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How to Shoot Low Light Photos

Creative Photography Techniques, Dragon Con Portraits

By Scott Umstattd


Low Light Photos | Dragon Con

Shooting low light photos can pose interesting challenges to the new photographer.  Here are some creative photography techniques to get the most out of the least in a low-light situation.

For successful low light photography you need to understand how to choose the best exposure that will create the kind of photograph you wish to make.

Your exposure is controlled by the ISO, aperture and shutter speed settings you choose. 

I shoot with a Canon 60D. I like this camera. If you are so inclined you can read my review of the Canon 60D and the other items in my gear list

You will see from the data in the pictures below that I pushed the 60D to its ISO limits. And this is, I think, the single greatest thing you can do to help your low light photography.

In fact for this series of pictures from Dragon Con 2012, the noise created by using such a high ISO gave me some interesting options when I edited the pictures. I won't pretend to understand the dynamics of pixels but these high ISO pictures seemed to accept edits very well.

All of these low light photos were edited online with Picmonkey. Edits were pretty basic and did not involve layering.

Enough talk. Here are some low light photos.


Dragon Con Portraits

Low Light Photos | Dragon Con Steely Eyed Man

Picture Data: Canon 60D, Canon 15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM lens.

Aperture: f/5.6. ISO - 6400. Shutter Speed: 1/25th. Focal Length - 85mm.


Above: This is one of my favorites from Dragon Con 2012. His make up was well done and I was lucky that there was a lot of natural light around; even if it was very low light.

The picture was taken in the lobby of one of the host hotels. Luckily, it is a very open and airy lobby that offered well diffused light. You see that the ISO was set to 6400. This allowed me to use a faster shutter speed, albeit a still rather slow shutter speed, of 1/25 of a second.  The Canon 15-85mm IS USM lens has good image-stabilization which also allowed me to use a shutter speed fast enough to stop any movement.

Like so many characters at Dragon Con, when I asked if I could take his picture he was very cool with it. I actually  think some people were offended when I didn't ask them for a picture.


Low Light Photos | Dragon Con Umbrella Girl

Picture Data: Canon 60D, Canon 15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM lens.

Aperture: f/5.6. ISO - 5000. Shutter Speed: 1/25th. Focal Length - 85mm.


Above: This is another favorite from Dragon Con. Another photographer had set up lights in the lobby of another host hotel. I'm not sure if he was charging for photos or simply taking advantage of the fact that Dragon Con offers a great opportunity to take some very cool portraits of people who, for the most part, want you to take their picture.

Anyway, the other photographer had this model posed and sitting under lights. So, I walked up behind and snapped a handful of pictures. Then as I walked away I had a moral question dog me all the way to the elevator. Did I just steal another photographer's picture? Had I committed a photo-felony? Am I a terrible person? 

Upon the opening of the elevator an Ewok walked out and I took his picture too. Then, as the doors closed I answered my questions with this: all is fair in public spaces. And then the door closed on my moral ambiguity.

I used ISO 5000 for this picture and a 1/25 shutter speed. Part of why I had to use such a high ISO and a rather slow shutter speed was due to my lens. When I zoom the Canon 15-85mm all the way in to 85mm the lowest aperture I can use is f/5.6.

This lens is a general purpose lens and not what most would call a portrait lens. For these photos I would have loved to had a Canon 85mm f/1.8 EF USM or a Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM lens. These lenses provide very wide aperture settings (low f/stop numbers) and this means that literally 2 tons more light can come through the lens when set to its widest setting.

But you can't wish for a lens when you are taking pictures. You work with what you have and the matter of the fact is that the Canon 15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM lens is able to do just about everything and it does it pretty well. 



Low Light Photos | Dragon Con Yellow Rose

Picture Data: Canon 60D, Canon 15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM lens. 

Aperture: f/5.6. ISO - 5000. Shutter Speed: 1/40th. Focal Length - 67mm.


Above:  I really don't recall the situation surrounding this picture. I recall the girl, but I don't recall the moment behind the lens. Whatever. When I saw the picture on my computer I liked it and was glad to see it and I wanted it to be on this page.


Low Light Photos | Dragon Con Skull Face

Picture Data: Canon 60D, Canon 15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM lens.

Aperture: f/5.6. ISO - 6400. Shutter Speed: 1/40th. Focal Length - 85mm.


Above: This is another picture I took as someone else was taking a model's picture. After having already given myself permission to take pictures that other people were staging, I ran amok and started stealing anybody's shot that I could frame.

This one came out well because it was in the big lobby with lots of natural light. Even though it was low light the light was evenly diffused by the time it made it to the lobby floor. This diffused light cast nice even shadows and highlights across the faces of the models. 

