Updated: Jan 11
Settings: ISO - 500 - freelensed - 1/200
Hey I’m Kirsten, Click Pro photographer, mum to 4 beasties, lover of coffee, cheese, and chocolate, and self professed freelens addict currently living in Nova Scotia Canada.
My photography journey began within the cramped and dimly lit spaces of military housing, shooting with a crop sensor and a 50mm lens. In other words, tight, and dark. This less than ideal, and definitely not instagram worthy setting, forced me to think creatively, squeezing every ounce of light from small windows and every inch of space I could get, back often pressed into the wall or squished into a corner.
This is where I taught myself, this is how I learned, and this is why I’ve been so in love with the mood and mystery of low light photography ever since.
I am not a technical shooter, when I make a photograph I don’t meticulously check meters and settings, I shoot based on instinct, intention and a very firm grasp on my gear. I actually struggle when trying to explain my process because while there are lots of little things I do before I press the shutter, they fall under my “auto pilot” settings, I don’t think about them! I know what my camera can do, I know what it struggles with, I know my lenses' sweet spots and when focus starts to become a bit too soft if I’m not careful. These are important things to learn, so pressing the shutter becomes second nature, your camera becomes merely an extension of how you see the world.
I’m telling you all these things because low light photography often relies on instinct and skill. Nailing focus in a dark space is hard and the balance of shutter, ISO and aperture feels even harder when you’re peering through a tiny viewfinder at your kiddo blowing out their birthday candles, mashing buttons and hoping you got at least one clear shot!
The key components of low light photography are higher ISO, wider aperture, lower shutter speed, expose for the highlights, and preparing ahead of time.
If I can teach you any one useful thing, it’s not to leave anything up to chance. As soon as you enter a room or change locations/lighting situations, check your settings! Make any adjustments you need, THEN compose your image. Nailing focus in low light is hard, period, give yourself the edge of prepping first.
Learning your camera and learning it well is step one, and something we all know we all need to know, so instead of trying to teach you technical skills another photographer could explain so much better than I, I’m going to let you in on a few of the ways I taught myself how to photograph, and fall in love with low light.
Settings: Freelensed - ISO 160 - 1/800
Light as the subject is one of my favorite things to shoot. I chose to freelense this image of first morning light to better highlight what I wanted the viewer to see.
STUDY THE LIGHT
We’re smart cookies, we know photography is all about light, it’s even in the name, but how often do we study it?
One of the very first lessons I learned in photography came from an old Facebook group where I learned how to find the light. I learned to look for diffused light, pockets of light, reflected light, dappled light, rim light, and my skills as a light seeker grew stronger and stronger with every shot.
By studying light and how it climbed a wall or pooled on the floor, I learned how to stretch it to it’s capacity, bend it and bounce it off a wall, and illuminate my subjects in an otherwise dark space.
Becoming intimately familiar with light is the key to my photo-mojo. I know which windows in my home let in which kind of light and how it moves through the house, across the floor, changing its course throughout the year. I know that I don’t like harsh bright light, (hello low light lover here!) I prefer it soft and warm, so I’ll often choose to freelens outdoors to diffuse it a bit.
Like any learned skill, mastering low light photography is a practice. We gain knowledge and grow stronger when we just keep shooting. Try finding the light in your home, study it, photograph it, get intimately familiar with it, pick a window (or other light source), experiment, shoot it creatively, shoot it to death, take note of what you did wrong and what you did right, and watch your skills grow with every shot.
settings: ISO - 125 freelensed 1/400
I shot this during golden hour when the last light of day enters my home. I chose to let the majority of the image fall away to tell the story of my daughter's tiny pea toes that just barely reached the end of the chair.
LIGHT TELLS A STORY
One of my most favorite things about low light photography is the air of mystery paired with storytelling.
Placing my subject within a pool or a pocket of light and letting the rest of the image fall away into darkness sparks intrigue, and lets the imagination wander while bringing the focus back to the subject, kind of like a baroque painting. Captivating and striking with clear intent.
When we look at an image, our eyes naturally move around the photograph, picking out details, and settling on what we assume is the subject. Sometimes it’s obvious, the brightest part of an image, or a person in an open field, for example. Others it can be a bit more difficult to pick out what exactly we’re supposed to be focusing on or which part of the scene holds the biggest part of the story.
Creating contrast between the background and foreground of an image lets the viewer know what you want them to see, it gives the subject power, illuminating it amongst the surrounding darkness.
Using light and shadow is a powerful storytelling tool. While choosing what parts of a scene to highlight, I am choosing what parts I want the viewer to see, guiding their eye toward the story I want to tell.
