Low light photography is challenging, especially for the beginning photographer. Shooting indoors, at dusk or at night without the benefit of a flash may be even more intimidating, but it's not as compicated as it seems and it can pay off with incredible photos. There will be times and places that you'll be required to turn off your flash, such as many churches, stage performances, galleries and museums. In short, knowing how to handle these conditions is a skill every photographer should develop.
Fortunately, your camera is equipped to handle these situations and you can be, too, with just a little bit of knowledge under your belt - or camera strap. Here are a few tips to make you more comfortable when the lights are turned down:
(Success Tip #1: How even hobbyists can profit from their people photos)
Steady as She Goes!
Before you do anything else in low light conditions, make your camera setup as stable as possible. Obviously, many locations aren't going to allow you to use a tripod, but a monopod might be possible. If not, look for something to lean on (being cautious with your choices), or try shooting from a different position. Learn to hold your camera and lens properly and control your breathing and shutter release. Camera shake is not your friend.
Crank Up the ISO
Your best choice in most of these situations is a high ISO setting. If you've read our beginner's article on The Exposure Triangle, you'll understand why this should be your first adjustment. If not, I highly recommend that you check it out, because it explains why a high ISO setting will let you use the settings you'll need in low light.
The worst problem with high ISO settings is the amount of digital noise it creates in your photos and that can become even more pronounced with some sensors in very dark areas. The up side is that newer DSLR cameras are better at suppressing noise and that today's post-processing software does an excellent job of removing noise, even at the high end around ISO6400.
Like it or not, you're going to find plenty of situations that will require you to increase your ISO setting to get the shots you need. Don't be afraid to go there.
(Success Tip #2: Have a new photo challenge for each week of the year.)
Prefocus and Manual Focus
There's a very good chance your AF isn't going to work well without plenty of light. That gives you two options: either setting your focus when the light is sufficient (which is often out of your control) or focusing manually.
Manual focusing is going to be tricky in shooting things like stage perfomances, but by using the smallest aperture possible (You did read the Exposure Traingle article, right?) and finding something about a third of the way "into" the setting to focus carefully on ahead of time, you should be okay. For night landscapes, cityscapes and similar shots, you should have plenty of time to focus carefully on your subject.
Make Use of Available Light Sources
Street lights, windows and other sources of light can be used to highlight your subjects in low light and, depending on the type of source, can add interesting qualities. Keep your eyes open for possibilities and don't hesitate to use a reflector when and where you can.
Check your White Balance Setting
Don't forget that any artificial light sources in your surroundings will affect the colors in your photos. Be sure to check your white balance setting ahead of time and adjust it to suit the conditions. Remember, you're probably a better judge than your camera of the quality of the light when it's low.
Practice, practice, practice!
Nothing helps you learn to swim faster than jumping into the water. Get your camera out and shoot around the house with your flash turned off. Spend some time out in the back yard at night. Take some shots of the moon over the ocean. Find out what you and your camera are capable of in low light.