Day 57: Focusing in Low Light

Several years ago I was at a party for my friend and she had hired someone to take photos of the event. The photographer asked to snap a picture of my friends and me, so we lined up and smiled. Then we waited. We waited for several minutes while he struggled to focus.



It was painful to say the least. Finally someone shined a cell phone light on us and the photographer was able to get a shot.

Okay. It’s no lie, focusing in low light is a pain in the butt. Focusing in low light sucks. Today I’ve compiled a few things that might help in this arena. This isn’t so much “Lighting” I suppose, but it helps while you’re working in a reception!

  1. Use back button focus:

If you’re not doing this already, you need to start now and never stop. Back button focus allows you to press the star button on the back of your camera to focus and then lets you press the shutter without any focal changes. So if you’ve ever focused with your shutter down half-way and then the camera re-focused on its own when you went to take the photo… you can see how separating the focus button and the shutter button would be endlessly beneficial.

I have the 5dIII, so the settings are:

Navigate to custom controls in your menu. Then change the shutter button to “Metering Start”. It should say “Shutter button half press metering start.”

Then set the * button to “Metering and AF start”

Turn your AF setting (at the top of the camera) to AI Servo.

Now when you hit the * button on the back of your camera, it will draw focus to the selected focal point you have set.

Your camera can be super slow to focus in low light, so having your camera second guess/refocus can be nothing short of infuriating.

  1. Focus on the edges or contrast-y areas:

Your camera is looking for something to focus on. Because everything is a dark and even, it has trouble. So I usually have some success focusing on the groom’s collar, where white meets black. Look for a sharp line between a light and dark color to try to aim your focus at.

  1. Use a flashlight:

I’ve totally done it. In the darkest of dark receptions, where you can hardly see who you’re asking to take a photo of, I’ve had my assistant turn his flashlight on a small part of a collar so I can pull some focus. Or if I didn’t have an assistant, I’d have them do it with their cell phone. Needs must.

  1. Use the five foot trick:

Put your F Stop value to 5.6 and go out in a well-lit hall or something. Set a subject about 5 feet from you (or however many depending on the lens you’re using) and focus on them. Then don’t touch your focus and go back into the reception again and make sure you stand about five feet from your subjects. This method scares me but it’s helpful in a pinch!

  1. Use focus assist:

To do this, you need to be on ONE SHOT from AI Servo. So at the top of your camera, click that AF Setting button and change to one shot. Then when you click the back * focus button, your flash will project a red light onto your subject and focusing will be taken care of for you. Unfortunately, these red lines show up on video so if your client has a videographer, you have to find something else. Or if your second photographer is shooting while you’re focusing, those red lines will show up on their images.

Day 98 is currently reserved for any questions you have throughout the next 100 days. To submit a question, please click here!¬† If you’re interested in supporting this project, please share, PIN and comment! Any other questions, comments or ideas, please feel free to email me at denise(at)denisekaris(dot)com

Denise Karis is an Arizona photographer who enjoys musicals, Doctor Who and breakfast burritos. IG @denisekaris