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5 Ways to Get Sharp Focus in Dark Places

When we were new photographers, one of the most terrifying feelings was being in the middle of a once-in-a-lifetime moment at a wedding ceremony or reception, but our cameras couldn’t focus because it was dark. The lens would keep jutting in and out, but it wouldn’t lock. Our palms would start to sweat, because our photos were blurry, the moment was slipping away, and we we were about to miss it. If you’ve ever felt this way, you’re not alone! Focusing in dark light is hard, but as professionals, it’s our job to get the shot — whether the house lights are up or down, whether someone is standing where we want them to… or not. That’s why we’re sharing our top five tips for getting sharp focus in dark places. So you can get crisp images no matter how dark the situation (pun intended), never miss an important moment and keep your palms as dry as this joke.

1. Shoot with Back-Button Focus

At a wedding reception, during open dancing, the house lights are usually down. It’s really dark, and people move really fast. When we’re in the middle of the dance floor, there’s a lot of action happening all around us; and we don’t always have time to turn quickly and lock focus on an erratic (and maybe intoxicated) subject, before the moment is gone. For this reason, we shoot with back-button focus, which is a custom setting that’s different than how the camera comes out of the box. Most cameras are, by default, set to work this way: when you press your index finder halfway down on the shutter release button, the camera locks focus when you press your finger all the way down, the shutter fires. In other words, the focus is locked and the shutter is released using the same button. This is a problem in dark places, like wedding receptions, where things are happening fast (and all around you), because you might not have time to wait for your camera to focus… and fire… for every shot. You might need to snap-snap-snap! in order to capture the moment. That’s where back-button focusing is key.

Back-button focus separates two things that normally happen with the same button. Instead of focusing and firing with your index finger, the focus function gets moved to a back button on the camera near your thumb (hence, back-button focus), while the shutter release stays where it was before, near your index finger. Now, you can lock focus with your thumb and if you stay the same approximate distance from your subject — say, two feet away — you can fire the shutter over and over again without refocusing. Then, you can even turn around, take a picture of someone else (who’s also two feet away, just in a different direction) without needing to refocus!  How cool is that?!

Note: If you’re right in the middle of the dance floor action, we recommend using a 24mm lens (or locking your zoom lens at 24mm). The wider your lens, the more forgiving your focal planes will be.

2. Use the Center Focal Point

On most cameras (like our Canon 5D Mark IV) the center focal point is the strongest. Typically, during a portrait session or on a wedding day, we toggle around and use lots of outer focal points, too. Not just the center one. However, sometimes, with more entry level cameras, with less advanced focusing systems, you might find that the outer focal points struggle to lock focus in low light situations. In that case, you might want to stick to the center focal point. Fortunately, with back-button focus, it’s easy to lock focus on your subject using the center focal point and then recompose your frame (to get the composition you want) before firing the shutter.

3. Find Contrast on Your Subject’s Clothes To Lock Focus 

When photographing people, our first preference is to focus on the subject’s eye that’s nearest to the camera. However, in dark places, like wedding receptions where there’s not a lot of ambient (existing) light in the room, sometimes our cameras have a hard time locking focus anywhere on our subject’s face, because there’s not enough color contrast in the dark room for the camera to pick it up. So instead, oftentimes, we look for contrast on our subject’s clothing and focus on that. For example, if our subject is a man, we’ll focus on the contrast between his white shirt and dark-colored tie, on his chest, near the lapel, where the white shirt meets the dark coat, or on the shirt collar itself, near his neck. If it’s a wild reception and he’s wearing sunglasses, we might even be able to focus on the contrast between the shades and his cheeks! For a woman, we focus on her shoulder area or blouse, wherever her skin meets the fabric of her dress. Since the black and white contrast of a man’s shirt and his jacket is the strongest (and largest surface area), when we’re photographing a man and woman dancing together, we’ll usually choose that. Remember, if you’re only a few feet away and shooting with a wide angle lens (like a 24mm), your focal plane will be more forgiving, so you should be able to focus on one person dancing and easily catch the second person in focus, too.

