I am getting into low light photography and recently bought a nikon D600 and 50mm 1.4 lens.

Results in ample light are superb. Sharp and crisp. I am interested in understanding the term "low-light" better, as my results under what I believe is "Low-light" are not on par with my expectations based on images posted using my same setup. This also comes from the fact the 1.4 lens is marketed as "great for low light"

Let me define some ground:

To me low-light describes a situation where the subject is lit indirectly, from a far away or dim source (if not both). Example of this is shooting inside a bar at night with few dim sources of light, like TV's, bar signs etc. Or outside illuminated by candles/torches.

I shoot at 1.4, kept it at shutter speed of 60 as suggested here, and ISO as high as autoISO sets it to (3200-6400).

Results are rather blurry, even when autofocusing with AF assist illuminator, and images tend to be very dark under different metering settings.

I must say that after tuning autofocus (to a whooping -18), I am getting better results.

Anyhow, I think knowing what the definition of "low light" means to the community would greatly help.

Sample images, lux readings, light setups, camera settings, anything would greatly help!


( I have read all your comments as I edit my original post, and appreciate your feedback. In respect to that, I have edited my post to best respond to your comments, and better lead this thread. Thank you all for your support!)

  • 2
    I'd want to say that this question is subjective...
    – bwDraco
    Feb 9 '13 at 3:43
  • What settings are you using? What do the results look like? In what way do you think they're poor results? Feb 9 '13 at 22:51
  • 2
    What's poor about the result? It's the photographic equivalent of calling up your local IT support person and saying 'my computer doesn't work' when in fact you can't send e-mails. :-) I'd edit that and ask how to achieve X result that you're trying given Y example (and give example Y).
    – Emmel
    Feb 10 '13 at 0:34

Well, one reason we buy f/1.4 lenses so we can take photos handheld, or of moving subjects, at sufficient shutter speeds, say 1/60th or faster, where with a kit lens we'd have to bump up ISO or use a shutter speed of 1/8th of a second, or use flash. So indoors, or at dawn or dusk outdoors for example.

Looking at the Wikipedia article on Exposure Value I'd say this corresponds to an EV in the range of 5-7 or so.

I'm not sure that will help you get better results. What exact problems are you having? If you're shooting in poor light, the f/1.4 gives you a few stops, but it isn't magic - if you are still underexposing, you'll get noisy images. Are you getting good results in good light?

  • thanks for your response. the wikipedia article is a bit dense for me, but it does help. Under plentiful light, outside on a sunny day, I get good results. But portrait shots at night, indoors, my images seem rather blurry and out of focus. At first I thought the DoF was too narrow, and bumped it to F4. But this only forced longer shutter speeds or higher ISO's. The latter, eve.n if noisier, still feel a bit blurry and not properly focused
    – RJ6
    Feb 9 '13 at 3:02
  • 1
    If the shutter speed was below 1/60th it's likely to be blur from camera movement. Try with aperture wide open, shutter at 1/60th and then up the ISO to get a good exposure.
    – MikeW
    Feb 9 '13 at 3:10
  • 1
    If you're in constant light, like indoors, once you get exposure worked out, M mode is good. If you can't get the hang of M mode, check out "Auto ISO". I prefer M mode, but Auto ISO lets the camera bump up ISO when shutter speeds get dangerously low. D600 should do well at high ISO, so experiment with ISO 800 or 1600
    – MikeW
    Feb 9 '13 at 3:47
  • 3
    The D600 should "do well" at ISO's much higher than 800. The term "high" in relation to ISO has changed significantly with the last couple rounds of DSLR releases. Nikon made some headway first, making ISO 3200 and 6400 much more viable than they were before. Most Canon cameras released since the beginning of 2012 are viable at least to 6400, and in some cases as high as 25600. I think it is becoming rather dated to even classify ISO 800 as "high", or to limit "high" ISO to 1600. ISO 12800 is the new 1600 in this modern age, relegating the notion that 1600 is "high" to the history books.
    – jrista
    Feb 9 '13 at 5:22
  • 2
    I'd say, don't be afraid to really push it with the D600. ISO 3200 and 6400 should be well within the realm of usability in low light situations. That could really be anything from indoor photography, to photography around sunset, to photographing the auroras (REALLY low light.) Even with a fast f/1.4 lens, using ISO 12800, or even 25600 if you have it, is entirely reasonable if it helps you get a good exposure. Pixels really pack on the charge these days, with FWC's in the 60k to 100k range. That is three to five times more sensitive than older DSLRs (i.e. D50, 7D)...so don't fear high ISOs.
    – jrista
    Feb 9 '13 at 5:26

Low-light to me usually means 'there is next to zero available ambient light'. ie. I can't see without a torch. I spend a lot of time underground in drains or caves or other such places where light=0. I then use torches/strobes to 'light paint'. Additionally, I spend a bit of time on skyscraper rooftops at night time, to get good shots of the city, it helps to have a lens like the 1.4 which is good in 'low light'. As for the definition of what is 'low light'? I wouldn't say there's any consistent definition of 'low light' in terms of lux.

I think that it's sufficiently 'low light' when your camera is unable to get a focus lock using auto focus without additional illumination. This of course depends on the lens. In my experience Anything f/2.8-> f/22 will have problems in the dark (that is that you'll need to use a tripod and take long exposures). Using a 50mm f/1.4 you'll be able to take, from the hip, some shots that you wouldn't be able to otherwise take with say a f/2.8 Hope that helps!

  • Thanks for your response! I think I will adopt your lowlight definition, where the camera can't autofocus. Thats a good baseline to start getting a "feel" of my boundaries.
    – RJ6
    Feb 9 '13 at 3:30
  • 2
    @R26, rather than asking for a definition, you might get a better response if you changed the title to "Why am I getting poor results in low light?" That's really the crux of the matter - you want to know how to get better results rather than to know the definition of a term?
    – MikeW
    Feb 9 '13 at 4:58

We take photographs of light. The short answer is that you are trying to shoot where there is not enough light.

You can crank up the ISO, but that doesn't increase the light hitting your sensor, it just amplifies the light and the noise.

@D3C4FF has a good analysis: often in the dark, your camera's computer can't get focus lock, which makes your image be out of focus and noisy, which is double bad.

If you are indoors in a house, turn on the lights. Especially if they are old fashioned tungsten lights. The newer CFLs are often problematic when you use them for photography because they flicker at 120 hz (in the US).

You can learn a ton about using flash, especially off camera flash, at the Strobist site. http://strobist.blogspot.com/

The key is to either use a tripod and very long shutter times, or add light.

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