6 tips for embracing low-light and high ISO photos

by Megan Dill

Winter.

If you’re like me, you work a long day out of the home, departing as the sun is coming up and returning after sundown.  You would think that this would impose extreme limits on your ability to take meaningful daily photographs.  I beg to differ—winter is a wonderful time to push yourself creatively by pushing your camera to extremes by cranking up your ISO!

ISO is one third of the exposure triangle, which is also comprised of aperture and shutter speed.  The selected ISO speed determines how sensitive the camera sensor is to incoming light.  Doubling the ISO speed doubles the camera’s sensitivity to light.  Therefore, increasing the ISO a full stop from 800 to 1600 requires stopping down the aperture by a stop in order to create an equivalent exposure, granted shutter speed remains constant.  However, increasing ISO comes with a bit of baggage: added noise.  To many digital shooters, this is an undesirable trait as it muddies up the photograph.

To minimize the amount of digital noise in a scene, set the ISO to the lowest value to obtain a correct exposure.  My strategy when shooting in low light settings begins with setting the desired aperture and shutter speed based on the available light in the scene, and then setting the necessary ISO after spot-metering my subject using the Zone System.  Oftentimes a high ISO value is inevitable to (1) obtain a correct exposure, (2) get the intended subject(s) in focus, and (3) avoid unwanted motion blur in the subject.

Here are a few pointers on shooting in low light scenes with their requisite high ISO settings:

  • Shoot at the widest aperture that makes sense for the scene.
  • My go-to lenses for low-light work indoors are my 35mm 1.4L and 50mm 1.4.  A fast lens affords much more latitude, allowing more light to hit the sensor at the widest apertures.  It’s like having a head start in a race.
  • Choose the aperture that is appropriate for the scene—do you want a shallow or large depth of field?  Let the ISO speed fall into place after choosing your aperture and shutter speed.

6 tips for embracing low light and high ISO photos photo
ISO 6400, f/9.0, 1/6 (camera propped on chair)

6 tips for embracing low light and high ISO photos photo
ISO 2000, f/2.8, 1/160 (handheld)

1. Choose a slower shutter speed

Sometimes shutter speed will trump aperture when choosing your camera settings.  A slower shutter speed increases the amount of light hitting the sensor.  Select the lowest shutter speed to avoid motion blur in your subject, if the goal is to shoot a sharp image.   Oftentimes this is on the order of 1/125; higher for longer lenses (or for those with shaky hands like me!).  I use this shutter speed as a baseline and pull out the tripod or set my camera on a trusted, flat surface if I need to go lower.

Slower shutter speeds can be used for photographs incorporating motion blur.  You may choose to implement motion blur in your subject or in the surroundings, depending on your vision.  I find that creating blur in the subject itself can be very effective in generating a mysterious vibe in low-light photography because it prevents the viewer from clearly seeing the subject.  Plus, it’s fun!

6 tips for embracing low light and high ISO photos photo
ISO 1600, f/3.2, 1/160 (tripod)

2. Utilize manual focus

Explore manual focus with your camera, which will broaden your creative gamut.  Blurred focus can give your photographs an abstract look, and also veil the subject in secrecy.

If you don’t want to use manual focus when shooting in low-light settings, use a flashlight.  Shine the flashlight on your subject, and then set the focus.  Then turn off your flashlight and set the exposure.  This technique is helpful when your camera can’t detect enough contrast in the selected focus point, and just “hunts”.

6 tips for embracing low light and high ISO photos photo
ISO 6400, f/2.8, 1/100 (handheld)

3. Use artificial light sources

Flashlights and iPads are a fantastic resource that can add a whole new dimension to your work—and assist in providing more available light to your scene.  If you have an iPad, check out the Softbox Pro app.  Artificial light sources are also great for those with limited ISO capabilities.  My Rebel xTi had a maximum ISO of 1600 compared to 25,600 on my 5D Mark III.  The Rebel obviously has limitations in low-light situations.  Artificial light sources can provide more leeway.

