Five bright ideas for low light photography

Photography is all about light. So,getting a decent shot when there's very little to play with is always going to be a tricky task. If you're a professional photographer or a keen enthusiast you'll know about this already and you'll probably have all the right equipment for the job - a camera with a top end sensor and some super fast lenses to strap on when needed.

On the other hand, if you're a point and press kind of person, then you'll have been stuck with the flash until now and if you haven't already realised that the flash is your enemy, then it's doubly important that you read on.

The flash is a great device for offering enough light for an image where there was none before, but it's rather like using a hammer to crack a walnut. It floods the scene with a strong blinding light from one very localised source. So, as the user, what you'll most often notice is that everything in the foreground is super bright and often over-exposed while the background is pitch black.

Chances are you'll also have some pretty bizarre looking shadows and the colours of what's there will be off as well. That's just how it goes with compact cameras. Start using a dedicated flash on an SLR and you can use the technique to your advantage for some really good effects but that's an article for another time. So, if you've got a compact camera and you want take better photos at night or indoors, then take a deep breath, turn the dial away from Auto mode and try the tips below.

1) Low Light/Night Modes

Before we delve deeper into the camera menus, the scene modes are a good place to start. Thankfully most cameras these days have an intelligent scene setting, which most people keep on, and it should detect the fact that you're trying to take a night shot. But, just in case it doesn't work it out, it's worth switching it to Night Mode yourself. You'll probably still get a flash and not quite what you're after but it's a step in the right direction.

Better cameras will have a Low Light mode which is preferable. It'll turn the flash off and automatically pick the appropriate shutter speeds, aperture, ISO and other things that you might not want to worry about, but what it'll also hopefully do is a rather clever technique called "pixel binning". This is where each pixel detector on your image sensor gets together in groups of four to produce super-pixels with much higher sensitivities to low light. That means you'll get excellent, bright looking shots even in dark conditions.

The downside is that the resolution will drop by a factor of four. So, your 10-megapixel shots can now only have a maximum of 2.5 megapixels worth of resolution. However, do not be afraid of this. It's far, far better to have a good looking lower res shot than a rubbish bigger one. Besides, 2.5-megapixel resolution is enough to get a 5 x 7-inch print and will still be more than enough for any digital snaps shown off on your computer screen. In fact, that's almost a bonus tip in itself - don't worry about the resolution with low light photography. It's always worth sacrificing it for a decent exposure.


2) Image Stabilisation to maximum

One thing that your compact camera will need to do once you turn the flash off is to leave the shutter open for as long as possible when you take each shot. What it's trying to do is ensure that as much light gets to the sensor as possible. The tricky part is that any movement you make during these longer shots - which can take up to a matter of seconds - will cause a blurring of the photo and that's no good to anyone unless it happens to look quite pretty.

What you're normally told, if you're fixing all the settings yourself, is that you shouldn't set the shutter speed any slower than 1/60th of a second. The reason being that it's very hard for us humans to stay perfectly still for any longer. Smaller shakes in our camera holding hands start to show up if the shots take any longer than that. You can normally squeeze that down to 1/30th of a second if you hold your arms in tight, prop yourself up against a wall, breathe out and then press the shutter release, but that's about as long an exposure as you can get without using a tripod.

However, all good modern compacts these days come with image stabilisation which will either be called IS, OIS (optical image stabilisation) or even anti-shake mode or such like. What these do is compensate for our human shaky hands with lots of clever techniques and algorithms that the camera processor will use. The upshot is that we can slow down the shutter even further without the risk of blur. As a result, you can now get it down towards 1/4 of a second and, if the camera is particularly good, even beyond. That alone will buy a huge chunk of exposure and already offer much better pictures. So, seek out all these modes in your camera menus and turn them up to maximum.

3) No Zoom

It's all about available aperture here but all you need to know is that when you zoom in, you start reducing the amount of light you can let into the camera at any one time. If you can mess around with the aperture settings, you'll notice the maximum size (smallest number available) will be selectable as opposed to when you are zoomed in and it's not.

In the same way, if you look at telephoto lenses for SLR cameras, you'll notice that the available f-stop is a range from a low number to a higher one, indicating that it gets slower - and so less sensitive to light - the more you zoom into your subject.

But ignore all the confusion. Just appreciate that you want to be pulled right back on your compact camera for taking better photos in low light conditions. So, no zoom. Capiche?

4) Check your ISO

If you're taking your camera settings off piste, then there's a good chance that it might stop automatically choosing your ISO for you. So, if you're after results, then make sure you go into the menus, find your ISO and put it right up as high as it can go. In fact, even if it's on Auto just choose the highest setting anyway.

For those unaware, the ISO relates to how sensitive your camera is to light. The only danger with taking it to the top is that you might start to get some noise on your shots - lack of clarity and even the odd artifact. But, the fact is of course, that when looking for results in extreme conditions, we're lucky to get something with a decent exposure. You can worry about the noise another time.

5) Go Manual

A lot of compact cameras are coming out these days with manual modes. Even if you're not really used to SLR photography or don't know too much about aperture and shutter speeds, don't be afraid giving this mode a crack. To put it very briefly, for low light conditions, you want to make the aperture large and the shutter speed long.

In practical terms, that means low numbers for both settings but, again, you don't really need to worry because most compacts that allow you to change these will show you how you're affecting the look of the shot on their LCD screens before you even take it.

So you don't even really need to know what you're doing. Just turn the dials until it looks right. If you get yourself into a pickle - and you won't - you can always go into the menu and hit the reset button which will have all the camera settings back to automatic and as you had them before you started messing around.

Conclusions

At the end of the day, you'll get better results with a better camera. A Boots' own point and press you picked up for £30 isn't going to give you the same flexibility as a Nikon P6000, but that doesn't mean you can't push what you have a little further than you already do. If you're still not happy with what your compact offers, then buy a new one with a better sensor, higher ISO range, f2.0 lens and, ideally, low light shooting and manual modes. If that's not enough, then go and pick up a DSLR and a f1.4 lens and you'll be able to shoot just about anything you like.

A few decent compacts to watch out for would be the Canon PowerShot range, particularly the S90, and then up to the G10 and G11. The Panasonic Lumix TZ series will do the job, as will the slightly bulkier FZs - any of the Nikon P-series Coolpix offers the right kind of flexibility and the Fujifilm FinePix F70 EXR is a fantastic option for those on a budget. All the shots on this page and the next were taken with a Canon Powershot S90 out in London's East End at night.