Become an Artist by Shooting in Low Light

If you want to take your photography skills to the next level, more importantly, become an artist in the process instead of simply an operator, then learning how to shoot in low-light conditions is a must. Not only will it help you capture stunning images of the night sky, but it will also improve your understanding of exposure, focus, and composition. Now, there are only three elements to a camera, shutter speed, aperture, ISO which seems simple enough, yet it is in the balance of how changing each one of these elements, exponentially affects the other two that you realize- THIS is where the balance and art of photography lie. In this blog post, I will share with you some tips and tricks on how to shoot in low-light conditions and how to use those skills to then photograph the Milky Way which I will go into depth on in a later blog post.

Shooting in low-light conditions is the quickest way to become a more skilled and well rounded photographer. As a photographer, we work with capturing light- remove light from this equation is where the fun begins. Now this requires some adjustments to your camera settings and gear which I will get into below, but keep in mind- The quicker you can learn how to change these settings on your camera without having to think “Ok, now I need to press on this button to change my…” (you get where I’m going) will exponentially improve you in every facet as a photographer. Removing light from the equation, you learn how to use a camera,  Remove the camera from the equation, and you will become an artist with a tool. This is because the skills of how to work a camera without having to actively think about ‘how or what settings to change’ allows you to be present in your environment, thus allowing you to exponentially improve and become a more skilled photographer in any lighting condition.

Here are some of the main factors you need to consider in low light conditions:

Aperture: You want to use a wide aperture (low f-number) to let in as much light as possible. A fast lens with an aperture of f/2.8 or lower is ideal for low-light photography. My personal favorite is my 20mm Sony G f/1.8 lens.

Shutter speed: You want to use a slow shutter speed (long exposure) to capture enough light and detail. However, you also need to avoid camera shake and star trails. Always use a tripod and intervelometer or a few second timer delay when pressing your shutter. When shooting the stars, a good rule of thumb is to use the 500 rule: divide 500 by your focal length to get the maximum shutter speed you can use without star trails. For example, if you are using a 24mm lens, you can use a shutter speed of 500/24 = 20 seconds. However I rarely go above 15 seconds (and this is assuming you are using a Full Framed sensor)

ISO: You want to use a high ISO to boost the sensitivity of your sensor. However, you also need to avoid noise and grain. A good starting point is to use an ISO of 1600 or 3200 and adjust it according to the brightness of the scene and your desired exposure. My Sony A7III is ISO Invariant which essentially means I can boost my ISO up to about 8000-10000 without seeing additional noise. But that is for a later post.

Focus: You want to use manual focus to ensure sharpness and accuracy. Autofocus may not work well in low-light conditions and will actively work against you as it tries to focus and refocus on something in the dark which is why you turn of auto focus. To focus on the stars, you can use the live view mode and zoom in on a bright star. Then, adjust the focus ring until the star is as small and sharp as possible. Turning on focus peaking so that something in focus turns either red, yellow or white is incredibly helpful.

Once you have you camera settings dialed in, just start playing around shooting everything around you. You will quickly see depending on where you are, what settings need to be changed. If you are in a city, playing around with light trails of cars passing by is a really fun way to start experimenting with long exposures. For this you’ll want an ISO very low (from 100-400) aperture set anywhere from f/6 up to f/13 and and a shutter speed anywhere from 20 – 30 seconds long. You can get more vibrant colors with the lower you set your ISO, closing down your aperture to a value like f/13 will show those beautiful ‘spikes’ youll see in street lights, and because those settings are set to let in such little light, you compensate a correct exposure by setting a very long shutter speed between 20 or 30 seconds long to allow enough light to enter your camera. Playing around in these settings will then give you enough skills to begin shooting the stars, more importantly- our Milky Way galaxy. Again I will go into depth on the specifics for this in a later post, but this is just to get your creative juices flowing so you are confident enough to go out and photograph our cosmos. So here are the basics:

To photograph the Milky Way, you need to plan ahead and find a suitable location and time. Here are some of the main factors you need to consider:

Location: You want to find a dark place away from light pollution and with a clear view of the southern sky (in the northern hemisphere) or the northern sky (in the southern hemisphere). You can use apps such as Dark Sky Finder to find dark locations and PhotoPills to plan your shots.

Time: This was the first big learning curve I faced after learning how to properly use my camera. The Milky Way has a season. You want to shoot when the Milky Way is visible and high in the sky. The best time to photograph the Milky Way is during the new moon phase or when the moon is below the horizon. You can use apps such as Stellarium or PhotoPills to find out when and where the Milky Way will rise and set.

Composition: You want to compose your shot with some foreground interest and balance. You can use elements such as trees, rocks, buildings, or people to add depth and scale to your image. You can also use techniques such as leading lines, rule of thirds, or golden ratio to create a pleasing composition.

I will go into depth on how to use tools such as PhotoPills or Dark Sky Finder in a later post to help you plan ahead and truly take you astrophotography skill to the next level. But for now, if you begin by learning how to shoot anything in low light, landscapes, city lights, light trails of cars passing by etc… then you will be confident enough to go out to the locations necessary to even see the Galactic Core of our Milky Way Galaxy.

Shooting in low-light conditions and photographing the Milky Way can be challenging but is so rewarding. With some practice and patience, you can capture amazing images that will impress your friends and family, more importantly yourself. I have images I took that I will still look at and think to myself, ‘I can’t believe I actually took this?!” and its in these moments that you surprise yourself that will give you the motivation to keep on doing so, finding yourself in more beautiful remote locations, capturing the most beautiful thing in the universe, the universe itself. I hope this blog post has inspired you to try it out and watch how you will improve your photography skills immensely.

Happy shooting!