Settings: ISO- 400 lensbaby SOL45 1/400
This moody yet still playful image was shot midday, before the light shines directly in this window. The curtains were illuminated perfectly, making the story of my daughter swishing them around her easy to convey.
LET MOOD TAKE THE LEAD
I love mood, I’m a moody kinda gal, just ask my husband… I do most things by feel, letting my feelings, emotions and intentions guide me through the process. This comes out a lot in my images.
When I make a picture it’s almost always based or led by an emotion, a memory, or the preemptive knowledge that future Kirsten will appreciate the nostalgic look back.
I often choose to soften my images by freelensing which also adds that delicious artistic flare I love. I like to keep things feeling cozy, kind of like hygge in a photograph, adding small touches like warm glowing candles or fairy lights for a little kiss of magic.
Could I achieve this same soul soothing effect with a brightly lit image? Maybe, but then it wouldn’t be me. It wouldn’t be mine. Photography is an art, and we are the artists. We create for ourselves and for the love of our craft, driven by a need to wield this beautiful, aesthetic part of ourselves.
I’m rambling about all this inner-feeling-artist-stuff because I was once told that my work was too dark, that I wasn’t on trend, that no one would appreciate it because they didn’t know what freelensing was and it wasn’t what everyone else was doing.
Know what I had to say about that?
I can’t actually say it out loud, this seems like a nice decent place, but you get the idea…
Photography is an art, it’s yours, it’s a love and a mood and low light photography is the moodiest of them all. Embrace the mood and how it makes you feel, let it take the lead.
Settings: ISO - 160 freelensed 1/200
The light only comes in this single window in December and early January for about 5 minutes so the race to catch it is intense. Prepping my settings and adjusting my focus for freelensing ahead of time won me this shot.
DON’T BE AFRAID TO GET WEIRD
Low light photography leaves lots of room to get weird. Embracing shadows, not being afraid of the blackest blacks, experimenting with all kinds of light. Backlight, side light, rim light, pockets and pools of light, reflected and artificial, there are so many tantalizing tricks to try on for size!
One of my favorites, coined by Joni Burtt, is bacon light, also known in our house as pancake light. Which is basically just a fun way of looking at a smoke filled home when you have to run to the bathroom to wipe a toddlers bum and burn a pancake. But! Very pretty none the less…
Other fun things to try (that don’t involve smoking your family out of the house) are spray bottles, flour, or if you’re a crappy housekeeper like me, good old dust fairies. You can play with these by finding a window that lets in a direct beam of sunlight, and spritzing water, floofing flour into the air, that lucky you, you’ll get to clean up later, or bashing a couple pillows together to create a swirling mass of magic.
Or you could cook some bacon or burn a pancake, you do you.
I also hang prisms in nearly every window that lets sunlight in for a little rainbow fun, and absolutely die over a good reflection.
Sometimes low light is really really low, requiring a bigger bump in ISO which means grain. Don’t fear the grain. Embrace the grain. If you have to choose between a blurry image or grain, choose grain.
Settings: ISO - 125 - 35mm - f/2.0 - 1/500
Every time these little bubbles puff out of the dish soap bottle, my youngest bounces around the kitchen trying to catch them. This image was shot in-front of my sink with it’s window letting the light just hit her upturned face and the tiny bubbles hanging in the air.
BRING YOUR VISION TO LIFE
Low light doesn’t mean no light. There are many spaces in my home that are very well lit yet I still choose to capture them in a more cozy, moody, Kirsten-y kind of way. When using windows directly in my work, I expose for the window which allows me to underexpose the rest of the room giving me all that mood glorious mood.
I am also a lover of negative space, because, mystery and mood…
Are you sensing a theme??
I incorporate this by including more of the floor, or a wall etc into the image, again, bringing the viewer's eye unmistakably back to the intended subject.
I also love a good silhouette shot which typically requires a brighter light source behind the subject, but still gives off that low light vibe.
When editing my work, I always edit for the light. I don’t try to make a bright image dark or a dark image bright, so knowing when to underexpose in camera is super important. From there, it’s easy to bring back some shadows or add a bit more contrast. I’m not a heavy tweaker, choosing to do the majority of my editing in Lightroom, so getting it as close to “right” in camera is important to me.
Remember step number one, know your gear!
For me, low light photography is all about feeling, emotion, instinct, and a smattering of dramatic storytelling. I hope you can take some of these musings to mold and shape into your own creative process.
Now go get moody, beauties!
Settings: ISO - 500 freelensed 1/200