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July 1, 2013

How to take awesome low light photos without a tripod or flash

If you’re a proud Nokia Lumia, you’ll know all about the special feeling you get when you take a great low light photo.

Whilst some low light subjects will demand a sturdy, unmoving camera and include exposure times measured in hours rather than thousandths of seconds, there are opportunities to shoot in low light without a tripod or a timer. These top tips will help you do just that.

Use the available light

In many circumstances, adding any additional light or using flash will be prohibited or will completely destroy the mood of the image. So learn to use what little light is available. This may be street lights (which typically produce quite a filmic pool of light), car lights or even the light emanating from the subject itself! Look for opportunities that allow you to correctly expose the subject near the light but which allows the rest of the composition to disappear into suggestive darkness. Like with horror movies, sometimes it’s what you can’t see that tells the story!


Bump up the ISO

The higher the ISO, the more noise or grain the photograph will have. But modern cameras will produce images at ISO 1600 which are entirely acceptable. And even if you push the ISO further still, grain is not always a negative element. Many great photographers have exploited the use of grain in their images and it can add a nostalgic feel to the shot.


Hand holding

Although wisdom dictates that slow exposures require a tripod and a static subject, rules are mostly there to be broken. (We always seem to be saying that)!


There is a rule of thumb that you can’t hand hold a shutter speed less than the focal length of the lens. For example, if you are shooting a 200mm lens, the slowest you’ll be able to hold the camera steady is probably 1/200th second. Tradition also dictates that it’s unlikely to be able to hold a steady shoot at less than a 1/60th second.

However, these are generalisations and like all generalisations, they do not always hold true.


Many photographers hate shooting with a tripod as it reduces your manoeuvrability and restricts your ability to quickly react. Not only that, there are numerous circumstances where a tripod will either not be allowed or will alert the subject to your presence and ruin the opportunity. Elliott Erwitt, for example, would never have got his Museum Watching photographs using a tripod.

Practise using a slower shutter speed – say 1/40th second. Learn to control your breathing or hold your breath when shooting. (Snipers are even trained to shoot between heart beats!) Use available walls or doorframes to steady yourself to reduce any further movement. Wedge your elbows into your stomach and press your forearms against your body to stop your arms shaking.

Hopefully these top tips will help you take some truly awesome pics. If you’ve got any other tips that have helped you do just that, we’d love to hear about them in the comments below.