I can't seem to take a picture with a Canon T3i Rebel in the dark. I want to take a picture at night with very little light around the subject, but the camera won't allow it in automatic mode. What can I do to make it work?

  • If you search on google, you can find lot of tutorials on how to use flash/external lights to improve the lighting in low-light situations. If you have a specific question, all you have to do is ask - we'll be more than happy to help.
    – Chait
    Dec 25 '12 at 6:35
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    Hi, welcome to photography stackexchange, you will get better answers if you ask a more specific question, taking a picture of people in a dark room is very different than photographing landscape at night for example - your question is just to broad to answer.
    – Nir
    Dec 25 '12 at 7:25
  • "Cannot" is such a strong word :-). You may need more light if exposure times do not suit. If you MUST use automatic mode then the camera MUST be able to take photos without having achieved focus OR you MUST focus it in some manner. You need to define the problem better as "cannot" is too broad a term.Why do you want to use "automatic mode"? Dec 25 '12 at 11:01
  • This has gotten a lot of close votes very quickly, so I'm going to attempt to edit it to make sense. Shabbir, if my edit doesn't match your intent, feel free to re-edit and add more detail and clarity. Others, if it still doesn't seem like a valuable question, continue on with that close button. :)
    – mattdm
    Dec 25 '12 at 17:05

There are several reasons your camera might not take a photo in low light.

First, it may be too dark for the autofocus system to work. Most cameras have AF systems which work down to about EV -1, which is dim ambient light. (Your eyes will adjust and be able to see relatively well, but the camera won't work.) And, in turn, many cameras will refuse to take a picture without a focus lock. There are three solutions here:

  1. Buy one of the relatively-few recent higher-end cameras with support for focus down to EV -3 (moonlight). This probably isn't a practical answer, as your current options are the Canon 6D at $2000 or the Pentax K-5ii at $1100. It may be that in the future this will trickle-down to entry level cameras like the Rebel, but I expect it'll be kept as a higher-level feature for a while.
  2. Use a focus-assist lamp. This feature is found on most add-on flashes (and can usually be used independently of the flash firing). Some cameras have a light built-in for this purpose, and others can strobe the built-in flash, which is very annoying but functional. Or, you could use a flashlight or laser pointer as an ad hoc solution.
  3. Put the camera in manual focus mode and do it yourself.

Second, it may be too dark for the longest shutter speed allowed by your camera's auto mode. Options here are:

  1. If you haven't already increased the ISO, do that. (On some cameras, auto-ISO will not go as high as setting it manually will.)
  2. Use manual mode to set a very long exposure, ideally with a tripod.
  3. Use the EV compensation to tell the camera you want an underexposed, dark image.
  4. Add light, with a flash, by flipping a light switch, or waiting until dawn.
  • Might be a good idea to add Bulb mode to the post, perhaps? Dec 26 '12 at 12:58
  • Sure. :) Bulb mode is a special form of manual mode where you hold the shutter open for an arbitrarily-long time rather than a preset. On many cameras, this is the only way to set your exposure longer than a minute or so.
    – mattdm
    Dec 26 '12 at 13:42

Most likely in auto mode the camera needs focus to allow the taking of a photo. In such darkness it may not be able to auto focus and so the camera stops you taking a blurry photo.

Solutions are to light your subject (if you can) just enough to achieve focus, then turn the light off before taking the photo.

Switch the lens to manual focus mode and focus manually.

Some cameras allow you to turn off the requirement for focus confirmation in their custom function settings - you could turn this off, though I wouldn't advise it.

It may be that even if AF works then the camera is still unable to make a balanced exposure (you may see the shutter speed in the viewfinder flash "30sec" meaning it needs longer. In this case ensure you're using the widest aperture you can, use a cable release and bulb mode.

Basically the camera is interjecting to stop you taking an image that will not be in focus or correctly exposed. One of the downsides (or upsides depending how you see it) of Auto mode.

Do you really need to shoot in auto mode?! Manual may be better suited to this situation.


You haven't mentioned which lens you are using, but the standard kit lens, a 18-55 zoom, is very slow (small maximum aperture). It doesn't let a lot of light into the sensor system.

Both the auto-focus system and the main sensor require light to work. They dont' work in the dark. Unlike your eyes. You may simply need more light.

When I am doing low light work on a tripod, I use a small LED flashlight to help the camera focus. Press the shutter half way, use the flashlight, turn off the flashlight and press the shutter the rest of the way.


I had this problem and found a simple solution that NO ONE has hit on (maybe because it only applies to me). I experienced "fail to focus" using live view (camera LCD). I turned off live view and switched to the viewfinder and - voila! Seems to focus every time in low light situations now. Too bad I figured this out AFTER the wedding pics... 8-(


If I am taking pictures of something like the moon, I use spot metering and it will generally take a picture, but for the moon specifically, it will come out over-exposed, so you have to use manual mode and set the shutter-time faster or aperture smaller (larger number). It really depends on the phase of the moon, but you could try around f/11 and 1/100 and go from there. (Take a picture, see how it looks and then readjust and take another.)

On the other hand, I think I have experienced the problem you are having. To try to take a picture of the stars where you are taking a time exposure of 20, 30 seconds or more (bulb), I have had to "trick" the camera. First, set it for a long time-delayed shutter and set focus to manual (focus it to infinity, or however far your subject is). Next, to get the camera to open the shutter, I aim it at a light on some building to get it to start, then as soon as the timer light starts to blink, turn it quickly towards your subject (in my case, upwards to get the star picture), make sure the tripod is locked and let go of the camera, so the vibration of the camera and tripod has settled down by the time the shutter opens. Using this time delay method with the manual focus is the only way I can get the Rebel to take a very low light long-exposure picture. I think it is something about the way it was programmed. (Whoever programmed them did not appear to conceive that someone would want to take pictures of very low light objects like stars.)

To others who have not had this problem due to a different camera, perhaps, I will mention that it happens whether you are in one of the manual modes or an auto mode. It seems to be a glitch that we just have to work around.


When a camera won't take a picture when you press the shutter release, it is almost guaranteed that it is because it didn't find a good focus point. Especially with the circumstances you mention (cheap camera, auto mode, I assume kit lens). This doesn't mean that it did not find the focus, just that it thinks it didn't. Flip the manual focus switch on the lens when you shoot inlow light.

Meanwhile save up for a fast 1.4 or 1.8 prime to use in low light. I can recommend the 28mm F1.8 as a general purpose lens for this. If you find 28mm too narrow angle, there's a Canon 20mm F2.8, which is still within "good AF performance" but you lose a stop (resulting in to double the ISO or motion blur). Having a faster lens also makes the viewfinder a lot brighter, making it easier to manual focus.

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