6 tips for embracing low light and high ISO photos photo
ISO 3200, f/2.2, 1/60 (camera on floor)

6 tips for embracing low light and high ISO photos photo
ISO 1600, f/1.8, 1/200 (handheld)

4. Embrace shadows

Subjects shrouded in shadows generate a sense of intrigue.  So is the case when the subject itself is a shadow or silhouette.  Explore directional light such as side and split lighting.  However, be aware that noise likes to hide in the shadows.  Meter for your subject, and err on the side of overexposure.  Expose to the right as far as you can without clipping highlights.  You can always bring down the exposure in post-processing, particularly if you shoot in RAW which carries much more detail than a jpeg.  Increasing exposure in an underexposed image will generally result in more noise.  Strive to nail your exposure in-camera, chimping as needed.

And dare I say it: embrace shadow clipping.  If the clipped detail is not important to the image and it meets your artistic vision, don’t worry about it.   I oftentimes clip the unimportant shadows purposely.  However, unless working with a silhouette, try to avoid clipping on the skin.

6 tips for embracing low light and high ISO photos photo
ISO 2000, f/2.0, 1/160 (tripod)

6 tips for embracing low light and high ISO photos photo
ISO 2500, f/1.4, 1/800 (handheld)

5. Consider a black and white conversion

Winter is the dreariest time of year, after all.  Experiment with moody edits.  Play around with the tone curve sliders and also the blacks slider in Lightroom, particularly if you opt for a black and white conversion.  Embrace the shadows slider.  I oftentimes push this as far to the left as I can go before detail is lost in the things that I deem important in the image.  If you are editing in Photoshop, use a curves layer set to multiply and using masking and adjust opacity as needed.  The burn tool is also very useful.

6 tips for embracing low light and high ISO photos photo
ISO 2500, f/1.6, 1/100 (handheld)

6 tips for embracing low light and high ISO photos photo
ISO 6400, f/4.0, 1/60 (tripod)

6. Use noise as an artistic tool

Noise isn’t always undesirable.  Street photography, urban locations, or scenes with a lot of rough texture are a natural fit for noisy photographs.  Noise can also be used to give your everyday photographs a grainy, film-like appearance.  Experiment with noise by leaving it in or even enhancing it through the noise reduction panel in Lightroom.

6 tips for embracing low light and high ISO photos photo
ISO 2500, f/3.5, 1/160 (handheld)

6 tips for embracing low light and high ISO photos photo
ISO 5000, f/2.0, 1/125 (handheld)

Can’t figure out what to photograph after your children have gone to bed?  Try self-portraits, macro, and still life scenes.  If attempting a self-portrait and you are a bit uncomfortable doing so, try concealing some of your features with shadows.  Artificial light sources can accomplish this.

6 tips for embracing low light and high ISO photos photo
ISO 3200, f/2.0, 1/125 (tripod)

You can also sneak into your children’s rooms with a flashlight and capture them in their slumbering glory.  Don’t let lack of natural light become an obstacle in picking up your camera.

6 tips for embracing low light and high ISO photos photo
ISO 3200, f/1.6, 1/125 (handheld)

Finally, take a moment to envision what you want to convey before setting hands on your camera.  Brainstorm ideas throughout the day, and execute when dark.  You may come to love low-light photography and utilizing high ISO settings on your camera.

6 tips for embracing low light and high ISO photos photoMegan Dill, New York
CM Mentor
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Author of Therapeutic Photography, Megan is a hobbyist photographer based in the lower Hudson Valley of New York where she lives with her musician husband and two young sons. She enjoys playing with light and shadow to create evocative images, and gravitates towards moody black and white processing in her work. Megan is a Canon shooter and uses an assortment of prime lenses, and also frequently turns to her Fuji X mirrorless system which includes several native and adapted lenses. Additionally, she shoots with several film cameras, to include 35mm and medium format. Cooking, baking, and making her own soap are a few of the things Megan enjoys along with goat cheese and quirky documentary films. Megan also has an undergraduate degree in Atmospheric Science and used to be employed as a meteorologist which explains her desire to go storm chasing with her camera in tow. Unfortunately, the thunderstorms where she lives in New York are not too exciting.

Read all photography tutorials by Megan Dill.

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