I get a lot of emails from beginner photographers who have just purchased their first dSLR and are chomping at the bit to shoot some great photos, but don’t know where to start. Whether you’ve moved from a film SLR or up from a point and shoot camera, the first thing you should do is read your manual! Set aside some time and learn what all those buttons and dials do. It’s lame and confusing I know, but learning how to move around your camera is your first major obstacle to taking great pictures.
One of the most common mistakes I see from beginners is underexposed images taken in low light situations, i.e., poorly lit room, music venue, restaurant, or outside at dusk or night. These photos are often blurry, noisy, dark, or blown-out with an on-camera flash. But don’t fear! Everyone makes these mistakes. The good news is all you have to do is learn a few technical things and you’ll be taking awesome exposures in no time.
Good photographs need good lighting. Achieving good lighting requires a combination of many different skills and tools.
Here are 5 ways you can get better exposures in low light:
1. Increase your aperture.
50mm, f/1.4, 1/125, ISO 200.
The lower the f-number, the more light is let into your camera. I know this seems backwards at first, so play around with your camera’s Av (or Aperture Priority mode). Take shots of one subject with different f-stop setting and you’ll start to understand how aperture can effect your image.
What to watch for: Remember that as you lower your aperture, the Depth of Field (DoF) becomes shallower. Using a nice wide aperture (f/4 or lower, for example) is how you get a nice sharp subject with a blurry background. So if you are shooting with an aperture of f/1.4, you are going to have to nail your area of focus. It’s also good if you know the widest aperture of your lens. For instance, the lens I use the most in low light is the 50mm with a maximum aperture of f/1.4. Just in case you forget, it’s actually written right on your lens!
2. Decrease your shutter speed.
This one is a bit easier to remember: The slower your shutter speed, the more light reaches the sensor. For example, 1/30 slower shutter, more light, 1/2500 faster shutter, less light. Easy peasy.
What to watch out for: Unless you are going for some kind of motion blur effect, you probably want your photos to be as crisp and sharp as possible. If you are hand-holding your camera and your shutter speed is too long, you are going to get blurry, shaky photos. To get your hand-held images tack sharp, there is a a good rule of thumb to remember:
The slowest shutter speed that can be used without blur is the shutter speed that is closest to the focal length of the lens that you are using.
Huh? Yeah that did sound confusing. Well, say you are using a 50mm lens, the lowest shutter speed you should use for hand-held shots is 1/50th. Of course, this is only a general guide. You can also push your shutter speed down lower if you steady yourself against a wall, or your camera on a table, or develop some serious Jedi mind-to-hand steadying powers. And if you have a magical money tree, obviously an lens with optical Image Stabilization (IS) will help a lot.
3. Increase your ISO.
50mm, f/1.4, 1/30, ISO 400
The higher the ISO, the more sensitive your camera’s sensor is to light. If you increase the ISO your photos will appear brighter. Most entry level SLRs can shoot up to ISO 1600. Fancy pants SLRs like the Nikon D3 can get up much higher, like 6400. That’s serious business.
What to watch for: The huge downside to shooting with a high ISO is that your images will appear more grainy and noisy. In my opinion, increasing the ISO should be a last resort for getting a better exposure. Stay as low as possible and try shifting around the aperture and shutter speed before cranking the ISO. Also, learn the limits of your camera. On my little Xti (400D) I can’t shoot over ISO 400 without getting noise, but something like the Canon 5D Mark II is designed to work with high ISO settings with limited noise. Lucky dogs!
4. Use a Tripod.
17mm, f/11, 6s, ISO 100.
Tripods are great little devices that steady your shots when light isn’t great. They also allow you to go with the ISO and aperture settings you want. The above image was shot at f/11 for 6s at ISO 100. Without a tripod that shot would have been a big blurry mess.
I know tripods aren’t fun to tote around. Trust me, I know. But, you don’t need a huge, expensive tripod when you are just starting. Just look for something sturdy, light and portable. Well, as portable as a big pointy, metal object can be. You can even find ones that come with little bags for extra portability. Actually, my mum, who is quite the seamstress, made a faux-vinyl tripod bag that works really well. I’m trying to convince her to write a DIY post about it for my blog. Maybe you can convince her.
Another option for a portable tripod is the Joby Gorillapod. These flexible guys have three articulated legs that can bend and wrap around things to shoot from almost anywhere: Rock ledges, tree branches, bike handles, even your head if you’re into that kind of thing.
There are 5 models ranging in size and how much weight they can hold. I suggest the SLR model for larger point and shoots like the G9 or LX3 and entry-level SLRs without a big telephoto lenses, and the SLR-Zoom for SLRs with serious glass. For people getting a bit more serious, any pro will tell you that there are two kinds of tripods: The kind that is cheap and easy to carry around, and the kind that works. I say spend what you can and make it work. A cheap tripod is better than no tripod, and if it’s small and light you’ll probably use it more.
35mm, f/4, 1/60, ISO 200, on-camera flash.
5. Using the on Camera flash.
Sometimes capturing the moment is the most important thing. I know hard to believe, but some people really need proof that they “hung out” with Wil Weaton at Comic-Con. Isn’t the experience enough? No, gotta share it with all of the internet do you? I have no idea about this compulsion you have. So, set that puppy to ‘Auto’ mode, say a little prayer, and fire away! Here’s hoping for the best.
What to watch for: The trouble with on-camera flash is that it almost never looks good. Just look through some of your Facebook friends’ photo albums (oh low blow): Washed out faces, harsh shadows, awful reflection on glasses, sickly blue colour balance, the list goes on and on. So here’s a few tricks to minimize what I call the “Facebook flash effect”:
- Dial down the intensity of the flash. If you’d read the manual, you’d know how to do this :P
- Set your white balance to flash.
- Tape of small piece of wax paper over the flash to diffuse the light.
With a few simple adjustments and a little bit of knowledge, you have the power to take great shots. I believe in you! So go forth and photograph amazing things!
Need a place to start? Here are some great rainy day photography projects.
Questions, comments, & things to add? I’d love to hear from you.