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. Great post! On top of all those excellent suggestions, it’s also a great idea to set your autofocus to single point, that means the camera will only try and focus on the part of the image you want it to. The centre focus is also more sensitive and so more likely to focus faster in low light.

    If you find your camera really isn’t focusing well you can always use manual focus! Yes, I did suggest that. It will take some practice to master, but it’s worth knowing that if the light is really low and you don’t want to use flash you’ve got the option.

  2. Good info. I had never thought of using burst mode to reduce the vibration of pressing the button.

    Kudos.

  3. me neither, never thought of 4.!
    Thanks for the tip!

  4. Great post. really enjoyed your info.

  5. Great tips! Excellent advice for those learning to shoot in low light situations. It’s always a challenge but the payoff is great when you learn to master some of these techniques of adjusting your aperture, ISO and shutter speeds!

  6. Thanks for all your kind comments, folks, really glad you found it useful.

  7. me neither, never thought of 4.!
    Thanks for the tip!

  8. Søren Andersen /

    Wonderful article (and wonderful website)! To supplement point 4, using Image Stabilisation and tripod/monopod or even just resting your arm on the table top can help you stabilize your shot.

  9. Nice tips, thanks for the gift man!

  10. Great tips. Here is another one. Manually set your white balance depending on the type of lighting. Normally you would need tungsten light in an indoor setting. I find that my auto white balance doesn’t work so well in low light. Images usually come out too warm. Setting the white balance can dramatically improve your photos and save you lots of time in post processing.

  11. Nice Tips… Thanx for sharing 😉

  12. Judy Stepien /

    I gotta say…this was very helpful…

    It was put in simple terms for my simple understanding! I just got a canon rebel t2i, and so far i love it, but still need to learn how to use it.

  13. Hi Judy – thanks for your comment, and glad that the guide helped a little. Best of luck with your T2i, it’s an awesome camera, I’m sure you’ll be taking fantastic photos with it.

  14. andrea /

    One word: Very Helpful.
    Opps, 2 words actually. lolz.

    Love they way you persuade this in simple English. Thanks a lot.

  15. Heh heh, thanks Andrea! Glad it’s been of some help. Thanks for leaving a comment and letting me know, really appreciated!

  16. Nice website, you are helping me a lot!!
    Thanks

  17. Hi Gabe – thanks for the comment, really glad the site is helping you out!

  18. Just picked up your link from Twitter on “Low Light” and really enjoyed the read. I recently purchased the Nikor 85mm f/1.8 D for use on my D90. I am hoping that I can use it for some portrait work in settings like you talk about here.

  19. Hi Larry, thanks for leaving a comment – glad you found the guide useful. My colleague has a D90 – it’s a fantastic camera. I’m sure the f/1.8 of your new lens will enable you to take some fantastic lowlight shots with it.

  20. Great posts and tips! thanks for the reco on the 50mm lens! i got it and its awesome!

    Any recommended external flashes? getting mixed reviews for yn468 – looking for something under $175 range

  21. Glad you like the lens, it is great, isn’t it? I’m afraid I don’t know an awful lot about flashes, other than Canon’s Speedlites. I’ve got the 430 EX II which is fantastic, though.

  22. It’s all so great – very lucid – also a thumbsup to the blurr background page written by u
    I just bot a canon 500d…but a novice at taking pictures – a friend suggsted to use th manual mode from word go – right / wrong?
    following u on Twitter as well now

  23. Thanks for the nice words, glad the tips are useful. Starting in fully manual, well, in theory this could be a good idea, as you’ll start learning about the relationship between shutter speed and aperture – but I’d also say that it’s a quick-fire way of putting you off photography if you don’t get the hang of it quickly. Instead, I’d suggest using a semi-automatic mode, such as Aperture Priority (AV on your 500D). This means you will select an aperture value – controlling the depth of field of your photos – and the camera will work outnthe corresponding shutter speed. This is the shooting mode I use about 90% of the time, and is what a lot of photographers also use most of the time too.

