burst Mode and more

1. Set Your Aperture To Its Widest Setting (Lowest F-number)

Aperture priority mode - 'AV' on Canon cameras

If you have a DSLR, or even a compact that has some manual settings, then you will be able to control your camera’s aperture (‘AV’ mode on Canon cameras, or ‘A’ if you’re a Nikon user). This is simply telling the camera how much light to allow in at a time – and so the bigger the amount of light that is coming into your lens, the quicker your shutter speed will be, and thus the sharper your photos.

We want to set our aperture to its widest setting, so that the most light available is entering our lens. This means choosing the lowest f-number possible, and how low you can go depends on what lens you are using – for example, if you are using the 18 – 55mm kit lens that comes with virtually all Canon cameras, then the lowest you can go would be f/3.5. Other lenses may be able to go down to even lower f-numbers, such as f/1.8.

A sharp photo taken in low light conditions

Taken with a wide aperture of f/1.8

Depending on the amount of light you’re shooting in, and your other camera settings (such as ISO, which we’ll be talking about next) you may now be able to get some sharp, low light photos. Take a shot and check that you’re getting a shutter speed of at least 1/60 sec, and preferably even higher (such as 1/100 sec).

When you review your photo on the LCD screen, remember to zoom in to check if it really is sharp, as virtually every photo will look good on a 2” LCD if you don’t zoom in to examine the detail!

If your photo is still not sharp enough (i.e. you’re not getting quick-enough shutter speeds) then you’ll also need to adjust your ISO setting – see below for how to do that.

2. Raise Your ISO Setting

ISO

Your camera’s ISO setting is simply telling the camera how sensitive you want it to be to light – the higher the ISO, the more sensitive it will be. Now, as we want to take sharp photos when there is little available light, then we’ll be wanting to make our camera more sensitive to obtain those quicker shutter speeds, and so we raise our ISO – simple!

So, try taking a photo with your camera’s ISO setting at 800. If the resulting photo’s still not sharp enough, raise the ISO to 1600, and – if you need even more sensitivity – try ISO 3200 if your camera can go to that.

By the way, if you’ve read more articles and books about photography, then you’ll no doubt have seen it written a bazillion times how we must always ‘use the lowest ISO available’, as otherwise the quality of our shots will deteriorate. Although this is true to an extent, as, in theory, raising the ISO produces more ‘digital noise’ (equivalent to grain) in our shots, I would say don’t worry about this for 3 good reasons:

1. The performance of modern DSLR cameras at high ISOs are pretty amazing these days, where you can often use an ISO of 1600 – 3200 without seeing much, if any, deterioration.

2. Most of the photos we’ll generally be taking will be viewed on our computer screens, or perhaps printed to relatively small 7 x 5” prints – at these sizes digital noise is much less noticeable than if we were pumping out wall-sized posters.

3. What’s more important to you? You can either capture some lovely sharp photos of your friends and family – which will be memories forever – , or you can just sit there and not take a photo at all, because you would have to ‘raise your ISO’ which we’re always told we shouldn’t do. I know what’s more important to me!

ISO 1600, f/1.8, 80/sec

I took the above shot in a really lowlight situation, and even with such a wide aperture (low f-number) of f/1.8, I still wasn’t getting a fast enough shutter speed to get a sharp photo at my camera’s current ISO 400 setting. Experimenting at ISO 800 still didn’t get my shutter speed quick enough, so I raised it again to ISO 1600, et voila! A sharp photo, and not an ounce of ‘digital noise’ to be seen!


 

But what if raising your ISO and using your widest aperture still isn’t working for you? Well, you might want to look into buying a new lens, one that has a wider aperture than the one you’re currently using:

3. Buy A Lens With A Very Wide Maximum Aperture

When using your widest aperture and highest ISO still doesn’t produce those sharp lowlight photos, then you may need to get a new lens  – one with a maximum aperture of f/1.8 or even wider (lower f-number). This will really help you to get those sharper shots, because you’ll be letting in so much more light at a time.

Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 Prime Lens

Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 - Wide aperture; great value. Click for my review.

The good news is that getting a lens like this needn’t be expensive; I use the absolutely fantastic Canon 50mm f/1.8, which I did a review of over here – it only cost me about £90 from Amazon UK (you can get it for around $99 on Amazon US too).

