I'm often asked by photographers if I prefer to use flash rather than raise my ISO in low light situations to avoid grain. In general, the answer is no. More often than not, I'd rather achieve an image without flash if possible. In some situations flash is not appropriate and can be distracting (such as during a ceremony). On-camera flash can have the effect of flattening an image, and off-camera flash just isn't very mobile. So I'm not afraid to increase my ISO at times to avoid needing to use flash. In general, when shooting weddings, I try to only shoot flash during a reception. But there are many other times throughout a wedding day where I find myself in low-light situations. It's during these times that I need to employ high ISOs in order to get the shot.

So the next question is, how do you avoid grain while shooting at high ISOs and get the highest quality image possible? I have two tips to offer.

1 -- Invest in a high-end camera
One of the biggest differences between more expensive digital SLRs and their less expensive counterparts is their performance at high ISOs. The high end cameras that are on the market these days perform with very little grain at high ISOs, so you can shoot with confidence in low light situations without flash. I use a Canon 5D Mark III and I have no problem shooting at 1600 ISO or even higher.

2 -- Correctly expose or slightly over-expose
My second tip can be helpful even if you are unable to upgrade your camera body at this time. Most of the graininess in photos is the result of photographers under-exposing images in camera and then trying to compensate in their post-production by increasing the exposure after the fact in Photoshop or Lightroom. Trying to correct an under-exposed image shot at a high ISO in editing software results in a muddy image with low color-quality and lots of grain. This means that it's vital that you correctly expose at high ISOs. If you have to err on one side, over-expose. So instead of shooting an image at 800 ISO that really requires 1600 ISO because you are scared of grain, bump your ISO up to 1600, open your aperture and make sure you max out your camera settings to get the shot correctly exposed. If you do this, you will eliminate the need to increase your exposure in post-production, and the grain in the image will be minimized.

By way of example, here are a few of my favorite images shot at high ISOs. The above image was shot after sunset. The sun had just set and there was still some light left in the sky, but I had to max out my camera settings in order to avoid using flash: ISO 3200, f1.2, 1/80 sec. There is some grain in the image but I feel it is an acceptable amount. I had to over-expose according to my in-camera meter in order to get the girls correctly exposed because of the candles and the sky. If I would have trusted my in-camera meter, I would have under-exposed this shot and the necessary post-production would have made the image exceedingly grainy.

My camera settings for the image below were ISO 1600, f1.6, 1/60 sec. Again, I had to over-expose according to my in-camera meter (probably by at least a full stop, if not more) because of the brightness of the bonfire and twinkle lights. I wanted to make sure to get the bride and groom correctly exposed. Again, there is a little grain, but it is still a very usable image.
This next image was shot at ISO 1600, f1.2, 1/400 sec. Very little grain!
And what about portraits? Generally you want to shoot portraits at the lowest ISO possible since they are the most likely to be printed and enlarged. But in this situation, I needed to use a higher aperture in order to get the whole group in focus, and because of the shade of the grove of trees, I was forced to use a higher ISO. Again, I needed to make sure to over-expose according to my in-camera meter to get the subjects correctly exposed. My settings for this shot were: ISO 800, f5.0, 1/100 sec. Even at a higher ISO the image is definitely acceptably clear:
If you found this post helpful, and are interested in learning more, click here to opt-in for my free video series -- 6 Hacks to Eliminate Boring Low-Light Photos and Get You Creating Reception Images you LOVE! In it I share my best 6 tips for shooting with flash. If you are intimidated by flash and wanting to conquer it once and for all, this is a great place to start!
learn flash for wedding receptions

Equipment used for above images: Canon 5D Mark III // Canon 50mm 1.2 lens // Canon 24mm 1.4 lens
Two tips for minimizing grain in low-light photos
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