Monday, November 12, 2007
Trick Shots: Low Light
Discover how high ISOs can improve the quality of your photographs
I'm often hired to photograph live performances of musicians, dancers and actors. It's challenging work, particularly because I don't have the benefit of controlling the lighting. Prohibited in the use of flash, I have to make the most of the existing stage light, which wasn't designed with the photographer in mind.
Stage lighting, even at its best, doesn't provide enough light to shoot at low ISOs, such as 100 or 200. Such a low ISO may result in shutter speeds of 1⁄15 sec. or slower, even when using zoom lenses with a fast maximum aperture of ƒ/2.8. Not only will shooting at such low ISOs result in soft images due to camera motion, but the subjects also will be blurred because the shutter speed is insufficient to freeze their movement.
The choice to increase ISO to 800, 1600 and higher is an easy one for me. I need to get the shot, and I'd prefer to have a "noisy" image that's sharp than a noiseless image that's soft. The former can be fixed later. The latter results in yet another useless image.
All of the images illustrating this article were shot at an ISO of 800 or higher. The quality of the files was excellent, even before using a noise-reduction application. This is a testament to the camera makers who have made great strides in both the design of their sensors and the image-processing software incorporated into their cameras.
In many of these images, even an ISO of 1600 didn't offer me as fast a shutter speed as I would have liked, particularly when using a fast 70-200mm lens. I was sometimes forced to shoot at 1⁄125 sec., which was viable only because of the lens' image-stabilization feature. But even though the lens' IS technology could counter problems with camera motion, it couldn't help me with the movement of the performers.
It was dependent on me to capture moments when a telling gesture was at its peak. It's a challenge, but one that's made easier by the fact that my camera was set to perform optimally under difficult lighting conditions.
By increasing the camera's ISO, using the fastest shutter speed possible and carefully handholding my camera, I could get consistently sharp results. Though there were certainly images that were soft, I succeeded in producing a greater percentage of photographs that met my criteria for quality.
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