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Taking Photos in Low Light

Taking Photos in Low Light

December 19, 2007

The low tech version. Because I am *sure* that there are some real secrets about how to do it the “right” way. But I have no idea.

I know I promised that I was going to write about this. But then the more I thought about it, and thought about what I was going to write, the more I realized that I have no idea what I am talking about.

The extent of my advice is to stand very VERY still. I know. Aren’t you glad you waited for that?

If you have a tripod, which I don’t, use it.

In lieu of that look for places you can set the camera down to stabilize it.

Can’t do that? Tuck your elbows into your sides tight, exhale, and hold still. If the shutter is going very SLOW, like longer than a half a second, you will need to move yourself to a better location or turn on more lights, because it is physically impossible to hold the camera still enough.

I take many, many photos of the same scene. My decorating the Christmas tree photos are probably 100 blurry ones, 20 decent ones, and 4 really good ones. That ratio is not unusual for me.


This one I was very close to the tree and my son. Since there was not a lot of light in the room the shutter was VERY slow. Even using all my standing still and holding my breath techniques, there was not enough light.

But look what happens if you step back a few feet? Much more available light. The shutter speed is fast enough that standing still works. Then afterward you can crop the area that you want.


Not that I want this area of the above photo cropped, but I could:


Then there is the processing after the fact.

I am getting Photoshop for Christmas this year. But shhhh, don’t tell my husband he likes to be surprised at the gift he gives me. I am very excited by this.

But thus far I have used Picassa, which is a free download that allows you to crop, adjust color, highlights, etc.

So the same photo above becomes this:


Can you see the difference? It is subtle but I just sharpened it up a bit.

And this:


Can become this:


Don’t be afraid to focus the camera on your child and then ask them a question like, do you see yourself in that ornament? Stand like a statue and I bet you will see yourself. Then right when they are intently looking snap the photo.

And this:


Can become this:


And now I sort of feel like the wizard who had the curtain pulled back to reveal that it is all just smoke and mirrors and the big “secret” is standing like a statue.

Posted by Chris @ 3:30 pm  

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  1. Holly says:

    Thanks, Chris! Your photo tips have helped me a lot — now if only I could get my husband to read them and quit towering over our little bitty girls in all of his 6′3″ tallness… and maybe take more than one picture at a time. :) Bless his heart…

    Hey would you consider dishing out some tips on picturing more than one kid at a time? I only have 2 so far, but it’s so difficult to get them both in one good picture. I’ve considered photoshopping two different pictures and putting them together, but my skillz are not that mad.

  2. Robb Allen says:

    If your camera allows it, kick up the ISO. 800 or 1600 will make your picture a little grainy, but will shorten the amount of time required for exposure.

    On most point and shoots and even lower end SLR lenses, the aperture varies with the zoom. If you zoom in, the aperture is smaller, requiring longer exposure times. So, like you said, step back and open up wide.

    My mom loves her “Gorilla Pod” and it’s a nice thing to have when a tripod is too bulky.

  3. Angella says:

    Great tutorial! A faster lend helps too - I have the 50mm and it’s amazing :)

    My father-in-law gave me Photoshop for Christmas…now I just need to learn how to use it.

    I have Adobe Lightroom - have you tried it? It’s amazing for developing photos. I’d suggest you try the 30-day free trial, but then you may be forced to buy it :)

  4. Rae says:

    I can’t believe you do all you do with your photos without photoshop. Can’t wait to see what happens when you get it!

  5. Alison says:

    I am majoring in graphic design, and I have a professor who likes to tell people that their work looks like they ‘got Photoshop for Christmas’. So that made me laugh.

    That being said, Photoshop is probably the best application in the world, and it is so much fun to turn your pictures from average to FANTASTIC! WOW! with just a few mouse clicks.

  6. All Adither says:

    Heya. Thanks. Now that I have a quick start guide, I just need a decent camera.

  7. jody says:


    Yes, a tripod makes such a difference. As does adjusting your ISO.

