Every so often I try to take a picture in low light, usually indoors and find that my camera attempts to focus, grumbles a bit and then refuses to take the shot.

This is annoying, not least because I entered the bewildering and expensive world of dSLR photography precisely so I could get away from the 'point and shoot' paradigm and its restrictions and thought that a dSLR would give me total control over what I wanted to shoot. I might still want to take the picture whether I think the light is poor or not...

Am I missing something here - is there some kind of override setting or have i inadvertently snookered myself out of five hundred quid?

  • Related question about focusing in complete darkness: photo.stackexchange.com/questions/1783/…
    – Tom
    Feb 4, 2011 at 15:11
  • Is the focus assist light firing? That should help.
    – Alex Black
    Feb 5, 2011 at 4:23
  • You need manual focus too
    – user9817
    Sep 24, 2012 at 9:02
  • @ClaraOnager - can you elaborate on what you mean please?
    – 5arx
    Sep 24, 2012 at 9:03
  • 1
    I think the answers below spell it out. The autofocus cannot focus in the dark, therefore you need to switch to manual focus. You would get the same problem if you were to try focusing on a well lit white wall with no detail. The camera requires an edge (area with contrast) to focus on it cannot focus otherwise
    – user9817
    Sep 24, 2012 at 9:39

6 Answers 6


It is simply too dark for the camera to focus. And by default it will refuse to take the shot unless it has focused.

There are some possible workarounds: - Some cameras can be forced to take the shot when you press the button, no matter what. The inevitable result is an unsharp photo. I don't suppose that this is what you want.

  • I assume that you are using the kit lens, an 18-55 f/3.5-5.6 kind of job? The downside to this type of lens is that it doesn't let in a whole lot of light, which makes the autofocus system's job more difficult. A faster lens, such as a 35mm or 50mm f/1.8 will do wonders for autofocus performance.

  • Be aware that autofocus depends on focusing something that has a bit of contrast. If you point it towards a blank wall, it will most likely simply hunt and hunt and never lock on. Poor light makes this worse. Instead, point it at a part of the motive that has good contrast against the background, this will make the AF's job easier.

  • Manual focus. The viewfinder of the entry-level cameras tend to be tunnel-like but you will at least get a photo this way.

  • Use a flash, either the built-in one or an external one. External flashes, at least the larger models, can project a grid-pattern on to the motive to aid focusing. The built-in ones tend to strobe a number of times I think, which is not all about red-eye reduction but also helps focusing. (I am not familiar with your camera model but suspect that it does not have a separate autofocus illumination lamp and depends on the flash for this.)

  • +1 on the external flash firing a grid, that helps 1000%, lets you focus in the dark.
    – Alex Black
    Feb 5, 2011 at 4:22
  • Many cameras actually have a built-in LED or incandescent bulb for autofocus assist, which avoids the obnoxious seizure-inducing quickly repeating strobe.
    – Evan Krall
    Apr 7, 2011 at 5:55
  • @Evan Krall - So do some flashes. On Canon cameras, the focus assist LED is in the flash, not the camera body.
    – Fake Name
    Oct 2, 2011 at 11:37
  • 1
    +1 on trying to use Manual Focus. With some practice you can get pretty good at in those situations
    – tegbains
    Oct 3, 2011 at 7:13
  • F1,8 is no better than F2,8 for phase autofocus. Aug 23, 2016 at 10:02

Do you have your "low light focus assist" turned on? It's a little light (between the shutter release and the lens on my D90) that illuminates the target area so that the autofocus can work.

It does this because, as you've discovered, AF doesn't work in low lighting conditions.

It's easy to check: point your camera in a dark spot (or leave the lens cap on) and click the shutter release halfway. If you see a bright light go on, you're set. If not, go into your menus and enable it. I'm not familiar with the D5000, but on the similar D90 it's in Custom Settings -> Autofocus -> Built-in AF-assist illuminator (a3).


This is probably because your camera can't focus. If you set it to manual focus, it will allow you to take the shot regardless. This of course introduces the problem of getting it right manually, which is another skill altogether! If you can, illuminate the scene first, focus using AF, then switch to manual, restore the dimmer lighting, and shoot.

Other suggestions would be to attach a flash gun with AF assist, even if you don't fire the flash it can help to focus, or use a lens with a wider maximum aperture to allow more light to get to the AF sensor in your camera.


I have same problem, and same camera. What I do to solve the problem is get it focused with automatic first. Then as I now have it the way I want, switch to manual and take the shot.

  • Sounds good to me, I'll give it a try. I like a simple solution :-)(
    – 5arx
    Apr 6, 2011 at 20:28
  • 1
    A quick way of doing the same thing is to hold the AF lock button, which should be near your right thumb.
    – Evan Krall
    Apr 7, 2011 at 7:26

I've been using the D5000 for a while now and I've gotta tell you, this problem annoys the shinanigans out of me every time it happens. It's like I just want to drop the camera on the ground whenever it just doesnt let me take the photo! The good news is that after toying with the settings for quite some time, I figured out a way. (Obviously this won't work in pitch black darkness as the camera will never shoot if there is no light unless you set it to manual; there must be at least some minimal light)

This only works if you use single point metering

  1. Set the "AE-L/AF-L" button to "AF-L". (You can find this by pressing MENU >> (f)Controls >> (f2)Assign AE-L/AF-L button). This lets your camera focus/refocus whenever you press the "AE-L/AF-L" button and locks the focus. If you are not satisfied or do not get the correct focus, just keep trying to press it again until it focuses the subject that is in your focal point. This is better instead of pressing the shutter halfway (which in my case is very annoying because sometimes I accidentally let go of the shutter and I have to press it again to refocus again and when it does, it may focus on the wrong subject or it doesn't let me shoot any more because of the lighting problem). Just rememeber though, that if you have to change subjects just press the "AE-L/AF-L" button again, but try make sure that the focal point is on the subject.

  2. I suggest you turn on the Beep. This is your cue that the camera can take the shot and there is no problem.

  3. If you hear no beep but the focus is right (meaning it just doesnt want to shoot because of the poor lighting even if you think the lighting is sufficient the way you see it), just switch your lens to "M" mode (that should be on the side of the lens) for the moment and then take the shot, and voila! Just remember to set it back to "A" once you get the the right shot.

I have used my D5000 to take portraits of people and babies for about a year now. I know it's not a good camera for the type of photography that I do especially in low light, but it's all that I have. When I first didn't discover this I would get frustrated or sad every time I missed a moment of joy, happiness, or sadness in people's faces just because my stupid entry level camera won't shoot. I hope this helps you.


Use back button focusing and set focus mode on AF-S not C. You can shoot with no problem, even if the camera does not have enough light to confirm focus. Edited: Turn Live View on. It will shoot no matter what.

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