One of the most common questions that I get from photographers, specifically people who shoot in a modern church setting, is about how I take photos in low light. Today I’d like to address that a little and share some things that I’ve learned shooting in dark rooms constantly for the last several years. Most of this post will concentrate on getting shots of people in your auditorium/sanctuary because that seems to be the most difficult. (Photos of a well-lit stage don’t seem to give people much trouble.)
I want to preface this by saying there’s no magic button fix for any of this. You haven’t missed something obvious in your camera that’s suddenly going to make any issues you’re having better. The most important thing you can do to help your photography is practice, practice, practice.
So, let’s jump into my 10 tips for low light photography:
1. Shoot Manual Exposure
When it’s dark, the fewer decisions your camera makes for you, the better. Oftentimes I’ve found that when I shoot on any kind of “priority” or auto mode, the camera will make the wrong choice. The camera will drop your shutter speed when what really needed to happen was for it to up your ISO. Or it’ll close down your aperture when what really needed to happen was a drop in your ISO or a faster shutter.
The exception to this rule is white balance. Shooting in raw with auto white balance is generally going to be ok because the lighting and color temperature change constantly and white balance isn’t set in the image when shooting raw.
If you don’t know how to shoot manual, learn it. There are tons of videos out there that can help you learn manual exposure. It’s difficult at first, but once you really start to understand what is going on inside your camera, you’ll be able to make better decisions about what settings need to be used.
2. Know Your Gear
This is so important. I bet I’ve said this 20 times in every photography class I’ve taught. Know your gear inside and out. Know how to navigate it by touch. Know how to change any setting that is frequently needed without looking. Do you know where the ISO button is on your camera right now without seeing it? How many from the left or right it is? What about the little button that lights up your LCD screen and turns it off again? Which of your focus points is cross type? Which are horizontal or vertical? The more time you spend fiddling with your camera the less capacity you have to concentrate on your photos.
Side note: read your manuals to your cameras. I know it’s boring, but there is a lot of good information in there. If you don’t have it they’re usually posted online by your camera manufacturer. Start with a simple google search of “Your Camera Brand + Your Camera Model User Manual” Example: Canon 5D Mark III User Manual.
3. Chase the Light; Don't Brute-Force Darkness
Just because your super duper Nikon D850 or Sony A7S II can shoot in pitch black doesn’t necessarily mean you should. Sure, you can get an image out of it, but is it interesting? Generally, I find that my more interesting images combine two of the following three things: good composition, interesting light, memorable moment. Composition, light, and moment often support each other. Cranking up your ISO just because you can see something in the dark doesn’t necessarily make for a good photo. It creates flat light so either your colors look dull or your black and whites look gray. Look for some kind of light source and shoot based on that.
Your stage lights aren’t isolated to the stage. You will almost always get light spill or reflection from the stage onto the people. Use that. Use the reflection from your projectors or LED screens. Do you light candles at Christmas? Use those.
4. Use Your Light Meter
I find that a lot of people in the classes I’ve led don’t even know their camera has a light meter. Using the light meter in your camera body is SO much faster than the process of shoot - check exposure - adjust - shoot - check exposure - adjust - shoot - until you get it right. That takes too long and you’ll find yourself missing moment. This is not to say don’t ever look at your screen to check your images, but using that light meter is going to get you to a better place, faster.
5. Shoot Multiple Services
If you have more than one service, shoot more than one. At our New Life campus, we have two services every Sunday but will often have as many as five Easter or Christmas services. Each service on the weekend is structured the same, so I can pick up on patterns to better equip myself to capture that moment. I might notice that the light was just right at one point in the service, but maybe I missed it the first time around. I make a note to look for that next time.
6. Show Up for Rehearsals
This is kind of two-fold. It serves a similar purpose to #5, so you can get a look at what is going on before the actual service. For big events, we often have full dress rehearsals. So we use this time to shoot photos of the stage so we can get just the right angle and be anywhere in the room. Then once service starts, we can move our focus away from the stage and concentrate on our people.
7. Shoot All the Time
The more experience you have shooting in a consistent environment, the more you can learn. You can learn what areas in your room are better lit, who to watch in worship, what songs people in your church tend to engage more with, etc.
8. Trick Your Autofocus
This is a big one. Your autofocus can only do so much in low light.
Instead of pointing your AF directly at that dark blob of Subject A in your room, use areas of higher contrast to get quicker focus.
Use silhouettes of people; their faces don’t have to be fully lit. As long as your brain can generally make out what’s going on, that photo is going to be usable.
Use focus planes: find something that’s better lit that’s the same distance away from your camera. Use it to get focus and recompose on your original subject.
9. Remember the Medium You're Shooting For
A noisy photo is better than a blurry photo. The vast majority of our photos are for web and social media use. Small image sizes are a lot more forgiving of missed focus and high ISO.
10. Build Relationships
Relationships in ministry are incredibly important. Everything we do is to help point people to Jesus, so it makes sense for us to build relationships and work together more effectively, as opposed to working in silos in our own little pockets of ministry. A couple of quick examples:
I was having some issues with LED flicker in some of my photos at a conference. I spoke with our lighting designer and asked him about the flicker and he told me exactly which fixtures they were and where they were positioned. Obviously, in the middle of a conference, you can’t just change the lighting design or layout, but I knew which fixtures to avoid shooting into or how to change my settings to alleviate the issue. Problem, solved.
Baptism photos are very important to me. They are a public representation of that step from death to life. So when I started shooting in our campus’ new building, I noticed that baptism photos just weren’t up to the standard I was comfortable with. So I spoke with our production lead, who had become a good friend through working together at church. I explained to him the importance of those photos and what they mean. He agreed, so we moved and re-aimed some lights specifically for baptisms. Our photos have been so much better since then. That relationship is key.