How to Take Pictures in the Dark Without a Flash

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Although many modern cameras come with a built-in flash, the flash can cause hard shadows and glare on the subject, making it look overexposed and unnatural. Learning how to take pictures in the dark without a flash will help you avoid these issues when shooting in low light.

How to Take Pictures in the Dark Without a Flash

Whether you have forgotten your Speedlight when going on camping trips or you’re capturing reflective surfaces and want to avoid the flares from the camera flash, you can tweak your camera settings and capture bright and high-quality photos even in low light.

An image of taking photo

Although the brightness and quality of the photos will primarily depend on the quality of your camera, lens, type of the subject, and the available ambient light, you can use the following tips to shoot photos in the dark without a camera flash.

Use a Wide Aperture

Keeping in mind that the aperture is the opening that controls the light reaching the camera sensor, opening it wider means more light will enter. Different lenses will have different maximum wide apertures, usually indicated in f-stops such as f/2.8 or f/4.

A higher f-stop number means less light reaches the camera sensor, while a low f-stop number means the aperture is wide open, and more light reaches the camera sensor. For instance, if your lens has an aperture range of f/1.4 to f/16, you should use the f/1.4 setting as it’s the widest aperture.

You should, however, note that the aperture setting affects the depth of field, with the wide aperture resulting in a shallow depth of field. That means using a maximum wide aperture will make some elements in your frame out of focus and blurred.

Use Slower Shutters Speeds

The shutter speed refers to the speed at which the camera shutter opens and closes. Usually, a small opening duration means less light will enter the camera, while a longer duration allows more light to reach the camera sensor.

Since you are shooting in low light, you will want to use slower shutter speeds to give room for sufficient light to enter. However, the slower shutter speeds mean any subject or camera movement during the exposure will result in a motion blur.

It’s therefore advisable to stabilize your camera with a tripod set up to reduce the camera shakes when using a longer exposure technique. You can also enable your camera’s image stabilization system to help reduce the camera tremors and vibrations if shooting handheld.

Increase the Camera ISO

The camera ISO refers to the sensitivity of the camera sensor to light. A high ISO setting allows the sensor to amplify the available signal, resulting in brighter images even in low light. However, the digital noise is also amplified, making the resulting image noisy and grainy.

Usually, the amount of image noise and graininess at a certain ISO setting varies across camera brands and models, depending on the quality of the sensor. For instance, high-end cameras can shoot sharp and clear photos even at ISO 1600.

You can also use higher ISO settings to brighten the photos without minding graininess, and then reduce the resulting image noise using a third-party photo manipulation software such as Photoshop. However, using the highest ISO setting is not advisable as the graininess might be irredeemable.

Taking photo of a church

Shoot With a Full-Frame Camera

Cameras have different sensor sizes, such as full-frame, APS-C, and micro-four-thirds. Usually, the full-frame sensor is the largest of the three, with a size equivalent to the traditional 35mm film.

Keeping in mind that the camera sensor consists of photoreceptors for capturing light, the amount of light a sensor can capture corresponds to its surface area. That means a full-frame camera can capture more light and shoot brighter photos than an APS-C or micro-four-thirds sensor under the same lighting conditions and aperture settings.

Shoot in RAW Format

Most modern cameras will allow you to shoot in either JPEG or RAW format. Typically, the JPEG is a processed image file, while a RAW file contains uncompressed and unprocessed image data captured by the camera sensor.

The advantage of shooting in RAW format when shooting in poor lighting is that you can import the data in photo-editing software such as Lightroom or Camera RAW and adjust specific image data such as exposure, highlights, and sharpness to brighten the image.

However, since RAW files contain uncompressed data with a format that varies across camera brands and models, you may have the following issues when shooting in RAW format.

  • The files are way larger than the typical JPEGs and can take up and fill your camera’s SD storage quickly.
  • You will need photo editing software such as Lightroom or Adobe Photoshop to open, edit and convert the RAW files to the common file formats such as JPEG or PNG.
  • Not all cameras can shoot in RAW format
  • It takes time to transfer RAW files from the camera’s SD storage to the hard drive or upload them on cloud storage backup due to their sheer sizes.

Shoot in Black and White

Even with the best lens and camera, it can be challenging to shoot color-accurate photos in poor lighting. The best way to avoid color accuracy issues and make your photos high-quality and appealing is to shoot them in black and white.

Switch to Manual Focus

Even the most advanced cameras and lenses can have trouble tracking a subject and gaining accurate focus in the dark. Fortunately, most cameras have a manual focus override that allows you to use the focusing ring to fine-tune your focus.

Switch from autofocus to manual focus to have explicit control over your focus point and prevent focus hunting. This will also help you avoid blurring some parts of the main subject when using the maximum wide aperture.

Use a Prime Lens

Although a zoom lens can help you capture distant and nearby subjects, even the most advanced zoom lenses that can maintain a constant aperture throughout their zoom range can’t match the optical quality of prime lenses.

Considering that you are looking for image brightness and not focal length versatility, consider getting a prime lens over a zoom lens.

A person holding camera lens

Use a Standard Lens

Keeping in mind that wide-angle lenses cause some distortions, higher ISO settings can amplify these distortions, resulting in a low-quality image. On the other hand, it can be challenging to magnify a distant subject and make it appear closer using a telephoto lens in dark situations.

It’s therefore advisable to shoot using a standard lens such as the 50mm lens on a full-frame camera or a 35mm lens mounted on an APS-C camera, as it will offer a field of view like that of the naked eye without magnification or wide-angle distortions.

Frequently Asked Questions

Which Is the Best Lens for Shooting in Dark Situations?

The best lens for shooting in dark situations is one with a standard focal length and a fast aperture, such as the 50mm f/1.8. It’s also advisable to go for a lens with an image stabilization system so you can shoot handheld even with slower shutter speeds.

Can I Shoot a Moving Subject in Dark Conditions?

It’s challenging to shoot a moving subject in dark conditions as you will need to use a long exposure, which will result in motion blur when the subject moves. Also, keeping in mind that autofocus might not work well in poor lighting, tracking a moving subject with the manual focus can be challenging.

Final Thoughts

Learning how to take pictures in the dark without a flash will help you determine the right aperture, ISO, and shutter speed settings to use to capture bright and sharp images in poor lighting. Remember to use a tripod to stabilize the camera when taking the shots.