A tripod...obviously. But if you're going for handheld...
1. A new camera. Some of the newer models, especially the high end ones have much better noise levels at high iso.
2. A fast lens. Shooting at something like f1.8 will help in low light. It sounds cheaper than the option above, but you'd be surprised. Zoom lenses that fast don't go cheap. You can however pick up a prime like the 50mm which can be great for stuff like that.
Other than that. You'll just have to hold it steadier.
As a general rule, when shooting handheld, you shouldn't drop the shutter speed below the focal length of the lens. So for example if you have a 200mm lens, you shouldn't really go under 200/sec shutter speed, but....if you're shooting at 18mm on the kit lens...you could theoretically get away with 20/sec. It's not an exact science, but a rough indicator. It would be wise to stay a little above to be on the safe side...
And of course, going on the above it's more difficult to take pictures in low light on a longer lens.
In terms of ISO...
Back in the days of film....for colour you'd generally shoot 100, or 200. 400 if you were desperate, but that was generally reserved for black and white where the grain was always more acceptable. Anything above that was always black and white.
And apart from some of the newer models I mentioned that's still pretty much the case. Don't go above 400 unless absolutely necessary.
Like Ben said Cliff, i think the ISO is your key here.
If your shooting very high contrasts with a high iso then grain is inevitable, and at 1600 your saying 'bring on the grain'.
Add vivid colour to the high contrast and anything over 1000 is going to be quite grainy.
Going with the basis of what Ben said about shutter speed and lens length, try to use that theory to keep your iso as low as poss.
When you step over 1000-1200 iso your asking for an effect rather than a compensation.
Try playing the f-stops rather than cranking the iso.
Looking at night shots through your lcd can hide alot of grain so best to just get used to how your specific camera reacts to higher iso requests. or take along a laptop and view the shots in realtime on a bigger screen. That can speed up the learning curve with a new camera although not the most practical thing to do.
Thanks men (again), much appreciated advice. I'll reduce the ISO and play with the f-stop.
I have the tripod but want to just take a random photo of something I see in low light whilst walking about up London at night. A new camera is not an option at the moment, that'll come one day though.
As for the lens, I hadn't considered a faster one, something I should look into.
What I'll do is find a subject, take pictures with different ISO's, f-stops, exposure times etc, then see what works and what doesn't, then check the data to see what my settings were for an idea.
This camera photography business is not easy is it!!!
Is that 100% crop cliff ^ ? Edited at all? That's pretty noisy!
But yeah, noise is just grain really. rather than having a nice smooth image that flows throughout, you end up with grain like you see above. I'm sure someone can explain the technicalities of it better than myself..
Editing an already noisy image will absolutely murder it in many a case.
I have noticed people are using software which reduces noise mind, and I've seen some of the results. Very interesting! Probably worth looking into. Can't remember what it's called now..
Funny that I am studying photgraphy at the moment and the argument about ISO is exactly right there. On my previous module I had to shoot photos in 100, 200, 400 and 800... Same photo. The noise (grain like particles) increased more in the shadow areas. The lower the ISO the more smoother the photo has become.
Like already said your best bet is a tripod and a faster lens to get a good F-stop out of it. Although taking a night shot of lets say your photo at the top then you might want more in focus which means a wider F-stop.
I have a tripod but I don't want to use it for walking around with a camera and taking random pictures, it's just not practical.
What I understand now is that I need a lens to allow my f-stop to go lower, as the only lens I have only goes down to f5.6. Testing tonight I can clearly see the problem
That lens in the link is the f1.4. By all accounts a very nice lens, but for a fraction of the price you can have the f1.8 at around £75.
The only thing I'll say about these. I can't speak for the 1.4, because I've never used it, but the 1.8 can struggle to focus in dark conditions. And at 1.8, you'll have a serious depth of field. To the point where when your photographing people, you need to focus dead on one of the eyes, and even then the other eye will still be a little soft... Not the easiest thing to do in the dark!
It's a great lens to try though. Great for shooting people. And awesome DOF. And by far the cheapest thing you'll find. Even if you decided you wanted an f1.4 afterwards, the depreciation on these is non-existant....you'll likely loose a tenner at most.
Hey Ben, I just realised my little brother has a 50mm Canon lens for his 550d, I'll see what exactly he's got and try it out. I think it's the cheaper one, I'm sure he said it cost around £80 if I remember right, I didn't pay much attention when he showed me as I was dead set on buying a bigger zoom lens (55-250mm) which I thought was more important.