study of a pair of hands in moody lighting

Tops Tips: Low Light Portraits

Adrienne Surprenant

My series of portraits are part of a reportage project on the Kipsigis that I made for the Canadian newspaper Le Devoir alongside journalist Anne-Marie Provost. I was inspired to make portraits of individuals that are fully invested in the fight for their community and historical justice.

low key portrait of a man looking away from the camera

© Adrienne Surprenant | Sony α7 IV + FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA | 1/200s @ f/6.3, ISO 1600

Use natural light to your advantage

When you are shooting in the middle of the day in Africa or anywhere in the world, the sun is high in the sky and very bright. This overhead light creates high contrast and unflattering portraits, so I bring my subjects inside whenever possible. Instead of relying on light directly from the sun, I use light through a window to create a more classical, painterly, Clair-obscur style of light.

I like how this softer but direct light can reveal and hide the aspects of the physiognomy, the facial character of a person, creating a mystery and telling a story that can enhance the emotion of the image.

portrait of a bearded man looking away from the camera

© Adrienne Surprenant | Sony α7 IV + FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA | 1/200s @ f/6.3, ISO 1600

Use a fixed lens

Mounted on my Alpha 7 IV you will find the Sony Sonnar T* FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA or the FE 35mm f/1.4 G Master lens. I use the 35mm lens for most of my reportage work and the 55mm lens for my portrait and detail shots. Using a fixed lens rather than a zoom lens allows me to always have the image and my position in mind in new situations. The perceived restriction makes the equipment usage natural and allows me to focus on the moment, the emotion, the story, and the people I am with.

Carrying more lenses, heavier or bigger equipment could create a barrier between me and the people I photograph.

moody portrait of a lady looking away from the camera

© Adrienne Surprenant | Sony α7 IV + FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA | 1/50s @ f/6.3, ISO 1600

Use Continuous AF to help reframe

The autofocus on the Alpha 7 IV camera, and all Sony Alpha cameras, is so precise, even in low light, which makes it incredibly easy to shoot and know that the subject's eyes will be in focus. Using continuous focus, the lens stays locked to the subject, allowing me to move around and look at how the light falls on the face and find the best composition.

study of a man looking regal

© Adrienne Surprenant | Sony α7 IV + FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA | 1/200s @ f/6.3, ISO 1600

Manually expose for the highlights

Since I first picked up a camera, I have always been shooting in full manual exposure mode. With time, the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO sensitivity choices become completely instinctive and rapid.

In such clair-obscur situations, I expose for the brightest parts of the image, so I do not burn the highlights to pure white but keep details and texture everywhere. I like having an aperture of over f/5.6 when shooting inside like this and will adjust the other settings accordingly. In a posed portrait situation, the shutter speed can be relatively slow as there won't be any motion blur from the subject moving.

portrait of a man wearing a v neck jumper

© Adrienne Surprenant | Sony α7 IV + FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA | 1/320s @ f/5.0, ISO 2500

Don't use a tripod. Use SteadyShot

As a photojournalist, being the lightest possible in the field is essential. I carry my two Sony Alpha cameras and a notebook, but no tripod or anything else to keep the camera steady. I often shoot inside small spaces like tents, where a tripod would be clutter and useless. I can trust the built-in Steady Shot image stabilisation of the camera to counter any camera shake. I also trust the sensor of my Sony camera to shoot at a high ISO sensitivity without losing quality and detail. These two features of the Alpha 7 IV mean that I don't need to carry a tripod.

portrait of a lady wearing a brightly coloured shirt

© Adrienne Surprenant | Sony α7 IV + FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA | 1/60s @ f/6.3, ISO 1600

The story is in the detail

When I saw the images printed in a large format for the first time, I was amazed that the photos were full of details in the shadows, and nothing was lost in the highlights. The size of the prints meant the faces were life-like. I could see all the details, such as pores in the skin. These details captured by the sensor made the portrait prints feel like they were living and helped to tell the individual's story.

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