9 Essential Tips to Conquer Available Light Photography

Article from Light Stalking

Famed American Army general George S. Patton once advised those under his command to accept the challenges so that you may feel the exhilaration of victory.

Unlike a military conquest, Im pretty sure that none of the photography projects that any of us engage in will ever have such profound global implications. Yet, given that any photographer worth his or her camera strap will face challenges within the context of their art, I think General Pattons words come through as both valuable and relevant.

In some instances, we set the challenges for ourselves: to complete a 365 project, to refine our panning technique, to shoot portraits of strangers. Generally speaking, accomplishing these goals simply requires healthy doses of discipline, patience, and courage. Other times, challenges arise as a matter of circumstance; there is no shortage of things that could possibly go wrong or get in the way of getting the perfect shot. One of the obstacles that so often rears its ugly head is that of having to shoot in low light.


ASU Art Museum, LTR Mix by kevin dooley, on Flickr

Give Me the Light

Available light photography (also referred to as low light photography) really is exactly what it sounds like: taking photographs using nothing but whatever light source is present at the moment (which is why there are some who will argue that shooting in the midday sun also constitutes available light photography; but for the sake of this discussion, I am on the side of those who define available light as low light).

You are bound to find yourself in a situation where the use of flash is prohibited or when you are out and about with just your camera, no extraneous gear; you cannot, in good conscience, pass up a shot due to any manner of external limitation. In fact, I am willing to bet that you will grow to appreciate the allure of available light photography, so long as you stick with it and learn some techniques to help you overcome the trepidation associated with using your camera in less than ideal environments. Thus, I present to those who may be feeling a bit apprehensive, a series of practical tips that you can hopefully call upon the next time a low light photography opportunity presents itself.


Under Beijing by Jonathan Kos-Read, on Flickr

Hey, You Forgot to Mention Tripods

Well, no I didnt forget; I purposely excluded the use of a tripod. The goal here is to invoke the mantra of Henri Cartier-Bresson: capture the decisive moment. More often than not, a tripod will only add to the impediments acting to slow you down and make the whole process more difficult than it needs to be. Plus, there are venues that have a strict policy prohibiting the use of tripods. Sporting events and museums are a couple of common examples.

There wont be any such regulations in effect preventing you from using a tripod when youre out on the street shooting candids, but I cant imagine that you would actually want to go through the inconvenience of lugging it around and setting it up. Poor lighting aside, a tripod would probably be a more substantial hindrance to shooting on the fly than anything else.

However, if there is some random item or structure around that can serve to stabilize your camera, by all means use it. Again, look to make the most of all the tools you can find in your current shooting environment. You can use whats there and when youre ready to move on, you dont have to pack up and haul anything.

Proceed with Caution by jDevaun, on Flickr

Available light photography differentiates itself from other genres of photography by emphasizing its naturally intimate charm; it focuses less on the obvious features that would normally be captured by using something like the sunny 16 rule, and instead allows us to peer into the shadows, giving us a somewhat more exotic impression of a subject. This is not to say that available light/low light photography is better than any other kind. Its just different. And it represents a challenge that, once conquered, is certain to leave you with a sense of exhilaration.

Author information

Jason D. Little
Jason Little is a photographer (shooting macros, portraits, candids, and the occasional landscape), part time writer, and full time lover of music. You can see Jasons photography on his photography blog or on Flickr.

Tags: Shooting