Shooting In Manual {Low Light}

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Shooting in low light is indeed a challenge, but it doesn’t mean you should avoid it completely! In fact, you can create some absolutely stunning images with a little bit of control over your settings.

If you’re looking to take portraits of your infant or child in their every day activities then chances are you will be faced with low light situations more than you may think. How many times have you tried to take indoor pictures while set on auto-mode and the dreaded inbuilt flash pops up?! Shooting in auto mode has its advantages at times, but learning to shoot in manual will help you avoid the harsh, unflattering flash.

Using a lens with a larger aperture is far easier to use in lower light, and given the choice I would opt for my prime lens. However, since so many of us start off with the kit lens and wish to learn how to shoot manually with it before upgrading, this series is dedicated solely to the use of the standard zoom lens that came with your DSLR kit. You really can take creative, professional looking pictures without spending a fortune!

Before you read on, if you need a quick refresh on some of the basics, click on this link to take a glance over the introduction.

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FIND YOUR LIGHT, EVEN IN THE DARK!

Firstly, it will be helpful if you can learn to identify indoor low light conditions. If you set your camera to auto mode and take pictures around the house, try to observe how often the flash will fire. You may be surprised at the frequency, even in the day time and with a few light sources! When shooting in manual in low light you will find that the less light available, the slower the shutter speed will need to be to allow more exposure time. This is where you risk motion blur or a very underexposed image.

I wanted to take pictures of my little one in his crib after waking from a nap. Upon waking he is (usually) happy, cooing and discovering his hands, unaware of my presence! So often I’ve wanted to sneak in and take pictures even while he’s sleeping but with such low light it’s challenge.

One of the keys is to learn to find light sources that are close by, (not the bright, glaring ceiling light!) In some cases I’ve even seen photographers successfully use the light from their iPad to illuminate their child’s face! A reading lamp placed near by would also work.

For these shots, I decided to plan ahead and move the crib closer to the window before his nap and pulled the drapes back a little while the baby was asleep, keeping the blinds shut. Why don’t I wait till he’s awake? Nothing more than the fact that as soon as he sees me, he’s ready to be picked up!

(Please be aware of any safety hazards such as the cords from the blinds.) 

In this example below, by four o’clock in the winter, the light is quickly fading in our house but the low sun creeps in through the french doors and creates this beautiful pool of light, flooding everything in its path. I didn’t have to set anything up for this. Sometimes we get lucky, other times we need to plan.

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STAY IN THAT SPOT!

Once you start to notice where the light falls around your home, you could encourage your child to do an activity there that requires focus. Lego works great for the older ones or a puzzle or playdoh. Equally, you could place a chair by a window for story time to keep them there happily for at least a couple of minutes! Keeping toddlers relatively still and content is no doubt a challenge and I sometimes forget that they really don’t care that I can’t get my shutter speed any faster :-)

SETTINGS

If you missed it in the previous tutorial, a balanced exposure is created by adjusting the three main components; ISO, aperture and shutter speed. You should refer to your camera’s light meter on the screen (or flashing in the viewfinder). The aim is for it to be at zero or as close to zero as you can get it.

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You will need a higher ISO than perhaps you’re used to. ISO determines how sensitive the image sensor in the camera is to the available light, and with darker conditions, a higher ISO will make it more sensitive and allow for a faster shutter speed.

For a lifestyle feel,  I like to set my aperture to a lower f-stop for a shallow depth of field, this will create blurry backgrounds and even a blurred out foreground which can look really interesting when photographing through the crib rails. The shutter speed also needs to be fast enough to prevent camera shake. My baby is not running around, so I can afford for it to be a little slower. This should be the same case if your child is fairly still whilst focusing on an activity. The shots in the nursery were taken at ISO 1600 and a shutter speed of 1/60th sec. The aperture varied between f/3.5 – f/5 as I zoomed in and out.

Remember that there isn’t one secret formula for the perfect setting! Hopefully you can apply some of these settings and use them as a guideline.

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STEPS

  • Set your camera to Manual Mode. (M)
  • Start with your lens slightly zoomed in at ~22mm, meaning that you see the most objects in the frame. You can zoom in more later. (Optional but helpful for a point of reference when setting your aperture.)
  • Set your ISO to 1600, this will result in more noise, however you can do some post processing corrections to smooth out the grainy effect. If you go up to 3200, the noise will be highly visible.
  • Set your aperture to the lowest setting possible.  If the lens is at 18mm then this should be f/3.5, slightly zoomed in to ~22mm will be a little higher at about f/5.
  • Next you set the shutter speed by referring to your camera’s light meter.  1/125th sec was far too underexposed in my dark nursery so I kept slowing it down until the light meter reached zero. 1/60th sec is fairly slow to shoot, however, if your child is in one place and if you can rest your arm and camera on something steady, you should be able to successfully capture some sharp shots. Keep in mind that I took at least ten of each angle to get that one shot, especially when he was kicking his arms and legs! Have patience!
  • Make sure you set your AF selection to manual, NOT automatic.
  • For optimal sharpness, as you take each photo, look through the viewfinder and make sure the red dot is over the area you want to be in focus (such as the hands.) Press the shutter release half way to select the focus then click all the way down to take the shot. Stay in the same position and patiently keep taking pictures from the same angle. You will find that as your child moves, the range of focus will change.  After a few shots, take a look at the images and zoom in to see if your focus is sharp. I cannot stress enough the importance of this step.

LENS DISTORTION

A side note with a 18-55mm zoom lens; when you shoot with a wide angle of view with your lens at 18mm, meaning that you see the most objects in the frame, be aware that there will be some lens distortion. 18 mm is wider than the eye’s normal view and will give a slight fish-eye appearance. The best way to show you this distortion is if you compare the crib rails with the guidelines below. Notice how curved they are?  The eye’s normal focal length is ~22mm. For a couple of shots it can look artsy, but avoid it in every shot by zooming in slightly.

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POST-PROCESSING

To correct some of the noise of your images, you can use a noise reduction tool from your software program. I’d usually keep it around 30, any higher like below and your child will start to look alien-like and over edited! Make sure sharpening is set to zero. Sharpening further emphasizes noise. Especially check this if you use a black and white preset which often has an increased level of sharpening.

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And lastly, low-lit images can look great in black and white! Play around with the images a little and don’t be afraid of increasing the contrast slightly for a more dramatic effect!

I’d love to know if this post was helpful as you learn the basics of shooting fully in manual. As usual, please post up some of your pictures or links in the comments below to show your progress. If you found this helpful, share it and pin it! You can also follow me on Instagram to watch out for more tutorials and blog posts!

Want to read more on shooting in manual? Click here to read through.

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4 thoughts on “Shooting In Manual {Low Light}

  1. What beautiful work. I do wish I’d discovered your blog sooner. You have a fabulous eye and, a wonderful talent! A joy to read!

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