Have you ever looked at photographs posted online taken from a night event and thought to yourself, “How is it so well-exposed and sharp while the photos I took with my camera is underexposed, too grainy and blurry”? Don’t fret! EOS Professional Jonathan Ooi offers valuable tips on how to create low light masterpieces you have always wanted to produce!

Always Shoot with a Tripod

Always use a sturdy tripod with a ball-head rated to withstand at least a few kilograms above your maximum setup (i.e. DSLR with battery grip with your heaviest lens and external flash mounted). This will ensure that the ball-head does not shift during the course of your exposure, as any slight movement will result off-focused images.

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV | f/2.8 | ISO 5000 | 1/8000s

Utilize the Touch Screen Capability

Cameras such as Canon EOS 5D Mark IV which offers touch shutter function allows you to capture images with just a gentle tap on the screen using Live View mode, as opposed to pressing down on the shutter button which might cause unintentional vibrations and reduce the sharpness on the final image. Enabling the mirror lockup mode also helps with the vibration reduction as the mirror will be locked in position and the only thing moving is the shutter.

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV | f/16 | ISO 1600 | 1/8s

Weigh Down the Tripod

Hanging a weighted object on your tripod hook helps weigh down your tripod and stabilise it further. This is especially helpful when you are shooting in windy places as it helps anchors your tripod and prevents vibration caused by the wind.

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV | f/16 | ISO 50 | 77s

Switch Off the Built-In Image Stabiliser When On a Tripod

If your lens comes with the built-in Image Stabiliser (IS), do remember to switch it off when on a tripod. The IS might try to compensate for camera shake and cause unintended blurriness when it detects its own vibration.

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV | f/22 | ISO 50 | 8s

Utilise the In-Built Wi-Fi Function

In the recent few years, the EOS systems across all range has been equipped with the Wi-Fi function. With the Canon Camera Connect app, you can adjust your settings and capture images with your smartphone. If your camera does not have the in-built Wi-Fi function, you could make use of either wired or wireless triggers to trigger your camera to take the shot. With the reduction of physical interaction with the camera,  you can ensure you get sharp and crisp images every time.

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV | f/4 | ISO 4000 | 1/1600s

Observe your Surroundings

The key is to slow down and observe your surroundings, do not rush to shoot blindly and expect great results. Try to picture what you would like to achieve as your end image and compose your image accordingly.

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV | f/2.8 | ISO 500 | 1/160s

Take Note of Bright Sources of Lights

When shooting long exposures, one should take note of bright sources of lights, i.e. floodlights and signboards which will result in blown highlights in your final image which are irrecoverable. It does not always mean that you must shoot with the smallest aperture and lowest ISO that your camera can offer; sometimes by boosting your ISO slightly to 200 or even 400 will deliver better results, as a shorter time is required to capture the scene and helps preserve your highlights.

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV | f/2.8 | ISO 640 | 1/250s

Avoid Shooting with Lower Apertures

One should also avoid shooting with too small an aperture, i.e. f/18 or even f/22 which will be counter effective as it will result in the light being diffracted significantly and your final image will not be as sharp as compared to shooting at f/11 or even f/16. Shooting with large aperture lenses (i.e. f/1.4 or f/1.8 lenses) will also allow more light to enter the sensor at a lower ISO setting with a decent shutter speed.

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV | f/11 | ISO 50 | 8s

It greatly helps if your lens comes with the IS system, which will help reduce camera shake and allow you to shoot at lower shutter speeds to allow even more light into your sensor. If your lens does not comes with the IS system, either make use of higher ISO settings or environmental lighting to illuminate your subjects. A slightly noisier photo is better than a blurry one.

Utilise the Auto Exposure Bracketing Function

You could make use of bracketing techniques by using the Auto Exposure Bracketing (AEB) function found in your camera settings. Your camera will then automatically take in succession 3 different shots of different exposures and you could select the best out of the 3.

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV | f/2.8 | ISO 4000 | 1/1250s

Utilise the High Dynamic Range Function

Another useful function is the High Dynamic Range (HDR) function, where the camera will take a series of images. Each shot with a different exposure from darkest to brightest. The camera will then automatically select the best parts of the earlier captured images and combine it into a final image displaying wonderful details.

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV | f/20 | ISO 50 | 4.8s

Take a Step Further with Neutral Density Filters

The Neutral Density (ND) filters are able to cut the amount light from entering your sensor and enabling to lengthen your exposure timings for that dramatic image you have always craved for.

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV | f/1.4 | ISO 500 | 1/640s

Take Photos with Flash

If image quality is required especially for assignments, flash is actually encouraged for taking night portraits. However, make sure to use a proper diffuser to avoid hard shadows on your subjects which are unflattering to your subject(s). Feel free to explore creative lighting techniques by using wireless flash triggers to strategically place your external flashes to light up your subjects. By using gel filters, you can also create a mood not possible from ambient lightings which are ‘warmer’ in nature.

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV | f/2 | ISO 4000 | 1/200s

Shoot in RAW Format

Shooting in RAW format will allow you to recover details shrouded in the shadows during your post-processing. Do note that the previews on your DSLR screens is in JPEG format and it is not the final piece; you will be amazed by the details you can recover from RAW files!

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV | f/14 | ISO 100 | 30s

However do not overdo it!  Forcing the computer to extract details from underexposed areas will result in unpleasant digital noise. When processing your photos on platforms such as Adobe Lightroom, avoid dragging your sliders to recover details from shadows to the utmost right (i.e. + 100) or when you are trying to recover blown highlights by dragging the slider for Highlights to utmost left (i.e. -100). This will result in an artificial-looking image which does not appeal at all.

Keep Experimenting

Last but not least, do not stop experimenting with the different techniques and with time, you would be able to look at a scene and determine the required settings to achieve your desired outcome!

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV | f/4 | ISO 1250 | 1/100s

Check out Jonathan’s low light masterpieces at https://www.instagram.com/jonooiphotography/ and https://www.facebook.com/JonOoiPhotography/