You can see in the picture below that the light was not as diffused and as a result the picture has more contrast.


Low Light Photos | Dragon Con Basement Dweller.

Picture Data: Canon 60D, Canon 15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM lens. 

Aperture: f/5.6. ISO - 6400. Shutter Speed: 1/125th. Focal Length - 85mm.


Above: In this picture I was in the basement of the hotel. You can see the kind of people they keep in the basement - this guy is evil and very ugly compared to the women upstairs. 

Since I was in the basement I lost every bit of natural, well-diffused light. So many of my pictures were coming out underexposed in the bowels of the hotel. Since I don't care for using a flash I came up with a way to come out of the basement with some cool pictures.

In order to get this picture I asked the guy if he would walk over to a series of track lights mounted on the ceiling. The light was shining directly down and when he lifted his face toward the light I was able to get enough light on his face to get the picture.

When you find yourself in a low light photo situation, look for light. It's that easy. Don't have something? Find it. Then exploit it to your advantage.


Low Light Photos | Dragon Con Steam Punk Girl

Picture Data: Canon 60D, Canon 15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM lens.

Aperture: f/5.6. ISO - 4000. Shutter Speed: 1/40th. Focal Length - 67mm.


Above: Another great picture from the open air lobby of one of the host hotels for Dragon Con 2012. 

One thing that challenged me at Dragon Con was the fact that while many people had on great costumes and makeup, I was having a hard time making the picture look like something other than a picture of a guy in a cyclopes outfit in the lobby of the hotel. 

I wanted the pictures to show a place where the characters these people created could live without interference from the outside world.

I was able to do this by taking close ups of faces ensuring that nothing "normal" looking appeared in the frame. For this picture I stood on a chair to force the perspective downward, toward the floor where there was less "normal" looking stuff.

If I had taken the picture head on you would have seen a bell-hop and a taxi behind her and that would have killed the mood of the picture.


Low Light Photos | Dragon Con Eye.

Picture Data: Canon 60D, Canon 15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM lens. 

Aperture: f/5.6. ISO - 6400. Shutter Speed: 1/160th. Focal Length - 70mm.


Above: Having seen success with the "why don't you look up at the light" approach I was able to get another nice portrait.  Because the light was coming down directly on her head casting strong shadows down on her face made her look odd. The shadows that were being cast from the overhead light only added to the ugliness that would have been had I taken a picture without her looking into the light.

By having her look up I was able to put light on her face and make a picture where otherwise there was not a picture.

Find your light then exploit it to your advantage when shooting low light photos.


Low Light Photos | Dragon Con Clown

Picture Data: Canon 60D, Canon 15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM lens.  

Aperture: f/5.6. ISO - 5000. Shutter Speed: 1/50th. Focal Length - 85mm.


Above: This clown was actually working at the hotel selling fruit juices or something. She had a great fro and a great smile and with a couple of quick snaps I had captured another low light portrait at Dragon Con. 

I edited this picture in Picmonkey. I edited all of my Dragon Con pictures you see on this page with Picmonkey. If you are looking for an easy, intuitive editing program, this one works great. It does not offer near the flexibility of Photoshop or Lightroom, but truth is, I don't need 80% of what those things offer anyway.


Low Light Photos Tips

  • Increase your ISO until the noise becomes unbearable.

  • If you need more light look for it and stand near it and take advantage of whatever comes near your new found light. Don't stand in the dark and bitch.

  • Learn how to stand very still. The longer you can be still the longer you can keep your shutter open allowing in more light.

  • If possible, use equipment made for low light photography. A camera with a full frame sensor and lenses that have the wisest apertures (lowest f/stop numbers) are great for capturing more light.

  • Just because you don't have all the light you want doesn't give you permission to give up. Look around. Think it out. There has to be some way to get your picture. 

Low Light Photos | Summary

Fighting The Evils Of Darkness: A Low-Light Photography Survival Guide (Free E-Book)

So those are a few tips for capturing low light photos.   I hope you enjoyed this little lesson.  If so, let me know on my feedback page or send me an e-mail.

Also, if you want to learn more about how to shoot in low light, make sure to download my free e-book "Fighting The Evils of Darkness: A Low Light Photography Survival Guide".   Click here to join the Superpower Photo Club and receive your free e-book.


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Hi there! I'm Scott. I love photography. It's a constant challenge and there is always something to learn - if you want to learn.  For those that do want to learn, I created Picture Power. In time, Picture Power will unite the superhero photographers of the world. Once we are all united, I will give further instructions. In the meantime,  Picture Power serves as a resource for you to sharpen your photography skills. If you don't find the answer you're looking for just let me know and together we'll find a way to ignite that inner superhero photography genius. 



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