See the below example of a shot I took of a local band, using this Canon 50mm f/1.8:

Gregor and the martians

f/1.8, 1/100 sec, ISO 1600

Now, gig photography is an extremely lowlight situation, and there is no way that I could have got such a sharp shot with any of my other lenses – their maximum apertures are just not wide enough, so even with my high ISO of 1600 the photos would have been a blur. But with the Canon 50mm f/1.8 I was able to use a really wide aperture, getting lots of light into my camera at a time, and thus get those fast shutter speeds to get a sharp shot.

By the way, the band is called Gregor and The Martians, and one of my shots was actually used in the local newspaper which made me smile!)

Following those top three tips should get you sharp shots without that dreaded pop-up flash or tripod. But there are a couple of more things that can help as well…

4. Shoot in ‘Burst’ Mode (Also called ‘Continuous Shooting’)

continuous shooting modeAnother way you can increase the chance of getting a sharp shot is to use your camera’s ‘burst’ shooting mode (this could be called ‘Burst’ on your camera, or perhaps ‘Continuous Shooting’ like on the Canon T2i) to take multiple photos a second. This works like this:

When you normally take a shot in ‘one shot’ mode, taking one photo at a time, when you press the shutter button you’re actually introducing a small vibration into the photographic process as you’re physically depressing the button.

So, if you use ‘burst’ mode, and press the shutter, the vibration that is brought about by you pressing the button will only really affect the first photo of the 3 (or more) photos you’ll take – meaning every photo except the first of the series should be that little bit sharper.

Using continuous shooting to get a sharp shot

Using ‘continuous shooting’ to get a sharp shot

Taking more photos at a time also increases the chance that your subject will be moving less for at least one of the shots too – in the example above my friends were pulling some funny faces, so I shot a lot of frames per second, increasing my chance of getting this sharp one.

5. Turn Up The Lights!

Lightbulbs - turn up the lights to get a sharper shot

‘Lightbulbs’ on Flickr, by Andrewpaulcarr

Yes, this my seem like a no-brainer, but it’s actually one I have been guilty of forgetting myself – if the light is really too low to get those fast shutter speeds we’re after, just turn on some more lights!

Of course, you may be in a situation where there just aren’t any more lights to turn on, but, a lot of the time, there’ll be a light switch you can flip at the other end of the room, or a table lamp, or even a fire you can start – yes, any extra light source will help!

Talking of helping, I hope this little ‘How To…’ has helped you a little. If it has, why not follow me on twitter or join us on Facebook?

You may also like my ‘How To Blur The Background’ guide too.

By the way, I took all the photos above (except the lightbulbs and product shots) with my Canon T1i, which is available from Amazon US and UK(where it’s known as the 500D). Yes, it may have already been superceded by the T2i / 550D, but it’s still a mighty fine DSLR!


 

 

75 comments

  1. Bill M. /

    I think I understand about using aperture at full open, but won’t that create a very shallow depth of field, especially if you have two or three faces or heads at slightly different depths from lens? I have committed to a wedding this weekend and lighting in church is not good. Trying hard not to use flash. Ok, so lowest f/stop on my 50MM f/1.8, higher ISO (guessing 800 to start, ideally 1/100 shutter speed. Am I sacrificing sharpness and depth of field to get the shot? Trying to understand.
    Sorry, but another site advised not to use any lens wide open because the sharpest image will be 1-2 stops closed. Arghhh!!

  2. Hi Bill, thanks for your comment, and best of luck with the upcoming wedding. I’ve done a few weddings, and they’re challengin but very rewarding situations. You’re right that the wide, full open aperture will create a shallow depth of field, yes – and that lenses, when they’re wide open, are softer than when they’re stopped down. You would only use f/1.8 if a. you specifically wanted a very shallow depth of field or b. the light is SO low that you need the f/1.8 just to get a shot with a quick enough shutter speed. It’d better to get a slightly softer shot than no shot at all, though, so i wouldn’t worry at all if you do need the f/1.8. It depends on how good your camera is at handling the higher ISOs too.