4. Focus on Something that Isn’t a Person

During toasts, especially at outdoor receptions without string lights, where the only ambient light is coming from the candles at the table, and the subjects are facing away from the center of the table (where the candles are) to watch the toasts at the head table, sometimes it can be almost impossible to get guests’ reactions in focus because there’s almost nothing illuminating their faces. If you can’t focus on their face and the contrast trick doesn’t work, our next (rare) step is to focus on an object close to them. Once, at a wedding, Jordan couldn’t get the camera to lock focus on one of the parents during toasts, but he really wanted to capture their reaction. None of the tricks above were working, so he focused on an object about one foot in front of where she was sitting. At that point, he knew that his focus was locked about ten feet from anywhere he was standing. he was about eleven feet away. So, to get her in focus, he just took one baby step forward, and she was in focus, because the distance between him and his subject hadn’t changed. It was still ten feet. That’s another benefit of back-button focusing. Again, this type of situation is very rare, but it has happened, so it’s a good trick to have in your back pocket just in case!

5. Enable AF Assist Beam 

Last but not least, if you have a flash on your camera, enable the AF Assist Beam. The AF Assist Beam is a red flash of light, that’s emitted from the front of your flash, when you press the focus button. The flash of light provides just enough light, for just enough time, for your camera to lock focus. It’s a really helpful feature when you’re photographing subjects at relatively close distances. It won’t work, for example, if you’re photographing someone across the room. It’s a flash of light, not a supersonic laser beam!

* Our favorite flash is the Canon 600 EX-RT because it allows our on-camera flash to control multiple off-camera flashes and the signal between them almost never drops or cuts out. They’re very reliable and fire almost every time. We didn’t have the same experience (years ago) when we were using Pocket Wizards as the communication mechanism between our flashes. The signal dropped much more frequently and, thus, the flashes didn’t fire as reliably, which was really frustrating at weddings when the on-camera flash would fire, but the off-camera flash wouldn’t, for example. We were really happy when Canon decided to build this function directly into the EX-RT!

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  1. Teresa Caro

    March 25th, 2015 at 7:01 am

    Thank you for these great tips. I have never used the back button focus but will be trying it tonight. Thanks

  2. Amy & Jordan

    March 25th, 2015 at 10:22 am

    Oh, Teresa, it’s a game changer!! So excited for you!!

  3. Cinnamon Wolfe

    March 25th, 2015 at 8:24 am

    BBF for the win!!

  4. Amy & Jordan

    March 25th, 2015 at 10:16 am

    Haha! For sure!

  5. Nicole Amanda Photography

    March 25th, 2015 at 8:34 am

    Yaaay BBF. Learnt it a couple years ago, never going back.

  6. Amy & Jordan

    March 25th, 2015 at 10:22 am

    Amen, sista!! 🙂

  7. Savanna Lee

    March 25th, 2015 at 9:29 pm

    This was SO helpful! Especially #3 and #4, thank you lovely people!! <3

  8. Amy & Jordan

    March 26th, 2015 at 2:33 pm

    Oh, yay! We’re so happy to help! 🙂

  9. joe

    March 25th, 2015 at 10:18 pm

    Great info. Thanks for sharing

  10. Amy & Jordan

    March 26th, 2015 at 2:33 pm

    Thanks so much, Joe!!

  11. Mary Lynne

    March 26th, 2015 at 6:49 am

    Thanks so much for the great tips on back button focus. It’s so generous of you.

    You sold me on switching to back button. I am also shooting with a 5d markiii. In the situations you described, such as focusing on the glass, what focus mode do you use? Do you use spot focus, or a group of points? Two years of shooting with this camera And all I ever use is a single point, but I’m wondering if that would work in situations such as those you described.

  12. Amy & Jordan

    March 26th, 2015 at 1:56 pm

    Hi Mary! You bet! We always use a single focus point. We’d never considered using a group of points before, but who knows! It might work really well! If you have success with it, please comment here so that everyone else will know, too! We might even try it and then update this post in the future. Great suggestion, friend!

  13. Mary Lynne

    March 26th, 2015 at 2:13 pm

    Thank you so much! I will let you know if that makes a difference!

