For many photographers, shooting in low light can seem like a difficult and intimidating task. Light is essential in photography to create an exposure on your camera sensor or film, to provide you with an image. Many photographers rely on the natural light provided by the sun, to properly expose their images.
At night time, you are limited to shooting without natural light, and must rely on artificial light sources to expose your images. Using the techniques discussed in this post you can create beautiful night portraits, using the limited light sources available to you at night.
You can take amazing night time portraits with almost any camera equipment, but there are a few items that will make your life a lot easier.
When shooting in low light conditions, it is helpful to use a lens that has a low maximum aperture. The aperture value of your lens describes the size of the opening it has, which allows light to enter your camera’s film or sensor. The lower a lens' maximum aperture, the more light it can let in.
A lens with a maximum aperture of 2.8 or lower, will allow you to take photos in situations with very low light. Prime lenses that can shoot at an aperture of 1.8, 1.4 or even 1.2 and lower, will allow a large amount of light to reach your sensor or film. We will discuss the different lens options you can use in low light, in greater detail later in this post.
Modern DSLR and mirrorless cameras are equipped with amazing sensors that can capture photographs of high quality even in the darkest of lighting conditions. Most modern DSLR and mirrorless cameras are well equipped to shoot portraits at night time.
Some mirrorless cameras such as the Sony A7 series, offer in built camera sensor stabilization, which enables the photographer to shoot at a lower shutter speed by reducing sensor shake. A cameras low light capability is loosely tight to the dynamic range of its sensor, and its high ISO performance. Typically, a larger sensor will perform better in low light conditions, as it well perform better it high ISO, and offers a larger dynamic range when compared to a similar APS-C or smaller sensor.
Tripod / Monopod ?
A tripod or monopod is your best friend, when shooting portraits at night time. By fixing your camera into one position, you are eliminating any potential camera shake from your arms. Shooting on a tripod or monopod will enable you to photograph your subject at a lower shutter speed. If you are able to shoot at a lower shutter speed, you can decrease the ISO setting in your camera, for a crisper and less noisy image.
A constant light adds a new level of flexibility for you to use during your night time portrait sessions. It is not a necessity to use a constant light, as long as you can use other light sources in the area you are shooting.
An example of a good, cheap constant light is the Yong Nuo YN300. For just $30, you can hugely increase the photographic opportunities of any area at night, for your portrait photography.
If you decide to include the use of a constant light in your portrait photography, you must also include a stand to mount your light. Constant light that is positioned directly towards your model will be unsightly, and flatten any depth in their facial features. Mounting a constant light on your camera will not provide the best possible lighting conditions for your night time portrait.
Stands can be purchased for as little as $15 online, and you do not have to use a stand that was created just for photography. Most stands use the universal ¼” mount, similar to most DSLRs, mirrorless cameras, lights, microphones and much more.
In portrait photography, soft light is often the most flattering. If you use a constant light to add another level of depth to your night time portrait, it is important to consider diffusing this light with a large modifier. A modifier will soften the light a light emits, which will create a smooth and appealing skin tone on your model. Diffusing light will remove harsh shadows from your image in the areas that are illuminated by the light.
The larger the light modifier, the softer the light that has been modified.
What Lens to Use
There are a plethora of lenses in the world of photography, but not all were created equal for night time photography. The lenses discussed below are not an exhaustive list of potential candidates for night time portraits, but merely a starting point to guide you in the right direction.
Low aperture lenses enable a photographer to shoot in low light conditions, without the need to increase their cameras ISO or reduce shutter speed. The lower the ISO, the cleaner and less noisy the image will be. The faster the shutter speed, the better a camera will be able to capture motion without any blur.
Lenses with a maximum aperture of F1.4 or lower, are ideal for shooting at night time. Such lenses include the 24mm 1.4, 35mm 1.4, 50mm 1.4, and 85mm 1.4. You do not need to shoot with a camera lens that can shoot at such low aperture, but doing so will allow you to keep your ISO and shutter speed at acceptable levels.
Prime lenses often possess the capability to open up to very low apertures. For this reason, prime lenses are the perfect candidate for night time photography. If you are shooting with constant lighting, and not relying solely on the available light in an area, a zoom lens such as the 24-70mm 2.8 or 70-200mm 2.8 becomes a good option. The extra flexibility of adding your own light sources to a scene, grants you the possibility of shooting a night at higher apertures such as 2.8 or beyond.
