Low Light Photography Challenges
Low Light Photography is not always Nighttime Photography! I shoot Special Events, on occasion, and they are almost always lit with theatrical lighting. Sometimes, a cross between 3250º K Tungsten and 5200º K Arc lights. Often, the scenes before me are lit in theatrical, dramatic ways. The drama comes form the shadows and absence of light! Meaning low light! Other times, low light can mean indoors with little ambient lighting. And yes, sometimes, low light is night time!
Remember, our eyes can see maybe 24 "f/Stops" of dynamic range. this is why we see things pretty much in focus, many photos come out blurry in low light. Most cameras, depending on the amount of lighting of the scene, can "see" between 3 and 10 stops of light. With luck. The trick to low light photography, is managing the exposure to make the picture across the right range.
For me, the lighting falls into a few categories:
Shadows, or Backlit in Good Light
Think of under trees, bridges, a porch roof, etc
After the Golden Hour, after sunset, or before sunrise, but still with plenty of light to see by. Or, when a scene is just not lit, whether indoors or dark skies.
Dark of night.
One way to deal with bad shots in low light, like shadow is to change the Aperture. The lower number, f1.4, f1.8, f2.8 etc means a larger opening. Bigger opening means more light. Better photos. To get these larger Apertures, it may mean moving to more expensive lenses or moving to Prime Lenses, which typically have lower f/Stops and larger Apertures.
Of course, a bigger aperture may mean you need to make your shutter speed faster. Slow speeds often mean blur. Most people cannot get a decent photo at slower than 1/60 second Shutter Speed with hand held. Slower means blurry photos. So, increase shutter speed. Try shooting faster than 1/125th second. You should be on a tripod if you are shooting slower than 1/60th second.
Essentially, ISO means increased sensitivity allowing the sensor collecting light to work faster. Increasing the ISO can help you get more out of your low light photos. ISO 100 is a good all around setting. Low light may mean you have to increase ISO to 400, or 800. Some cameras can get your ISO up to 3200 and 6400. This increased ISO means increased apparent sensitivity to light. Unfortunately, with an increased sensitivity to light, it also means an increase in digital noise in the photos. It's best to shoot at the lowest ISO you effectively can, to minimize noise in your photos.
In Nikon parlance, Vibration Reduction is VR. (Canon calls it Image Stabilization or IR)
Nikon's VR technology says it allows you to shoot up to 4 times slower when it comes to shutter speed without adding blur to the picture compared to their non-VR brothers! That means, while with a regular lens you need 1/125th or 1/250th of a second to get a sharp picture, with the VR Lens you could slow the shutter speed to 1/30th of a second and still get the same sharp image! In theory. It certainly will let you get down to 1/60th of a second and get decent sharpness.
Low Light Conditions
The First thing you need to realize, is that at some point, all the settings changes are going to hit a road block. In shooting in low light, it's best to get out your tripod. Your good, sturdy tripod. A good platform to shoot from means making nice, sharp, crisp photos. Believe it or not, you are also causing a problem. When you click the shutter release, you are also introducing some vibration. Try shooting with a remote, either a cable release or wireless remote. Just removing your finger from the button can help decrease movement and get rid of some of the blurriness.
I know this sounds silly, but at some point, you just may have to increase the amount of light in your photos. Adding a flash, a softbox or even doing a little light painting with a hand held flashlight can increase the amount of light in your image. Make sure you have set your white balance correctly for your given lighting conditions.
No matter what, don't be afraid to experiment with the settings on your camera and try to get the best out of low light situations!