A Beginner’s Guide to Troubleshooting Light

50mm, f/2.5, 1/160, ISO 400.

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.

Canon 70-200mm IS, 135mm, f/2.8, 1/80, ISO 200.

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”:

  1. Dial down the intensity of the flash. If you’d read the manual, you’d know how to do this :P
  2. Set your white balance to flash.
  3. 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.

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  • Reply
    January 29, 2009 at 4:46 AM

    Thanks for these tips. They’re really useful. I’ve been having trouble with getting good shots in low light.

    Looking forward to putting some of this into practice. :-)

  • Reply
    Scuba Steve
    January 29, 2009 at 5:41 AM

    I purchased my first SLR camera between Xmas and New Year’s. It is the Rebel XSi and have purchased a number of lenses. I have a new found respect for those that shot film well. To a couple of your points Lisa, I was a bit a geek and read most of the manual (but only absorbed half). What I found helped me a lot was I just went for drives and shot pictures of things. I am still beyond an amateur and have made some stupid mistakes but that got me “experience” shooting in high light, low light, night, motion, landscape, people etc.. I would spend 3 or 4 hours here and there doing this. To Pasquales point….I am still struggling with composition. Centering is not always the right choice and the rule of thirds confuses me a bit.

  • Reply
    January 29, 2009 at 6:13 AM

    thanks heaps for this, i bought a D60 about 6 weeks ago and am still a total noob. It’s good to hear this stuff from as many different voices as possible – and there was some new stuff in there too…

    nice shot of hungry jacks at the queen street mall too (yeah?). i live between the gold coast and bris – it’s nice to see things i recognise.

  • Reply
    January 29, 2009 at 8:14 AM

    This is an excellently written summary for beginning photographers. Thanks for posting this.

  • Reply
    Linking to: MostlyLisa’s Light Troubleshooting |
    January 29, 2009 at 8:16 AM

    […] A Beginner’s Guide to Troubleshooting Light […]

  • Reply
    Derek K. Miller
    January 29, 2009 at 9:59 AM

    One neat solution for the on-camera flash is to make a diffuser out of a white translucent film canister, like this:

    Two things I recommend as first purchases for new DSLR owners are an inexpensive fast 50mm lens (like the one that took this photo) and a better flash unit that can bounce off the ceiling. Nikon’s SB400 is a decent option because it’s small and inexpensive, but of course some of the bigger units offer more flexibility.

  • Reply
    January 29, 2009 at 10:24 AM

    great tips, great site!!!
    keep going ;)

  • Reply
    January 29, 2009 at 10:54 AM

    Thanks for the info! I usually just shoot and fidget with the dials as i go until I get what looks okay then fix it in lightroom. Lets hear it for post production!

  • Reply
    Chris Pugh
    January 29, 2009 at 11:12 AM

    Thanks Lisa! I’ve been shooting for a while now and have figured out most of these settings on my own. It was nice to read a well written explanation of it all!

  • Reply
    January 29, 2009 at 1:52 PM

    great tips! lighting is so important for beginners to understand, and “see”

    fyi the other day I came across some cheap and easy DIY tips for better light with flash photography, see:

    some of the tips require an external flash but others make use of your pop-up flash, or external lights. I particularly like tip#2 in the above link for closeup w/flash – it’s kinda goofy looking but it works, and takes no space in your bag! and if you do have an external flash unit, tip #9 is a must-do.

    a number of the tips are similar to your suggestion to put tape over your flash – the goal of all these kinds of tips is to soften the light from the flash by making the light source seem larger and less direct

    have fun!

  • Reply
    January 29, 2009 at 3:19 PM

    This was amazingly helpful…thank you.
    As an amature photographer, I tend to run into these little problems all the time. I think my shot compositions are great, but often times my shots can come out grainy, blurry, too dark, too light, etc. I’ll be printing this blog out imediatly, and can’t wait to apply your tips to my next photo outing! Thanks again!

  • Reply
    James S
    January 29, 2009 at 3:47 PM

    Ooh. Wax paper. I’m going to try that one. I hate the on-camera flash, but sometimes, there’s just no choice.

  • Reply
    Lewis Miller
    January 29, 2009 at 3:49 PM

    I’d avoid the Gorillapod unless it’s maybe the new metal one. I’ve got the SLR Gorillapod and I barely trust it to hold my Panasonic FZ-50. I’ll use it to stabilize my camera in certain areas but usually with the camera strap still wrapped around me in case the legs give. It’s just not sturdy enough.

  • Reply
    January 29, 2009 at 3:58 PM

    Very Nice write up Lisa. :)

    I’d like to add that its also a good thing to experiment with using the flash outdoor on especially harsh sunlight days for portraits. Set it to a low power setting (-1 to -2 flash power depending on camera/flash) can be helpful with lightening dark shadows and adding a catch light to the eyes.

    Happy shooting!

  • Reply
    Joshua S
    January 29, 2009 at 4:27 PM

    Noticed that you use the Canon 1.4 50mm. I purchased the 1.8 50mm right after getting my camera last year. Is there a big difference in quality between the two lenses? I’m trying to build up my lens cache, so every dollar counts . . .

