Great Low Light Portrait Photography
January 28, 2021 Glenn Guy
Low light portrait photography is one of the most beautiful forms of people based photography. I love creating beautiful, life affirming portraits under low light conditions. And that’s especially true indoors or under the soft, diffuse light near the edges of the day.
Low light portrait photography is defined by low levels of illumination that, with a physically wide lens aperture (e.g., f/4 or wider) and a camera sensitivity of around ISO 100, results in a shutter speed that’s slower than 1/60 second.
Whether working outside with natural light or indoors with natural and/or artificial light low light photography can produce evocative and meaning rich images.
During the dawn and pre-glow and around dusk and twilight time seems to move at a very different pace. At such times the practice of photography can become a verymeditative and transcendental experience, which is one of the reasons I love it so much.
The soft, ethereal quality of light at these times of day is key and an abundance of opportunities await the photographer tuned into the light and the environment in which they find themselves.
It’s no co-incidence that many of the great photographs exploring The Human Condition and the beauty of our natural world are made under low light conditions.
The above image was made while on a self-motivated photo walk around the back streets of a famous and popular Hindu temple in Kolkata, India.
The light was low, both in angle and in intensity, and it was a challenge to produce a sharp image given that I was working, hand-held, at 1/13 second.
As I feel the addition of flash to be inappropriate when producing this kind of intimate, documentary style low light portrait it was important to be able to hold the camera still while working at such a slow shutter speed.
From experience I can say that, with practice, it’s certainly possible.
There’s no doubt that today’s advanced DSLR and Mirrorless cameras make it easier to make great low light portrait photos compared to what we experienced in days gone by.
The most important technological advancements I’m referring to including the following:
- Image Stabilization / Vibration Reduction
- Improved High ISO performance
But good technique remains important when undertaking this kind of photography, particularly if you want to avoid photographing at a very high ISO.
Take a look at this black and white environmental portrait of a local man enjoying the warmth of a fire during a local night market in the back streets of Kolkata.
I was able to make use of the fire as an interesting visual element in the foreground and also as a light source to illuminate the subject.
Ultimately it was the fire that enabled me to achieve an acceptable result at 1/13 second with an aperture of f/4 at a relatively modest ISO 800.
The whole process: gaining permission to make the photo; directing the subject; and making the image was completed in about two minutes.
I then thanked the gentleman and, happy with the resulting photo, continued on my exploration spurred on by a feeling of elated calm.
I really prefer not to push the ISO too high, even when I’m photographing under low light conditions. Sometimes, in addition to being able to keep both camera and subject still, you’ll need to be creative with the existing light sources at your disposal.
Just like in the days of film based photography, confidence comes with practice.
The lens I used for all of the low light portraits in this post was a general purpose zoom lens which, given its relatively light weight and modest size, made it a great option for travel photography.
However, with a relatively modest maximum aperture of f/4, it’s certainly not what you’d call a fast lens.
Nonetheless, with good technique and the ability to direct your subject, it’s possible to produce sharp portraits with a relatively shallow depth of field under low light conditions.
Reducing the camera to subject distance further reduces the depth of field and allows for a more intimate interaction with the subject.
Striking portrait of a beautiful girl at the Kali Bari temple, Chennai.
The Relationship Between Photographer And Subject
Some photographers talk about the need to establish a dialogue or form a relationship with the subject they’re photographing.
I use those same words, but attach a very different meaning to them.
You don’t need to know someone’s life story to be able to make a great photograph of them.
Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru
It’s wonderful to know something of your subject’s story, the life they’ve lived and their dreams and aspirations for the future.
A deeper understanding of your subject can certainly help you make a more informed and meaningful image.
But photography is a three edged sword that explores the following:
- The photographer’s relationship to the subject or scene depicted
- The viewer’s relationship with the subject or scene
- The relationship between photographer and viewer
Nonetheless, outside certain documentary projects, it’s rarely necessary to take up a lot of a person’s time as a way of gaining their confidence prior to asking permission to make their photo.
If you’re there to make photos you need to get on with it.
