Tonje Lilleås

Low light photography – how to capture those Christmas parties – Blogmas Day 10

I give you my tips on low light photography to make sure that you capture those special moments this Christmas. And just to make this clear; even if this post is a part of Blogmas, remember that the tips below can be useful in whatever low light situation you want to shoot in!

Want to know more about winter photography? Check out this guide for beginners!

Now this year it’s probably not going to be many Christmas parties in the sense we’re all used to. And I think that makes it even more important to capture the magical moments that will occur nonetheless. If you capture good images and share it with your loved ones, it’s a way of having a more shared experience even if you’re not together. But photographing in low light is difficult. Images tend to get blurry and have a rather unflattering color cast. Fear not, there are things to do to avoid all the problems of low light photography. Here we go!

Subjects not moving? – Let in more light by slowing down your shutter speed

Photography is painting with light. Naturally a way of capturing images in low light situations is to let in more light through the lens, so that the camera can get a proper exposure. If your subject isn’t moving, for instance you’d like to capture the Christmas tree in all it’s glory, slow down your shutter speed. When the shutters stay open for a longer period of time, you let in more light. Not that complicated really.

However do remember to use a tripod or other stabilizer whenever you’re using a shutter speed below 1/60 of a second. Even if the subject isn’t moving, your hands probably are. Or maybe you’re one of the lucky ones to have in body camera stabilization?

A shutter speed of a second or more is not uncommon for static subjects in low light conditions. However if you’re photographing people – and you want them to be sharp – slowing down the shutter speed isn’t the way to go about.

People or movement? – Let in more light by opening your aperture

Your kids probably won’t sit perfectly still for a second during Christmas Eve, and grandma will have a hard time figuring out if the blurry chap in front of the tree is Adam or Steve. Fear not, there is a solution.

Another way to let in more light, which as mentioned is one of the keys in low light photography, is to open your aperture. By this I mean choosing a f-stop number that is low, in the area of f1.2-f2.8. This will allow for a bit faster shutter speed, which is crucial if you’d like to freeze movement and get sharp images of people.

However bear in mind that you won’t always get groups of people sharp if you go as low as f2.8 or lower. Not that you’ll be big groups of people inside in a low light situation this Christmas, but still. You might want both your kids and your spouse to be sharp in the image right?

More than one or moving subjects – Crank up your ISO

When I say moving subject in this headline, I mean the micro movements we all make with our heads, eyes and hands while we’re standing perfectly still to be photographed. Not to talk about the movements made when both kids are opening their presents from grandpa and you’d like to capture it. This is the kind of situations where it mightn’t be enough to either slow down you’r shutter speed or open your aperture. It’s time to crank up your ISO.

Now when I say crank up your ISO, I don’t really mean crank it. I mean increase it to the amount that is ok for your camera without making a mess of your image. ISO makes your cameras sensors sensitivity to light. This is a good option to have in your toolbox when shooting in low light. However it also will introduce more noise in your images at some point. And you want as little noise as possible. Finding the sweet spot is a matter of testing, so do test your camera before you’re in front of that magical moment on Christmas Eve. With my camera I don’t go above ISO 1600. Which means I have to rely on a wide aperture. And the ability to do a bit of adjustments in post.

Need to make some adjustments still? – Make sure you shoot in RAW

Shooting in RAW means more possibilities for adjustments in post. RAW files aren’t finished images out of camera, but gather a lot more information than jpegs. This means you have more to work with in post. So if your image is still a little dark, but sharp, you’ll most likely be able to retrieve some details in the shadows if you’ve shot in RAW.

Shutter speed, aperture, ISO and RAW, what are you talking about? I shoot with my phone

Yes, most people do shoot with their smartphones. But the tips I’ve given this far still applies. There are apps that will let you control some or all of the settings above manually. And if you don’t want to go there, then shoot HDR mode on your phone. It won’t give you control over the result, but it will give you the best result the camera in your phone can produce on its own.

But what about those nice portraits with a Christmas tree in the background?

First thing to say about that is to have more available light than just the Christmas tree. So bring more light to the scene. This is to make sure the scene isn’t too contrasty, as this will give you blown out highlights on the tree and/or a very dark subject in front of the tree.

Then apply the following from above: shutter speed as low as possible, use a tripod if possible, open your aperture as wide as possible and “crank up” your ISO. What you’re trying to achieve is a sharp image, so your shutter speed can’t be too low and your aperture can’t be too wide. To avoid noise you can’t go too high on your ISO. But to get a decent exposure you have to have enough light in the scene. So the takeaway is; bring more light into the scene.

How do you do that? Well here’s a few tips:

  • Take advantage of the natural light from the window. It’s the best light source you have in a room. Place your subject close to the window with your Christmas tree in the background. Shoot when it’s daylight.
  • Do not use a flash. But if you do, redirect it so it bounces off the ceiling and doesn’t hit the subject head on. If all you have is an on camera flash, turn it off. Or worst case scenario hold a white sheet of paper in front of it to smoothen the light out a bit.

But my Christmas lights aren’t twinkling!

You’ve done everything I’ve mentioned above, but it still just doesn’t look the way you want it to. I know, I know, we all want those lights to be twinkling, right? But the thing is; to get the twinkle you need a narrow aperture at f16 or above. That means a very slow shutter speed or a very high ISO right? And you know what that means by now; either difficulty freezing movement or introducing noise. You have to figure out your sweet spot with the camera you have available.

I don’t want twinkles, I want the smooth background with round lights

You want nice bokeh. It’s a weird word, somewhat stuck up, but still; you want bokeh. And you can achieve bokeh by opening your aperture way up wide, f2.8 and down is perfect.

Ok, but now my images are all yellow or green or very, very blue

Yes, I have forgotten to mention to make sure your white balance is right. Set it to tungsten if you’re shooting indoors without any daylight present. If there’s daylight tungsten will be to warm, you might want to experiment a bit but I like to set it to cloudy whenever daylight is present. Or just fix white balance in post if you’re shooting RAW. And you are, right?

Remember to just enjoy and be present

Now I’ve given you a lot of technical tips on low light photography. They can all be used in whatever low light situation. Indoors, outdoors, during Christmas or any other season. The principles are the same.

The thing is though, it won’t help you capture a single moment to share with anyone. For that you have to be present. You have to actually have a good time with those around you to be able to capture the mood and the right magical moments. So make sure you rehearse your settings, so you can focus on enjoying the moment and being present with your friends, family or chosen family as much as possible.

I hope you enjoyed this post with tips on low light photography. I’ll make another one on capturing Christmas lights outdoors, so make sure to subscribe to get notified when that’s up. Also I would love it if you would check out my Instagram. See you tomorrow for another Blogmas post!



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