Shooting in the dark

Someone recently asked me how to take photos in the dark. I like the challenge of taking a picture in a dark room. It’s difficult, takes practice, and requires that you think and change your settings constantly. I believe that when you are picking a photographer to take photos in a dark setting, you should ask him or her to see examples of photos in a dark setting. This sets the good technical photographers apart from the people who have a good eye, but no technique. Well it’s hard, but here is how you do it. High ISO, Camera on manual, flash lens with a wide aperture, and gelled bounce flash. That’s it.

837363329 iJCuS M 1 Shooting in the dark
1/60, f2, ISO 800 50mm D300 1/2cts gel- Lucky look from the bride.

. . . Actually, that’s not really all of it. It is also tricky, if not impossible, to do after one beer.

High ISO

ISO is the sensitivity of your camera to light. The higher the number, the greater the sensitivity. Nowadays, most modern DSLRs can shoot pretty well up to about 800 ISO. Some can easily go up to 6400. Why not take all your pictures at these high ISOs, you ask? Digital cameras produce noise. On some cameras, the noise makes the image unusable. The trick to get the least noise out of your camera is to always expose to the right. That means you make sure your histogram peak is to the right, not to the left, of center. You are using your histogram, right? Use your histogram to check your exposure.

Do a search on Google, there are a million articles on how to read your histogram. Ignore most of those and just make sure your histogram doesn’t butt up against either the left or right side. If you take a picture that is mostly white, the histogram peak should be to the right. If it is mostly black, then the peak should be to the left. If your picture is mixed, peak in the center. In the dark, always try to get the peak to the right of center. That’s harder than it should be because, wait for it, . . . it’s dark.

823428750 BeX6o M 2 Shooting in the dark
1/100, f2, ISO 1250, D300, 1/2 CTS gel, 50mm Dark, Dark room


I like to shoot in manual when I am using flash in the dark. Find the correct setting for the ambient light in the room to register and set your camera there. Maybe underexpose the room by a little bit. That means histogram to the left of where it should be. Then use the flash to get the subject up to the correct exposure. Remember, histogram to the right of center if possible for noise purposes when you add the flash. Bonus: if the flash is the only thing lighting up the subject, your shutter speed can be pretty low. Like 60 or 30. I know you don’t believe me, but it is true. The flash stops the movement of the subject if she is in the dark in relation to the ambient light. Now your backgrounds will be consistent as long as you are in the same area. There is so much more to this, but you will discover it as you play around with your camera.


You need a lens with a big opening. That means a small number on the aperture. Erin’s point and shoot has a 2.0. On a DSLR, get the $100 50 mm if your camera supports it. Get the $500 50 mm if your camera does not. Practice focusing precisely because very little is in focus at a large aperture. Use the largest aperture that can get everything you want in focus. That means down to 1.4 if your subject is one person, 4.0 or greater if you are taking a picture of a group. Simple.

Bounce and gel your flash

People look pretty terrible when you point a flash directly at them. But don’t bounce your flash straight above the head of the subject. Nothing looks great lit that way, and the flash is uneven. Find some wall or a door or someone’s shirt, or something to bounce your flash off of so that you get directional light on the subject. Try to think of the bounce surface as your light source. Just try it. You will like it.

Gel your flash to match the ambient light. They sell gels in large sheets for cheap from photography shops. Ask for CTO (color temperature orange) or CTS (color temperature straw). Tape it to your flash.

Booyah!* That’s it. Taking pictures in the dark. Of course the are are little details that I left out, but you can discover those as you go along.

542627207 nVdzN M 2 Shooting in the dark
1/50, ISO 1250, f2.8, 70-200 VR lens, D300, 1/2 CTO gel

*Does anyone say Booyah! anymore? My life is like an episode of “A Different World.” It really is different than where you come from. Peace.

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