Tips for achieving sharp images in low light.

It’s true what they say about the best time to shoot being in the morning and late afternoon. If I’m out with the intention of taking landscape photos, I almost certainly take my tripod with me, because camera shake is the enemy of achieving sharp images. However, during the day, when I’m just wandering around the city, I rarely take my tripod out with me. Who would want to lug it around anyway?

More often than not, there will be situations where you may want to take a photo  in a low light environment, such as a dimly lit cafe with a moody environment. In this situation, the camera’s natural response, if it’s in automatic or auto ISO mode would be to increase the ISO settings, thus adding grain and diminishing the quality of your image.

Low light photography shouldn’t be difficult. If you want sharp images in low light without compromising on quality, here are a few methods of stabilising yourself for the best results. It will only require a little bit of practice to determine which method works best for you.

Use the widest aperture setting on your lens

If depth of field isn’t as important for the image, then putting the camera mode into aperture priority and reducing the F-stop number to the lowest number i.e f2.8 or f3.5 will ensure that the maximum amount allowable is let into the lens. This allows a faster shutter speed and autofocusing. Just make sure that your focus point will be on your subject as it as not everything in frame will be entirely sharp.

Tuck your elbows in

I see a lot of people holding their camera with their arms fully stretched out. If your arms and elbows are flapping about then your camera is going to be shaking as well.

Imagine that you’re a boxer with your guard up and protecting your ribs. With your arms and elbows in close, you’ll find that there is no room for your elbows to go awol. If your camera has a viewfinder, then use it to compose your shot as your head is a solid foundation to rest your your camera against.

Control your breathing

The simple act of breathing can cause the tiniest of movement in your body, even though you may not be able to feel it.

My method of breath control is as follows:

  • Firstly, compose the shot knowing that the it will be taken within a few seconds later. This will affect the composition if you’re waiting for things to fall into place, such as traffic or a subject of interest walking into the scene.
  • When I’m either at the peak of inhaling or exhaling, this is when I hold my breath and then press the shutter button. This will ensure that there will be little body movement at the time.

Put on your 2 second delay timer

If you have a timer on your camera, try putting it on a two second delay. This ensures that there is no additional camera movement when you press down on the shutter button. Most SLR type cameras have a shutter button that are easy to press, but most compact cameras have buttons that are shallow in depth and require more pressure to be applied, which in turn, contributes to the camera shake.

If you’re using a camera phone, try using the volume button on your headphones to trigger the shutter. You will find that the sharpness will be much better versus tapping the screen.

Wrap your camera strap around your wrist

Some cameras can be large and heavy, and continuous use can add pressure on your wrist and arms. If you have your camera strap attached to the camera, try wrapping it around your right wrist a few times, like you would with any wrist or ankle bandage. You’ll immediately notice that that your wrist will feel firm and stable.

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Lean against a solid object

If you can eliminate sideways movement then you’ll go a long way in eliminating camera shake. Nothing is easily accessible (unless if you’re in a desert) than solid tree or a brick wall. If you can jam yourself up against one then you’re going to be steady as a rock – unless if the wall or tree topples over.

Literally being rock steady. Photo credit: Klearchos Kapoutsis

Literally being rock steady. Photo credit: Klearchos Kapoutsis/Flickr

Sit or lay down on the ground

If you’re taking an image of a landscape or quite low, try sitting down cross legged, leaning forward and with the your elbows rested on your knees when taking the shot. I find this method great at picnics when everybody is sitting down. If you don’t mind getting dirty then lay down on the ground on your belly and using your elbows as support.

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It may look silly, but it’s the quality of photos that matter right? Image: Pedro Ribeiro Simões

Get a mini tripod

Yes, I said you won’t carry a tripod around all the time but that would only apply to the bulkier ones. There are plenty of tripod models out there that are compact and can support a heavier DSLR and can live permanently in your handbag or daypack.

Practice and understand your camera functions

These are the most common techniques that I personally use in order to achieve maximum steadiness in low light conditions. However, it will require the combination of some practice and trial and error in order to find which one works best for you.

In addition to the above points, my recommendation is to take note of the camera settings when testing out each method. What you want is to gain an understanding of what the slowest shutter speed that you can shoot at.

For example, I know that with my current lens and leaning against a wall I can achieve a sharp image at the slowest shutter speed of  1/15 second using an aperture setting of f8 and ISO100. If the light starts fading and the images become darker, I know that in order to achieve a sharp and properly exposed shot then I will need to either reduce my aperture number to f5.6 or lower, or increase my ISO setting. This is an area in which you will need to experiment with, but ultimately will give you more control over your camera.

Find this information useful? Let me know in the comments which technique you used in order to shoot in low light.

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