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How to get bright photos in low light

Submitted byLennart Ootes onAugust 3, 2019

I regularly get the question what camera gear I use and how to get bright photos in dark environments. So here are some general thoughts on low light photography and some examples of the magic called photo editing.


As chess is played indoors, there is usually limited light to work with - in photography we call that low light. To make a photo brighter, one has to make compromises: either a larger aperture (more expensive lens), a lower shutter speed (harder to freeze action) and a higher ISO (more grain). That's why a better camera (with more dynamic range) and faster lenses (f/2.8 and lower) are important investments for chess. At tournaments I shoot in manual mode, with my shutter speed usually at 1/125, my aperture at f2.2 or f2.8 and an auto-ISO between 400 and 1250.  

For my work, I have used the following cameras:
2012-2016: Sony a55 (16mp, a-mount, dslr)
2016-2017: Sony a7ii (24mp, e-mount, mirrorless)
2017-now: Sony a7riii (42mp, e-mount, mirrorless, silent shutter)

And I currently work with the following lenses:
Zeiss Batis 85mm f/1.8
Sony Sonnar T* FE 55mm f/1.8
Sony FE 28mm f/2
Sony 16mm Fisheye (Conversion Lens for Sony 28mm)
Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8 Di III RXD

I've made some practical choices regarding price and size of my equipment. The entire set of 1 camera and 5 lenses fits in a small camera bag (11.4 x 9.1 x 9.5" / 29 x 23 x 24 cm) and weights 8.3 lb / 3.8kg. I do miss a telephoto lens (like a 70-200mm f/2.8), but such a lens is really heavy and expensive - so I generally come closer to the players than other photographers. 

The Sony mirrorless cameras are simply amazing and its development is going in such a fast pace. It's great to be able to shoot 10 frames per second with eye autofocus and without a single *click* noise. But, as you can see from the images at the end of this article, the photos straight from the camera have to undergo quite some post processing.

Editing, where the magic happens:

Although great gear does help low light photography a lot, it is still easy to take horrible photos with the most expensive camera setup. I also produce shots that are out of focus and I publish roughly one out of 6 photos that I take. But once you have a photo that's sharp, the most interesting part starts: editing. This is where you can really personalize your photo. How will you crop the photo and do you want color or black/white? In a program like Lightroom you will see so many sliders: color temperature, exposure, contrast, highlights and shadows to name a few. I think it really depends on your own style how you move the sliders. With the same photo you can easily edit 5 completely different photos. But as my rule of thumb, depending on the light situation, I add somewhere between 0.7 and 2 stops of exposure to my photos. 

To give some idea what's possible with editing software, here are some photos before and after editing. To kickstart your photo editing, I can recommend the Camera Raw and Lightroom tutorials at Lynda (now LinkedIn Learning).

A7riii, 85mm, f/2.8, 1/125 sec, ISO 1250


A7riii, 28mm, f/2.8, 1/125 sec, 500 ISO


A7riii, 28mm, f/2.8, 1/80 sec, 1000 ISO


A7riii, 48mm, f/2.8, 1/200 sec, 1250 ISO