  14. Aaron M Grubb

    March 26th, 2015 at 8:52 am

    Good advice. I found myself doing some of these before I read the article, so I’m glad we’re on the same page 🙂

  15. Amy & Jordan

    April 20th, 2015 at 9:51 pm

    Nice, man! You have good instincts!

  16. Morgan Glassco

    March 26th, 2015 at 2:48 pm

    Need more Lazers!!! But for real, love shooting with the Yongnuo triggers for the lazer assist beams they put out in placed of the lousy AF assist light on the camera body.

  17. Amy & Jordan

    April 20th, 2015 at 9:51 pm

    We’ve never shot with them before but maybe we should look into that!

  18. Caitlin Gerres

    April 20th, 2015 at 12:05 pm

    I’ve been meaning to learn back button focus, and you definitely just sold me! Time to get on that! Thanks for the great tips!!!

  19. Amy & Jordan

    April 20th, 2015 at 9:52 pm

    You bet, friend! See you in June!

  20. Deb Scally

    August 18th, 2016 at 5:18 am

    When you mention the “10 foot” guideline above, what aperture are you using? With a shallower aperture, doesn’t that distance decrease?

  21. cassie

    August 29th, 2016 at 9:44 pm

    Great low light tips. I love back button focus, but still need tips for using it every now and then! Beautiful pictures! Love your site!

  22. Holly

    September 23rd, 2016 at 6:39 pm

    Wow! I am beyond happy that I read this! This has helped me out so much! Thank you!!

  23. Donna Good

    September 30th, 2016 at 8:43 am

    Your photo tips are spot on! Thanks for sharing!

  24. Ebony

    October 3rd, 2016 at 2:20 am

    Thank you!
    So well written, and answered alot of questions I had!
    Finally the only article to really explain WHY to use this technique. Very simple but very smart x

  25. Bethany

    October 16th, 2016 at 11:43 am

    Back button focus. Life saver. Game changer. Mind blown! Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  26. J.wilkinsphotography

    October 19th, 2016 at 6:10 am

    I love the post! Thank you for all of your knowledge and wonderful tips! My question is what is the best time of day to shoot? And what’s the best editing software?

  27. jackie

    October 21st, 2016 at 7:34 am

    i’ve never used the back focus either. but i’m still scared i’ll mess it up! this makes it sound so easy, but as a photographer who has stuck to her particular niche (headshots…cause who can mess that up by focusing on an eye and recomposing!), i’m scared to death to try wedding photography! really great tips from you two, thank you for sharing detailed tips and *really* helping!!

  28. Amy & Jordan

    October 31st, 2016 at 11:20 am

    Hi Jackie! We’ve totally been there! You got this!

  29. Jackie Goldston

    October 21st, 2016 at 7:37 am

    i’ve never used the back focus either. but i’m still scared i’ll mess it up! this makes it sound so easy, but as a photographer who has stuck to her particular niche (headshots…cause who can mess that up by focusing on an eye and recomposing!), i’m scared to death to try wedding photography! really great tips from you two, thank you for sharing detailed tips and *really* helping!!

  30. Amy & Jordan

    October 31st, 2016 at 11:16 am

    You can do it, Jackie!

  31. Carlos D Smith

    January 2nd, 2017 at 7:27 pm

    These tips are great and I can appreciate the common wording you use to get the point across to the novice not all that high end my camera is made by the gods talk. Thanks again for this and all other tips you two provide.

  32. Amy & Jordan

    January 3rd, 2017 at 10:14 am

    Thanks so much, Carlos!!

  33. Janie Phipps

    January 8th, 2017 at 12:52 pm

    Thank you so much for all your tips! I have read a lot of tips and NO ONE explains it like y’all do!! When I Read your articles….I get it! Thanks again!!

  34. Amy & Jordan

    January 11th, 2017 at 11:42 am

    We’re so glad it’s been helpful to you!! Hugs!!

  35. Sara Lidke

    January 16th, 2017 at 10:42 am

    do you have a tutorial on BBF?

  36. Amy & Jordan

    March 1st, 2017 at 1:12 pm

    Hi Sara! We don’t have a tutorial on BBF, but we do cover it in our Shooting & Editing Course! 🙂

  37. Diane Welter

    January 23rd, 2017 at 6:20 am

    I love BBF! Truly a game-changer for me. This was a great post on the “why!”

