Redline Challenge: low light photography tips from the pros

Four Canon Ambassadors explain why shooting in low light is the perfect opportunity to push your creative boundaries, in any genre.
Two young people relax on a palette bed with an orange throw on it. A plant casts dramatic shadows on the yellow walls.

In this low-light scene featuring a Lebanese couple relaxing in a bedroom in Furn el Chebbak, Beirut, Canon Ambassador and photojournalist Aline Deschamps balanced the available lighting and artificial lights – candles, mobile phone flashes – to create a striking atmosphere. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 24mm, 1/15 sec, f/3.2 and ISO2500. © Aline Deschamps

Shooting in low light is no easy task, and that applies to pro photographers as much as it does to amateurs. When professionals are on assignment, they have to come up with the goods, light or no light, delivering a coherent, high quality body of work to satisfy clients. When the light disappears, there's little difference between capturing poignant photojournalism for The New York Times, shooting outdoor scenes in a wintry Lapland or taking fashion shots in the relative comfort of the studio. In all cases, professional photographers have to be adept at overcoming whatever lighting obstacles they face.

So how do they do it? What advice can they offer those photographers who choose to take on the Redline Challenge, which invites photographers worldwide to push their creative and technical boundaries by exploring the relationship between light and darkness? We spoke to four Canon Ambassadors working in different photographic genres to ask about shooting under the toughest of lighting conditions: two internationally celebrated documentary photographers, Aline Deschamps, based in Lebanon, and Tasneem Alsultan, based in Saudi Arabia; Eliška Sky, an award-winning artistic and fashion photographer based in London, UK; and Valtteri Hirvonen, a wilderness photographer based in Finland. Each pro shared their tips for tackling "light in the dark", showing us how the challenge of shooting in low light can be overcome by photographers in any genre.

For even more tips and insights, don't miss the videos from Canon Ambassadors on the Redline Challenge YouTube playlist.

A woman wearing a black turtleneck jumper looks at the camera, lit from the side and standing in front of leafy trees casting shadows on the wall behind her.

By placing artificial light outside, Aline Deschamps has created drama and suspense with the shadows in this portrait of a young woman. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens at 1/320 sec, f/7.1 and ISO125. © Aline Deschamps

Aline Deschamps: Use surroundings to create atmosphere

Shooting documentary portraits in low light – often indoors – can be extremely tough, especially when authenticity is key. Having so few options forces you to think in unconventional ways and to utilise whatever the surrounding environment provides. French-Thai documentary photographer Aline Deschamps is based in Beirut and her work focuses on issues relating to identity, gender and migration. She often works inside people's homes in limited or very poor lighting conditions, which forces her to get even more creative with her surroundings to generate the atmosphere she would normally rely on light to provide.

"When I'm meeting refugees or migrant domestic workers inside their homes, there's usually not many windows or much in the way of external light," she says. "Sometimes there may be just one lightbulb hanging from the ceiling that's lighting the whole apartment, so the pictures would look totally flat. I try not to see that as a limitation, but as a challenge to recreate the atmosphere that's missing. The first thing I'll do is turn off the ceiling light and start looking for other elements that are already there that I can use. This can take many different forms. For example, if there is a window next to the person, even though it's dark there might still be a little bit of light to experiment with. Or they might have table lamps or candles, or some other source of lighting.

"Observe what is around the space that is part of the subject's environment, think about how you can use it and experiment. If you have two or three sources of light, it will give your image a more dynamic feel.

"It's important with documentary that you don't add anything that's not already linked to the subject, but arranging some shadow or, for example, lighting a plant so it casts a shadow on your subject to make the image more atmospheric – that's okay."

The Canon Redline Challenge logo.

Take on the Redline Challenge

Have you got what it takes to push past your limits? Enter the Redline Challenge and master 'light in the dark' for your chance to win the latest Canon kit and mentoring from pro photographer Lorenz Holder.
A blur of car headlights are seen in the centre of a wet and overcast road, surrounded by tall trees.

Wilderness and nature photographer Valtteri Hirvonen photographed this scene in Yosemite National Park on a "rainy and very grey day", and timed the shot to include lights from an oncoming car to add warm tones to an otherwise monotone-looking image. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 35mm, 1/50 sec, f/2.8 and ISO400. © Valtteri Hirvonen

A yellow tent lit up by white light is pitched in front of rocks lit up in red, with a man in warm clothing lying in the tent facing outwards.

As Valtteri photographed this self-portrait in Joshua Tree National Park, California, a car went by while the shutter was open. The vehicle's red brake lights inadvertently added to the surreal look of the photo. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 24mm, 15 sec, f/4 and ISO1600. © Valtteri Hirvonen

Valtteri Hirvonen: Get creative with light sources

Wilderness and nature photographer Valtteri Hirvonen is familiar with shooting in extremely harsh conditions, often in mountains or the Arctic, miles from civilisation in temperatures as low as -30°C. Like Aline, he also advises playing around with whatever light source you have to hand and using multiple light sources to create different effects in low-light situations. "I have been experimenting with lighting some scenes using my mobile phone," he says – "whatever light, tone or colour comes to mind. You can always be creative with the light temperature using filters. If you're shooting just with LEDs or a traditional halogen lamp, you can mix those things up. I usually have three or four different lights with me when I go out and I choose which I want for a particular look.

"I usually have some Speedlites packed as well, because those give a totally different feel to other types of lighting. I have a radio trigger for my Canon flash so I can just position it somewhere and either leave it where it is or trigger it from wherever I am in the scene. You can mix all these different techniques and use them in just one frame."

