Very often you know what the subject you want to shoot is, but light levels in the scene are low enough that getting the shot can be difficult. For example, maybe you’re at a holiday dinner with your family, you know you want to shoot your relatives and the food, but the room is lit only by candles. Although light like this is going to make it hard to freeze motion and get a sharp image, the low room-lighting doesn’t mean you have to put down your camera. If you know how to work with it, low light can open up a world of new photographic possibilities. In this blog I’ll discuss some factors to keep in mind when shooting in low-light, including decreased visibility, textures created by lighting, and other plays on light like reflections, shadows, and splashes. I’ll also discuss ways of rethinking these hurtles that will help you think of your low light as a creative tool so you never again miss a photo opportunity due to less-than-optimal lighting conditions.
Now it’s a fairly obvious statement to say that the world looks very different at night or in very low light, but let’s think for a minute about why it looks different. First, with less light, some things are simply less visible. That lack of visibility in itself can really change the point your eye is drawn to in an image. In other words, in low light, the subject of a scene may shift dramatically simply because of what’s visible. During the day we mostly live by sunlight. When the sun goes down other light sources take over, and those light sources are not always as high overhead as the daytime sunlight. This change in the direction of lighting can lead to very different textures in a scene, which also can have a heavy influence on what the subject of the scene is. Rather than thinking of the low light as a hindrance, keep an open mind and consider that very often this different type of lighting can be an interesting subject in itself.
The type of lighting you get in low-light situations is another factor to consider. Sometimes the type of lighting you get at nighttime or with dim light can create plays of light such as reflections, highlights, interesting shadows, and splashes of light that simply do not exist in the daytime. There can be all sorts of light features that don’t appear in the same scene under brighter light. As you learn to shoot in low light, you’ll naturally hone your ability to capture images that can be difficult, and you may also find yourself discovering shooting opportunities that you simply had not seen before, possibly in locations that you are already familiar with. Learning to shoot in low light is as much about learning to see differently and recognize a different type of subject matter as it is learning any particular technical process. That unto itself makes the study of low-light shooting a worthwhile pursuit, no matter how frequently, or infrequently, you ultimately end up doing it. In the end, the more you can learn about seeing, the better all of your photography will be.
This blog is an unlocked excerpt from chapter one of Ben Long‘s Foundations of Photography: Night and Low Light course. If you’re interested in learning more about the tools, creative options, and special considerations involved in shooting with a DSLR camera at night or in low-light conditions, check out the introduction to the course below, then head over to lynda.com to view the entire course.