It is impossible to overestimate the importance of light in photography. Regardless of whether you treat photography as a hobby or you are a seasoned professional, you are chasing the light and trying to capture it.
Even the word “photography” has its origins in combining the two Greek words “photo” and “graphia” that translate as “Drawing with Light.”
Doesn’t that sound much more poetic and far cooler than “photography?”
But, here comes the biggest paradox of photography—the abundance of light does not always translate into great photographs. Actually, it is entirely the opposite. The most interesting and impactful photos are produced when light is lacking or the lighting conditions are extreme.
Think about sunsets, sunrises, stormy weather, cloudy skies, dark streets, indoor portraits and astrophotography. All these scenarios share one common element—the lack of light.
This is why learning to deal with low light in your photography is one of the most important and fundamental skills that you must master.
Today, you will learn how to apply low light photography tips and techniques to the following travel photography scenarios:
- people photography
- night sky photography
As a travel photographer, you will—in most cases—deal with natural light. This is why I will save the discussion of flash photography and studio photography for other articles.
Global Low Light Photography Tips
The low light photography tips and techniques that you can apply in low light depend on the scenario at hand. But, there is one common tip that covers the entire spectrum of travel photography.
I cannot stress enough how important, liberating and flexible your photography becomes when you start shooting in RAW format.
The RAW format is unprocessed data that contains the light intensity values collected from every pixel of your camera sensor. You have full control on how to process and develop the gathered information with enormous latitude and flexibility.
On the other hand, JPEG is raw data converted into an image based on your camera’s algorithms and averages where you have almost no control over the process.
You can find my detailed article where I explain and compare the two formats : RAW vs JPEG – The Only Guide You Will Ever Need
If you are still on the fence about switching to RAW format, you can set your camera to shoot RAW+JPEG at the same time and later compare the two formats during editing.
1. Low Light Photography Tips for Landscapes
Landscape photography, by default, is the epitome of low light photography. The most impactful landscape photos are created between the Golden Hour of Sunset and the Golden Hour of Sunrise making a photographer’s low light photography skills the most important aspect of the shoot.
a. Use a Tripod
A tripod is a landscape photographer’s best friend. The primary function of the tripod is to stabilize the camera and avoid camera shakes when shooting in low light conditions with long shutter speeds. The tripod allows us to take sharp photos at a low ISO, which results in the best possible image quality.
Tripods are also beneficial because they cause you to slow down and think when you compose a shot. I find myself taking fewer images when I use a tripod but, at the same time, with a much higher success rate.
I love my tripods. In fact, I own three!
b. Use Remote Release or the 2 Second Delay
Even when you use a top-quality tripod to shoot in low light conditions, it is easy to introduce a camera shake by pressing the shutter button. To eliminate the potential vibration, you have two options.
The easiest option is to use the “2 Second Delay” functionality that most cameras now have. How does it work? When you press the shutter button, the camera takes a two second delay before firing the shot.
Another option is to use a dedicated remote release, which is an inexpensive gadget that can be either wireless or wired.
In my case, I use both techniques. When I shoot in single-shot mode, I often use the “2 Second Delay” functionality on my camera. When I bracket shots, I use a $10 wireless remote release to trigger the shots.
c. Use a Long Shutter Speed
When we face low light conditions, we have three main options to compensate for the lack of light:
- Boost ISO
- Open the Aperture
- Increase the Shutter Speed
Using a longer shutter speed allows us to use a long exposure photography technique that is fundamental in landscape photography. This technique introduces the motion blur in our photos. For example, a shutter speed of one second or longer smooths the running water and produces a silky looking effect.
At the same time, a longer shutter speed lets us use a low ISO for better image quality and a smaller aperture allows us to maximize the depth of field to get the entire scene in focus.
2. Low Light Photography Tips for People Photography
Whether we are shooting environmental portraits, indoor portraits or street photography, we face similar challenges in low light conditions compared to landscapes. But, it is important to remember that the solutions to overcome these challenges are different.
a. Open Your Aperture
Using a longer shutter speed when shooting landscapes is a very common technique in low light photography. The same technique, however, would ruin most of our portrait shots because motion blur is almost never welcome in people photography.
Instead, open the aperture of your lens by setting it to a minimum value.
If you want to learn more, read my dedicated aperture tutorial here: Aperture In Photography Fundamentals
By opening the aperture, we achieve two goals.
- First, we let more light reach the camera sensor to balance the exposure.
