When you think of photography, one thing should come to mind above all else - light.
After all, photography comes from the Greek word photos, which means light, and graphe, which means drawing.
That means that photography is drawing with light...
Unfortunately, we aren't always presented with opportunities to take photos in ideal lighting conditions. In fact, how often is the lighting even remotely close to ideal?!
The key, then, is to learn how to take photos in the absence of good lighting. The question is, how does one do that?
Why NOT to Use a Flash
To understand why other methods are better for low-light shooting, you first need to understand why a flash isn't always ideal.
Naturally, using a flash is one of the easiest ways to add light to a dim scene.
The problem is that light from a flash isn't that great, especially if you use your on-camera flash.
The light is harsh, bright, and creates heavy shadows and bright, highlighted areas. In other words, it's not a good look.
You can use more sophisticated artificial lighting like a flashgun or two mounted on tripods and angled perfectly to give you good coverage.
The problem with that approach is that it takes time to set up.
That brings us to another issue - using a flash can be highly distracting.
On the one hand, it can ruin the moment because nothing says "Hey I'm taking your photo" like a flash going off. If you want candid shots, it'll be hard to do with a flash.
On the other hand, using a flash can minimize the perceived depth in your photos.
For example, if you use the on-camera flash, the illumination hits the subject directly from the front, as seen above.
Without any indication of depth, the image can look and feel flat.
So, what can you do in lieu of a flash?
Boost the ISO
Historically, photographers have avoided using high ISOs because the higher the ISO, the greater the appearance of digital noise.
Granted, noise can be used as an artistic element, but by and large it tends to be something photographers don't want.
Today's cameras have higher ISO ranges than ever before. What's more, they have better ISO performance than ever before.
So, where five years ago you might not want to push the ISO beyond 800, today, you can comfortably shoot at ISO 3200 on many cameras and still get clean, sharp results.
Even if you do find that there's too much noise, you can reduce its effects in post-processing to get a cleaner image. See how to do that in the video below by Tony and Chelsea Northrup:
Another advantage of using a higher ISO is that you can more easily reduce camera shake.
Since the higher the ISO, the more sensitive the sensor is to light, you can use higher ISO values to help avoid camera shake.
This is the case because as the ISO increases, you can also increase the shutter speed, and the faster the shutter speed, the less likely camera shake is to occur.
It's a win-win!
Shoot in Aperture Priority
Shooting in aperture priority mode (A or AV on your camera dial) gives you control over what aperture is used.
In response, the camera selects a shutter speed to match such that the resulting image is well-exposed.
This is advantageous for low-light shooting because you can select the largest aperture your lens allows, thereby maximizing the amount of light entering the lens.
Much like using a higher ISO brightens the image, so too does using a large aperture. If digital noise is a concern, a large aperture just might do the trick to get you the light you need.
Of course, in aperture priority mode, you can also set the ISO value.
If you find that your image is too dark even when you use your lens's maximum aperture, simply try again with a higher ISO. The combination of ISO and aperture could be the solution to your low-light shooting problems.
Use a Tripod
Not all low-light shooting situations will allow for a tripod, but if you have room and it's appropriate for the situation, use one.
By mounting your camera to a tripod, you negate the effects of camera shake that result from slow shutter speeds.
Naturally, the slower the shutter speed, the longer the sensor is exposed to light, so it's just one more avenue you can use to get better shots in dimly lit situations.
Of the three exposure settings - aperture, ISO, and shutter speed - shutter speed is often the one that you don't want to maximize.
Since shutter speed controls the indication of movement, the longer the shutter speed, the more likely your subject is to be blurred.
This can be used as an artistic application in your images, like the one seen above.
But if you don't want to blur movement, you'll need to open the aperture and boost the ISO to keep the shutter speed fast enough to freeze the movement of your subject.
Nevertheless, even if your shutter speed isn't that long, a tripod doesn't hurt!
Get a Fast Lens
When someone says "a fast lens," they're referring to the lens's maximum aperture.
For example, an f/1.8 lens is a fast lens because f/1.8 is a very large aperture. Conversely, a lens with a maximum aperture of f/3.5 doesn't open as wide, so it's not as fast of a lens.
The "fast" part has to do with the shutter speed you can use with a lens.
With more light coming in, an f/1.8 lens allows you to use a faster shutter speed in the same lighting conditions as an f/3.5 lens...
So, when shooting in low-light situations, getting a fast lens like f/1.2, f/1.4, f/1.8, or f/2 will behoove you.
The issue with some of these lenses is that they can be pricey - especially in the f/1.2 and f/1.4 range.
If you're on a budget, there are plenty of fast lenses that won't break the bank.
Shoot in RAW
A lot can be done in post-processing to lighten images that are a touch too dark.
This is especially true if you shoot in RAW.
Since RAW files retain all the information gathered by your camera's sensor, you have a ton of data to work with in post-processing.
When processing a RAW file, you can work on everything from lens distortion to curves and levels to color and white balance.
You can also work on areas of light and shadow in your images.
If you've never processed a RAW file, you'd be surprised at just how much you can do to improve the shot, even if it seems impossibly dark when first viewing it on your computer screen.
Learn more about RAW files in the video above.
Wrapping It Up
At the end of the day, any of these techniques is likely preferable for shooting in low-light situations than using a flash.
You can try one, try all, or use a combination thereof to get improved photos.
The key is to experiment, see what works for you in your specific situation, and then practice using the technique so you can work quickly when the time comes to shoot in low-light settings.