Low light photography on a budget

Shorter days and darker nights don't have to put a hold on your artistic endeavours. Low light photography offers snappers of all levels a great way to produce dramatic and interesting images during the winter period. And with a few insider tips, you'll be able to produce pro-level results on a shoestring budget.

Matt Dowling, director of The Freelancer Club and international fashion photographer, has produced night and low light shoots on many occasion so who better to ask for the inside tips. Over to Matt...

First off, let's dispel some myths about low light photography. You do not need a vast lighting kit to achieve professional looking low light images. Secondly, you don't require an expensive DSLR or top-end lens to capture sharp low light shots. A few techniques and a bit of patience go a long way.

To get started, pick up your camera, turn your settings to manual and take a look at how you can produce low light photographs on a shoestring.


Check if your camera has a night mode or a low light setting feature. Rather than rely on these settings, I would recommended you wrap your head around the basic lighting principles so that you're in complete control, and use them as a good ways to give you a starting position regarding your ISO and aperture settings. However, be aware that these settings can often enable the flash which is something you generally want to avoid when shooting in low light so try and use the settings as a guide and not as a substitute to manual mode.


The basic principles of low light photography are to allow as much light in as required while avoiding any movement from the subject or from your camera. This means long exposures and static subjects. There are a few things to consider here:


The camera

Nudging the camera when you click the shutter release--before it settles into a long exposure--is an easy mistake to make and will affect the clarity of the shot. One solution is a remote trigger, or for a cheaper solution set the camera firmly so that it won't budge when you fire off a shot. Some photographers will use a heavyweight tripod to achieve this. However, a steady surface and some duct tape will have exactly the same effect although limit your positional flexibility.

A piece of kit that saved me a few times was a GorillaPod, a flexible mini tripod that can be positioned on almost any surface. If you don't have any of these options available try positioning your body so that you are resting the base of the camera against on your forearm, like an army sniper, to create a more stable platform. Breathe in, hold and click.

The settings

Some cameras will have stabilisation settings that will allow you to reduce camera shake. Don't worry if your camera doesn't as the image will generally be sharp if you follow the following rules.

Up the ISO.

We want the camera’s sensor sensitive enough to let in the required amount of light. However, be cautious, the higher you go, the more noise is captured (producing grainy looking images). Some photographers like a bit of grain so find a balance between your ISO settings and aperture. Either way, shoot in RAW so you can adjust in post.

Aperture - the bigger the better. Large aperture means more light is hitting the lens. This is where a fixed focal lens will come in handy. Just remember the lower the number, the more light you let in. So f/5.6 will let in more light than f/22 and will result in a longer exposure.

Reduce your shutter speed.

The longer the shutter remains open, the more light comes in. Try to keep it no slower than 1/60th of a second. This is where your set up plays a big part. Holding the camera and trying to produce a crisp image is very difficult. The faster the shutter speed, the better your chance of a great image.

Avoid the flash.

Sometimes, there’s just not enough light to capture the image and you’re forced into using your flash. Whenever I'm faced with this scenario, I always look for an alternative light source rather than use the pop up flash that can make images look flat and amateur. Even a portable flash or LED (£30 per light) can be positioned in places to light your way without losing the professional edge.


What you choose to shoot will very much determine whether the image is sharp and crisp. Shooting people in low light comes with challenges because people, as much as you asked them not to, tend to move. Anything with movement that can be caught in the wind such as trees, clothing or even dust particles will all be difficult to shoot sharply. On the flip side, movement can often be a beautiful contrast to the static surrounding so play with what you've got.


When shooting in low light it's always best to avoid zooming as this will reduce the amount of light that can be let in. A fixed focal length lens generally has a wider aperture compared to a zoom.


At the top level of low light photography many professionals will use a full lighting kit. Typically the lights will be hidden from the shot and placed in various different areas to light what they would like to shoot. When not using a lighting kit alternative light sources must be found. These lights sources are often the most interesting. Street lamps or headlights from the cars can often be the magical added ingredient that makes your low light photography just a little bit special.


Matt Dowling is an internationally published photographer with a career that spanned over 12 years. Matt lectures at many of the country’s most prestigious creative universities and recently launched The Freelancer Club, a members club supporting photographers and other creative freelancers looking to start a career or established pros in need of more work. For more help with your freelance photography career, check out The Freelancer Club’s tips and advice for creative talent.


Why not share your own low light photography tips in your own Communities post? Get Printed Points for sharing your knowledge and helping out your fellow professionals.


Or if you have a question for Matt, ask away!