  38. Amy & Jordan

    March 7th, 2017 at 1:36 pm

    We appreciate that, Diane! 🙂

  39. Ckeane.ck@gmail.com

    January 30th, 2017 at 6:54 am

    Enjoying your posts. Thank you! I use back button focus but my camera seems to have a problem currently. Sometimes my camera will not fire unless my finger continues to push the focus. My question is if I back button focus on a subject and reposition but have to keep the focus pushed is it following the original subject or is it refocusing on the repositioned spot?
    Thanks!

  40. Caitlan Karl

    February 13th, 2017 at 3:10 pm

    This is so helpful! Thanks, guys!

  41. Amy & Jordan

    March 7th, 2017 at 3:55 pm

    We appreciate it, Caitlan! 🙂

  42. Julianna

    February 15th, 2017 at 2:10 pm

    About tip 5…the last part…are you saying that once you lock focus can let go of the back focus button, shoot, shoot and shoot…and until you press the back focus button again, you are locked into whatever focus you last left off on?

    (5. Step Into a Hallway Where There’s Ambient Light

    We shoot at a range of f/2.8 – f/5.6 at receptions depending what we’re shooting and how low the light is. If there’s plenty of ambient light and focusing is a cinch and it’s during toasts where no one’s moving, we love f/2.8. The same even goes for dancing if we’re able to focus and shoot, focus and shoot, and focus and shoot. If, however, the ambient light is lower and it’s really challenging to get focus, we like higher apertures and here’s why: we can step out into a hallway where there is ambient light (or even flash our cell phone on the other person on the dance floor), get focused from a certain distance (let’s call it three big steps), and then never touch our focus again. You heard that right! Never touch our focus again. Because if we’re shooting at an aperture of f/4 or higher and we just keep our distance of about three big steps from whatever we’re shooting, it’ll all still be in focus because the focus is locked with back-button. Are you sold yet?!)

  43. Amy & Jordan

    March 20th, 2017 at 9:26 am

    Yes! That’s right! You just have to make sure you’re maintaining the exact same distance from the subject 🙂

  44. Julianna

    February 15th, 2017 at 2:11 pm

    About tip 5…the last part…are you saying that once you lock focus can let go of the back focus button, shoot, shoot and shoot…and until you press the back focus button again, you are locked into whatever focus you last left off on?

  45. 3 favorite articles for better focus in dark wedding venues

    February 16th, 2017 at 8:49 am

    […] How to get better focus in dark wedding receptions […]

  46. Christy Vincent

    June 8th, 2017 at 8:25 am

    I’m still slightly confused on your explanation/uses of BBF. You are supposed to 1. Lock focus then 2. Take as many shots on that same focus point as long as you keep the same distance to the subject, right? But then you talk about taking 3 big steps towards your subject from the hallway. Doesn’t that change the distance to your subject?

  47. Amy & Jordan

    June 9th, 2017 at 3:46 pm

    Hi Christy! When you lock in the focal plane, you’re locking in the distance to the subject. So, if your client moves three steps toward you, and you move three steps back (at approximately the same distance) since your distance to the subject hasn’t changed, your shot will likely still be in focus. Just keep in mind that this will work better when you’re using shorter focal lengths (like 24mm or 35mm) and will be MUCH harder when you’re shooting at longer focal lengths (like 85mm or higher) because the depth of field is much narrower the longer the focal length; and, therefore, gives you less room before a subject falls out of focus. Just remember that if you lock focus on a subject three feet away on the dance floor, then go to another area of the dance floor and photograph someone dancing who’s three feet away also, both shots should be in focus even though you haven’t refocused. It’s all about the distance to your subject. Hope that helps!

  48. Melissa

    June 26th, 2017 at 9:18 am

    I am so happy I’ve found you both, and love the tips you share. Great reminders and ideas to try out here. I have a few weddings this summer that will be outdoor and low light so this was perfect timing.

  49. Amy & Jordan

    June 29th, 2017 at 11:48 am

    Hi, Melissa! We’re so happy to hear these tips were helpful to you!! Good luck with your weddings this summer! Hugs!! 🙂

  50. Addison Myrick

    August 22nd, 2017 at 8:10 pm

    This was so helpful. I have two 5D m3’s and I get frustrated at wedding receptions when my camera stops focusing. Your words took me back to college/remembering distance and the importance of fstops and aperture…mathematically.