    And the Nikons that we both sleep with! ;*)

  8. Lilly says:

    I so love that photo of Miles on the stairs… I too hold my breath, stand still and take LOTS of photos and a few come out great…. or at least one or two. In addition to devising creative ways to make the kids stand still you can also yell ‘Stand still for just a second for heaven’s sake and then I’ll stop bugging you to stand still!’

    But Chris you have one more technique that you haven’t mentioned here and that is your setting of the scene. You’ve made a beautiful home with seven beautiful kids! That’s the real achievement in your photography!

  9. OMSH says:

    I love Photoshop. I think that if I just had my camera, a couple of lenses, my computer and Photoshop, I’d be content to never buy anything else.

    Clothes? Nudist Colony.
    Food? Anorexia.
    Home? Local shelter.


  10. Dana says:

    Ah, just spent the day photoshopping our christmas card. Praises to software that makes it possible to create a card without the 4 children ever being in the same room together! But the photoshop skills can only go so far in making up for my so-so camera, you’ve really got me jonesing for a fancy one like yours. I look forward to seeing your photoshop creations soon!

  11. Natalie says:

    Yes, ditto what Rob Allen says about ISO. The higher the ISO, the faster your shutter speed will be. Of course on most point and shoot cameras bumping up the ISO gives you much grainier looking photos. But if you have a decent SLR you can use higher ISOs and still get really good picture quality. I’m really wishing I had one of those SLRs because I have REALLY bad lighting in my apartment.

  12. Gretchen says:

    You still can’t negate being able to frame a good picture. If I were going to sketch it, I could compose a great scene, but for some reason I can’t “see” it when using a camera. And I know how much sweat and tears it has taken you to get your house so beautiful but I am still in love with it. I just KNOW my kids would be as gorgeous as yours if we lived in a house like yours :-). Oh, and if my husband were as gorgeous as yours, that would help too ;-). Seriously, I am just now experimenting with changing the ISO and turning off the flash. You’re not kidding about standing very very very still, lol. Still working on that family pic for the christmas cards….

  13. Gretchen says:

    Oh, I forgot, I got a copy of Paint Shop Pro years ago, for $10 (from one of those stores that sells crushed/open boxes) and I LOVE it. I keep getting emails to upgrade it, but it costs well over $10 to upgrade LOL so I keep plodding on with my original.

  14. dcrmom says:

    Interesting. I’m assuming you don’t use flash, right?

    Chris says: No I try to never use the flash indoors.

  15. stephanie says:

    My mom loved the image stabilization of her Nikon. Made it MUCH easier to take a pic w/o shaking!

  16. I Should Be Folding Laundry says:

    I sometimes use Picasa, too. It’s pretty good especially since it’s free. I have found that once I use the sharpen tool, I go to save it and as soon as it saves, it reverts back to the unsharpened version. It’s very frustrating. l did a search and found it’s a common problem.

    That’s VERY nice of Rob to get you Photoshop for Christmas, he’s so thoughful. Thanks for the tips!

    Chris says: You have to click Save As, then the copy is changed and the original reverts back.

  17. Nicki says:

    I’m so excited that you’re getting Photoshop! I enrolled in an online class a couple of months ago and got it for a huge discount. Prepare to become extremely addicted! I’ve started posting photos on my blog and I can’t quit messing with them so I post another “updated” one right after it! It may become a problem…

  18. Wicked Stepmom says:

    LOL. You’re so sweet for taking the time to write about this, oh mighty wizardess… turns out I have been doing EVERYTHING you suggested! I took 70 pictures of my kids in a low light situation last week and wound up with 2 that were useable (somewhat).

    I am glad to know it’s not that I need a fancy camera like you. :) I just need to practice standing like a statue and then trying to get my 2 yr to acquiesce to that request (can you tell we’ve watched WAY too much Pirates of the Caribbean?).

    Thanks, again!

    Chris says: try that ISO thing. That might be the key to getting more than a couple of usable photos. I am hopeful too!

  19. Mary W says:

    I use a higher ISO - usually 800 or 1600 and that helps it allows you take low light pictures - I want a 50 MM prime lens for portraiture - they come with lower f stops (usually 1.8 or 1.4 for the expensive ones) the lower f stop lets in more light.