    For groups, try to do it outside, or use bounce flash inside, as you’re right – if their faces are different depths away from the lens, a very wide aperture will result in some faces being out of focus. Good luck for the wedding, it’d be great if you wanted to share some shots afterwards on our Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/learningthelight

  3. Fantastic, simplified article that has given me greater insight into shooting in low light conditions. I was recently taking shots of my children surrounded by Christmas tree lights, but my settings/lenses continued to produce background artifacts associated with the lights. Lower aperture settings seemed to produce stronger “spots” of artifact, with my lowest available aperture being f/2.8. As I closed the aperture, the light spots diminished, but began losing sharpness with slower shutter speeds. Is this problem common and can it be corrected? Any help and direction would be greatly appreciated.

  4. I take a lot of senior pictures and mostly all are outdoors. I was contacted to do a Christmas party for a huge new station. I am excited yet nervous. I went to the location to check it out. It is surrounded by windows and it will be dark outside. I am setting up next to a fire place and Christmas tree. I really wanna do a good job. The pics will be of two individuals at a time standing together (couples). I have a nikon d80 and I do have an external flash. The event is this weekend. I need suggestions on what settings to use. Please Please help.

  5. Hi Jason, thanks for your comment and kind words! By artifacts, what exactly are you meaning? If it’s the bokeh that you’re not liking, then using smaller apertures/higher f-numbers would make the background of your shot more in focus, yes, but that does also mean you’ll have to use slower shutter speeds/higher ISOs to make sure your shot is still sharp…

  6. Hi Christina. Sorry, I think i’m a bit too late to get back to you on this one; I hope the event went well! Share some pics on our Facebook page if you get a chance!

  7. Hi Alan,
    I just bought the 550D and it is indeed an amazing camera. Just need your advise on what will be the best setting to take night outdoor photos with low light. I have 02 lenses. 18-55 and 75-300. Since I am very new to this cameras I am mostly takig photos on AUTO MODE

  8. Hi Uday. What kind of outdoor subjects will you be shooting? Nightscapes? People?

  9. Eddie Harper /

    Hi, Alan: Glad to see that we’re on the same page because I just complained to one of the salesmen at B&H that the discontinuance of the Canon T1i was a grave mistake! I’ve read two of your pages so far and am elated that they have been written in simple laymen’s terms without bandying about technical words that weigh down the articles and confuse the reader. I was especially pleased to see that I am on the right track because I recently took pictures of my best friend with her five month old son and wanted to use ambient lighting. I didn’t feel that there was enough light and learned from reading a book by the great Jane Bown that she would move her subjects closer to an available light source. The same advice you gave in this article. So I moved the mother and whimpering baby to the apartment window and the resulting image was precious. Keep up the good work and please keep writing and sharing your knowledge with us!

  10. Hi Eddie, thanks a lot for your lovely message; you’re too kind! I’d love to see the photo you talk about in your comment, feel free to share it on our Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/learningthelight if you want. All the best for your photography, and thanks again for your comment!

  11. Thank you for this article, honestly the most straightforward I’ve read on this subject. I’m an amateur photographer with a Nikon d80, but thru my work as a graphic designer, I am asked to do photo shoots for our clients. My next assignment is to photograph the inside of a hotel. I don’t want to use dreaded flash, and there will be multiple light sources (daylight, tungsten & fluoro). I shoot with aperture priority, but until reading your article didn’t realise setting the widest aperture will help with lighting too. Any tips for shooting large rooms indoors would be appreciated!

  12. Hi Lisa, thanks for your comment and kind words; apologies for my delay in getting back to you. For shooting large room indoors you’ll probably need to take a tripod so that you can use a low ISO (better image quality) and still get sharp shots. As you’ll probably need quite a large depth of field (if you want the whole room in focus, including foreground details and background) you’ll need to use a small aperture – perhaps f/8 of f/11 – this in turn will mean a longer shutter speed, so I’d use a tripod to make sure the shots are sharp. But, if handholding, then raise your ISO. Hope it goes well!

