We have all been in situations when traveling where we want to take a picture of something really beautiful or cool that we see, but the pictures just don’t seem to turn out because there isn’t enough light. It can be a really frustrating feeling, I know.
Back when I first started getting into photography, I took a road trip to Banff National Park in Alberta. Along the way, I stopped off at Glacier National Park for a day. Glacier was a park that I had long wanted to visit because of its absolutely gorgeous vistas.
Unfortunately, it was very overcast with scattered rain on the day I was there. Not only did this put a big damper on my hiking plans, but it made getting good pictures of the park incredibly difficult. I was heartbroken to see the quality of my images when I got home and viewed them. I am still bummed out about those pictures to this day.
In order to prevent something similar from happening to you, I am going to pass on to you a wealth of knowledge I have accumulated over the years on how to make the most of the limited light you might have when taking travel pictures. So they next time you are in a dimly lit building or venturing out on an overcast day, you will be prepared.
Using a Flash
One of the most tried-and-true ways of compensating for low light when taking pictures is to use a flash. A flash will create light just before exposure, thus allowing your camera to take pictures in low light conditions that it otherwise would not be able to.
While the use of a flash is a great way to overcome low light conditions in some circumstances, it can be a rather impractical or ineffective method in other scenarios. For instance, when it comes to portrait photography, a flash can be used in low light conditions with outstanding results. In fact, I would always recommend using a flash when taking portraits in low lighting conditions.
However, if you are looking to photograph a landscape, the use of flash may not have as great of results. The exposure of a flash is not great enough to illuminate landscapes and most often won’t even give you enough illumination to get the landscape in focus.
Below are some of the general tips I can give you in regards to using a flash to compensate for low lighting conditions:
- When shooting portraits in low light, always use a flash to avoid a loss of detail in your subjects. An external flash is recommended, but a built-in flash will suffice if it is all you have.
- Just because you are using a flash doesn’t mean you should lower the ISO setting you are using. Lowing the ISO may not affect the subjects that are illuminated by the flash, but you will see a significant loss in detail and increase in noise in your background. I typically recommend leaving the ISO setting at what you would use if you weren’t using a flash. We’ll talk about adjusting the ISO setting a bit more later in this article.
- If you are using an external flash, I recommend bouncing the flash off of the ceiling or a wall and onto your subjects to diffuse the strong light of the flash. This will make the light softer and give you higher quality images.
Increase the ISO
Another way to effectively overcome low light situations when taking photographs is to increase the ISO setting that you are using. As I have discussed in my other articles on the Art of Travel Photography, ISO is the sensitivity your camera’s sensor has to light.
Increasing the ISO setting will make your camera’s sensor more sensitive to the limited amount of light that it has and allow you to effectively shoot in lower lighting conditions. However, be aware that with an increased ISO comes more noise.
Noise is the visual distortion of your image as translated by your camera’s sensor. It typically manifests itself as a grainy appearance in your photograph, much like you see in the image below. The higher you set the ISO, the more noise you will typically see. As you can see in the example below, raising the ISO from 400 to 3200 significantly lightens up the image, but it also makes the image significantly grainier.
Each camera model will vary in how well it is able to perform at higher ISO settings. Full frame cameras are typically able to perform much better than crop sensor cameras because they allow more light into the sensor.
In order to effectively use the ISO to adjust your camera to lower lighting situations, it is important to first understand how ISO stops work. Your camera will have ISO settings that start at 50 or 100 and then double with each stop. For instance, you will see 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200, etc… as your ISO setting options.
The maximum ISO setting will vary by camera, depending on how good your camera’s sensor is at dealing with the noise associated with a high ISO. Again, full frame cameras will typically have a higher maximum ISO setting than crop sensor cameras because they allow more light into the sensor.
If you change the ISO setting on your camera from 100 to 200, you are essentially doubling your camera sensor’s sensitivity to the light it can see. I typically don’t like to raise my ISO above 1600 because the noise in the image becomes too noticeable, but you will want to experiment with the ISO settings on your camera to see how high you are willing to go with your camera before the noise becomes too much. I think the sweet spot for ISO is anywhere between 50 and 400.
Use a Larger Aperture
Another way to adjust your photography to low lighting is to use a larger aperture when taking your shots. The larger your aperture, the more light that is let into your lens’s sensor. Remember, a lens’s aperture is measured in f-stops. What can be confusing is that the lower f-stops indicate larger apertures. For instance, a lens with an maximum f-stop of f/1.4 has a larger maximum aperture than a lens with a maximum f-stop of f/3.5.
As illustrated in the diagram above, the larger the aperture size, the further the lens opens, the more light gets exposed to the camera’s sensor. The result is a lighter image for pictures taken with a larger aperture. In fact, setting your lens stop at f/1.8 will actually let in 4 times as much light as f/3.5, which is a monumental difference in light.