Wide will make less bokeh
If you are shooting with a wide angle lens, that has a focal lens of less than 40mm, the blobs of light in the foreground or background of your image (known as bokeh) will be smaller and less pronounced. The wider your lens, the more of your image will be in focus, when compared to a long lens at the same aperture.
Long will make more bokeh
If you are shooting with a long focal length lens, with a focal length of 70mm or above, the bokeh in your image with be large and pronounced. The closer you shoot to the focus of your image, the larger and more creamy your bokeh will be.
Too long will make shutter blur
If you take photos with a lens that has a large focal length, camera shake is accentuated. As a general rule, if you are shooting handheld, camera shake will be incorporated into your image if you shoot at a shutterspeed lower than that of your focal length in millimeters.
For example, if you shoot with a 100mm lens, you should shoot at a minimum shutter speed of 1/100th of a second to avoid camera shake in your images. When shooting a moving subject, it is advised to shoot at a minimum shutter speed of 1/60th of a second or above. The use of a tripod or monopod allows a photographer to shoot at a speed of 1/60th of a second on a moving subject, regardless of focal length.
Shoot in available light
When shooting portraits in low light, the first thing to do is to find a location that is well lit. This might be next to a neon sign, or perhaps under a traffic light. Good lighting is the foundation of any portrait, and is particularly important in the absence of natural light.
Model 45 degrees to light
To create depth in your image, position your model 45 degrees to your light source. This angle will create a bright area on one side of their face, and a darker area on the other side. This lighting setup will at a 3-dimensional look to their face, making it appear more angular and aesthetically pleasing.
If you shoot your model with them facing a light source head on, their features will be more difficult to see, and their facial profile will appear flat and unflattering.
Shoot in Well light area
It is essential to shoot in a well lit area, when shooting night portraits. Without good lighting, your will be forced to shoot at high ISOs, leading to noisy and blurry images. Some of the best places to shoot at night time are well build metropolitan areas with bright signage, or by neon lighting in an arcade or bar.
Bokeh in background
At night, backgrounds will appear like a black and boring void in your image, unless they are illuminated by interesting lighting. After finding a well lit area to stage your photoshoot, you must now position your scene to include interesting lighting in the background. Traffic lights are a great option for creating beautiful and colorful bokeh in your night portraits.
If you can find an area with bright lighting, far away in the distance, you can create large blobs of bokeh in the background of your night portraits. The further your background is from the focal point of your image, the more out of focus and creamy it will be.
Avoid yellow light
Some lighting at night will not be aesthetically pleasing to use as the main light on your subject. Yellow lighting from traffic lights and street lights will be overwhelmingly warm, and may destroy the color balance in your image. Strong yellow lighting is difficult to color-correct in post production, so it is best to find a colder, bluer light for your main light in a night portrait.
Neon lighting can offer an interesting color balance to your image that is difficult to produce in day time photography. In certain situations, an incredibly strong and colored light will add stylistic value to your night portrait.
If you have the option to shoot with multiple colored neon lights, like those in an arcade, try to position two complementary colors to either side of your subject. Colors such as Orange and Blue are opposites on the color spectrum, and add a cinematic look to your portrait photography.
What Settings To Use
There are no “best settings” to use in any situation in photography, but there are a few things to consider when finding the best in-camera settings for your particular lighting conditions. The aperture, shutter-speed and ISO of your camera will greatly influence the result of your final image.
Slowest shutter speed possible
At night, your main limitation is the available lighting in your scene. To allow the most light possible into your camera, you must shoot at the slowest shutter speed possible, while still capturing crisp images without motion blur or camera shake. As a general rule, you should shoot above 1/60th of a second when photographing moving subjects.
If your model is great at staying still, you may be able to shoot even lower, at 1/50th or 1/30th of a second, particularly if your camera has in built stabilization, you are using a tripod and you are shooting with a wide angle lens. It is best to experiment with your shutter speed, and see how low you can set it while still achieving crisp images. Make sure to tell your model to be as still as possible while shooting, to ensure your images are as crisp as they can be.
Lowest Aperture Possible
The lowest possible aperture available to your lens will allow the most light possible to enter your camera. You do not need a lens that shoots at F1.8 or even F2.8, but this will give you more flexibility with your shutter-speed and ISO.
