7 top tips for low-light photography

Find out how to get the most out of your Canon camera and learn how to create stunning images from dusk until dawn.
Colourful light beams running over the top of a coastal footpath.

Dawn and twilight are magical times. These are the moments when festivals come alive, the mood of a city shifts gear and photographic opportunities abound. But capturing details when light is scarce can be challenging – especially if you're using the camera on your smartphone.

In low light situations, the creative modes of a DSLR, mirrorless or advanced compact camera will help you get the sharp, detailed shots you couldn't easily achieve otherwise.

1. Use a wide aperture (low f-number) to let in as much light as possible

A close-up of the face of a dark-haired woman wearing pink lipstick and eye shadow, in low light.

Lenses with wider apertures pass more light through to the image sensor, enabling faster shutter speeds for capturing detail and freezing action without having to push your ISO setting to ultra-high levels, which risks image noise. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM lens at 1/1250 sec, f/1.8 and ISO1250. © Ejiro Dafé

If you have a camera with manual settings, you can control its aperture using Aperture Priority (Av) mode. The aperture setting simply tells your camera how much light to allow in. In low-light conditions, you need to let in as much light as possible to get a good exposure and capture the detail in the scene. To do this, use a wide aperture (low f-number). If your shot is still underexposed (too dark), using a slower shutter speed will also let in more light by increasing the exposure time, but at the risk of blurring – see the section below on keeping your images sharp.

The aperture setting affects more than just the exposure, though. A wide aperture also results in a shallow depth of field – that is, at a low f-number, only a narrow slice of the scene will be in sharp focus. This might be ideal if you're shooting pre-dawn portraits and want a pleasingly-blurred background, but if you want to capture the special nuances of a cityscape at dusk, for example, then using a narrower aperture (higher f-number) would produce greater depth of field, so that more of the scene will be in focus. For a good exposure, you would then need to try using a slower shutter speed.

Naturally, some lenses have a wider or 'faster' aperture than others. Excellent compact options for EOS R System full-frame mirrorless cameras such as the Canon EOS R6 and EOS RP include the Canon RF 35mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM, a great pick for wide-angle shots of night-time cityscapes and other low-light scenes. The Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM gives a more standard perspective (similar to the human eye) and is ideal for candid street photography scenes shot at night, while the longer telephoto reach of the Canon RF 85mm F2 MACRO IS STM makes it superb for low-light portraiture.

If you're using a DSLR, a lens such as the Canon EF 35mm f/2 IS USM offers a natural perspective and the benefit of image stabilisation (IS) for handheld shooting. The Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM, with its even wider maximum aperture, has exceptional low-light capabilities. If you have a DSLR camera with an APS-C format sensor, such as the Canon EOS 850D, then an EF-S lens such as the Canon EF-S 35mm f/2.8 Macro IS STM would be a good option for a natural perspective. If you're after similar wide-angle and natural perspective for an EOS M mirrorless camera such as the EOS M50 Mark II, which also has an APS-C sensor, look no further than the ultra-compact Canon EF-M 22mm f/2 STM pancake lens and the super-fast Canon EF-M 32mm f/1.4 STM.

2. Increase the ISO setting for greater light sensitivity

A large body of water surrounded by hills and mountains, in low light.

If you've used a wide aperture setting but feel the brightness of your image is still lacking, try raising your camera's ISO setting. This increases the sensor's sensitivity to light, and it's useful when shooting at night without a flash. The higher the ISO number, the higher the sensitivity. Canon DSLRs, mirrorless and advanced compact cameras have larger sensors, so they produce better high-ISO photos than cameras with smaller sensors, such as smartphone cameras.

The full-frame CMOS sensors in mirrorless Canon cameras such as the Canon EOS RP and EOS R6 enable them to deliver exceptional high-ISO quality with little or no discernible image noise or grain. The sensors in Canon's latest APS-C format cameras are slightly smaller, but still deliver detailed yet low-noise image quality even at very high ISO settings, making the cameras ideal for handheld shooting at night.

3. Keeping your images sharp

When shooting handheld in low light, you may find you end up with blurred results. This usually happens if you have used a longer exposure time (slower shutter speed) to capture more light. Here is another benefit of using a wider aperture: the more light that enters your lens, the faster the shutter speed you can use. This is important because faster shutter speeds freeze motion – and the faster the motion you want to capture, the faster your shutter speed will need to be to avoid motion blur. In good light, reasonably still subjects can generally be captured using a shutter speed around 1/50 sec, walking subjects require a little faster at around 1/250 sec, and faster action can benefit from 1/1000 sec or faster speeds. In low light conditions, faster shutter speeds will be needed.

On top of the subject movement, camera shake has to be taken into account – and the longer the focal length, the more difficult it is to avoid camera shake when you're shooting handheld. A general rule of thumb is to start with an aperture setting reciprocal of the focal length – so with a 50mm lens, use at least 1/50 sec or faster; with a 600mm lens, use 1/600 sec, and so on. Using a lens with optical image stabilisation (IS) makes it possible to use slower shutter speeds and still achieve the same sharpness.

The Canon EOS R6 has an in-body image stabilisation (IBIS) system that works in conjunction with IS-equipped lenses for ultra-sharp long exposures while shooting handheld. You can also use your environment to reduce camera movement: try leaning against a wall or placing your camera on a solid surface. If you have one, use a tripod, as this will give you maximum flexibility.

4. Make the most of white balance options

An image of Bath Abbey at evening, illuminated by warm spotlights and with a lit street lamp.