I suggest that you invest in a lens that has a very large maximum aperture (somewhere in the range of f/1.2 – f/1.8). There are some inexpensive options out there that will do the job. These lenses with large maximum apertures are often referred to as “fast lenses” because they allow you to take quality photos at faster shutter speeds.
- Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II Standard Autofocus Lens
- Nikon 50mm f/1.8 AF-D Auto Focus Lens
- Sony 50mm f/1.4 a (alpha) Mount Standard Lens
You will also want to remember the larger the aperture you use, the shallower the depth of field will be in your images. In other words, pictures taken with with a large aperture will have a blurrier background then images taken with a small aperture. This effect, where part of the image is in focus (usually the foreground) and part of the image (usually the background) is out of focus is called a bokeh effect.
The illustration below demonstrates the effect of a larger and smaller aperture on depth of field. In the image on the left, which was taken with a larger aperture, you can see that the background isn’t as clear as it is in the image on the right, which was taken with a smaller aperture.
Keep in mind, the aperture you use is going to be closely tied to the shutter speed you use when you take your photograph. I explain what the shutter speed is and how it effects the pictures you take in the next section, as well as how the shutter speed and aperture are related.
Adjust the Shutter Speed
One of the most effective ways to enhance your photography in low light is to adjust the shutter speed of your camera. Compared to aperture, the concept of shutter speed is much easier to understand. Put simply, while aperture is how far the shutter opens, the shutter speed is how long the shutter of the camera takes to open to expose light to the camera sensor, and close.
The longer the shutter stays open, the more light gets exposed to the camera’s sensor, and the lighter the photo will be. As you can see in the images below, if you pick too fast of a shutter speed, then the result will be an image that is too dark. On the flip side, choosing a shutter speed that is too slow will result in an image that is too light and blown out. Choosing the correct shutter speed results in a properly exposed image.
If you want to adjust for lower light conditions, lengthening the shutter speed is one way you can make sure your photographs are properly exposed. A longer shutter speed will prevent your images from being ruined because they are too dark.
You need to be careful though, because a longer shutter speed can also result in motion blur. You will probably recognize motion blur as a blurry object in your image that was in motion when you took your shot. Motion blur is the result of shooting moving objects with a shutter speed that is too slow. While a fast shutter speed will freeze motion in your images, a slow shutter speed will result in these blurry images if the lighting is poor.
In the images below, the image on the top has some prime examples of motion blur. If you look closely, many of the walking people are blurry because I had adjusted the shutter speed to compensate for the low light, but failed to account for the moving people. On the other hand, in the image on the bottom you can see how a quick shutter speed froze the flight of these birds in Africa in mid flight.
Even the slightest motion of your camera with a long shutter speed can cause your images to become blurry. That is why I strongly recommend that you invest in a sturdy, yet light, tripod to take with you when you travel. A tripod will significantly reduce any camera shake that can result in blurry images when shooting in low light conditions.
As a good rule of thumb, a good way to take blur-free images is to set your shutter speed to a fraction of the focal length you are shooting at. Focal length is defined as the distance between the center of a lens and its focus. For instance, if you are zoomed out at 40mm, then 40mm is your focal length. Using the rule of thumb, you would want to set your shutter speed to 1/40 of a second to prevent blurry images.
The shutter speed you use is also going to be closely tied to the aperture that you are using to take your photograph. The larger the aperture, the quicker the shutter speed can be to take a properly exposed image. And a quicker shutter speed means less motion blur. Again, as I explained previously, this is why lenses with large maximum apertures (such as f/1.2, f/1.4, or f/1.8) are called “fast lenses”.
A good way to understand the relationship between aperture and shutter speed is to consider two glasses of water with a hole in the bottom of the glasses. One glass has a large hole in the bottom, and one glass has a small hole in the bottom. As you would probably guess, the glass with the large hole in the bottom will drain its water much faster than the glass with the small hole in the bottom. This is illustrated in the diagram below.
Relating the glasses of water to your photography, the glass with the large hole in the bottom is an image taken with a large aperture, and the glass with the small hole in the bottom is an image that you take with a small aperture. The time it takes to drain the water from the glass is the shutter speed. You can see how taking an image with a larger aperture will take a shorter shutter speed to obtain the same light, just like it would take less time to drain water from a glass with a larger hole in the bottom.
Utilize Your Camera’s Exposure Compensation
Another way in which you can adjust your photography for low-light settings is to use your camera’s built-in exposure compensation to tell your camera to override the camera’s light meter reading.
When you take a photograph with your camera, the camera’s light meter will take a look at the tones in the composition you are photographing, average them out, and then determine if there is enough light for an exposure. Camera manufacturers have determined that most scenes average out to a middle grey tone, which is often referred to as 18% Grey. If the tones in your picture are darker than this grey, your camera will think that it doesn’t have enough light to take the picture at a proper exposure. In other words, your camera will think that the picture will be underexposed if taken.
