Hello, darkness! Shooting in low light

January 05, 2015

Today's post addresses a common conundrum that has plagued many a snap happy blogger - how to shoot crisp, clear photos in low light without using a flash. You know the story: you're at a Instagram popular-page pretty event, restaurant, or date, the setting of which is so painfully photogenic that it simply begs to be have its photo taken. Problem: the duskily-lit venue in all its incandescent glow, so ambient in real life, shows up in photos as a dark blob with blurry pinpricks of light, faceless blurs for people, and sometimes colourful streaks of God knows what (very interesting if you're at a rave, but not quite when you're trying to capture a classier scene). Do you: a) pop the camera flash, taking photos that look 'flat' and give the people in them rabid-animal red eyes while possibly irking all else present in the room or b) struggle to hold your camera still (possibly dislocating a rib while holding your breath to keep your hands steady) and despite six hundred attempts still end up with blurry, out of focus shots? It was the latter that I used to struggle with (I have the sore ribs to prove it) until I finally figured out the easy way to take clear photos in dark settings without having to use that obnoxious pop-up flash on my camera. This way, I get clear shots of my subjects (my cocktail, my friends, my Celine purse *ahem*) without sacrificing clarity nor the atmospheric ambience of my softly-lit surroundings. How? Read on...


You don't need an expensive camera or lens

I see a lot of novice bloggers inspired by their heroes, spending serious money on a Canon 5D or 7D in the hope that it'll make their photography on par. The thing is, it's not about the camera, it's more about the lens or more specifically your understanding of the best results you can get out of it. You don’t need a 5D or 7D if you know what you’re doing - you can take good pics on an entry level DSLR. I myself shoot for Regimental Vintage (often in awful natural light, thank you London!) with a Canon 600D using a set of prime lenses.

For shooting in low light, I recommend using a portrait lens or a prime lens. For my Canon, I have: EF 24 mm f/2.8, EF 50mm f/1.4 portrait lens, and I'm still waiting to received my upgrade: the EF 85mm f/1.8. Why a portrait or prime lens? Simple, it's all about the aperture. The smaller the aperture, the more light the lens lets in, meaning you don't have to compensate as much with ISO (too high ISO = too much noise) or a lower shutter speed (are you as still as a tripod? No one is). Also, these lenses are lightweight, and prime lenses have a 'fixed shape'' (the can't be extended to zoom in) and so they fit in handbags more easily.

Started from the bottom now we here...started from the bottom now my whole team here. 

I started with Lambrini, graduated to Prosecco, and am eagerly dreaming of the day when I deserve champagne.


Here's how I cheat my way into looking like a professional photographer. (You didn't think I shot in manual, did you? Have you learnt nothing about me?)

a) Settings cheat sheet (easy peasy not so sleazy)
 I change my settings to Aperture Priority mode (AP). 
 I know many photographers suggest that you shoot in RAW, but I've never bothered. 
✦ Use the lowest aperture. I prefer f/1.8, no more than f/ 2.5. 
✦ Use manual focus if you can, but if you use autofocus like me, switch on your auto stabiliser. 
✦ Don’t be afraid to switch focus points - play around with spot metering. Your camera will yield more precise results by focusing all it's crispness on a tiny area of the frame, giving you a clear shot of your subject with a soft-focus background. Ambience, baby.   
✦ Use automatic ISO until you get hang of ISO. Never go higher than ISO 1600 unless you want your photos to be nosier than a gathering of horny crickets. 
✦ Underexpose slightly. Your camera can get confused in a dim place with many light sources, resulting in 'blown out' brighter spots. I find that lowering the exposure to -1 EV makes for more balanced lighting without overexposing the brightest points in the photo. 
✦ White balance. In many dimly lit settings, photos tend to come out looking more orange than the fillies at Aintree. To compensate, play around with your white balance. I myself embrace the Tango, but you can set your white balance to 'tungsten' to counteract the Oompa Loompa effect. 
Allow me to demonstrate. 

All these photos were shot on a Canon 450D with a Canon EF Lens (24 mm, f/2.8) using Aperture Priority mode (AP), f2.8, ISO 1600, -1.3 EV. 

The setting: Looking Glass cocktail club on Hackney Road, East London. Apt given the name of the bar and this blog post...
From the website: Looking Glass Cocktail Club is a mystical and adventurous world in its own right (tipping hats to Lewis Carroll's parallel universes and looking glasses). Based at the Columbia Road end of Hackney Road, in and amongst the coolest places in London, there lies the realisation of their dream cocktail club with a speak-easy vibe and the most unexpented events.