    Appreciate you!

    Addison

  51. Amy & Jordan

    August 23rd, 2017 at 9:48 am

    We’re so glad this was helpful, Addison!

  52. Katherine

    September 12th, 2017 at 1:24 pm

    Great tip! I found myself in that situation for a wedding this past weekend, and I haven’t shot many events so it was a challenge to get great shots in the dark. I did manage some—and luckily for the wedding itself and early part of the reception there was really lovely light. I am going to practice this technique in the dark!

  53. Amy & Jordan

    September 12th, 2017 at 3:14 pm

    We’re so glad this was helpful, Katherine! 🙂

  54. Meriam

    September 25th, 2017 at 7:13 pm

    You both are so amazing! I love, love hearing what you have to say. I have definitely learned alot for you. Thanks!

  55. Amy & Jordan

    September 29th, 2017 at 11:32 am

    Aw! Thank you so much, Meriam! We’re so glad this was helpful!

  56. Peter

    October 22nd, 2017 at 10:44 pm

    Hello, this article is indeed interesting and your advices are logical. With the aperture of 2.8 I believe it will work.
    But what about 1.4 aperture ? 🙂 the DOF is so thin, that it is hard to predict which focal plane is the same as the eyes, so focusing on other contrasty areas could be dangerous 🙂
    Yes I can stop down to 2.8, but for this I don’t need the primes and I go with fast zoom, which is faster at focusing as well.
    So that’s the dilemma 🙂

  57. Amy & Jordan

    October 27th, 2017 at 10:59 am

    Hey, Peter! Great question! We typically don’t drop below f/2.8 at receptions because we find that it’s really hard to get them in focus consistently, so we choose to err on the side of caution with our focus and sacrifice a little depth of field to make sure we don’t miss important shots. Hope that helps!

  58. Caroline

    November 10th, 2017 at 6:09 am

    Awesome tips!

  59. Amy & Jordan

    November 10th, 2017 at 11:54 am

    Aw! We’re so glad this was helpful, Caroline!

  60. Yvonne Smith

    November 20th, 2017 at 10:25 am

    I shoot with a Canon 5D Mark II and thought that I had to change settings on my camera in order to do back-button focus. I got so frustrated, because I was instructed to change the function of my multi-controller to move the focus point around manually, so it wouldn’t work anymore for my quick menu selection feature. Quick menu is important to me, so I cleared my settings back to factory, then have left my focus point set to the center point. I saw the AF-ON button, but don’t know enough about my camera to know that I already had that feature to invoke back-button focus. Thank you so much for helping me with this!

  61. Amy & Jordan

    November 21st, 2017 at 1:37 pm

    Hi, Yvonne! Aw! We’re SO glad this was helpful!! 🙂

  62. Nick English

    November 21st, 2017 at 6:53 am

    Great advice, thanks for sharing!

  63. Amy & Jordan

    November 21st, 2017 at 1:38 pm

    You’re so welcome, Nick! We’re so glad this was helpful!

  64. Tisa owens

    February 7th, 2018 at 6:07 am

    Hello I have a Nikon 3200 does this have back button too. Thanks for the information.

  65. Amy & Jordan

    February 7th, 2018 at 1:12 pm

    Hi, Tisa! We’re not too familiar with the Nikon 3200, we would definitely recommend looking in your user manual!

  66. Kimberly Matura

    May 1st, 2019 at 1:12 pm

    These tips were incredibly helpful last weekend when a prom couple was an hour late to their session, and the sunset photos they had planned on were gone. Thank you!

  67. Amy & Jordan

    May 21st, 2019 at 12:23 pm

    SO glad this blog post was helpful, Kimberly!

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The Amy & Jordan Store

Courses & Tools for Photographers   

We help people take better photos and build successful photography businesses. We’re high school sweethearts, former elementary school teachers and professional photographers. We're experts at making the complex feel simple and believe education is serious business, but learning should be fun.

hey, we're amy & jordan!

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