A way that you can adjust for this is to modify the exposure compensation. If you take a look your camera, you will most likely see a button with a +/- on it. This is the button you will use to adjust your camera’s exposure compensation. By pressing this button and then turning your camera’s dial, you can adjust the exposure compensation up and down by 1/3 stops.
Depending on which mode you have your camera set to, changing the exposure compensation will either adjust the shutter speed or aperture to allow more light to reach the camera’s sensor than the camera’s light meter thinks is needed by default.
Shooting in Aperture Priority Mode (AV)
In Aperture Priority Mode, you set the aperture that you want to use (such as f/10) and then the camera automatically selects the correct shutter speed for the shot based on how much light the camera’s light meter determines is needed for a proper exposure. If you are taking a shot in low light and the camera’s light meter isn’t adjusting the shutter speed properly to allow enough light to the camera’s sensor, you can adjust the exposure compensation.
When shooting in Aperture Priority Mode, adjusting the exposure compensation will adjust the shutter speed. By increasing the exposure compensation, you will be decreasing the shutter speed to specify a longer exposure.
Shooting in Shutter Priority Mode (TV)
In Shutter Priority Mode, you set the shutter speed that you want to use (such as 1/125) and then the camera automatically selects the aperture to use for the shot based on how much light the camera’s light meter determines is needed for a proper exposure. When taking shots in low light, you camera’s light meter may not correctly read the amount of light needed and use the wrong aperture.
Adjusting the exposure compensation when shooting in Shutter Priority Mode will adjust the aperture used. By increasing the exposure compensation, you will be increasing the aperture used to allow more light to reach the camera’s sensor.
Shoot in Raw Format
The last tip for shooting in low light situations that I have for you may be the most important tip that I can give you. When possible, you should always shoot your pictures in RAW format. RAW format is the camera-specific format that involves the least amount of formatting, compressing, or alteration by the camera. Shooting in RAW format is advantageous because it allows you to do the most with the pictures you take in post-processing on your computer.
When you shoot pictures with your DSLR, you have the choice of either saving those images in RAW format or as JPEG images of various sizes. If you choose to shoot your images in JPEG format, the images will be processed, altered, and compressed by the camera before saving the image. This has some advantages, such as faster shooting speeds, less storage requirements, and easier to share images. The advantages to shooting in JPEG format are listed below:
- Your camera processes the images faster (faster shooting)
- The images are smaller when saved on your memory card because they are compressed
- It does not require much post-processing on your computer
- You are still able to make small adjustments to your images in post-processing
- Images can be shared directly from your camera without post-processing
While there may be some advantages to shooting JPEGs, there are certainly some big sacrifices that you make by not shooting in RAW format. When you shoot in JPEG format, you are essentially sacrificing up to 80% of the data that is collected by your camera when you take the shot.
When you shoot in JPEG format, your camera takes all of the information that it collects when it takes the shot and processes that information into an image file. When your camera is done, the information is discarded and all you are left with is the produced JPEG file.
On the other hand, when you shoot in RAW format, all of that information that your camera collected when you take a picture is stored in the RAW file. This means that you have far more leeway for making adjustments to your images in post-production using software such as Adobe Lightroom or Adobe Photoshop. The advantages to shooting in RAW format are listed below:
- All original file information is preserved
- Post processing on white balance, noise reduction, sharpness, and tone are not done by the camera, so you have more flexibility to adjust these settings in post-processing
- You have far more latitude to adjust the exposure settings
- Pictures can be processed and shared as JPEGs from software in post-production
- You can apply camera and color profiles in post-production to adjust colors more adequately
So what exactly does all this mean? If you are really interested in getting the most out of your vacation photos and don’t mind doing a little post-processing of your images when you get home, then you should definitely shoot in RAW format. RAW format will allow you to make far more adjustments to your images for such things as incorrect exposure because of poor lighting or improper white balance than you will be able to when shooting in JPEG format.
Here’s a great example. Below you can see two pictures I took of the same beach in Southern California. The image on the top was taken in JPEG format and the image on the bottom was taken in RAW format. I have loaded both images into Adobe Lightroom to do some post processing. As you can see, I have far more flexibility to adjust certain aspects of the image in post-processing when I shoot in RAW format.
White Balance Adjustment
As you can see below, when I shoot my pictures in RAW format, I have a lot more flexibility in adjusting the white balance of my image.
Another advantage of shooting in RAW format is that it gives you much more flexibility in adjusting the camera calibration in post-processing, as you can see below.
In addition to these examples, there are many other areas where you have far more control over the post-processing of pictures shot in RAW format than you do with images shot as JPEGs. You can bring out far more detail that may have been lost in shadows or areas that are blown by too much light (highlights), and you have far more control over reducing any noise (grainy parts) in your images. So when possible, it is almost always preferable to shoot in RAW format rather than as JPEGs.