Low Light Photography – Tips and Tricks – Part II
This is the second of a two part article about low light photography. A longish two part article (Low Light Photography Part I can be found here) may not appear to be the essence of minimalism but knowing this stuff could provide enough information to save a lot of expense and will enable the photographer to make good decisions. In the world of minimalist photography the most expensive gear does not automatically equal the best possible shot.
This series is aimed at a level above Point, Shoot and Pray but below that of professional. If you are making a living from photography you need to buy an expensive tripod and a very fast 50mm prime lens at the very least – but if you are professional you already knew that!
First one of the day
This one does something slightly different than the other techniques as it allows for raising the shutter speed whereas the suggestions up until now have revolved around the idea of working with lower shutter speeds.
Put very simply, the higher the number the faster the sensor collects light therefore double the ISO and you only need to leave the shutter open for half as long to get the equivalent amount of light. The downside is that the higher the ISO setting the lower the image quality. This is one area where there is a big difference between compacts and dSLRs. A compact has a much smaller sensor area and this results in more noise (imperfections). The upshot of this is that you can shoot at a much higher ISO number on a dSLR and still get an acceptable result than you can on a compact.
The accepted rule is that you should always use as low an ISO setting as possible, ideally ISO 100 or less. I tend to work to the following parameters; Compacts, No problem going up to 200, 400 is usable and anything above 800 is last ditch desperation. With my dSLR I regard up to 200 as ideal, 400 and 800 are absolutely fine and 1600 is OK at a pinch. Almost all cameras nowadays have software built in that can be activated to clean up images that are shot using high ISO. Generally the standard seems acceptable though no doubt it depends on the make and model of camera. The Nikon d40x does a pretty good job.
The problem with in camera solutions is that they can result in a slightly plasticy artificial look so I prefer to do my cleaning up on the computer. Adobe Lightroom 3 does a superb job (Lightroom 2 doesn’t – as far as I can tell it doesn’t do any job at all with regard to cleaning up noise). I have always been a fan of Lightroom but this noise cleaning function now makes it an absolute must have for me. It does cost $300 so is not cheap but I would recommend it to anyone who is even slightly serious about photography as it can potentially save you a lot of money on hardware. The latest version can correct for the lens distortion that tends to happen with cheaper lenses, very fine control of exposure is possible, it has a great sharpening tool – a little of this goes a long way, especially with the slightly softer cheaper lenses. Not bad for roughly the same price as that 50mm f1.4 lens mentioned at the beginning of this piece. Using lightroom it is possible to get really good results with ISO 800 and ISO 1600 images on the dSLR and with ISO 400 images shot on the compact.
It needs to be said that I am not a clean freak and do not mind a bit of noise or slight imperfections on my final image. I feel that these imperfections often actually add something but I am probably in the minority. If you are thinking of, say, shooting stock then you might as well glue your ISO setting to a hundred, buy the fast lens and the good tripod.
This one is pretty simple and has become possible due to the increases in image resolution over the past couple of years. The longer the lens the higher the shutter speed has to be to eliminate camera shake. To return to our efl 100mm lens for a moment, a shutter speed of 1/125 is the lowest usable according to convention. A very viable option is to reduce the lens to efl 50mm which would reduce the required shutter speed to 1/60th second and to crop the photograph to cover the required portion of the scene, either in camera or on the computer. Now, without a very fast lens you will be lucky to get a 1/60 option in a low light situation but you could raise the ISO from 100 to 200 (extremely minimal quality loss) and then you will probably be in the ballpark.
white balance set to daylight rather than iridescent gives the warm fireside look
A Couple of Useful Tricks
Here are two tricks, one for a dSLR and one for a compact. that you may or may not already know about.
The compact one is dead easy, just twist your hands against each other when pressing the shutter. The way I do it is to gently twist my left hand forward and my right hand backwards while taking the shot. This probably sounds weird if you haven’t come across it before but once you try it with a camera it will all make perfect sense! Hopefully this goes without saying but I’ll say it anyway – use enough pressure to stabilize the camera but not so much that you actually damage the camera. In other words, if this goes wrong don’t sue me!
The dSLR trick is a little more complicated but not much. It involves the use of that gaudy strap with the manufacturers name emblazoned across it in neon letters. The one that many wanabees won’t use because they think it makes them look touristy (read hobbyist). Personally I’d rather look like a dork in the eyes of some and not be fishing $1,000 plus worth of newly useless gear out of the local duckpond but maybe that’s just me.
All that you need to do is loop said gaudy strap, which is of course attached to the camera, just above your elbow. You may have to twist the strap a couple of times so that it has some tension. You will be amazed at how much difference this makes.
Underexpose Artificial Light Shots
I am not sure why, but for some reason digital cameras have a tendency to overexpose shots where all the illumination is provided artificially, e.g. a downtown area well after sunset. This means that a camera can be set to underexpose the shot by as much as a stop without ill effect. In fact the resulting photograph is often better because it doesn’t have the overexposed, burnt out areas caused by the more powerful lightsources, streetlights for instance.
Even with shots where there is some natural light underexposing can provide a get out of jail free card as it is pretty straightforward to correct exposure using software if it is within 1.5 – 2.0 stops of the correct value. With natural light this is not an ideal solution as the resulting image will look a little flat but it is not unusable by any means.
Blinds and scuff on wall - not quite sure how that got there.
So, other than buying a tripod or a faster lens, these are the ways that you can take reasonable photographs in lower light levels:
- Use any image stabilization technology built into your camera or lenses.
- Practice breathing and relaxation.
- Good stance (Posture)
- Lean against something
- Relaxation techniques
- Double shutter press
- Creative use of ISO settings
- Create stability using a camera strap
- Introduce tension between the hands
Low light photography techniques break down into two groups, those that allow you to work with a lower shutter speed e.g. breathing, leaning against something and those that enable the raising of the shutter speed e.g. raising the ISO number. The trick with low light photography is to find a way to get a working window of a usable shutter speed you often won’t have much choice as to say factors like depth of field as you will often just gain enough to get the picture without any margin for reducing the aperture but getting the picture is the important thing.