  • Reply
    Ben Klaus
    January 29, 2009 at 4:53 PM

    I guess it isn’t really a true beginner subject, but the faster you learn to use the histogram the better!! This really improved my photography!!

  • Reply
    January 29, 2009 at 7:13 PM

    Hi Lisa,
    These are good tips for beginners, but I would suggest using lowest ISO, like 100 or 50, and extending the exposure time with the shutter open (bulb). You get the best of both worlds that way, great saturation and low noise.
    To increase the depth of field, stop the shutter down to f8.0 or more, if possible.

  • Reply
    January 29, 2009 at 9:12 PM

    Lisa – This post is awesome! I have read so many books, over the last year and they have helped but it was never as clear as this. It’s truly broken down so a person just starting out in Photography can grasp it. Thanks and your shots alway look great!

  • Reply
    Weekend Perusing: Beginner Tips, Bad Flickr, and Camera Phones | Your Photo Tips
    January 30, 2009 at 5:01 AM

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  • Reply
    January 30, 2009 at 11:24 AM

    Great tips. I really need to get myself a tripod… sturdy but perhaps light enough so I can take it with me out on my outdoor trips.

  • Reply
    Aimee Greeblemonkey
    January 30, 2009 at 3:07 PM

    Great tips! I forwarded this post to several friends who were looking for tips like this.

  • Reply
    February 6, 2009 at 3:44 AM

    Thanks for giving me the kick in the pants to dig out my tripod, and experiment with lower iso and varying aperture settings! I’ve been a bit conservative since picking up the slr a few months ago.

  • Reply
    February 7, 2009 at 12:16 PM

    This is my new favorite website. I LOVE it!

  • Reply
    February 8, 2009 at 9:51 PM

    thanks for all the photography tips. i will certainly be putting them to use

  • Reply
    Robin Kaspar
    February 14, 2009 at 8:04 AM

    Thanks for this, Lisa. I have the 1st gen Digital Rebel (300D) and I wasn’t familiar with being able to fiddle with the intensity of the on-camera flash. I got out the manual, couldn’t find anything. So I found something on the web that told me what I was looking for, downloaded the user manual for my camera and did a search on “Flash Exposure Compensation.” Nothing. I downloaded the user manual for your camera, searched and there it was. So now I’m reasonably sure :-) that I don’t have this functionality. A friend has a diffuser that he’s happy with, I may try it as an inexpensive option until I figure out if I should get a speedlite.

  • Reply
    Pushkar Arora
    February 16, 2009 at 5:01 AM

    Great tips. These are surely gonna help for the lots of outdoor photography I am looking forward to this year.

  • Reply
    March 30, 2009 at 11:38 AM

    Amazingly put!

    Did have a question on your experience shooting with a 50 1.4 vs s 85 1.4 & 1.8. I am trying to decide which lens to get from these three and would love to hear your thoughts. Primarily to shoot editorial fashion type pictures.

  • Reply
    July 15, 2009 at 7:14 AM

    awesome site.. u rock my pics :)

  • Reply
    July 30, 2009 at 9:16 AM

    a must read for beginner.
    great tutorial.

  • Reply
    Mostly Lisa : Photography, Videos, & Geeky Stuff. » Entry » How to Take Better Portraits
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  • Reply » Blog Archive » 10 New Years Resolutions Every Photographer should make
    January 2, 2010 at 3:20 PM

    […] The only photos you should take with an on-camera flash are ones that end up on your Facebook wall of shame. Tape down that pop-up flash if you have to. Instead rely on your skills as a photographer to capture shots in low-light. […]

  • Reply
    Olga Robles
    May 26, 2010 at 12:05 PM

    Hi Lisa:
    I was just reading your site. I am hoping you might shed some light on a problem no one has been able to answer. I fell with my camera some time ago, damaged my lens and had it repaired. I notice that since then I am having problems with out of focus pictures. I specially have problems indoors in low light where I am too far for a flash. I try opening my aperture to it’s max and even going as high as 3200 ISO, but they are not totally in focus. I take a lot of shots of my grandkids in school plays and sports and find that even with very speed my photos are not crisp. Could this be due to the fall on the camera itself? If so, what should I do? Thank you for your help.

  • Reply
    Booker Meyerhofer
    July 18, 2010 at 2:09 AM

    Fantastic the euro shows stability again:-)

  • Reply
    Wheeet? |
    July 9, 2011 at 9:45 PM

    […] I guess with an actual external flash that you could attach to the hotshoe (the metal bracket thing at the top) of the camera, any flash compensation settings you have set for the built-in flash would also apply to the external flash. I turned down my flash to -2, which makes it less intense (something I’ve learned from MostlyLisa). […]

  • Reply
    September 12, 2011 at 8:12 AM


  • Reply
    February 28, 2013 at 2:23 PM

    I don’t care what I do I cannot get sharp eyes in my images. I have tried everything. I don’t know what to do to fix it

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