If your intentions are pure and you’re drawn to photograph someone then you need to approach them openly, introduce yourself and ask for permission to make their photograph.
We’re talking seconds here, which is neither a major commitment for you or the person you’d like to photograph.
It helps to explain why you want to make the photo.
And the reason might be as simple as I love your motor bike or I noticed how colorful your scarf is and how beautiful it looks against the background.
Those kind of statements are clearly complimentary, yet are unlikely to be considered sleazy.
Low light baby portrait displaying the face of innocence, Chennai, India.
Making A Great Low light Portrait Photo
It’s then simply a matter of ensuring your subject is placed in good light, which is one of the reasons you may have noticed them in the first place, setting your camera and lens appropriately and making a few images.
Half a dozen frames, perhaps with a few variations in composition, is usually enough for me.
If you need to make more photos fine, just get on with it. The longer the process takes, the more uncomfortable your subject will become and the harder it will be for you to make a compelling image.
Obviously, if you’re working with professional models, brides or commercial clients more photos will be required. But, when photographing strangers, you just don’t have that luxury.
With that in mind I recommend you just get on with making the photos and then get on your way. Sometimes the shortest and most intense interactions are the most memorable.
Many, so-called, candid portraits are either directed by the photographer or made with the subject’s knowledge.
They look candid because the subject has not become overly self conscious by being over directed or made to “hold it” for lengthy periods of time.See this product in the original post
Relationships Between Photographer, Subject And Viewer
I believe that the dialogue, interaction or connection folks talk about in a photograph is not based upon an actual discussion between photographer and subject.
Rather it’s a visual connection that occurs at three distinct levels, which I’II describe as follows:
Low light portrait of an interested soul in a Kolkata market, India.
The Connection Between Photographer and Subject
When a photographer directs their subject to look directly into the camera’s lens an interaction is being established, not unlike the one where each person looks directly into each others eyes.
It’s our own life’s experiences and connection to the shared Human Condition that, ultimately, binds us together. The photograph is simply a powerful conduit that allows for this connection to take place.
Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru
The Connection Between Subject and Viewer
Viewing a photograph at a close distance can provide a very intimate, personal experience where the viewer engages, on a one-to-one basis, with the subject depicted.
This level of connection can encourage the viewer to believe that they understand the situation or personal plight of the subject depicted.
Low light portrait of a young boy in his father’s print workshop.
The Connection Between Viewer and Photographer
The kind of person you are (e.g., compassionate, caring, sympathetic, empathetic) is communicated through the photographs you make.
I believe there’s a lot about the photographer that’s revealed through the photos they make. In particular I refer to the following:
- The photographer’s world view and motivations
- What they choose to photograph
- The way they go about making their photos
- How they treat and depict their subjects
I’ve chosen to approach my photography as a photo maker, not a photo taker.
Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru
The portraits I make are a collaboration between myself and the people I photograph.
I can tell you I’m only interested in making beautiful, life-affirming images that speak to the beauty and wonder of our world and its people.
Worry and wisdom in the eyes of a dignified man, Chennai, India.
A Photograph Really Is Worth A Thousand Words
A truly great photograph goes beyond the need for words to describe it.
However, a caption may be useful and, on occasions, informative.
Likewise, an analysis of the image, conducted by deconstructing it and discussing aspects of composition, posing, gesture, context, message, metaphor and meaning can be enlightening.
But, outside of academic lingo and the minute world of photographic criticism, there’s something far more powerful that will likely determine the success of your photos.
It’s the viewer’s initial emotional reaction, coming before words and thoughts, that lies at the heart of a photograph’s success. When you hear the word WOW! escape their lips you know you’ve created something quite special.
Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru
Technique is important and, from my experience, it’s great to be able to talk and write about your own photography and the work of others that you help or are inspired by.
But, to my mind, the ultimate success of a photograph is dependent not upon the words that we use to describe it, but upon its ability to connect, on a deeply personal and emotional level, with our audience.
And that audience is made up of individual, meaning seeking people.
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