Seven Steps to Shooting Low Light Photography without a Flash

I’ve heard some photographers say that using a flash is for people that don’t understand how to use available light.  I’ve heard other photographers say that a flash is an available light.  Some photographers think that people that haven’t mastered using a flash is exactly because of that – they haven’t mastered using a flash.

I personally think that extremism is, in nearly all cases, a lack of openness.  Particularly in photography, there is no ‘always’ correct answer.  There are so many photography best practices that literally hundreds and thousands of books have been written.  However, the best photographers that keep evolving with their science are constantly changing and reinventing their art form.  A strong tree will break in a windstorm, but the blade of grass that will bend with the wind will survive the strongest of wind.  

Photography without a flash is one such example.  Many photographers use a flash when there is a lack of ambient light, and don’t use a flash if there is plenty of light available.  There are perfect reasons to use a flash on the brightest and sunniest of days, and there are perfect reasons to put the flash back in the bag when it is dark.  Some venues won’t allow a flash.  If you are photographing a friends wedding, you may be asked to shoot without a flash.  Plays, dance or music recitals, concerts, museums, aquariums, and many other facilities may not allow flashes. 

So how do you take a great photo without the flash in low light?  It’s simple – practice.  Shoot.  Evaluate.  Adjust.  Shoot.  Evaluate.  Adjust.  Shoot.  If you have an event that you are shooting and can practice ahead of time, take the opportunity to go practice and determine what settings you will use for the event.  If you can’t practice in advance, then shoot a few photos and review carefully.  Adjust quickly and keep shooting.  With memory cards cheaper than every, you can just keep shooting, evaluating, and adjusting.

Photography is part science and part art. Photos are taken in wildly varying scenarios with equally varying equipment.  While it’s very easy to replicate the equipment (you and I both have the same lens and the same camera body), the scenario in which we’ll be taking photos will be very different.  Regardless of whether you are taking photos indoors or outside, if you can’t use your flash then you may be looking for some tips to help take better photos in low light. 

  1. Buy a new lens.  It’s funny to me, but the top list on most professional photography site recommendations is to use a faster lens.  Simple, right?  While you can get relatively inexpensive faster lenses (like a 1.4, 1.8, 2.0 etc.), it is beyond the budget for most casual photographers to purchase a variety of lenses.  It is also beyond convenient to carry around 4 lenses everywhere.
  2. Try SPORTS mode.  Most modern cameras have a variety of settings, some automatic and some manual.  The SPORTS mode on most cameras does a couple of things very well.  SPORTS mode may set the shutter to a continuous shooting mode, opens the aperture wide open (which will allow more light in), and set the ISO to auto (which will help in low light scenarios).  Most cameras do not use the flash in SPORTS mode.  If you aren’t yet familiar with the manual or creative modes on your camera, then SPORTS mode may give you good results.  You can also try NO FLASH mode – another automatic camera mode that may get you good results.
  3. Don’t zoom in.  While a professional lens may have a consistent f-stop across the entire zoom range, most consumer lenses have smaller apertures as you zoom in.  To allow the widest aperture, stay zoomed out.
  4. Switch to Aperture Value or Aperture Priority mode.  The priority creative modes will generally let you manually set one or two variable and then adjust the other values appropriately.  Setting the camera in Aperture Value mode will allow you to open the aperture wide open (lowest number possible).
  5. Increase the ISO.  Cameras are very good at determining the appropriate ISO, but in very low light conditions you will likely need to increase the ISO as high as possible.  This includes 1600, 3200, 6400, beyond.  While you’ll read that higher ISO settings will introduce noise, most of this noise won’t be an issue if you are resizing for smaller files being shared on the web.  Also, there are some great software tools for post processing noise reduction (many of which are free).  Some cameras, like my Canon T1i, allow you to turn on High ISO Speed Noise Reduction feature.  If yours has it, turn it on.
  6. Use a tripod.  Manually setting the ISO and Aperture Value will likely result in longer shutter speeds.  Image stabilization will help tremendously with slower shutter speeds, but if you are anything like me you will not be able to hold the camera still much beyond 1/30 of a second.  Tripods may not be useable everywhere, so try a monopod for a more usable camera stabilizer.  If using a tripod – turn off the image stabilization.  It can (and will) introduce movement – particularly in longer exposures.  I typically also recommend using the timer or a shutter release (cable or remote) so you don’t introduce unncessary vibration by pushing the shutter release button as well.
  7. Shoot RAW.  This one really only makes sense if you are going to do post capture processing.  If you are looking to shoot and share – then shooting RAW may not provide any further use.  Otherwise, you can definitely use post processing to do more with a RAW file than a JPG.

There are many other things you can do, such as moving closer.  If you are in a concert or recital where flashes are not allowed, you may be able to work your way up to the stage or get backstage and shoot from there.  You can set exposure compensation down a stop.  You can shoot video and then pull stills out of it.  Use a manual focus instead of the AF.  You can shoot in full manual and control the shutter speed, the ISO, the aperture, the exposure compensation, and fully control what your camera is capturing. 

By John Stover

John Stover Bio.

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