Shooting in low light without a light meter

Shooting in low light without a light meter

During the halloween festivities, I had an excellent chance of trying out some very low light film photography almost completely without a light meter. I got some very nice exposures by following a very simple rule. But first, let me describe the lighting conditions. I shot these images at a halloween party that was held indoors during the evening.

Lens and camera settings

My plan was simply to shoot everything with f1.8 and as long shutter speed I possibly could. In this case 1/60 and/or 1/30. I didn’t meter each individual shot separately. I referred the light meter only enough to see that in those conditions, the exposures were leaning towards underexposure — which wasn’t a big surprise. The plan was just to get as much exposure as I could without camera shake. After setting the camera I just shot everything with pretty much the same settings with my fingers crossed. I had my Zuiko 50mm 1.8 lens which isn’t that shaky focal length to begin with and it has the largest aperture that I have.

Pushing the film

The second important decision of my plan was to push the film as much as I could. I shot with Kodak T-max 400 that I pushed to 1600. T-max is an extremely fine grain film. Pushing film tends to do two things; add contrast and make it grainier. I like grain a lot, but I didn’t want my results to be too grainy. I figured that pushing a fine grained film this much would result in a moderate amount of grain. I had some Tri-x also lying around, but I though it might have resulted in too much grain.

I could’ve pushed to 3200, but my Olympys OM-1’s light meter goes only to 1600. I wanted leave me the option to check out the light meter if I needed to so I set it up to as high as it could go.

Nailing the focus with 1.8

Yes, good lick with that! The biggest challenge I had was of course nailing the focus with f1.8. I had so many blurry images because I wasn’t able to see the focus completely in the dark lighting. I though I was doing a good job, but when I saw the results, I realised just much misses I had.

The best shot of the bunch. Such nice contrasty tones.

Originally a horizontal image, but cropped in Photoshop to a portrait.

Clown close-up.

Group shot with f1.8 — not the most brilliant idea, but at least I got an image. Very narrow field of focus.

The white make-up made at least slightly easier to expose in the dark. But check out how nice the grain structure is. T-max is still a very smooth film even when pushed to 1600. The contrast also looks very nice.

Another group shot. The space was actually very small and I had the 50mm lens. There were actually a lot more people and I was standing as far away from them as I could, but everyone wasn’t able to fit into the frame. Shame, but couldn’t help it. My quick solution was to take many detail shots of the crowd. I didn’t want to be a party pooper and announce to 50+ people that they’re not going to fit into the image. Instead I wanted them to just act naturally and do their thing.


A fine example of attempting to focus with f1.8. I was absolutely sure that I nailed this shot and was shocked to see I had missed the focus.

Another good example of focusing troubles.



Graphic designer and a 35mm film photography enthusiast. I enjoy straight photography on natural/available light and in-camera techniques. I'm inspired by early and mid-1900's classic photojournalism, street photography and documentary photography. Currently shooting mainly with Leica M6, and Olympus OM-4.

More Posts