    Nikon does okay at 1600 ISO but I usually use photo shop to reduce the noise.

    Chris says: I just changed the ISO to 800 and took a few low light photos. I am going to download them and have a look.

  20. Steph says:

    Ummm photoshop for christmas? I thought you were getting the scooter/ table/ vibrator/ cookieholder/ fuzzy bunny slippers/ flame shooter thingy for christmas!! Your husband would be more shocked to see that than photoshop I bet!! lol Great picture tips, too bad my camera is broken (and at christmas time… boo hoo).

  21. Karen says:

    Thanks for these wonderful tips Chris! I’m just learning so these are fantastic. :)

  22. maggie says:

    chris, your photos are so lovely. i have a question unrelated to photography though. what type of curtains are those behind your christmas tree? they are fabulous– can you tell me what kind are they so I can find them?

    Chris says: Maggie I made them when I was pregnant with my eldest son 13.5 years ago. They are very simple. If you want more details just let me know.

  23. Shelley says:

    You will be so happy with Photoshop. I LOVE IT. I took a couple of classes at the community college several years ago to learn how to use it, and it’s so much fun to play with. There are a lot of online tutorials you can use too. Have fun!

  24. mel says:

    Photoshop for Christmas? Hoorah! How about a bounce flash for Boxing Day? (Seriously.)

    You have a Nikon D40, right? I’ve got the Nikon SB-600 flash for mine. It can be adjusted to angle up 45, 60, 75, or 90 degrees, flip on its side for vertical shots, point backwards so that all the light is bouncing from behind you, and the strength of the flash can adjust to be stronger or weaker.

    All of which to say that you can get some beautiful, sharp, non-grainy low-light photos that still look all dreamy and candle-lit AND don’t leave your subjects stumbling around flash-blinded.

    You. Must. Try it. You could borrow mine, but I’m even further north than you. OK, done proselytizing.

  25. Robb Allen says:

    I second the bounce flash, especially with low, white ceilings. It turns the entire top of the room into a light and diffuses quite nicely, but it requires an external flash that can angle. I’m a pro and have an SB-800 that I love, but honestly I don’t like lugging out the beast (Nikon D2H) every time I want to take pictures so I use my wife’s Canon Elph.

    They need to make a point and shoot with a flash that rotates up.

  26. jm says:

    I’m with Mel on the bounce flash. Soooooooo nice. But! If you don’t have a bounce flash, play around with a piece of white cardboard held in front of the flash at an angle. Like this:


    Plus, wayyyyy cheaper and a good fill in until you can afford that bounce flash!

  27. jm says:

    Oooh! And I haven’t tried a coffee filter diffuser, but I will!


  28. Maria says:

    Hi! Your pictures are really amazing. I’m just starting to learn more about photography so I need tips about the basics! Your house looks really beautiful, too. I’m jealous.

  29. Lazy Organizer says:

    I hate the flash indoors too. I almost always end up using the 2 second delay when I shoot indoors. That reduces the shaking that always happens when I push the button. Of course you can’t time the photo exactly with the delay if you’re shooting kids but sometimes you get a good one.

    I also like to use a custom white balance indoors, especially with fluorescent lighting. That way everything doesn’t look so yellow.

  30. Jen @ amazingtrips says:

    But what setting are you on? I have the same camera and am currently doing everything in automatic mode. Do you use the automatic setting w/o a flash, or are you doing everything manually … adjusting your f-stop, shutter speed, aperture (whatever those things are)?

  31. goodsandwich says:

    I have to know about that wallpaper. I can’t take my eyes off it.

    Kids gorgeous as always, looks like they had a great time with the tree!

  32. t in h says:

    Huh. Well, I’ve tried all those suggestions and sometimes (rarely) I get the picture I want (out of dozens of attempts, lol) but generally, I do not. I’ve played with the ISO settings in the past and gotten some good pics, but I was hoping there was a simpler solution! :-) Oh well.

    I love Photoshop. Be careful, you could become addicted! I’ve done some amazing things with that programme. I’ve used it for years and am still finding neat stuff I can do with it.