  24. I’m teaching myself photography for my online shop and I’ve been going through some photography forums & webpages and in comparison, your tips are really helpful as they are not confusing and easy to understand & produce the desired result. I’m going to check out how I can blur out the background as that will help me produce mood shots for my jewelry. Thank you so much for sharing! :)

  25. That’s so kind of you to say, Nicole, thanks a lot! Good luck with your online shop!

  26. Anoop /

    Wonderful Post, Lots of good information for any beginer to play around with his camera. Thanks Again for the wonderful post

  27. Thanks for your kind words, Anoop!

  28. those where the information i was hunting for since i bought my camera(been 2 years now)….. thank u from the bottom of my heart nicole… god bless u..

  29. …and thank you for the lovely comment! Really glad to have been able to help.

  30. denzel /

    Thank you for you time and dedication.. I am a newbie and this article was a great starting point.. all the best keep up the good work..

  31. thnx for ur beautiful tips

  32. A very good post and a great website with lots of good information. I must say I have recently purchased Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 and I have fallen in love with it. Just wanted to know how far do you usually stand from the subject when you are using Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 in a dim light.

    I have found this lens extremely good when i am very near to the subject but it has failed me in wedding photography when the subject to quite far from me :-(
    Looking forward to your reply.

    Cheers,
    Su

  33. Hi Su, thanks for your kind comment about the site! I’m normally only a couple of meters away from my subject when using the 50mm f/1.8 – I like to get real close up shots normally, so don’t really use it if my subject is far away. Do you have any examples of your wedding photography on the web somewhere? I’m always interested in looking at more wedding photography, I really like it (probably because I love taking photos of people; that’s definitely the side of photography I’m more interested in).

  34. Thanks for your kind words! :)

  35. Penny Hull /

    Finnally I understand aperture and ISO settings! Thanks for such a brilliantly well explained article, can’t wait to get started – just waiting for the camera to arrive now!

  36. Really glad it helped! And enjoy your new camera, I’m sure you will…!

  37. James /

    Fantastic tutorial I came across…Friend I just bought in Canon EOS 60D with Sigma 18-200 Lens. Now planning for Canon 50mm 1.8 II Lens for shooting Portraits. But I guess it will also shoot group shots, right ? Can you tell me any cheap lens for Low light, cheaper than Tam 17-50 2.8 ?

    Also, can you suggest me any third party Flash that will go with my Canon 60D

    Your suggesion will be highy appreciated …

    Thanks & Regards,
    James

  38. Hi James, thanks for your comments. The Canon 50mm f/1.8 will do group shots too, if you’re standing far enough away… group shots with a medium telephoto such as this can look really good, actually, with the background nice and blurred. It’s also a very good lens for lowlight photography – great value too. In terms of third-party flahes, I’m afraid I don’t have experience of any – I’d really suggest saving a bit more and going for a dedicated Canon flash, such as the 430 EX II or 580. They’re both fantastic flashes, and you’ll beneft from being able to use them in full ETTL modes.

  39. Thank you for the great tips. It really help in the event photgraphy in my church when flash are not allowed. I am using Nikon D7000 where I can really use its good ISO.

  40. No problem, John, the low light in churches can really be tricky – hope these tips helped!

  41. felicia /

    thx 4 the post it was very helpful since I am going to be doing an event this weekend in super low lighting and have no experience in that area.

  42. Love this article and your other one about getting a blurred background. You really help make certain aspects of photography easier to understand and help newbies like me take some beautiful photographs! I have tried several of your tips and they have worked and fired me up even more about going out and getting some great shots! Thanks so much! I actually have an Olympus EPL-1, which I know isnt technically a DSLR, but I seem to be getting some good results. Im using it to bridge me to a full- on DSLR… maybe a Canon in the future!

  43. Thanks a lot, Becky, that’s really lovely of you to say! :)

  44. Another great post!! Im totally hooked! I love the how i got the shot posts it gives me ideas on how to achieve the shot!! Really really well thought posts / site features! And last thing, the way you reply is just aweeeesome. I can see how nice you are as a person! You really take time to thank everyone.

    Cant stop clicking on your site! Keep up the good work!

    Im a fan!!! Love you!!!! :))))

  45. Ah, thanks so much, Joan, that’s really very lovely of you to say! :)

  46. No problem, Felicia, I hope the low lighting shoort went well!

  47. Nazli Shah /

    .. bought my 1st DSLR camera Canon 500D (been 2 years now)….. thank u for your time and effort for this helpful tips. Really2 appreciate it..

    Keep it UP and may GOD BLESS YOU..

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