How to Capture Sharp, Handheld Photographs under Low-Light Conditions


Whether you’re shooting under bright- or low-light conditions, the surest way to capture sharp photographs is to use a tripod, and depending on your subject, maybe even a flash. The trouble is that in the real world this is not always possible. But this doesn’t mean you can’t take sharp pictures without the benefit of a stable shooting platform or flash system.

Before the advent of six-digit ISO ratings, four and five-way image stabilization and advanced HDR technologies that enable capturing sharp, handheld photographs under any lighting conditions, the accepted rule of thumb was to shoot at shutter speeds no slower than the numerical equivalent of the focal length of the lens you were using. 

Case in point: When shooting with a 15mm lens, a 50mm lens or a 500mm lens, your shutter speed should be no slower than 1/15th, 1/50th and 1/500th-second, respectively. Faster shutter speeds are even better, but unless you have a real steady hand or brace yourself in some manner, it’s better to avoid slower shutter speeds.

This doesn’t mean you can’t get sharp results hand-holding at slower speeds (you can), but you should take precautions, such as bracing yourself against a sturdy surface like a pole, car roof or side of a building, and slowly exhale before gently pressing down on the shutter button. (When you exhale, your body relaxes. Conversely, when you inhale and hold your breath before pressing the shutter button your body is tensed, which amplifies your pulse and other body movements, making it less likely you’ll capture a sharp picture.)

If your camera has a high-speed burst mode, now is a good time to turn it on, because there’s a better chance of nailing a sharp picture within a fast burst of images captured in the course of a few fractions of a second, as opposed to trying to nail the shot in a single frame. (Leica owners might refute that last statement, but for the general populace, it holds true.)

Extended ISO Ranges

Over the past few years we’ve seen great advances in squeezing ever-higher ISO sensitivity levels. More importantly, these higher ISO levels are really usable. The image quality of photographs captured by entry-level DSLRs at ISO 12,500 is far sharper, cleaner and quieter than comparable images captured at ISO 400 five or six years ago. As for pro-level DSLRs, we are now seeing ISO levels extending to in excess of 100,000, that despite their obvious noise levels, are still quite usable for many applications, and if anything, make it possible to capture sharp hand-held photographs under the dimmest lighting conditions.

Point-and-shoot digicams, though not quite up to handling six-digit, let alone high five-digit ISO levels, also offer ISO levels up to 6400, which while noticeably noisier than image files captured at ISO 6400 on a DSLR, are still quite usable when the light levels start plummeting.

Image Stabilization

There are two types of image stabilization―digital, which is predominantly found in smaller point-and-shoot cameras, and optical, a more precise technology used in advanced digital cameras. Depending on the make and model of your camera, image stabilization (IS) enables you to hand-hold your camera at shutter speeds three to five times slower than you would normally be able to hand-hold your camera, and capture sharp photographs.

Digital image stabilization decreases blur due to camera shake at slower shutter speeds by carefully measuring the direction and rate of movement of the camera and inversely moving the imaging sensor in the opposite direction. Optical image stabilization works similarly, but instead of moving the imaging sensor, it shifts the rear elements of the lens in the direction and rate of speed opposite of the camera’s movements. Both technologies perform as advertised, but optical image stabilization is the better of the two.

In its most basic configuration, IS steadies the camera for static handheld imaging. Most current cameras feature IS systems that steady the camera for static as well as pan shots, which require higher levels of computation in order to enable sharp pictures.

When setting up a new camera, always check IS functionality when shooting on a tripod. Depending on the IS system in your camera, you may or may not have to turn off the IS mode in order to not damage the system. Many newer IS systems feature tripod modes, but this is something that should be noted before you start making pictures with any new camera. 

High Dynamic Range (HDR)

HDR imaging is a process in which a series of two or more still images are captured in rapid sequence, sampled for sharpness and detail in the highlight, shadow and mid-tones, and are then combined into a single, optimized image file.

Modified versions of this process, incorporating increased ISO sensitivity levels during the exposure sequence, are increasingly being used as a method of capturing sharp, detailed photographs under light levels that until recently were considered too low for hand-held imaging. Although higher ISO levels usually result in higher noise levels, because each group of exposures is layered together, noise artifacts are greatly eliminated in the final image file. Branded under several names including Handheld Twilight Mode (Sony), Pro Low-Light Mode (FujiFilm), and Advanced Night Landscape (Nikon), this proven imaging technology will undoubtedly be developed further and incorporated into new cameras as they enter the market.