  33. CathyC says:

    LOVE Miles on the stairs, and have I mentioned before how much LOVE I feel for that wall paper? I’m so jealous.

  34. Angie says:

    Hi Chris,
    I’m curious which version of Photoshop you’re getting? I get confused when I look at all the different ones … Thanks!

  35. maggie says:

    chris, yes- can you email me more detail on the curtains? i have the same windows as your house. i think those would look so nice at my house too. thanks! and you are so crafty!

  36. Theresa says:

    First, I love your blog! Found it a few months ago and was hooked. You have such a great sense of humor and have made me laugh out loud quite a few times (because I feel the same way). It’s nice to know that there are other people who aren’t all “Susie Sunshine” about raising kids (sorry to any Susie’s reading this).

    Quick question — do you set your camera settings manually, or are you using a specific scene setting?


  37. Ashley says:

    I have Photoshop 5.something but it seems so complicated. Maybe its not and I just need to spend more time with it. I just downloaded a trial version of photoshop elements 6 and Im figuring it out ok. Have you used photoshop before? Do you find it to be easy to use or am I the only dummy? :)

    Thanks for the tips, I agree standing still and no flash does wonders indoors.

  38. Jen says:

    My hubby gave me photoshop last year for Christmas. At first, it was so bulky and time-consuming to use that I kicked it to the curb….but then, I needed some adjustments on some photos I took in low-lighting. I spent hours figuring out all the color and shadow adjustments I could make. A year later, I am a Photoshop pro. My family portraits have never been so amazing.

  39. Wicked Stepmom says:

    Thanks, Cris. :) Ok, so maybe I do need a fancier camera. My ISO only goes to 400. I changed it to that a few weeks ago when I started experimenting with taking more low light shots.

    And then there’s the matter of RTFM’ing. Which I never do. And I’ve had this camera for several yrs and damned if I know where I put it!

    I wonder if it’s too late to ask Santa for a new camera. ;)

  40. Cary says:

    How can you stand sooo still when it is obvious that they need kisses? That last photo kills me.

  41. Mrs. Jones says:

    Very funny… I was actually keeping a mental note in my head all the way out to my in-laws… “must look on Notes from the Trenches” because she’s going to talk about low light picture taking… Funny to see that we have the same secret technique. Haha.

    Merry Christmas and Joyous Picture Snapping!

  42. jm says:

    Mmm. Interesting. More info on low light tricks with (and I love this) great illustrations on how to pimp your camera or use white cardboard, etc.! Brilliant.


  43. CaliforniaGrammy says:

    Photoshop is an awesome program. It’s a HUGE program and does more things than you’d imagine. But concentrate on just a few things first, and don’t get overwhelmed and definitely plan on a large learning curve . . . don’t get frustrated. I’m a retired graphic designer and know enough to “fix” things and alter or correct color, and a few other tricks . . .
    but I never had to know the intricacies that are available with this program. Just have fun with it!

  44. Norma says:

    Hi Chris! It’s nice to know that you take so many pictures and end up with only a few really great ones. I thought I was doing something wrong! I guess I am doing something wrong, though, cause all my picutres seem posed. Either I can’t get them to stop turning away from the camera or they stand there with the “say cheese” expression! Wonderful tips. Thanks for sharing them with us.

  45. Stephanie says:

    Ok Chris, thanks for the post.
    Can someone kindly offer an idiots guide to numbers to ISO?
    I have a Canon Rebel SLR and I always end up in automatic mode, using natural light (I say no to the flash.)
    I’ve tried to change the f-stop and ISO, but I get all flummoxed and confused and usually just give up. I understand that it has something to do with letting light in and speed of shutter, but those darn little buttons and that little LCD screen do not say “to speed up the shutter speed, push this;’ the numbers mean absolutely nothing to me. Please help the numerically challenged.

  46. theotherbear says:

    I love that last photo. Except I think I preferred the original un-tweaked version. I’m getting a short photography course for Christmas so I’m hoping to pick up a few tips there and actually be able to use the Photoshop that we have.