How to Shoot Photography in Poor Lighting


Lighting can make or break your photography. Learn the skills and techniques to overcome these common challenging light scenarios. 

We can’t always choose the lighting we prefer in photography. Sometimes, you’re forced to shoot in less-than-ideal lighting situations, which means knowing the right tools and techniques is necessary to shoot in such environments.

Poor lighting, such as insufficient light, poorly distributed light, harsh overhead light, and so on, can produce photos with less-than-desirable results. This article will discuss some practical tips you can follow to tackle and overcome challenging lighting scenarios. 

Shooting Photography Under Fluorescent Lighting 

Most photographers will agree, fluorescent lighting is one of the most unflattering forms of light, especially when shooting portrait photography. We’re, of course, talking about the (often) cold, harsh, white light that you find in offices, labs, schools, malls, and grocery stores.

Put simply, it’s not pretty but, fortunately, there is a workaround. 

Fluorescent light gives off a certain cast that will affect your photographs and make them appear a certain color. You can compensate for these unwanted effects by going to your camera’s menu and selecting the white balance.

You’ll see several different lighting icons that come up, including a flash icon, strobe icon, sun icon, and a big fluorescent tube. When selecting the latter, your camera will color-correct—or rather temperature correct—your photos to make them look natural.

This mode is used for getting brighter, warmer shots while compensating for the cool shade of the fluorescent light. 

Alternatively, there’s another camera trick you can harness to ensure your photos turn out great under fluorescent light. Rather than shooting in manual mode, adjust your camera settings to shutter priority mode and take the shutter speed to 1/60th of a second or slower.

The reason why we suggest slowing down your shutter speed is that the fluorescent tube lighting doesn’t actually light up at the same time. The light starts on one side of the tube and pulses to the other side of the tube in a cycle.

So, while the light appears constant, what we’re actually seeing are rapid light pulses that cannot be seen with the naked eye. The effects of the pulsating light can be seen from behind the lens—you might have even noticed the pulsating light flickering in video footage you’ve taken.

Leaving your camera’s shutter speed open for longer ensures you’re capturing the full-color spectrum.  

License this image via Hero Images on Offset (Enterprise only).

Working with Mixed Lighting 

Cheek-down portrait of a bride in mixed lighting wearing a veil and lace dress
License this image via Andrii Medvediuk.

Amateur photographers and professional photographers alike can all relate to the disappointment one might feel when looking back at photos taken from an indoor event, such as a concert or wedding. Quite often, you’re dealing with mixed lighting—and mixed lighting can be messy.

For many photographers, mixed lighting environments are their least favorite because the different light sources emit different color temperatures in light, and it usually creates an unflattering light pattern, especially when shooting portraits. 

You might have indoor tungsten light bulbs (warm, yellow-orange light) shining down from the ceiling above, clashing with LED fixtures and DJ lighting, which can produce unflattering light on your subject(s). But, how do you fix it?

One basic solution for resolving this issue is to turn out the lights in the room and angle the subject towards the strongest, most consistent light source. This might be natural light shining through the window. Illuminating your subject using the primary light source is the easiest option if that option is available to you. 

However, turning out the lights at a wedding reception hall, for example, might not go over too well. So, how do we get our lights to match the same color? What we need to do is gel these lights.

First, you’re going to look for the most dominant light source in the room—in other words, the light that is most prevalent. During a reception, you might see orange lights, white lights, or even purple lights from the DJ booth. Once you’ve identified the most prominent light, we’re going to gel to that look.

Floral and crystal wedding table decor under mixed lighting
License this image via Miroslav Kudrin.

Let’s say the prominent light in your scene is a warm orange glow from the tungsten light bulbs overhead. For this, we’re going to use the most common gel that photographers use indoors—a magnetic CTO gel that you can simply place on top of your flash. The light from your flash will balance with the tungsten lights, so your scene appears to be illuminated in a nice even light. 

You can also color-correct your photos in post-production. To do this, you’ll need to ensure that you’re first shooting in RAW, which will allow you to manipulate light sources. Shooting in RAW gives you a lot more room to work with as the RAW file doesn’t hold onto any color temperature correction. 

To color-correct images, you can use photo editing software to edit the white balance in your shot. We suggest using a Brush tool or Graduated tools to adjust color temperatures, as you might have many within one image.

Shooting Under the Midday Sun 

Athlete leaps for a slam dunk on an outdoor court in blazing sunlight
License this image via Ewebphoto.

Shooting in the midday sun is challenging for a few reasons. Shining bright directly overhead, the midday sun creates hard shadows on your subject’s face(s), blow-out highlights, and uneven lighting.

Most photographers will agree that they prefer to shoot around sunrise or sunset when the light is diffused and softer. Fortunately, there are ways photographers can harness and adapt to the midday sun to create stunning photography. 

It might sound simple, but the first step photographers should take is to locate some shade. Perhaps you spot shade beneath a building or under a tree—but first, check whether the light appears dappled or uneven as the light filters through the leaves.

Alternatively, you can make your own shade by holding an umbrella above your subject out of the shot. A lens hood is always a good idea as it will reduce your risk of lens flare (unless that’s the look you want). 

In addition to a lens flare, we also recommend using a light reflector to fill in the harsh shadows on your subject’s face, which is (again) created by the midday sun shining directly above. A light reflector allows you to bounce the light onto your subject and fill in the shadows. 

Elderly woman in bright sunlight smiles at the camera with a field of yellow flowers behind her
License this image via yuto.photographer.

Given that you’re already working with a lot of light, you’ll want to reduce the amount of light that’s hitting your lens and reaching your camera’s sensor. An ideal place to start is by setting your aperture to around f/11. 

Capturing Night Photography 

Three adults enjoy a meal outdoors at a busy night market
License this image via CandyRetriever.

Night photography requires extra care and attention since there are more ways to go wrong. The two most critical considerations you need to pay careful attention to are light and motion. 

Night photography means you’re shooting in low-light conditions. You’ll be required to keep your camera’s shutter open for longer to gather an adequate amount of light but, in doing so, you’re more susceptible to motion blur. Since the shutter needs to be open for longer, your camera needs to be held steady during the exposure process—or else it will result in a blurry photo. 

To resolve this issue, you’ll first need to adjust your camera settings by setting your camera to manual mode, using a longer shutter speed—between 30 and 60 seconds—and making your aperture (your camera’s sensitivity to light) around f/11.

Utilizing a low ISO—approximately around 100 or 200—is a good place to start. In addition to having the right camera settings, using a tripod is necessary to ensure your camera is still as possible to prevent a blurry photo. 

Young woman in a bucket hat looks at her hone while in a night market
License this image via May_Chanikran.

There are countless other problematic lighting scenarios that can keep photographers awake at night, but this round-up is likely to be at the top of the list.

Lighting can make or break your photography, but adapting to your environment by harnessing the right skills and techniques is key to unlocking your true photography potential.

License this cover image via Creative Family.

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