Tips on How to Get Sharper Low Light Images

Hey Everybody! With the 2014 holiday season quickly coming to a close and the opportunity to photograph gorgeous and intricate lighting displays is dwindling, seems like a perfect time to mention this awesome article by photographer Jim Hamel from Digital Photography School on getting sharper images at night. 

Through his original article, Jim focuses on 9 different tips to nail your sharpness… Well I can say that my favorite of these is a mix between:”

Use back-button focus

It is times like this, when you want to take a shot with out refocusing, that back-button focus really pays dividends. If your camera allows it, go into the menu and set up your focus so that it is not triggered when you press the shutter button halfway down, but rather is triggered when you press a button on the back of your camera. That way since your focus is not set with the shutter button, when you take the picture by pressing it there is no chance that your camera refocuses.

Recompose after focusing

Assume you now have your focus set using the methods set forth above. But to get that focus, you had to move your camera away from your desired composition to focus on the edge of a bright spot. Move your camera back to your desired composition to get the shot. Don’t refocus as you do so though – just move the camera and take the shot with the focus you’ve already set. (You will need to either hold the shutter button part way down, use focus lock, or focus and then turn off the AF so it doesn’t attempt to refocus once you have recomposed – or see #5 below.)

Manually focus by guestimating

If you cannot find a point to focus on, and your lens does not have a distance scale, all is not lost. You can guestimate and get it right in a lot of cases.

To do so, make sure you are shooting with a high aperture value (small opening, large f-number). That will create a wide depth of field to give you some wiggle room in your focus. Specifically, the wide aperture will make a wider range of things acceptably sharp in your frame.

In addition, be sure you are shooting with a wide angle lens. This is not the time to try anything telephoto. The wider angle of view creates a more forgiving environment for your focus.

With a wide aperture and the wide angle of view, you have a broader latitude in your focusing. Now manually focus your camera. If you are shooting a broad scene that extends to infinity, set the manual focus just shy of infinity. The latitude you built-in will make things acceptably sharp all the way to infinity and a certain distance in front of your focus point as well. That will give you the best chance of having the whole scene in focus.”

When I finally (about two years ago) learned how to use the back button focus correctly, I never turned back. It helps nail focus with architecture, landscape, lightpainting, sports, and anything else in-between, especially if you’re running your shutter with a trigger. In the image below I used the back button focus and placed the focus cursor on the white pillar in-front of the bay window. I then ever-so slightly pulled back on the focus ring of the lens because I wanted the green leaves to be crisp. (Initially I tried to autofocus on the leaves but the wind kept me from getting a solid focus)  From there I used my Nikon WR-T10/WR-R10 trigger and lightpainted the house, grass, driveway, and the tree on the right with a Brinkmann Q-Beam Max Million spotlight.

30 Sec, F18, ISO200. Taken with Nikon D750, Nikon 24-70 2.8, at 24mm.

30 Sec, F18, ISO200. Taken with Nikon D750, Nikon 24-70 2.8, at 24mm.


Jim goes through other great tips like using live view, focusing on the edge, and aiming for the brightest part of the image in his original article over at Digital Photography School.

I definitely recommend a solid tripod, some sort of shutter release/trigger, and a flashlight with 150+ lumens to get things rolling in the right direction. Remember you can always shoot, reshoot, and compose in post if you are having a difficult time getting the frame/focus/light you want. 

Alright gang, now lets see what you got! Post your best low-light images using the hashtag #K1lowlight to facebook, twitter, and instagram! We’ll be on the hunt reposting our favorite picks.