Adjusting the white balance setting is a creative way to radically alter the final look of your images. Taken on a Canon EOS 7D (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 7D Mark II) with a Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM lens at 2.5 secs, f/11 and ISO100. © Marcus Hawkins

Bath Abbey photographed at night, with colours cooler and the sky a deep shade of blue.

In this version of the same shot, the white balance has been altered, producing more natural stone colours and turning the sky a deeper shade of blue. Taken on a Canon EOS 7D with a Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM lens at 21mm, 2.5 secs, f/11 and ISO100. © Marcus Hawkins

The Auto white balance setting of Canon cameras delivers consistently accurate results when shooting in daylight and maintains good performance during low-light photography. However, you can add stylistic flair to your low-light images by using alternative preset white balance settings to create a particular mood.

For shooting under city lights at twilight, for example, the Tungsten white balance setting tends to give artificially lit areas a more neutral colour temperature, as well as boosting the deep blue of overhead skies. Alternatively, if you want to emphasise the warmth of artificial lighting, try switching to the Daylight white balance setting.

Many Canon cameras, including compact cameras such as the Canon PowerShot G5 X Mark II, can shoot in RAW file format. Select this, and you can change or fine-tune the white balance setting when post-processing your images using your preferred RAW processing software, including Canon's powerful, free Digital Photo Professional.

5. Lighting effects

A cat in a dimly lit room with its front paws perched on two books.

Placing your camera on a tripod means you can use slower shutter speeds to capture more light while maintaining crisp image quality. Of course, it helps to have a cooperative subject who will pose without moving around too much. Taken on a Canon EOS 850D with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens at 1/160 sec, f/2.8 and ISO100.

A road network at night with car headlights creating clearly defined light trails.

Long exposures are ideal for turning night-time traffic into light trails, transforming ordinary scenes into mesmerising creative images. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 15-35mm F2.8L IS USM lens at 61 sec, f/16 and ISO400. © Lorenz Holder

You can add dynamism to night shots by creating light trails, using anything from the tail lights of moving vehicles to neon-lit fairground attractions. You need a long exposure if you want to get the movement of light through your photograph, meaning shutter speeds of a few seconds or more with the camera on a tripod or secure surface. Experiment with different timed exposures. Use the camera's self-timer or remote capture feature to ensure you don't shake the camera when pressing the shutter. Many Canon cameras are equipped with Wi-Fi, enabling you to change settings and trigger the shutter from your smartphone using the Canon Camera Connect app.

6. Try burst mode

A figure jumping on a dirt bike over a hill, silhouetted against the dusk sky.

Continuous shooting or burst mode is perfect for photographing action in low light, ensuring you always capture the perfect moment. Taken on a Canon EOS 7D Mark II with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 35mm, 1/1600 sec, f/8 and ISO3200.

Continuous shooting mode (also known as burst mode on some cameras) will capture a fast sequence of images in a few fractions of a second. It's useful for shooting a moving subject or capturing a split-second of action. So, if your camera has it, turn it on and give it a go – it will increase your chances of getting the superb low-light action shot you're looking for.

7. The best cameras for low-light photography

A Canon EOS R6 camera.

Whatever your needs and your budget, there's a wide range of cameras ideally suited for low light photography, including the Canon EOS R6.

Canon EOS R6 - A picture perfect full-frame mirrorless camera for low light photography

  • Highly effective in-body image stabilisation
  • Class-leading autofocus system works in almost total darkness
  • Impressive image quality at high ISO settings

Canon EOS RP - The ultimate budget-friendly mirrorless camera for night photography

  • Full-frame image sensor for stunning low-light quality
  • Advanced low-light autofocus performance
  • Competitively priced for a full-frame mirrorless camera

Canon EOS M50 Mark II - The ideal step up from smartphone photography

  • Mirrorless advantages in a sleek, lightweight body with an APS-C format image sensor
  • AF performance in very dim light down to -4EV, and shoot at up to ISO 25,600
  • Dedicated range of interchangeable, compact EF-M lenses

Canon EOS 850D - The next step up in creative control: a lightweight DSLR

  • Lightweight 515g body – great for night-time street photography
  • 24.1MP APS-C sensor, delivering outstanding image quality
  • Classic DSLR ergonomics and optical viewfinder for a direct connection to the scene

Canon PowerShot G5 X Mark II - Small and sleek, yet highly sophisticated

  • Powerful built-in 5x zoom range, equivalent to 24-120mm
  • Small yet high-quality 1.0-type image sensor
  • A wealth of night shooting modes including Star Portrait, Star Nightscape, Star Trails, Star Time-Lapse Movie and Handheld Night Scene

Read additional low light photography tips* from the Redline Challenge mentor, Lorenz Holder.

Written by Matthew Richards

*Available in selected languages.

Related products

  • Mirrorless Cameras

    EOS R6 Mark II

    Stills or video, action or portrait – the EOS R6 Mark II’s blend of performance and image quality lets your creativity thrive
  • Mirrorless Cameras

    EOS R8

    Step up to full-frame photography and video and realise your creative ambitions.
  • Standard Lens

    RF 50mm F1.8 STM

    A compact, quiet and lightweight 50mm RF prime lens, with a wide f/1.8 aperture, perfect for harnessing your creative vision.
  • RF Lenses

    RF 35mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM

    A fast-aperture 35mm f/1.8 MACRO lens for wide-angle perspective, close focusing and Hybrid IS.
  • Wide-Angle Prime Lens

    RF 24mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM

    A compact, lightweight 24mm prime lens that is ideal for landscape photography, vlogging and interiors – plus great macro images, too.
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