Low Light Digital Photography for Control Freaks

Beginner Photo Tip: Shooting in Tricky Low-Light Situations

Sometimes we do not get perfect lighting situations. Okay, so lots of the time we don’t get perfect lighting situations. That’s where an off-camera flash is my best friend. Seriously, I’m in love with my whole off-camera flash set-up because I love CONTROL. Unfortunately, we don’t always get the luxury of control. When we don’t get to control the light it can create a tricky situation.

Here are some examples of tricky low-light situations I’ve been in and how I still got the image I wanted.

Indoor Action

The other night I took pictures at a volleyball game. I had absolutely no control of the light. The available light was the fluorescent overhead lighting common in a gym. My flash would not help because it couldn’t reach the players and I doubt they would have appreciated flashes of light blinding them as they played. This was a tricky low-light situation.

Yet I still captured great action. Here’s how:

  1. First of all, I used a fast lens and I shot wide open at F/2.8 during most of the game.
  2. I wanted a shutter speed around 1/200 because I was trying to freeze motion. My aperture was as low as it could go. The exposure still wasn’t correct. I needed to let more light in. So, I raised the ISO – significantly. Yes, my pictures ended up with more noise, but I was actually impressed how well my Canon 7D handled the high ISO (oh the wonders of today’s digital cameras)! And the cons of noise are debatable anyway.

Ambient Night Light


Another tricky lighting situation was when my husband and brothers-in-law were trying to be tough guys. We were on a family vacation and they wanted to go in the outdoor hot tub in freezing weather – and they wanted pictures of this event. So I bundled up and took a few photos before my fingers froze off (I’m a desert girl). It was night and there was very little ambient light.

  1. To solve my problem, I lowered my shutter speed to get in what ambient light there was, and then used my flash to freeze motion and light up my subjects.
  2. Then I decided to use more artistically correct lighting for the mood. I was hand holding the camera so I lowered the shutter speed at much as I felt I could. This shot would have worked better if I had used a tripod because I could have used an even lower shutter speed without worrying about the consequences of camera shake.
  3. I opened my aperture all the way.
  4. Then, I raised the ISO until I had correct exposure for the light from the hot tub. The result was backlit silhouettes with the steam in the air showing how cold it was.


ISO 800,F4.5, 1/13 sec

At a wedding I wanted a picture of the candlelight from candles floating in the pool without the noise of a high ISO.

  1. I set the ISO I wanted and then I set the creatively correct aperture based on the depth of field I required.
  2. Using a tripod I was able to get away with the very low shutter speed required for proper exposure. By the way, I determined shutter speed by metering for the entire scene and then using the old guess and check method – grateful to be able to check pictures on the camera’s viewfinder.
  3. The camera’s exposure compensation bracketing would have worked too (see your camera’s users’ manual for more information on this).

Two more tips for tricky low-light situations:

  • Position your subject so they face the light source. That way, you get as much help from the ambient light as possible.
  • Go ahead and use your pop-up flash if you don’t have an external flash unit available. Just at least put a piece of paper or thin fabric over it to soften the light.

Your Bag of Tricks for Being In-Control

These are items in your bag of tricks for low-light situations that are out of your control:

  • Use a fast lens and open wide.
  • Raise your camera’s ISO.
  • Use a tripod and a slow shutter speed.

Even if you’re a control freak like me, these “tricks”, along with a few deep breaths, will help you have lots of fun taking pictures even in tricky low-light situations.

One Reply to “Low Light Digital Photography for Control Freaks”

  1. I just picked up a 7D the other day and fell in love. It truly does make a difference what camera you have. I just can’t get my ISO that high without a ton of noise…grain grain and more grain. Thanks!

Leave a Reply to Lala @ Lenz Love Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *