How To Take Amazing Low Light Photos At Church

Photography at church is an excellent chance to capture raw emotion and showcase your church community. The tricky thing is that church services are often held in low-light rooms. A proper understanding of your gear is crucial for nailing your low-light photos.

To take good low-light photos, you must avoid noise and motion blur by having a low ISO and a fast shutter speed, while exposing your image properly by using aperture and external flash units properly. A wide aperture is crucial for proper exposure, so lens selection is key.

Low-light photography requires quick and decisive choices. To do this, you need to have a complete understanding of your camera settings, and the gear you can use to make low-light shooting easier.

On a side note, I wrote an article detailing a complete breakdown of a church service photography timeline and tips on how to shoot one as efficiently as possible.

The Exposure Triangle

The exposure triangle is made up of three parts: ISO, Aperture, and Shutter Speed. Each of these affects your overall exposure meaning you need to balance all three to expose your image perfectly. Not only do you need to balance all three of them, but you also need to consider the effects of changing each of them

ISO can be thought of as “artificial light” being added to your image when adjusting the lighting of your shot is not an option. Low-light situations may call for you to raise your ISO. As you raise it, noise will be added to your image. In general, the higher your ISO, the more noise will be in your image.

The aperture of a lens is similar to your pupil; when it is dark, your pupil dilates (widens) to allow for more light to enter. Similarly, you can widen your aperture by lowering your f-stop (shown as f/x ) allowing for more light to hit your camera’s sensor.

As your aperture widens, your focal plane will narrow meaning less will be in focus. This is how photographers get those super satisfying blurry backgrounds, called bokeh. Using a wide aperture means you will have more light entering your camera allowing you to lower your ISO to reduce noise.

The shutter in your camera is similar to your eyelids, it opens and closes allowing for light to hit your sensor for a set period. The longer your shutter speed (measured in fractions of a second, 1/x, or whole seconds for long exposures, x”) the more light will hit your sensor, increasing your exposure.

The caveat to this is that if the light changes, either from the source of light or the subject moving, your image will have motion blur. To avoid motion blur, you can use a faster shutter speed. In the context of low-light shooting, it’s not too often you can shoot at a slower shutter speed.

To keep your ISO low enough to reduce noise, and your shutter speed fast enough to avoid motion blur, you’ll have to rely on: your aperture to let enough light hit your sensor and your ability to control light sources as best as possible.

For an easy-to-use cheat sheet, check out my article explaining what the exposure triangle is and how to use it.

Choosing The Right Lens

In photography, there are two key types of lenses; zoom and prime lenses. Not only do these lenses have a difference in what they can do, but they also come with a difference in price tag. Though some photographers like to only use zoom lenses or only use prime lenses, a versatile kit combines both types.

First, we’ll start with zoom lenses because that’s what most beginner photographers have. The reason for this is because of what is called a “kit lens”. A kit lens is just the lens that comes in a camera’s starter kit. They are typically low-cost lenses that are good for beginners and hobbyists.

For APS-C cameras, you may find an 18-55mm kit lens, whereas a Full Frame camera might have a 24-105mm lens included. These lenses are versatile but, because of their low price tag, will most likely have an f/3.5-5.6 aperture or somewhere in that range.

Why are there two numbers there? With zoom lenses, the aperture closes as you zoom in. You can buy fixed aperture zoom lenses, such as Canon’s famous 70-200mm f/2.8, but those come with hefty price tags, often costing more than professional camera bodies.

For low-light shooting, you’ll want a wide aperture for more light to enter your camera, unless you’re willing and able to spend the money for a fixed aperture zoom lens, you’ll likely want to go with a prime lens.

A prime lens is a fixed focal length lens; this means whatever focal length you buy is what you get. The benefit to this is that you also get a fixed aperture, almost always lower than that of a zoom lens. A great example of this is Canon’s EF 50mm f/1.8 STM, also known as the “nifty fifty”. Its f/1.8 aperture allows for tons of light to hit your sensor and also helps you to get smooth bokeh.

Another benefit of prime lenses is that manufacturers often have two versions of the most popular focal length; budget and premium. The premium versions of these lenses will have features like better-quality glass, weather resistance, and a more robust build. While the budget versions will be stripped back, they but still be able to take great shots.

In the end, you may need to use a telephoto zoom lens or have to tighten your aperture for a wider focal plane to get your desired shot. In that case, the best thing to do is to go directly to the source of light and change it, or possibly even add another source of light using a camera flash.

Check out my article outlining 3 must-have lenses for church photography, for a more in-depth look into lens selection.

Using A Camera Flash

Flash photography is an interesting topic because beginners tend to overutilize it and some professionals end up underutilizing it. If done properly, flash photography is a powerful tool that can help you in low-light or even highly-lit environments, but I’ll save that for another article.

One of the biggest mistakes I see with beginner photographers who are new to flash is that they don’t fundamentally understand what they want to do with their flash. They know that they are in a low-light environment, and they know that their flash provides light.

The disconnect here is that they don’t know exactly what they want their flash to do. Do they want to light their subject? Or do they want to add more ambient light to the room?

The problem with built-in flashes is that they don’t give the photographer any control. Your camera decides how bright it should be, it only aims in one direction (straight ahead), and there’s no easy way to diffuse the light.

An external flash, take the Godox V860III-C as an example, allows you to adjust the strength of light being emitted (measured by 1/x, with 1 being full power), change its angle, bounce the light, and diffuse the light.

If you’re in a low-light environment, let’s say a church service, you can aim your flash directly at your subject if you need more light (I recommend diffusing it if you plan on doing this), you can use a bounce card (often built into the flash unit) for a more subtle way of lighting your subject, or you can even just aim the lighting at the ceiling to light the entire room.

For low-light rooms, I usually throw a diffuser on my flash unit, I use the MagMod system, and aim it at the ceiling. This way I can increase the ambient light (the overall lighting) of the room and light my subject directly, this works because the MagMod is light bulb shaped so it lights every direction but straight down.

A great cost-effective alternative to the MagMod system for Godox flashes is the Godox ML-CD15. Though it lacks the convenience of snapping on and off magnetically and misses attachments like the honeycomb diffuser, it will certainly get the job done for a lower cost.

Jeremy Goh

Jeremy grew up volunteering at church and has also worked in a church setting. Along with working as a freelance creative, Jeremy is studying for a business degree in finance and international business.

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