The cocktail that killed me (I had to be propped up all the way home): a bellini.

b) Use an external light source

No, not your camera flash! I'm talking about utilising whatever sources of light you have around you. A candle on your table nudged closer to that cocktail you're snapping, the glow off your iPhone (true story), or the torch on your iPhone which is what I use for shooting people. Far less obtrusive than a camera flash going off at intervals like lightning.

My first cocktail: Breakfast In Bermuda. A creamy concoction of Goslings rum shaken with crème de cassis, ruby port, egg yolk, Solerno and lime sherbet; served in a coupette.

Hi mum, I'm sorry (not) that I stole your Celine handbag. (I bet you didn't even notice)
My willing test subject - my long-suffering boyfriend Henry.
With our 'daughter' Priska, whose birthday we were celebrating on this joyous occasion.


a) Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop.

Before. What secrets lies in these shadows?
Some photography purists may disagree but I believe that post-processing plays an important part in photography. 

✦ If your photo is too dark and lacking detail, try adjusting the tonal width using Shadows/Highlights to 'reveal' the detail in the shadows. (Image > adjustments > Shadows/Highlights) Be careful not to overdo it - too much Shadows/Highlights can produce a strange 'embossed' effect on objects and even worse a 'fake tan gone wrong' on most skin tones.

 Play around with curves and brightness/contrast. 

✦ If you hate the colours, why not turn your photo into a monochrome masterpiece? How I do it: Go to Image > Mode > and select Grayscale. Play around with curves, adjust the contrast till you're satisfied, maybe  add some film grain (Filter > Artistic > Film Grain) if you like the 'journalistic' look. Don't forget to change it back to RGB (CMYK if you're printing).

After. Hello brick wall, I see you!

b) Smartphone editing: Instagram and VSCO cam filters

If all else fails, and you hate the photo quality but like the photo itself, edit the photo on Instagram or VSCO cam. Embrace the lo-fi!


Don’t be disheartened - you’ll only get better with practise. Bring your DSLR out with you wherever you go - please insure your lenses and camera! - and get snap happy. Take every opportunity you can to improve your photography skill (perhaps not at dinner on a first date, that's just impolite), especially at parties - your friends will love you for having lots of photos of them (that is, if they're the snap happy sort!) for memories, keepsake, and Facebook.

This blog post is not sponsored by Canon (although it should be as I have been a loyal customer for years), Instagram (ditto), VSCO cam, nor Looking Glass. This blog post however owes it thanks to Jesse for its existence: it was after I deftly showed her how to make the most of her portrait lens by shooting Christmas cocktails at Four Sisters in Islington that she suggested I share my easy cheat sheet of tips on taking photos in low light. 

If photography is your thing, why not check out Regimental Vintage? Most of the photography for mine and Henry's online shop is by myself. Also, check out my travel blog posts, that's where I tend to make the most effort with my photography. Lastly, if you're on Bloglovin, follow me! I love to see my readers' blogs and my reading list in in desperate need of new blogs to follow! 

Good luck, ya'll, and keep shooting for the stars (hehe)! x

Let's get social: Twitter Instagram | Bloglovin | Google+ 


  1. Oh my, the moment you try raw, then upload the sucker to Adobe bridge/PS you'll discover a whole new world of awesome...! There will be no going back.

    1. I did try shooting in raw, but it was such a strain on my memory card that I gave up! I'll save it for more 'serious' assignments, but for everyday use it's .jpg for me! x

  2. Very nice post! I have to say, I use the same tricks than you, and I totally agree on the fact that it is not the camera that makes the quality of the pictures, if you know how you can take great pictures even with cheap DSLR and lenses, as long as you know their limitations! The editing bit of your post was very interesting, as I'm not that great with Photoshop. I have to admit using raw is great, but sometimes it can be a bit of a bother as it takes so much space on SD card.

    1. I feel the same about raw files, they're such a breeze to edit (how amazing is it that you change the temperature of an image with just one slider?!) but my SD card can't handle it. I'll get there one day!

      I'm glad you enjoyed my post. Give Photoshop another chance, I promise you'll love it! x

  3. Really like this post. Just added it to the best of the month roundup I'll be posting by the end of January :)

  4. Great post, I've bookmarked it for later - low light is NOT my friend!! 2015 is the year I go back to my camera and properly look into using it!

    Katie <3

  5. This has earned a place very high up in my bookmarks - low light is my arch enemy when it comes to shooting pictures in restaurant, and for the time being, I've always been losing at this game! I do some of these things already, and can't wait to try the new tricks I've learnt from you. Maybe I won't be swearing too much the next time I step into a restaurant and find it's as dark as a cavern :P