As a general rule, shoot with the lowest aperture your camera lens allows, unless you are using your own light modifiers. If you have brought your own lighting, you have the flexibility to shoot at higher apertures while still maintaining an acceptable exposure in your images.
If you are shooting with an incredibly fast lens, such as a 50mm 0.95, shooting at the lowest aperture may be unnecessary, due to the nature of DSLRs only allowing a limited amount of light to their sensors. Since the camera's lens mount opening is a fixed size, most DSLR and mirrorless cameras will only see the benefit of a low aperture down to approximately F1.1. After that, the depth of field of a lens will become increasingly shallow, but no more light will enter the lens.
Lowest ISO Possible
It will likely be unavoidable to bump up the ISO of your camera to high levels, when shooting in low light. The higher your camera’s ISO, the more sensitive the sensor is. A more sensitive sensor can detect more light, but will also be susceptible to noise, which degrades signal quality. Sensor noise will introduce grain to your images.
Changing the ISO will be the last setting you configure when shooting night portraits. Once you have set your camera to use a low aperture and a low shutter speed, you must then change to ISO until you have an acceptable exposure in your image. The lower the aperture and shutter speed your camera is set to, the lower your ISO can be to create a well lit image.
Spend a lot of time getting focus perfect because slow aperture
You will likely be shooting at a very low aperture when photographing night portraits. It is important to focus your lens perfectly on your subject, when using a low aperture since your depth of field will be very shallow. A shallow depth of field will reduce the amount of sharp areas in your image.
When your camera is shooting with a shallow depth of field, it has a more difficult time focusing accurately and quickly on the desired focal point of your image. Take your time when focusing your image, and focus your camera on your subjects eyes for the best results.
Expose for background bokeh, fill with constant light if available
When using constant light, expose your image to optimally illuminate the background bokeh in your scene, and then correct the exposure on your subject with the constant light afterwards. This will allow for the maximum amount of light in your final image. If you are not using additional lighting, expose your image in terms of the lighting conditions on your model’s face.
Shooting night portraits in low light is tricky at the best of times, and there are a number of mistakes that beginners often make when they are learning.
Find a good light source first
Most beginners do not spend enough time finding a good light source for their photos. Good lighting is the foundation of any good photo, so finding a location with good lighting is paramount when taking portraits at night time. The best places to shoot at night, are those with multiple light sources.
You should spend at least 15 minutes looking around for the best areas to shoot in your location. Without a good light source, it will be nearly impossible to take good night time portraits.
Don’t shoot at high apertures
Shooting at higher apertures will force you to use high ISO levels and slow shutter speeds. A high ISO will lead to noisy, grainy and blurry images, and a low shutter speed will introduce undesirable camera shake and motion blur into your photos.
Shooting at apertures above F2.8 will eliminate the possibility of capturing blurry bokeh in the background of your images (unless you are shooting with a very long focal length lens). It is best to shoot on prime lenses with maximum apertures of F1.8 or brighter.
Dont shoot with light directly in front of model
Frontal lighting is unflattering. Positioning your light approximately 45 degrees above and to one side of your model creates a depth to the lighting in your image. Your model will look slimmer, more angular and their features will be better defined in the image.
Avoid shutter blur by being very still
If you shoot at a shutter-speed of less than 1/60th of a second, you may add unwanted motion blur into your images. If you are not using a tripod, try your best to hold the camera very still when pressing the shutter button on your camera. If you let your model know beforehand to stay very still during each photo capture during your photoshoot, you will increase your chances of capturing crisp images during your night photoshoot.
If you are using a long focal-length lens during your photoshoot, it is recommended to shoot above the focal length of your lens, in milliseconds to mm. If you are shooting with an 85mm lens, keep your shutter-speed above 1/80th of a second. When shooting with a 200mm, shoot above 1/200th of a second.
On camera flash sucks
In built camera flash on DSLR and mirrorless cameras is harsh and unflattering. Most professional cameras do not include an inbuilt flash, because they are seldom useful in creating beautiful and flattering portraits. If you wish to use extra lighting in your night portraits, consider using off camera constant light, or perhaps off camera flash at a very low brightness setting.
If you utilize all of the techniques and tips in this article, you will be able to take beautiful, sharp and captivating photos in low light conditions. For more photography trips and tricks, check out this video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N2bhaD9tiWI