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How To Shoot Low Light Video Like A Pro

How To Shoot Low Light Video Like A Pro

Filming in low light conditions can be tricky. Here are some valuable tips to help you master your shots in a dark environment!

You may have caught our list of some of the most affordable (and exciting) cameras of 2020, and while all those cameras feature exceptional low-light performance, you don't have to go out and buy a high-end camera to achieve great results when shooting at night.

Whether you're shooting in a studio or on location for your next project, knowing how to accurately capture footage in low-lit environments can be invaluable. 

Here are several tips to help you make the most out of shooting in low light conditions!

Basic Camera Settings for Shooting in Low Light

While each camera model has different sensor capabilities when it comes to low light capture, there are some general low light settings you’ll want to keep in mind for pretty much any camera you shoot with. 

The video below provides an excellent baseline for determining what your camera should be set to when in the field, so keep these tips in mind as you prepare for your shoot.
One of the best ways to maximize your camera’s low light capabilities is by opting for a fast lens. While most prime lenses aren’t exactly cheap, there are several mid-range options (like Rokinon or Sigma Lenses) that can achieve an f/1.8 or even lower for a very modest price. 

Before you ditch your current camera in favor of a newer one with better low light sensitivity, consider the alternate route of picking a decently fast lens. This can make a world of difference in the low light performance of your camera, and also provide you with a much more cinematic look over using a kit lens.

Obviously, shooting any type of high frame rate is going to drastically limit your sensor’s ability to take in light. Even if you’re not shooting at 60 or 120 frames per second, the mere six frames between 24 and 30 frames per second can also make a big difference when you’re trying to get the most out of your camera’s sensor in a low light situation because of how it affects shutter speed. 

Keep all of that in mind when gearing up for your low light shoot.

The recommended global settings for low light suggested in the video above were:

•24 FPS
•1/48 Shutter Speed
•Highest ISO Possible (Without Noise)
•Flat Picture Profile

Also, one of the greatest low light tips from this video is that you can shoot your subject directly into a backlight. While this often leads to a silhouetted effect that may or may not be the look you’re going for, it takes advantage of the minimal light that’s available and can provide you with some outstanding and very dramatic results.

One additional trick to achieving great low light performance is by breaking the 180-degree shutter rule. This is a pretty advanced (but worthwhile) technique to know, and you can see it in action below!

Know Your Camera’s ISO Limitations

Low-light cinematography isn't exactly a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to getting the best results from your camera. You need to know your specific camera's capabilities, such as how it performs at a high ISO. 

Many cameras can push their ISO to a high value, but that doesn't necessarily mean that a high value will yield a clean image. Oftentimes a high ISO will introduce noise, image discoloration, or unwanted artifacts. 

It's typically a good idea to always shoot with a lower ISO to ensure the cleanest image possible, but in low light situations, having the ability to utilize a higher ISO without breaking your image can be a major asset. Knowing your specific camera’s ISO threshold is key to avoiding noise and image degradation. 

Your camera’s monitor is not the best reference for you to gauge how well your camera’s sensor performs in low light, so take the time to conduct some real-world field tests, then review the footage on your editor to nail down what your camera’s maximum acceptable ISO range is.

The video below is a brief, but in-depth guide on ISO, complete with tests you can run on your own camera to find its optimal settings when shooting in low light. Once you know your camera’s prime ISO threshold, you may also want to set a custom ISO range in the camera menu (if supported), ensuring that you always stay within the sweet spot of the ISO.

Light Creatively

If you happen to be a run-and-gun filmmaker, hauling around a lot of lighting gear isn't simply impractical, it may be impossible depending on your project.

If you find yourself in a challenging situation on a location shoot with a limited lighting selection, even a single light can work wonders for capturing amazing footage – if you know how to use it!

Brady Bessette’s
video below goes into great detail on how you can achieve several vastly different cinematic looks with only one light source. Be sure to check it out!
Motivated light can always create the most natural look possible. Alternately, harsh lighting can sometimes yield some amazing and very dramatic results. If your dark scene is outdoors, a single bright source can function perfectly for washing your scene in moonlight. 

One of the coolest examples of creative lighting from this video is using a direct spotlight to shoot through a window, simulating sunlight. Not only could this allow you to shoot a daytime scene at night, but it gives you even more control over light positioning in the room, even more so than if the scene had been shot during the day.

One of the most simplistic ways you could light a subject’s face in a dark environment is with their own cell phone, as they casually read texts or browse the web. The ambient glow of a cell phone screen can not only accentuate your subject’s facial features, but it can also make the shot more visually interesting.

Shoot Day-for-Night

Speaking of daytime, shooting day-for-night scenes are one of the best ways to have access to the ultimate light source, with a lot of control in post-production. When shooting talent, keep in mind that you’ll ideally want to shoot on an overcast day or in a shaded area for the most even lighting across your scene.

You’ll also want to shoot in the morning or evening to avoid the brightest part of the day, which can create a lot of harsh highlights on your subject.

If you can visit your location at night prior to the day-for-night shoot, this will give you a good idea of what looks realistic when you go to film and grade your day-for-night scene.

You can also use an ND filter to further darken the image without having to crank up your f-stop too much, which could result in an overly sharpened image.

Check out our VFX quick tip below for changing day to night, complete with free lightning!
Color grading plays a pivotal role in securing a solid day-for-night scene, so be sure to also take a look at this great tutorial on how to grade your day-for-night footage.
If you’ve already shot your scene and are struggling with noise, we show you how to denoise your footage in this article!

Do you have any low light filming tips you’d like to share?  Let us know in the comments below!

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