Helpful Tips for Shooting In Low Light Without a Tripod / by Zack Smith Photography

Best practices of how to photograph in low light without a tripod

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As a professional photographer and even a hobbyist, you’ll often need to take photos in extreme low light conditions. And as if that were not enough; sometimes you even have to shoot without a tripod. I have always said that my favorite time of year is right around daylight savings time when the fog creeps up from the Mississippi River and low swamp lands. I love March, especially since we can get more chances to shoot the city in this wonderful golden hour photography since the sun doesn’t set at 5pm anymore!

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Want to know how I got these Firework shots? Take my class…go HERE to learn How to Photograph Fireworks in New Orleans!

As you find yourself shooting outside more and more, you might find yourself leaving the house without some important photography tools! Maybe you’re in the middle of a the French Quarter with no space for a tripod or in a location where tripods are not allowed. Or perhaps, you don’t want to let your tripod draw unwanted attention when photographing musicians or street documentary.

In any case, low light photography without a tripod is challenging but definitely not impossible. After years of shooting without one (I STILL DON’T LIKE TO!) Here are the best practices of low light photography without a tripod.

What is ISO and how to use it in low light

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ISO is an important tool in every photographer’s arsenal, but you need to know when to leverage it. In low light conditions, for instance, you can increase your camera's ISO to make the camera’s sensor more sensitive to light. That way, your camera will need less light to make a good exposure. You will also be able to hand hold at faster shutter speeds, thus decreasing the risk of shake from hand holding the camera.

One downside to this trick is that raising the ISO too high could affect the sharpness of your image. The higher the ISO, the more “noise” will affect your image.  That means you should have a fair idea of the maximum acceptable ISO value for your camera in low light conditions. This needs some practice, and some research. I would recommend photographing different low light scenes at all of your ISO’s up to the expanded numbers as well just to see what effect they have. Don’t just look at the back of your camera! You should download the test images to your computer and view there!

In my last 15 years teaching photography I have seen so many cameras, and it’s a good idea to start at ISO 800. Most cameras will capture good photos at ISO 800 in low light conditions, but if you raise your ISO beyond 800 or 1600, the image could start to get noisy. So know your camera’s acceptable limit and adjust the ISO setting accordingly.

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How to use aperture settings in low light

Who doesn’t love that blurry bokeh? Using a wider aperture means you’re letting in more light to your lens, which is ideal for low light photography. To that end, consider using a fast lens. The faster the lens, the larger is its maximum aperture.

For instance, invest in a prime lens with a maximum aperture of f/1.8 or f/0.95. If you’d use a 300mm lens, then look for one with a maximum aperture of f/2.8.

Also, a faster lens allows you to use faster shutter speeds in low light conditions, which means you’ll have more leeway to shoot without a tripod.

But when you’re shooting at f/1.8 or f/2.8, remember that you’ll have a narrow depth of field. Make sure you’re focusing on the most important part of your frame rather than trying to keep everything in focus.

How to use a speedlight as fill flash

Imagine your scene has some ambient light, but not enough to properly illuminate your subject. So the background is fairly bright, but your subject is shaded. In situations like this, you can use a speedlight as your fill light to fill in the dark shadows on your subject.

But balancing the flash light with the ambient light could be a challenge (more on this later). A strong front flash could overpower the background ambient light, making your subject look flat and overly bright against a dark background.

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But you don’t want to kill the natural look in your photo. You just want to add some fill light to your subject in the foreground. Here are some ways you can soften your fill flash.

  • Bounce your flashlight against the ceiling or wall, rather than aiming it directly towards the subject. You can also use a reflective card for the purpose.

  • Use a diffuser on your Speedlight to reduce the harshness of your flashlight   

  • Switch from TTL to manual flash mode to gain more control over the intensity of your flashlight.  

  • Dial down the flash exposure compensation to -0.8 or lower.

When to “drag the shutter” and how to use it!

When using fill flash in low light conditions (like in the above example), dragging the shutter has two benefits.  

  1. It helps balance the flash light with the ambient light.

  2. It allows you to create a motion effect in your photos.

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The shutter drag technique is based on a simple fact that when you change your camera’s shutter speed, it makes an impact on your ambient exposure but doesn’t affect your flash exposure. That’s because the flash operates much faster than your camera’s shutter.  

In other words, you can control your flash and ambient lights separately in the same shot. For instance, if you drag the shutter from 1/60th to 1/30th, you’ll get a brighter background, but the flash exposure on your subject in the foreground will remain the same.

This helps you balance flash light with ambient light, simply by adjusting your shutter speed. Ideally, you should first set exposure for the ambient light, and then add some flash fill and adjust your settings accordingly – rather than the other way around. This takes practice…so get out there!

Dragging the shutter often introduces a motion blur at the edges of your subject when you are working with a shutter speed of 1/10th of a second or slower. You can use this technique intentionally to create a sense of movement in your photos. When marching or walking the same speed as your subject (like the Tulane Green Wave Band during Mardi Gras) you can use your movements to create motion but you have to make sure you are going the SAME SPEED as your subject!

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