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Shoot in low light without a flash

I took the family to see Cirque du Soleil last week. Off course cameras were not permitted because artists and acrobats needed full concentration for their acts and flashes in the eyes are a definite no-no. I was amazed by the lack of knowledge people have when they started pulling their mobile phones and shooting scenes with the flash on. There was a lady sitting in the row in front of us. She was like 15 meters away from the act floor but she insisted on taking photos with her tiny iPhone flash on despite several warnings from the ushers floating around. 

Mobile phone or compact point-and-shoot photography is easy when you have plenty of light and the conditions are ideal. But, as you may know, lighting conditions aren’t always as we would like them to be. We might be shooting in a place or time where flash is not permitted. Not only that, but the flash usually flattens your photos if not used properly. This is always the case of popup flash that is mounted on top of your camera body.

The question is how to get better photos in low light conditions without using a flash. It’s a broad question but directly related to the three axis nature of photography: ISO, Aperture, and Shutter Speed.

No flash and hand-held. f/5.6 for 1/50 sec at ISO-1600

If you have a DSLR, a semi-pro camera, or even your cell phone nowadays, you have what it is called ISO settings. What the hell is that you might say? I want to point and shoot in full automatic mode you might add. Well you have to forget automatic mode in low light conditions. ISO simply means the amount of sensitivity of light falling on your camera sensor. Before digital photography, ISO referred to the film sensitivity and a term to label film speed as well. The higher the ISO number to faster the film… Unfortunately, in those days, you had to change your film every time light conditions changed. But let’s get back to the digital world; in digital photography, the higher the ISO, the higher the noise in your final image. On the other hand, if you don’t increase ISO you may end up with camera shakes. For still life photography this could be eliminated with the use of a tripod. But if you are shooting hand-held, you will soon find out that noise is better than camera shakes.

The good news is that you can reduce noise using post-processing software to re-sharpen your photo and eliminate noise. I use Adobe Lightroom for that as part of my process but there are your manufacturer utilities or third party tools in the market. One is called “Noise Ninja” and another is called “Neat Image”.

So next time you are at a concert or attending a wedding at a church, consider the following:

  • Raise your ISO as high as it will go in your camera
  • Shoot RAW if possible and not JPEG
  • Use aperture-priority with the lowest f-stop (f/4 or less)
  • Consider investing is a fast lens (I have a “nifty fifty” fixed 50 mm f1.8 that does miracles)
  • Use a noise reduction software to help reduce the grain/noise (don’t eliminate by over doing it)

Also refer to other posts on my blog directly related to this subject:

Shot hand-held with no flash at a school play. f/5.6 for 1/60 sec at ISO-1600 

Shot with my Samsung Galaxy S4 (mobile phone) with night mode. Noise reduced in Lightroom. Basically this increases the ISO settings on your mobile phone camera. Amazing results.