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Tips to Great Low Light Photography

This photography tutorial covers situations where you’re taking pictures of people in low light situations and you want to avoid introducing a huge amount of noise reduction editing to your digital image workflow.  Photographers always focus on light in their photography, but low light shots require careful attention to camera settings and situational awareness–you’re basically working in the dark, and with events like band performances, the action often occurs faster than you would like.  Hesitate while you switch between manual and aperture priority mode and you might just miss the best photo of the show.

Using Aperture Priority and Other Tricks To Improve Low Light Photography

7 Tips For Mastering Low Light Photography

Low Light Event Photography

I just had the pleasure of photographing one of my favorite bands, the March Fourth marching band, at the Belly Up in Aspen, Colorado.  Working on that shoot reminded just how difficult low light situations can be, but also how much fun you can have.  So, if you’ve been wondering about how to take pictures in low light situations, or how to be a photographer who never misses that difficult shot, please read on.  ’ve shared tips in the past on how to improve your photography by freeworking for a professional photographer, but this tutorial focuses on photography in low light situations, and especially on setting your camera up with the right aperture settings).

One of the things I like the most about photography, and especially about shooting events like concerts, is the thrill you get in post processing when you find that you’d set your camera and your shots up right and got the images that you wanted.  One of the things I hate about event photography is how many shots I miss.  Blurry action, underexposed subjects, and flash bleached fill light–no matter how you look at it, shooting in low light is never easy.

I’m using a Nikon D3100, a camera that is well built for low light situations.  This PopPhoto review of the Nikon D3100 points out that the camera’s CMOS sensor outperforms the CCD sensor found on the D3100′s predecessor, the D3000.  I’ve been very pleased with the D3100′s performance in tricky low light situations, but the noise is noticeable when shooting at ISO 3200.  I try to stay at ISO 1600 or lower, settle for ISO 3200 if I have to, and avoided the camera’s two higher ISO settings altogether.  In post-processing with Adobe Lightroom 3 I am typically forced to deal  more with color noise than the more noisome luminance variety, so even ISO 3200 seems like a viable solution for extreme low light situations–but graininess and over-saturated color are almost unavoidable at that setting.  If you’re interested in the D3100′s low light merits check out this noise test on the Digital Photography Writers forum, or the FroKnowsPhoto video review at the end of this post.

Great low light results are possible–use these 7 setup tips to get them:


  1. Camera Setup – Use aperture priority.  As Jared Polin of FroKnowsPhoto says in his free guide to capturing motion at concerts, “When you open up your lens’s aperture, or set it to a lower number like 2.8 or 4, you are letting more light in, allowing the camera to utilize a higher shutter speed. The higher the shutter speed, the easier it is to capture motion.”  At the March Fourth show I tried using my D3100′s manual mode, but I found that I spent too much time concentrating on shutter speed and missed too many shots as a result.  Aperture priority allows you to focus on shutter speed and avoid blurry photos.
  2. Composition – Sometimes photographers have to be pushy.  If the band gave you a guest pass you’ll be able to take photos from the wings, but don’t be afraid to work to the front of the stage for wide angle shots.
  3. Know The Band’s Schedule – Even if a band seems wild and crazy in concert, I guarantee that they run like a business offstage.  Most bands run on a tight schedule and can tell you ahead of time what their plans will be once the reach the venue–all you have to do is ask.  One of the best times to shoot band member portraits is during and just after sound check.
  4. Know Your Surroundings – Try to get to the show at least two hours early.  An early arrival will give you time to scope the location & light, figure out alternatives in case the shots you imagined don’t work out, and possibly chat up the light and sound crews to find out what shots work best at the venue you’re shooting.  At the very least, get to the show and set up your shots before general admission fills the place with screaming concert-goers.
  5. High ISO – Use the High-ISO settings, the highest your cammera allows (without too much grain). And: turn off flash!
  6. Get Organized – Make sure that all of your photography gear is organized ahead of time.  It’s a good idea to rock a packing list–that way you don’t click your camera to on & realize that your battery’s dead and you forgot the spares, or snap off 400 shots, fill an SD card, and remember that your back-up cards are in the car.
  7. Use A Monopod – Steady telephoto shots with a monopod.  Tripods are too cumbersome for concerts and indoor events, and shooting in low light without support might lead to a card full of blurry shots.  If you’ve got fast glass and no monopod, consider using walls (especially if you’re shooting in a small venue from the back-stage area) as support for a couple of shots, just to be safe.  I also like to use my monopod as a hand-held boom or jib for elevated wide angle shots.  You can’t use a wireless remote shutter release with the Nikon D3100, but the monopod jib setup works fine with a tethered release.

For more information on low light photography at events, get a free copy of the ebook I mentioned earlier, the Guide To Capturing Motion At Concerts, by signing up for the Fro’s email list here.  The Fontana Knowledge video below also presents some great low light tips.  Most importantly, take as many opportunities to shoot in low light as you can–something as simple as taking a walk at night with your camera will help you figure out the details before the action starts.