  13. Hayley /

    I tweeted you about this but as i’m private I don’t think you got it! But I found this article amazing. Explained things really straightforward and to the point in a simple way (which is sometimes needed in photography!). I had shot a book signing in very low light, and was disappointed with my results, but after reading this realised I couldn’t have done anymore than I did as my lens aperture wasn’t low enough. Then I made the mistake of reading your review on the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 and straight after I purchased one! So thank you ;) Shooting a gig tonight with it so i’m very excited to *hopefully* see improved results after all your advice :)

  14. Hi Hayley! No, I didn’t receive your tweet – thanks a lot for leaving such a lovely message on the site, though. I’m really glad it’s been useful. The ‘nifty fifty’ should be great at your gig shoot, too – I shot my first gig using just that lens (you can see some of the pics here). I’d love to a shot or tw of yours, if you fancied sharing? Best place is to post on our Facebook wall if you do.

  15. No issues or q’s? Just wanted to say thanks! This site has answered so many questions an cleared up some confusion.. just wanted to give you some praise an keep up the good work! Thanks Ajay *rookie photographer*

  16. Thanks a lot, Ajay! :)

  17. Andy /

    Hi Guys,

    I have a Canon D60 and a few lenses that dont function with the AF settings on the camera. In a few weeks a friend of mine has invited me to shoot his high end restaurant, some ambient indoor shots and also some close ups of the food they serve. I dont have a flash light apart from the standard flash on the body. The lenses i have to work with are a Nikon Nikkor 1:28 24mm, a Nikon Nikkor 1:14 50mm and a 75-300mm (which im not envisaging to use). I have a few lights that i can play with but as everyone seems to be so helpful here, i thought iw ould ask some advice directly (im not being lazy as hvae a good idea of how i can make good use of the lenses and lighting already thorugh research) but was more interested to see if any of you could pass on some good advice.

    The restaurant is low light with good low lighting inside with a very classy finish to it.

    Any help would be gratefully received, and i am happy to invest in some new gear should anyone have any advice!

    Many thanks,

    Andy

  18. Thanks for your question, Andy. I’m afraid I don’t have any specific experience of food photography – there is a free ebook specifically on that subject at this link, though. As for ambient indoor shots, if it really is ambient he’s looking for – and thus, natural – then no-flash and a tripod would be best, perhaps your 24mm so you get some wide shots of the whole interior. The food shots would probably need more light, though, to show them off at their best – depends what kind of look he’s going for. But flash – or even taking the plates outside, or by a nice window light – would probably be the way to go. Just a few thoughts, anyway, as I’m really not an expert on this field of photography. Good luck with it!

  19. Andy /

    No problems, much appreciated reply either way…will keep my eyes on this blog as it really is a great network! Cheers

  20. Your tips are amazing! I’ve been reading your blog for hours…Just can’t stop! I got a Canon T2i and the 50mm lens ang I was wondering if you could give me some tips about the best setting to take night outdoor photos of peole with low light, with and without flash. I’m from Brazil and just getting started on this photography world! Tks so much!

  21. Thanks Cris! For nightime shots without flash you’ll need a high ISO, perhaps 1600 or even 3200, and use a wide aperture (f/1.8 or perhaps f/2.2 for a bit better sharpness). If using flash, then bounce it off walls if you can, rather than point straight ahead, and use an ISO of around 800 so that your flash isn’t working so hard!

  22. Hey!! Thanks so much for this little “how to” explanation…I am heading to a wedding in about an hour, and, as the venue is inside, I am expecting some low light situations. I only have the 18-55 kit lens available, so we’ll see how things turn out.

    Thanks again!

  23. Can you give me any advice on taking night shots of parades at Disneyworld? Like what kinds of lenses would work well? Also, what kinds of lenses would you recommend using indoors like during a musical where flashes are not permitted?
    Thank you for your help. I am in the process of purchasing possibly a Canon 7D. Have had an Canon Eos XSi for several years now and am looking to update.
    Thank you again for your help.

  24. Hi Cindy. Night shots, and indoor shots where you can’t use flash, really both fall into ‘lowlight’ photography, and so the best lenses you can use are those with wide apertures, of at least f/2.8. Those lenses let more light in at a time, so are the ones to use when the light is low. A great budget-priced lens, but still very good quality, is Canon’s 50mm f/1.8 which would be a good choice. There are lots of different lenses out there for different budgets, though -so just make sure to get one with an apeture of at least f/2.8. Depending on the light, you’ll still need to be raising your ISO to something like 1600 or 3200, too. The 7D is a fab camera; I love mine!

  25. Hi Lori; thanks for your comment. Hope the wedding went well!

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