Low Light Point and Shoot photography
Always Read the Manual
A brief account of how to access a similar function on the Panasonic Lumix ZS8 16X Zoom
This post is about a specific feature on a specific group of cameras, namely low light point and shoot on the newer Canon Powershot cameras but it does make a more general point. Lets start with the specific, getting usable low light photographs at a relatively low cost. dSLRs are out as they do not represent a low cost method. This is definitely low light point and shoot photography territory.
I use a Canon Powershot A3100 IS (Affiliate Link) as my day-to-day camera. It is generally regarded as a good camera for children and beginners because it has a variety of presets. It also has a setting where the photographer can control most of the parameters. As I’ve stated before, well over 95% of the images on this website and all of the ones in this post were taken using this camera. Believe me, it is not a toy. I think that Canon are not doing themselves any favors and are in fact underselling this camera but that is another story.
This camera has two different night time settings which I’ve always thought was a bit strange but as I always do my own settings I didn’t pay them much attention. I had always assumed that they both just ramped the ISO up to the maximum and made the aperture as big as possible. Translation – made the sensor as sensitive to light as possible and made the hole that light comes in as big as possible. In other words did things that I could do myself manually.
I was wrong, I was noodling around on the internet and came across a review of my camera that told me something I didn’t know and that was that in one of the low light/ Night time modes the camera reduces the number of pixels in use from 12 million to 2 million. This got my attention as there was something going on here that went beyond what could be set manually. So I tested this setting – and was amazed. Genuine low light point and shoot photography was now a reality.
This newly discovered setting has many benefits. It enables pictures to be taken with very little light while hand holding the camera basically if a single candle is the light source a steady hand held shot can be got. The camera is much faster and much more responsive – it is now possible to use it as a serious tool for candid shots because it focuses that much faster and it will gain focus anywhere on the screen rather than just the sensor – in other words, grab the camera point it, press the shutter with a fraction of a second delay between the half and full press and you’ll have an in focus shot. No need to even look at the viewscreen (that does take a bit of practice though). The camera is now, ironically a genuine point and shoot and cheap low light photography is now within reach.
Whether intended by the manufacturers or not, this setting also has benefits in good lighting conditions. It enables photos to be taken from very fast moving transport and indoors of moving objects e.g. pets and children.
Now some have probably already done the Math, two megapixels is a lot less than twelve megapixels and it means that, rather than have an image with four thousand pixels on the long dimension we are down to about sixteen hundred. (If that doesn’t sound like a big enough drop think inverse square). Now 1600 pixels will give you a reasonable printout up to around postcard size which equates to big enough to fill most computer monitors currently in use. In other words more than good enough for web use and most other uses.
The camera ajusts the ISO setting according to the conditions and will often display values such of around 1600. It must be said that ISO 1600 is very different on this particular setting than it is normally. The 1600 value on this setting is very usable whereas the same cannot be said the the same number on the other camera settings. In other words, don’t panic when you see the high numbers appear on the view screen.
All of these images were shot using this setting.
The ones of the town center were shot at night, it was really dark.
The ones from the car and the shopping trip were shot at dusk. Adobe Lightroom was used for post processing and you can see which three shots I had the most fun with.
This setting should be renamed pootie setting as it is great for indoor cat shots. I have a load on the card that I haven’t put on Flickr yet but they work well.
To be honest I am not sure when Canon first added this setting, all I know is that it is used on more than one of their models and isn’t on the Powershot A550. Canon has excellent image stabilization and it is this combined with the reduced pixel numbers that make this setting work so well. As far as I know Nikon Coolpix cameras image stabilization is software based as opposed to Canon’s where the lenses actually shift to compensate for movement – big difference. Saying that, the Nikon cameras are quite a bit cheaper.
Canon does the slightly confusing thing of having some scene settings on the main rotary dial (including a night time setting)and then other scene settings are accessible by setting the rotary dial to scene then hitting the function button and selecting off the viewscreen. The one we are interested is the one accessed this way – not the one on the rotary button. On earlier models it was called high ISO on later ones ‘Low light’
Now for those wondering, the ISO is selected automatically and goes up to 1600. Normally anything over 200 is iffy on a small sensor. Well, ISO 1600 is a lot cleaner on this setting than it is on anything that uses the full 12 megapixels. It is not as sharp as a photograph taken on a sunny day at ISO 100 but it is more than good enough. This setting would have no problems getting good shots of a live band performing in a basement bar say.
Other than wanting to share a useful find this tale does have a larger point. Don’t assume. I assumed that the setting under discussion was something that I could recreate using the manual capabilities of the camera so I didn’t investigate it. I am now left thinking about a lot of very low light shots that I didn’t get that perhaps I could have.
The setting is also good for Friday Night Shopping expeditions.
All photographs shot with my Canon PowerShot A3100IS Digital Camera (Affiliate Link) and without a tripod.