Tips to get the best video in low light

Tips and tricks to get quality results in dim situations, including Halloween

Last updated: October 2013
A purple flashlight adds an eerie glow to the subject's face.

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When you're shooting video on a bright, sunny day, even if you're using the simplest auto mode, it seems almost impossible to get bad results. There’s so much light bouncing off your subjects that your footage will nearly always be well-exposed.

But what happens on a day such as Halloween? On that end-of-October holiday, the sun sets early, or you might have to capture shots in indoor spaces where there’s little available light.

Luckily, more devices are better at capturing images in those and other dim scenarios. Here are some tips to ensure you get your best video in low light.

Choose your device

Whichever device you use to shoot video, be sure to come in close to your subject.

Not all digital-imaging devices capture the same quality of video in low light. In the past, you’d most likely reach for a high-definition camcorder to shoot such video, since it offered the best image quality in dim settings. Today, you have more options: a number of other devices can capture high-definition video, including smart phones, basic point-and-shoot cameras, SLRs, SLR-like (or mirrorless) cameras, and even tablets.

In most cases, you’ll want to stick with a camcorder, an SLR, or an SLR-like camera to capture low-light video. Although they can be pricey, some of our top-rated HD camcorders can shoot excellent video in low light, and some also include settings you can use to tweak your exposure and produce better video.

But there are at least two reasons to use an interchangeable-lens camera for low-light video. First, those cameras include sensors that are larger than those in most other digital-imaging devices, so they often excel in challenging lighting scenarios. And second, you can swap out the kit lens (the lens that came with the camera) and use a higher-quality lens with a wider aperture, which can also make your image brighter.

If you’re using a digital point-and-shoot camera or a smart phone to shoot your video, you probably won’t get image quality that matches that of HD camcorders or interchangeable-lens cameras (though results can vary). With those devices, we recommend turning off digital zoom, since using it always degrades video quality. On a device that captures lower-quality video, that could dramatically compromise your results.

Adjust your settings

A high ISO setting can make your camcorder more sensitive but also add image "noise."

Next, find the settings that let you get the best results in low light. Most basic digital-imaging devices do not have manual settings that let you tweak exposures. Some do include "scene modes," though, which are tailored auto settings. So if the auto mode on your device isn't producing the best video, look for a scene mode called Night or Night Portrait, which may help the device shoot better video in dark scenarios.

A few camcorders also include Night Vision, a mode that can let you capture video in the absence of almost any light. When you're shooting people, though, this setting gives them a washed-out, ghostly appearance.

If your camcorder does include manual settings, experiment with the aperture and shutter speeds to get the best results. Just bear in mind that slowing the shutter speed too much can cause moving subjects to appear blurred.

For a digital camera that has manual settings, try adjusting the ISO sensitivity, which may go up to ISO 6400 or even higher, thereby letting you capture more light. But be careful: A very high ISO setting may introduce unwanted grain or specks of unnatural color.

Although the video capabilities of smart phones have greatly improved in the past few years, using them to shoot video in low light is still challenging. Most phones we’ve tested generally yield only fair-quality video in low light. Most don’t allow you to change ISO settings for video, either. So for capturing important occasions on video, consider using a camcorder or advanced camera.

Bring along a few accessories

It’s fun to experiment with lighting effects using accessories such as Lensbaby lenses.

If you need additional light, look for an external speedlight strobe for your SLR that includes an LED light for adding some illumination to a scene. The LED light isn't very powerful, but it may help. You can also provide more illumination by buying small flashes that attach to your camcorder via its hot shoe.

Another accessory that can be a lot of fun to use with an SLR in low light is a Lensbaby lens. Because it produces a soft-focus effect, your video in low light will have some cool blurred-light effects.

If you're interested in tips on how to improve your low-light still photography, read our report "How to Shoot Super Night Photos."

Once you're done capturing video or still photos, you can create a fun Halloween film by combining audio clips (like songs or the voices of your kids) with video and then add special effects in a video-editing software program (such as Adobe Premiere Elements 12). Here's an example.


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