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Low light images can become really frustrating really quick. I have grown to love low light and taking pictures in low light. With that, always comes grain, though.
Low light is something that speaks to my heart.
Photographers tend to shy away from low light, but I’m here to tell you it can give you such gorgeous images.
I was recently asked how I got such beautiful, crisp low light images. I was so flattered (that’s pretty much the whole reason I’m writing this post)! But it got me thinking, what are all the steps I take to ensure a crisp low light image?
Does grain bother me?
The short answer, is no. It doesn’t bother me. But with that being said, I do tend to try to avoid the grain when I can.
So, without further ado, let’s get into the tips that will help you have crisp, (not so grainy) images that you will love and cherish!
10 tips for crisp low light images
Before we begin the ten tips, I wanted to talk a little bit about grain. Why do photographers hate grain so much? Well, the biggest answer I could give you is that it doesn’t look good when you print your images out.
Some photographers are jumping on a trend to actually add grain into their images. Why would photographers like to add grain? It often times gives their images a film look. Which, in my opinion, is such a beautiful, flawless look that can’t be replicated.
Here’s an example of an image that I’ve added more grain in and also taken away:
The top left image (in color) is the straight out of camera image (SOOC). As you can see, it’s much brighter and in my edit on the right, I bring down exposure some. Then in the bottom image I added grain, which I am kind of digging haha! I might need to play with that more. I take some grain away in all of my images, though. Just my normal editing process.
Now that you can see what grain looks like in an image, let’s talk about how to avoid it in low light situations and to get crisp images!
1. get exposure right in camera
To avoid grain in your low light images, expose it right in camera. I sometimes tend to overexpose my low light images (making sure no highlights are blown) and then I edit my images to bring out the low light and to add depth into them. For example, in the image above, I exposed so that his face highlights wouldn’t be blown. And then in my post processing, I fixed white balance, brought in more shadows, and cropped some.
If I had exposed this to look like the edited image, more grain would have been introduced. When you underexpose an image, you add more grain.
Pro tip: Remember to check highlights when taking pictures. I’ve turned on my highlight blinkies so that I can easily check them in camera. If you aren’t sure how to do this, google your camera’s manual and look it up that way. It’s different for each camera.
2. manually focus your shots
When shooting in low light, the camera can sometimes have a hard time focusing, and therefore will result in blurry or out of focus images. Sometimes I will manually focus to make sure my shots are in focus.
It takes a little bit of practice to get your shots in focus when using low light. It can be frustrating. I know that I have tons of shots in low light situations where I missed focus. When you start to shoot more in low light situations, you will run into this problem a lot. So get used to using manual focus to get your shots!
3. keep your shutter speed high
Or as high as you can. I recommend never going below 1/200. If you are photographing moving toddlers, then bump it up higher! Instead, I would recommend changing your ISO to be a higher number.
But, what about the grain that comes with a higher ISO number?
Well, as I’ve mentioned a little earlier, if you expose your image properly (meaning, in camera it’s exposed right. It’s not overexposed and it’s not underexposed) you’ll manage to have less grain than if you used a low ISO number but your image turned out to be underexposed.
4. avoid shooting wide open
It’s a tricky game of finding the right exposure for low light images. But I truly believe having a higher shutter speed and not shooting wide open will help you get sharp low light images. Wide open is the lowest number aperture your lens can go (this can be 1.8, 1.4, or even sometimes 1.2). I like to start at around 2.5. This will help you get more things in focus. Of course, with a low light image, you’ll want to allow as much light as possible into the frame. But I highly recommend not shooting as wide open as you can because it will make it really hard (almost impossible) to get things in focus that way.
Instead, start at about 2.5, set your shutter speed to no lower than 1/200 and then set your ISO to help get your exposure correct. This might mean that your ISO is 6400 and that’s ok! Just as long as your image is exposed correctly, the grain will not be as bad as you’re thinking it will be! And you’ll have an image that’s in focus.
5. never use flash
At least not the flash that is attached to your camera. Off camera flash can do wonders if you use it correctly. But the flash attached to your camera? NEVER USE IT. Please, I see way too many pictures with the on camera flash and it just makes me cringe. This flash creates unpleasant highlights and shadows on your subject. It also creates catchlights that are small and not ideal. If you’re going to use a flash, make sure it’s off camera! PLEASE!
The image above used off camera lighting (not flash) that I think gives a nice effect.
6. use a tripod
In some situations it’s unavoidable – you need a tripod! I use a tripod for any nighttime landscape images, like the one above. I also use a remote for even more stabilization.
7. steady yourself
If for whatever reason you have to lower your shutter speed and don’t have a tripod on you, then I suggest steadying yourself. I usually tuck my elbows in, stable myself, and hold my breath. This doesn’t always prevent camera shake, though. And I definitely recommend using a tripod or higher shutter speed first before resorting to this tip!
8. try long exposure
Long exposures are SO fun! But, you must use a tripod for them, or you will just have a bunch blur in your images. The above image uses a long exposure. I love using long exposure on my landscape images. I never use long exposure when taking pictures of people, though. It would just come out as a blur! But for nighttime landscape images, long exposure is so fun!
9. shoot in RAW
I always shoot in RAW! I recommend googling how to switch your images to RAW. When you shoot in RAW, you HAVE to edit your images. As opposed to when you shoot in JPEG. RAW vs JPEG is an ongoing question for photographers to figure out if it’s best for them or not. For me, RAW had the most benefits for what I needed. I also always edit my images, so RAW just makes the most sense for me.
When shooting in low light situations, RAW images will always be my first pick. It’s a lot easier to bring back information in your RAW images than in your JPEG images. If you accidentally underexpose your images, but you shot in RAW, all is not lost and you can bring back some very important details! Shooting in RAW in low light situations is a must.
10. shoot with a prime lens
I actually only own prime lenses. They are sharper than zoom lenses, and I personally like the look they give a lot more. Zoom lenses have their own purposes, of course, so if you only own zoom lenses, don’t be discouraged. You can still get great low light images. But shooting with a prime lens will definitely help. I also love prime lenses because a lot of them have a lower aperture (like 1.4 or 1.2) and that can help bring in more light in your low light images if you’re desperate.
Prime lenses are definitely sharper in all situations, low light included. The larger the maximum aperture, the faster the lens typically is. And this helps in getting sharper images.
For Nikon, I recommend getting the Nikon 50mm 1.4 lens, it’s less expensive than most and can deliver some stunning images. It’s sharp and very fast! One of my favorite lenses. It’s a great first lens and also perfect for low light images!
Good luck in your low light adventures! And please comment below with any questions you might have.
Alyssa (sometimes going by Aly) is a hobbyist photographer who loves to teach. Her love of photography started before she ever had any kids. Now a mom of two, she loves to photograph her kids, flowers, and landscape. She specializes in capturing her everyday life. She loves to teach fellow beginner photographers how to take control of their cameras and get the images they dream about getting.