- Second, we minimize the depth of field, which enables us to achieve an out-of-focus background and create a visual separation between the model and the environment. This technique is the cornerstone of portrait photography.
b. Shoot in Burst Mode
When we shoot handheld in low light conditions, it is easy to introduce camera shake when we press the shutter button. When shooting in single shot mode, we run the risk of producing soft photos with every photo we take.
By switching to a continuous shooting mode, you press the shutter button once and take multiple photos in succession. First, the risk of camera shake is diminished after the first shot. Second, you have multiple shots to choose the sharpest version.
c. Use Auto ISO
Auto ISO is one of the most useful camera settings when shooting handheld but, at the same time, is also the most misunderstood feature.
Auto ISO is the best of both worlds because it offers the flexibility of Manual Mode with the convenience of Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority.
When using Auto ISO, you tell the camera not to go below a certain shutter speed value like, let’s say, lower than 1/100s and not to let ISO to go higher than, let’s say, ISO1600. When the light diminishes, the camera compensates by reducing the shutter speed and increasing the ISO but it will never go lower than 1/100s or higher than an ISO of 1600.
This means that you will get sharp photos with an acceptable level of noise.
Setting up the Auto ISO is a two-step process.
First, specify a minimum shutter speed value. For example, when shooting handheld with my favorite Sigma 30mm ¼ portrait lens, I do not ever want to go below a value of 1/100s.
Second, specify the ISO range. The range is based on your camera’s performance. In my case, my Sony a6000 produces an acceptable noise level up to an ISO of 1600. So, I set the ISO range between 100 and 1600.
3. Low Light Photography Tips for Cityscapes
a. Use a Wide Lens
Even when you shoot cityscapes in optimal lighting conditions, it is always beneficial to use a wide lens. The specifics of cityscape photography are that you try to fit huge structures into your composition shooting from a very short distance. This is not always easy and wide angle lenses give us more options and flexibility.
But, when shooting in low light conditions, wide lenses become even more useful because lenses with shorter focal lengths are less prone to camera shakes. For example, a safe shutter speed at a 100mm focal length is 1/200s compared to a 1/35s safe shutter speed when using a wide 16mm lens.
b. Use Support
It is not always convenient or even legal to use a tripod when shooting in cities. When the sun sets behind a big building and it becomes dark in just a few minutes, you might need help supporting your camera.
Use trees or the walls of other buildings for support. Lean with your back against the tree or wall, press your elbows against your body, exhale and slowly press the shutter. This technique allows you to shoot at much slower shutter speeds.
Another tip is to find support strictly for your camera—like a bench or a fence—and trigger the shutter by using the remote release or “2 Second Delay” functionality.
c. Boost Your ISO
Do not be afraid to crank up the ISO. It is easy to ruin your portrait shots when using extreme ISO values but digital noise can be treated as an artistic style with black and white cityscape shots.
4. Night Sky Photography Tips
Shooting in the middle of the night when it is pitch black is the most extreme type of low light photography.
The logic behind astrophotography is to open the shutter for a period of time to let enough light reach the camera sensor and capture the dim stars that are invisible to the naked eye. The combination of the camera and lens works as a light amplifier.
a. Use a Fast and Wide Lens
The specifics of astrophotography are that we deal with a constantly moving object—the Earth. This means that if we open the shutter for a few minutes to capture enough light, we end up with blurry stars or star trails.
It also means that, in most cases, to produce perfectly sharp stars the shutter speed value should not exceed 30 seconds.
To compensate for the relatively short shutter speed, we need to use the widest possible aperture and boost the ISO to extreme values. The correlation is straightforward: the faster the lens used, the lower the ISO value we can afford to ensure less noise in our pictures.
Wide lenses let us to use a much longer shutter speed value before star trails become prominent.
b. Shoot Multiple Frames for Noise Reduction
Excessive digital noise is one of the biggest challenges of astrophotography. There are different tools and techniques for noise reduction, but I want to share my favorite, which is also the most efficient. It does not require any additional equipment—all you need is Photoshop.
This technique leverages the random distribution of digital noise in any given image. By taking multiple shots of the same scene, we produce identical images with different noise patterns. This allows us to use the Mean Staking Mode technique in Photoshop where we combine multiple shots in a single Smart Object and Photoshop uses statistical calculations to average the digital noise across all frames.
When you do not own a fast lens and have to push the ISO values to the limit, this technique is a life saver.
By mastering low light photography, you can drastically improve your photography and make your images more distinct. The way to succeed in low light photography is to understand that different types of photography require different approaches and techniques.
By using my low light photography tips as a guideline, you can cover pretty much every scenario of your travel photography.
Please share your favorite low light photography tips and tricks with us!