Our Photography Courses Blog

Shooting in the dark

Laura wrote to us about shooting in dark conditions, and we thought people might find our advice useful: 


Thanks for the recent advice you gave me regarding lenses, I took your advice and love my 28 -135 lens – thank you.  Can I ask another bit of advice?  I’m really struggling with taking photos in dark settings/evenings when you can’ use the flash (for example a wedding evening party).  I tried setting my camera to AV on the highest ISO setting and also tried setting the ISO on auto but still all the photos seemed dark and blurry and it takes ages to take a photo – the shutter is really slow, then the photos are a big blur, what am I doing wrong?  I have the Canon 1000D.

Thanks in advance


Hi Laura,

ok – there are a few things that you can do in low light.
1. Are you using the widest aperture you can? This will let the maximum light in.  Working in Av, this means using the lowest f number possible.  We do recommend getting a 50mm f1.8 lens – this is pretty cheap (about £80 for your camera, less second hand) and has an aperture that is about 10 times as big as the f5.6 aperture you get at 50mm on the kit 18-55mm lens.  The shutter speeds are correspondingly 10 times as fast.
2.  Think about under-exposing. Still working in Av, use the +/- button (roughly where your thumb is on the camera back) to set the exposure compensation to -1 or so.  This will underexpose your picture by one stop, and make the picture darker but also faster.  You may need to brighten the picture up a bit in post-production afterwards, but at least it won’t be blurry.
3.  Increase your ISO – his will make the camera more sensitive to light, and so reduce the shutter speed at any given aperture (so that you can hand-hold).  However, your 1000D can get noisy at high ISO values – probably ok at 800 or maybe 1600.  If you can live with the noise at 1600, the camera needs one quarter of the shutter duration that it needs at 400.  Upping your ISO also makes your flash seem more powerful, and can result in your camera turning flash down a bit, which is no bad thing.
4.  Think about working in Tv. You could then set a maximum shutter speed (ie in the longest you could hand-hold for) then let the camera try and find an aperture.  We don’t work this way, but some people find it useful.  The rule of thumb here is that you can handhold a 50mm zoom for 1/50th, and a 200mm zoom for a 1/200th, but you will need to take into account that your crop-sensor camera has a small sensor, so a 50mm lens acts as an 80mm.  So you can hand hold a 50mm zoom for 1/80th and a 200mm for 1/320th.  In our experience these ball-park numbers are about right.
5.  Think about a monopod. People don’t use these as much as they should – stuck to the bottom of your camera they don’t get in the way too much – and if your pics are often just slightly too long, they can provide that bit of stability you need.
So, your camera wants to take a pic at 1/10th at 100mm and 400ISO.  You can handhold this for about 1/160th.  What can you do?
Set the ISO to 1600 – that immediately puts up the shutter speed to 1/40th
Underexpose by a stop – shutter speed now at 1/80th – half way there!
Think about a monopod or brace yourself against a wall or pillar.  Hold your camera very firm and squeeze the button gently- don’t jab. Most of your pics will be ok.
If you went for a 50mm f1.8 and could get close enough, you could easily pull off this shot. Alternatively, as a cheap(ish) low-light lens think about an 85mm f1.8 – this would have no problem with the above shot on maximum aperture.
Just remember that some shots are actually impossible – it’s not your fault or the cameras if it can’t be done in really low light, but there are ways to make it more possible.
Best wishes
Phil and Rachel Hibberd
Photography Made Simple
0845 4592534 



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