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Tips for Night and Low Light Photography 
by M. Kirschbaum June 10, 2005

Using flash

In a low light setting, using flash effectively can be tricky. Flash will dilute the appearance of light sources such as candles or Christmas lights. On-camera flash units don’t reach very far in front of the camera and may only serve to overexpose the foreground while casting people and objects in the background as nothing but silhouettes.

However, flash can be useful when the available light isn’t sufficient to illuminate the subject of your picture. For example, the candles on a birthday cake are not going to be enough to light the smiling face of the birthday boy or girl. In this case, flash can be used, but should be aimed to reflect off the walls or ceiling instead of directly at the subject.

Photographing a subject in front of bright lights can also be difficult. Using flash will illuminate the subject in the foreground, but wash out the lights. If you don’t use flash, the lights will show up, but the foreground will be underexposed. Some point-and-shoot cameras provide a special setting, typically marked by a figure of a person in front of a star, designed for this situation. This setting fires the flash while also holding the shutter open long enough to record the lights behind the subject. If your camera lacks this setting, try to take your outdoor low light shots while there’s still some light left in the sky.


Human hands cannot hold still for longer than 1/30th of a second, yet many low light shots require exposure times of several seconds. Because of this, for any exposure time longer than 1/30th of a second, a camera support is essential to prevent the camera from shaking and recording blurry images. While a tripod is the common solution, a monopod—a one-legged camera support—is another option. If you haven’t got a tripod or monopod, the camera can be nestled into a small beanbag to hold the camera steady. As an added bonus, a beanbag is easier to carry and set up than a tripod or monopod. If you haven’t got either, place the camera on any stable surface where it won’t move. Keep in mind, though, that in urban areas, traffic and machinery can make walls and even buildings vibrate in a way that’s invisible to the eye, but that will nonetheless affect the quality of the photograph.

Pressing the shutter button with your finger can also cause the camera to shake. This problem can be solved by using a cable release that can hold the shutter open. A cable release is a cord that, on one end, can be screwed into the shutter button and, on the other end, has a trigger that fires the shutter when pressed. Alternatively, some cameras come equipped with remote control shutters or allow the user to program a series of exposures.



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