Use wide-angle lenses for night-time shots

When working in the wilderness and at night, Valtteri leaves nothing to chance. He advises meticulous planning and execution of each shot and advocates considering specific kit choices at the outset. In particular, he recommends using wide-angle lenses. "It's usually better for you to start a night-time shoot using a wider lens because it's easier to focus, and the added space can give you more reference points in the dark," he explains. "This enables you to examine your compositions until you've nailed them. You don't need a fast lens either – an f/4 or f/2.8 is fine. My Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L USM [now succeeded by the Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM] and my EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM are my 'go-to' focal lengths.

"When I started, there were no electronic viewfinders and I thought they wouldn't work well in a dark environment, but I've used my Canon EOS R5 for night shoots and the EVF works impressively well. It picks up the light from scenes I couldn't see with my naked eye. Of course, you can use the rear screens too, if you like – it's the same image. I have my headlamp to help me locate a scene but to find my composition, to see the frame edge, the modern EVF is unbeatable."

A snowboarder high in the air in foggy conditions, eerily lit from behind the crest of a hill.

Redline Challenge: tips and tricks for shooting 'light in the dark'

Pro action photographer Lorenz Holder explains his winning recipe for perfect exposure when shooting sunset and night-time photography with flash.
A bare-chested man with dyed blue hair wears a headdress of red wire and clear lenses, with lines of red light drawn around his face.

This photograph by Canon Ambassador and visual artist Eliška Sky is from her "Pixel Future" series, which was inspired by our online self-image, alter egos and avatars. Eliška used a slow shutter speed with flash and "painted on" some elements using a coloured laser. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) with a Canon EF 50mm f/2.5 Compact Macro lens at 2.5 sec, f/25 and ISO320. © Eliška Sky

A woman with hair dark on one side and dyed blonde on the other holds her hands up below her face. Her hair, twisted into ringlets, rises up above her head, an open flower covers her mouth and a line of red light is drawn down the centre of her hair and body.

An image from Eliška's "I want to be loved *even in the pandemic" series for Dolce Vita magazine. All effects were captured in-camera using a slow shutter speed with flash and laser painting. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens at 2.5 sec, f/14 and ISO125. © Eliška Sky

Eliška Sky: Experiment with light painting

Visual artist Eliška Sky creates highly stylised, bold and frequently surreal images, often with an underlying message. What makes low-light shooting particularly tough for Eliška when she's photographing in the studio is managing how shadows fall over her subject. "I like to recreate low light in the studio," she says. "I usually use flash, paired with a modelling lamp, so the whole scene is quite dark and I can see only where the light is going to hit.

"If I'm working with flash in combination with a slow shutter speed and using laser or light painting techniques, I tend to work in complete darkness. In those intense instances I don't want the natural ambient light to interfere with the slow shutter speed."

In these situations, besides pre-visualising the shadows, the main challenge for Eliška is getting accurate focus. "Obviously, I need to focus first, so it's wise to bring an assistant or a friend, with a torch or mobile phone," she says.

"I almost always use manual setting, especially in the studio, and because I'm shooting in the dark, usually an exposure of two and a half or three seconds is enough for what I want to do in terms of the light painting."

A groom kisses his bride's face, the couple reflected perfectly in the mirror on the left of the image.

Photojournalist Tasneem Alsultan photographed this couple during their wedding in the city of Amwaj, Bahrain, using the reflection from a large wall mirror to create an unusual portrait. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R with a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L IS USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L IS II USM) at 1/3200 sec, f/5.6 and ISO5000. © Tasneem Alsultan

Tasneem Alsultan: Use the darkness to your advantage

Tasneem Alsultan relishes working in low light, whether for her documentary work focusing on gender and social issues in the Middle East or for the wedding photography she does between assignments. "It keeps me on my toes, keeps me creative," she says. "I always look for different ways to use framing and lighting, while making sure I do it in a way that doesn't make a bride feel like they're being photographed in the same or a similar location. I have to be creative in documenting different moments to keep the viewer's attention."

Tasneem advises changing the way you see darkness, using it as a technical advantage to allow full creative and technical control over frames. "In low light, you have to go really extreme with off-camera flash, making it more dramatic than natural light. But the benefits are that you can attract the viewer's eye to something you want them to look at by illuminating it. Equally, you can distract from something you don't want them to see by keeping it dark, hiding it with shadows. In this way, you're utilising the darkness and combining it with flash to create theatre, drama and beauty."

A bride and groom are silhouetted against a sunset, standing underneath a dark netting canopy.

This couple was photographed by Tasneem Alsultan under the delicate early evening light of a seaside resort in Saudi Arabia, contrasted with the incongruous patterned canopy of netting. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM lens at 1/1250 sec, f/4 and ISO320. © Tasneem Alsultan

Don't be afraid to shoot wide open

"If I'm shooting a documentary series, telling real-life stories, I don't use flash," says Tasneem. "If I'm photographing for National Geographic or The New York Times, I don't want to play around with photos at all – nothing can be staged, everything must be real. But I can still be creative with the darkness in the same way I would be when using flash. I'll utilise low light in the streets, in my neighbourhood, even indoors. With my Canon EOS 5D Mark IV or EOS 5DS R, I'll drop no lower than 1/80 sec, and I will use a wide aperture value of about f/1.2 or f/1.4 when shooting people. This lets enough light into the camera to expose my subject, but also allows me to isolate them against dark backdrops. If it's more than one person I'm photographing, I'll go up to f/3.5, trusting the performance of the EOS 5D Mark IV in low light and its ability to make such shots look very natural.

"I would advise using prime lenses, as these often have the widest maximum apertures. I use the Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM and EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM, as the extremely wide apertures let me photograph natural, beautiful low light here in Saudi Arabia. I also have a Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM for portraits – even the EF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens is great, but that's my secret for low light."

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