How To Take Great Pictures In Bad Lighting

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Once upon a time, or about a year ago, I started writing down a list of common photography questions and problems I have received or do receive over time. It’s eye-opening to me, because I remember starting out with my photography and having so many questions concerning all aspects of it – the business part, the pricing part, the equipment stuff, and of course, the photography itself. I still have questions, and always will, but I’m happy to have gained wisdom over the last 15 years. The most common question I get these days, after giving a good camera recommendation is, “How do I take great photos in bad lighting?”

Taking great photos in bad lighting

The good news is that it should, and CAN, be done. After all, what is photography without manipulation of light? Where I live, you cannot depend on good weather. Bad lighting is not necessarily found at night, and it’s not just low lighting, as you might think. Bad lighting can be too much light or not enough. It can be dimensional or flat. You can often tell when it’s unflattering. It can also be lighting that is yellow or blue, from artificial lighting indoors.

Either way, you can overcome it. You can work with it, through it, and around it.

Don't let bad lighting hold you back from capturing the perfect photo of an amazing moment.

It was hard for me when I started my photography business, to fully accept that not every day would be perfect. It’s a requirement in my profession to master good photos in bad lighting, because you never know what you’re going to get. You can’t reschedule a wedding, or a birth, or really any kind of shoot. What you can do is rock your tools and techniques to make the best of those situations.

Little boy with a hat!

You have to be prepared for bad lighting, so you don’t miss the best moments. Here are some of my secrets to detect and potentially overcome bad lighting situations.

Don't let bad lighting stop you from capturing great moments with your camera. Use these tips to be prepared.

How To Take Great Pictures In Bad Lighting

1. The Great Outdoors

It’s easier said than done, but try to avoid shooting at high noon, or at a time of day with direct, overhead sunshine. If you need to shoot at these times, and want to avoid the harsh sunlight – on faces and everything else – you can absolutely make do.

I always look for open shade on sunny days. If need be, you can bring an external flash as a fill flash, or a portable reflector or diffuser. They are much cheaper! If you have a DSLR, shoot in RAW and shoot in manual. You can also rotate slowly around your subject – because maybe one angle will work better than another.

2. Low Light Indoors

This is probably the most common bad lighting problem for me when it’s colder out. First, find the lightest part of the house. Use windows and doors and 45-degree angles. Position your subject towards light. You can use any angles you want, but 45-degree ones add dimension for black and white (and color) photography. Set your aperture as wide as you can while still having your subject in focus. I generally shoot around 2.2 – 2.8. Have a shutter speed of at least 1/250, especially if you’re shooting children. Crank the ISO. Really. Most cameras these days can handle it. It’s better to have a properly exposed photo with a high ISO than to have an underexposed one with low ISO.

Girls with a baby

There are many situations in which none of these settings will be enough, and then I consistently use some sort of off camera flash.

3. Common Lighting Problems Indoors and Outdoors

Above, I gave the most common problems you’ll run into outdoors, and then indoors. Here are some less common problems you’ll find out there, and what you can do about them.

First, we have snow. How often do you take photos of snow, and it comes out blue, or dark and gray? The problem is that the camera’s meter, when faced with bright white snow, is trying to find an average – a middle ground. Sadly, that middle ground is often dark gray. What you can do is set your exposure compensation to overexpose by one or two stops, use a grey card, or spot meter a gray point.

Little girl with snowball.

Speaking of grey cards, there are many ways to monitor your white balance. White balance can be a problem, especially if you use the AWB (Automatic White Balance) setting, which won’t ever be as smart as your brain! You can use a grey card to set it, or use camera settings of – sunlight, cloudy, fluorescent light, etc. You can also fix it in editing.

Once I had mentioned that backlighting was a problem while taking photos, and a friend went out of her way to prove me wrong and say that backlighting IS ok. Of course it is. Beachy sunsets and silhouettes are wonderful – WHEN you know what you’re doing, which she didn’t. This was a situation in which lighting was dull to begin with and bright outside. In those cases, you can use an external flash – or a much cheaper Lightscoop – or you can use a reflector. I also will either overexpose the photo, to get a washed-out background, but nicely exposed subject. I can change the background in editing. OR, I can underexpose the image to get a great background and a silhouette subject.

4. Using a Phone For Low Light

I often notice that my phone does much less than my “real” camera, but as long as I’m in a non-professional shoot, I often prefer my phone in low light. It’s strange like that! It can do more than most people even know, on its own, and with helpful photography apps.

For most smart phones, you can tap on the subject on your phone’s screen and the camera will set the proper exposure and focus. This is Exposure Lock mode and is a useful feature. Have you tried it?

Another thing I do is zooming with my feet. If you zoom in with your phone itself, you lose quality of your image. Instead, walk up to your subject and fill the frame with your camera, In bad lighting, it’s vital not to lose any more quality than you need to lose. Use flash sparingly, if at all, and use environmental light instead. You can work with whatever light is available – by turning on lights, moving towards lights and streetlights, and getting near windows and doors.

Use filters sparingly, but they will save bad lighting situations. There are filters that will take away too much yellow or blue in your photos, and also convert to black and white. You can also use phone editing to lighten. These are within the phone, but there are photography apps with more.

5. Things That Help

This list can be exhaustive, and is subject to personal taste. If I can, I will use a tripod. That allows for a slow shutter speed – and thus – more light. I love my reflector, my external flash, and my cheap Lightscoop. Ultimately, shooting RAW and editing are the best tools. Bad lighting is certainly an obstacle, but luckily there are many ways for you to make little changes and see a large difference in photos.

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About Tamara Bowman

Tamara is a professional photographer, a mama of two, a writer/blogger and a nearly professional cookie taster. She has been known to be all four of those things at all hours of the day and night. She is a very proud contributor to the book, The Mother Of All Meltdowns. After two cross country moves, due to her intense Bi-Coastal Disorder, she lives with her husband, daughter and son in glorious western Massachusetts. She spends her spare time looking for moose, taking pictures of her kids, and maybe – just maybe – teaching them about photography. She can be found on Facebook @Tamara Camera Photography, Twitter @TamaraCamPhoto , Instagram @TamaraCameraPhoto , and Pinterest @Tamara Camera Photography & Blog and on her blog @Tamara Camera Blog.

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