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I'm using a Canon 60D and would like to focus in low light. I know Canons — in fact, all cameras — can struggle here with auto focus, but I'm talking about light so low that I wouldn't be able to see in the view finder.

Is there some kind of infrared light meter I can use to help the camera judge focusing distance? Or a different solution? Some external lights will expose the image on flash.

In liveview the camera has trouble deciding to finally take the picture at all, ever. It will AF when pressing the shutter down and then never take the shot.

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What lens are you trying to use, and are you using any type of external or hot shoe mounted flash unit? –  dpollitt Dec 28 '11 at 4:52
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consider hot shoe mounted flash. but I have wireless triggers so I CAN make those external. –  CQM Dec 28 '11 at 5:23
    
@CQM: can you clarify what you mean by "Some external lights will expose the image on flash"? –  mattdm Dec 28 '11 at 15:14
    
It seems to be incredibly stupid than no one had yet invented a simple auto-focus assistant other than canon's st-e2 or the other questionable yunguno clone. Forget about ETTL abilities. Just a plan red light that comes on with half the shutter depressed and goes off with the full shutter depressed. Having to fork out so much for an st-e2, carry an extra flash, or hold a flash light, or laser in the other hand to point out at people faces while trying to holding the camera with the other and try to zoom and keep your camera steady in an already dark room is silly.......there is an obvious gap –  user10083 Jun 7 '12 at 4:26

8 Answers 8

I use the AF assist beam from my Speedlite, but at the same time I turn flash firing off. This way the subject is in focus and I don't loose the natural light in the room. I also adjust the exposure compensation for a darker image.

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**I had this problem yesterday, put it in Shutter priority (Tv mode) DON'T USE AI SERVO, use One shot or AI FOCUS. In my case my YN 560 III has not arrived yet so I had to pop my flash and then push the shutter button halfway, flash started flashing really super fast and the camera did focus great. I know on camera flash is not the best thing but if you transform your picture to black and white it looks a WORLD better and you can touch them later in Camera RAW.

-some people specially girls at a party won't like getting some flashlight in their face in the middle of the party- (I don,t know but just saying here in Puerto Rico)

Hope this could help.**

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You can also use an ST-E2 to provide an autofocus beam to assist with focusing. It's a lot less weight than an external flash.

Keep in mind that the focus assist beam will only be active if you're shooting in one-shot autofocus mode. You can't use AI servo and have the assist beam.

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Use a small Torch (Flashlight)

I just point a small torch at the subject to focus. I just turn it on for focussing, then turn it off again before taking the picture, but you could experiment with that.

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Wouldn't this be the same as the AF assist beam? Either turning that on in the body, or using the shoe mounted flashes version of that? –  dpollitt Dec 28 '11 at 14:59
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@dpollitt, pretty much, but it's useful if your camera / flash doesn't have AF assist, or if you want a bit more control (it does allow you to see too). I add it here mostly for completeness - and because I use this method quite often. –  AJ Finch Dec 28 '11 at 15:01

If you use the popup flash or a TTL enabled flash there is no need to do anything, the camera will fire the AF light when necessary.

I work mostly with manual flashes, and to focus in this situation I hold a little LED flashlight on my left hand (the camera is on a tripod). I illuminate the subject with the flashlight while I trigger the focus with my right hand. Once focus is achieved I move the flashlight away and take the picture.

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I have a 60D too. Simply put, cameras focus best when the contrast is high. Note that this is different from "cameras focus best when it is bright". I am not sure how dark it was for you, but usually there is something you could do to focus in low light:

  • focus on a light source that is of similar distance of your subject, like a light bulb or a candle
  • manual focus
  • add light to the scene so it can focus

Let's talk more about the third option, especially if it is almost too dark to even see with your naked eye.

You have a few choices:

  • some constant light source, for example a torch or infra red pointer as suggested above
  • using a dedicated external flash unit (that has infra-red light to assist focusing)
  • use the built-in popup flash (so it flashes while trying to focus)

The first option is very unreliable. You have to aim it right, and unless you have 3 arms its not the easiest to aim and operate your camera at the same time. Also, in some places, the use of such light may not be allowed.

External flash units, usually, come with an infra-red focus assisting lamp. it is very dim so it causes the least disturbance, it is very fast and very reliable. I have a 580 EXII myself and the infra-red beam will also work with the 9 focusing points of my 60D. I have used this method and I was able to focus in pitch black. The drawback is the cost and weight of the flash unit.

The third option has the advantage that it is always with you. By default, it is turned on. However I have chosen to turn it off in the custom function, because it causes too much disturbance by emitting a pulses of short flashes. If I was shooting people, the pulsing of flash is hard on their eyes. It is also very noticable since its really bright. The chances of it working, from my experience, is fifty fifty. It is definitely slow, so slow that sometimes I will need to do two or three series of flashes to be able to get a focus. However, this costs nothing.

If the situation allows, and you have the time to retake the shot in case the focusing fails, you can use this method. However, if you can still see with your eye through the viewfinder, and if speed is an issue, I would recommend manual focusing. At least I can rely on my naked eye and get one solid chance of getting the shot, instead of firing pulses of flashes and have an 80% chance of completely missing the shot.

It is not easy to focus in the dark, but if it is not too dark, you can usually find something bright to focus on. Getting a dedicated flash unit is still the best solution. Moreover, if used skillfully, a flash can produce amazing results in low light situations.

The recent Canon 320EX flash is quite cheap and it comes with a constant LED light for videography. Although without an infra-red focus assist light so it works differently, it is still a very affordable solution to low light focusing and low light photography in general.

I hope this answer helps.

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I've used a laser pointer to help focus in times like these - though mainly when using a tripod and shooting nighttime long exposures...

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So do you focus on the laser point? That seems kind of difficult to do, point a laser pointer and focus on that point at the same time. –  dpollitt Dec 31 '11 at 20:18
    
Yes, handheld it might be a bit tricky, but with a tripod it's much easier to paint the point where AF is trying to focus... –  Scot Jan 1 '12 at 18:19

The 60D has one built into the on board flash. Do you have the AF assist turned off?

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I am using a hotshoe mounted flash unit. But I can make those external with the wireless triggers if this has something to do with using the popup flash. How do I change "AF Assist" settings, I have the AF button on top of the camera where it lets me choose between things like AI Servo, One Shot, then I have the AF for LiveView where it has "quick" "AF :-)" for face detection and AF. but no "disable" –  CQM Dec 28 '11 at 5:26
    
The option is in the custom function Fn III: Auto focus/Drive, under AF-assist beam firing. If you have a hotshoe mounted flash then the on board flash won't be up and the AF assist beam won't be available. If the hotsho flash doesn't have its own AF assist light that works with the 60d, then you're out of luck there too. What's left is use the wireless triggers, pop up the onboard flash, but set it to not fire, and enable the AF assist (I think if you set the menu option to "IR AF assist beam only" that will prevent the flash from firing). –  MikeW Dec 28 '11 at 5:57
    
Are you using a third party flash or are you using a Canon flash? Canon flashes (except low end) come with an infra red light that makes it easy to focus in the dark. –  Gapton Dec 28 '11 at 6:42
    
third party. this flash might have IR, I see that it has an infrared receiver I'm not sure if it transmits from there. I guess I could always record it with a cell phone camera to see what happens (since cameras can reveal IR to me) –  CQM Dec 28 '11 at 11:16

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