Taking photographs in low light used to involve
extra lighting, the use of ultra-large aperture lenses,
or inevitable loss of image quality—or all of these
things. No longer. The sensitivity of sensors has
improved to the point that images can be captured
by the light of the moon. The result is an extension
of the world of available light photography. Simply
set a high ISO setting, for example, ISO 1600 or
greater, and a large aperture: you are then ready to
concentrate on artistic issues, rather than struggle
with technical limitations. If your camera produces
noisy images at high ISO settings, you can deal with
the problem in post-processing (see pp. 194–5).
The most thrilling aspect of low-light photography
is that the camera sensor is not subject to the same
limitations as the human eye when perceiving color
in low light. In brief, sensors see almost as much
color in low light as they do in bright light (there is
a slight reduction due to increase in noise). This
means that scenes that appear lacking in color, or
where lights appear white, will record with much
more color than you can see. This is particularly true
of the evening sky: what appears gray to our eyes
can be recorded as brilliant dark blues, while
colorless city lights can be recorded as yellows, reds,
or even greens. With a little experience, you will
learn how to exploit these differences between our
own visual experience of low light and the images
that can be captured on camera.
Staying in the dark
One aspect of low light photography that poses
problems for many photographers is how to allow
dark subjects to stay dark. In general, you are aiming
for low-key images (see pp. 72–3), that is, images in
which the key tones are darker than mid-tones. The
key tone should convey the sense of low light, while
important details are distinguished and, at the
same time, colored lights are not overexposed. This
means that you override auto-exposure to -1 to -2
stops, in other words, you set the exposure as
underexposed to the usual meter reading from -1
stop to -2 stops, or even more.
Remember to set any automatic ﬂash to remain
off. If the ﬂash is effective at all, it is effective in
destroying the character of the lighting. And at
distances greater than about 10ft (3m), built-in ﬂash
has no effect whatsoever on the scene.
The half-light between the day and the onset of full
nighttime darkness is a truly magical time as you can easily
balance foreground and sky light. At the same time, colors
seem much more intense than at any other time, with the
sensors capturing all the perceived brilliance. Underexpose
by at least 1 stop to obtain rich colors.
Even when there is dazzling sunshine outside, the interiors
of buildings can be very dark—as was the case here in the
hall of The Casino, Venice. Tripods were not permitted, so I
pressed the camera against the mirror to keep it steady
during the exposure, which I set at 1 stop less than metered.
As noise is greatest in dark shadow areas and this image is
almost all dark shadow, noise levels were judged to need
To the eye, this scene appeared to be hopelessly dark,
relieved only by the bright points of the city lights, and the
pale blue glow of the pool’s underwater illumination.
Exposed at -1.3 stop to the metered reading, the image
revealed blues and purples in the distant hills and the city.
The image also made the light in the trees, which came
from distant street lamps, more easily visible.
Black as night
When there is very little light in the sky, any attempt to
capture it will result in overexposure of lights on the
ground. In this image of Pisa and the River Arno, the main
concern is to expose the street lamps correctly: the better-
lit buildings are overexposed and the sky is featureless. But
what we really want is the lovely reﬂection in the river.
post-processing. For normal purposes, noise reduction
ﬁlters in standard software such as Adobe Lightroom, Apple
Aperture, and Adobe Photoshop produce acceptable
results. For high and obtrusive levels of noise, use speciality
software such as Topaz Denoise or Noise Ninja.