Shooting in available-light is probably the most rewarding of all. With a fast lens and good technique, shooting in available-light enables you to capture what you can see with your own eyes. The above image was shot at ISO 8,000, using an 85mm lens at f/1.4, its maximum aperture (largest opening), without using any flash or supplemental lighting. While the colorimetry isn’t as accurate as when shooting at base ISO, the image still has a good amount of acutance, and more importantly, represents all the nuance of the ambient lighting in the room.

Sometimes, you may be dealing with mixed light sources which may make correction in post-production difficult or impossible. In this case, a black-and-white conversion actually complemented the subject material:

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Nikon D7000 + AF DC-Nikkor 105mm f/2.0D; ISO: 800; f/2.2 @ 1/160th.

Here’s another available-light shot, a street portrait also photographed under mixed sources, but the background colors were so much a part of the shot, I chose not to correct or convert it:

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Nikon D3s + AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.4G; ISO: 3,200; f/2.2 @ 1/320th.

While subject motion isn’t an issue when shooting static objects, the image below was taken when the dancer struck a momentary pose, and wasn’t moving too much. If you time your shutter release for a natural pause in your subject’s motion, you can often get by with slower shutter speeds. Normally, I try not to shoot below 1/160th to account for subject movement. In this case, the light level was extremely low, and the resulting image here actually appears brighter than it was to the naked eye.

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Nikon D3s + AF-S Nikkor 24mm f/1.4G; ISO: 8,000; f/1.4 @ 1/160th.

The image below was taken at an event also using only available light, but luckily, the ambient light level in this room was relatively high, requiring only a moderate ISO of 800.

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Nikon D3s + AF-S Nikkor 24mm f/1.4G; ISO: 800; f/1.4 @ 1/160th.

tips for shooting in available light:

• Use a fast f/1.4 or f/1.8 prime lens.
• Full-frame bodies have a full-stop advantage over APS-C bodies.
• Practice a stable hand-holding technique.
• Use moderate shutter speeds: e.g., 1/125th.
• Time your shutter release for a pause in your subject’s motion.

handheld shooting tips:

Proper handholding technique is key to shooting sharp images at slower shutter speeds. Hold your camera’s grip in your right hand, and cradle the underside of your lens with the palm of your left hand. Keep your elbows tucked tight into your chest, which also turns your forearms into a bi-pod. If a suitable support is available, you can even rest a part of your lens (I use the lens shade) against a wall or similar structure for extra stability.

tips for focusing in low-light:

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• Try using your camera’s AF-ON button.
• Use single-point AF-mode.
• Use continuous-focus/continuous servo mode.
• Try to place the AF-point directly over the subject’s eyes.

Focusing in poor light can be challenging. Note that for most cameras, the most sensitive, and most accurate focus point is the center AF-point. So, if attempting to auto-focus in extremely low light, you’re going to have your best auto-focus performance using the center AF-point. However, since the point of interest is often not in the center, this may force you to “focus-and-recompose,” which may introduce added focus error at large apertures (low, numerically), since the depth-of-field, wide-open can be razor-thin.

One technique for shooting under extremely low light levels with your lens at maximum aperture, is to set your camera’s focus mode to single-point, and in AF-continuous (AF-C) for Nikon cameras, and continuous-servo mode (C) for Canon cameras, so that the camera’s auto-focus circuitry will continually adjust for any small variations in subject-to-camera distance.

For nailing critical focus, another effective technique is to hover a single AF-point over one of your subject’s eyes. Using this technique can vastly improve your focus accuracy when shooting at large apertures such as f/1.4 or f/1.8, since the focus-recompose method can introduce unexpected focus-error when shooting wide-open.

Also, many find that “disconnecting” the auto-focus function from the actual shutter-release helpful. This is done by employing the AF-ON button to focus, a dedicated button usually found on the back of pro bodies. Or, if your camera doesn’t have a dedicated “AF-ON” button, many models will allow you to assign this function to another button nearby (the “AE-L” button, for example).