Ten Tips For Better Low-Light Photos - 5/19/08
It’s easy to make great shots in great light, but what about when the light’s barely there?
1. Don't fight the light-think about new ways to make your compositions work. Maybe a silhouette is the perfect solution; it's often ideal when the day's last light is silhouetting a unique shape like a tree or a skyline or a body. Whatever the case, go with the sillo and you'll not only create an interesting shot but you'll get to hand-hold the camera because of the faster shutter speed it enables.
2. Silhouettes are neat, but they aren't always what you want. Consider the same principal by starting with the correct silhouette exposure for the background, but then add a fill flash to make your subject really pop. The combination of the correct ambient exposure for the background and the flash exposure for the subject makes for great shots in any number of low-light situations. Best of all, even point-and-shoots with their Night Portrait modes are capable of making this tricky lighting look easy.
3. Sometimes flash and silhouettes just aren't going to cut it. That's when it's time to call out the high-ISO troops. Boost your camera's capture setting to the highest ISO available-whether that's 1000, 1600 or more. The tradeoff for high-ISO shooting is increased noise, but digital camera sensors are constantly getting better at minimizing that noise. Most important, it's better to get the shot-no matter how noisy-than to go away empty handed.
4. Reduce the noise after you've got the shot. With programs like Noise Ninja, high-ISO shots can have the noiseless look of a low-ISO capture. Just take a look at the sports shots from Jerry Lodriguss on his web site at www.astropix.com/sportspix/index.htm He relies on computer-based noise-reduction to get images at ISO 1600 and then some (and he's still shooting wide open with fast lenses). That's really making the most of very little light, but when all is said and done he's got the shots. After a bit of noise reduction they look great in his portfolio.
5. If your high-ISO settings still aren't enough to get a hand-holdable setting (often considered to be a shutter speed of one-over-the-focal-length-of-the-lens, or 1/100th of a second with a 100mm lens, for example), you'll have to hold that camera rock steady. Put it on a tripod or a weighted stand to keep the camera steady for the long-exposure necessary to make the shot readable. Failing the right gadget, set the camera on a solid surface and prop it up with a book bag or jacket to get the angle just right. Use the self-timer to fill in for the cable release and you're shots are sure to be sharp.
6. Holding the camera steady for long low-light exposures is only good if you're not trying to stop motion. If you can't stop the motion anyway, why not make deliberate low-light blurs? It's easy to do and particularly effective with subjects that light up-as so many subjects do at night! Moving cars and illuminated signs make for interesting streetscapes that are only possible because of the motion blur inherent in the long-exposure, low-light approach.
7. As long as you're shooting lights at night, and as long as your camera's on a tripod anyway, consider the effects of aperture on the finished image. More than just depth of field, the aperture size will affect how those light sources are rendered in the shot. At a wide-open aperture, lights will look like lights-though they may be blown out and lack detail. But at tiny little apertures like f/22 and beyond, those light sources often photograph with interesting star patterns-the kind you may get with special effects filters. As long as you've got the tripod you may as well try a really long low-light exposure with the lens at its smallest aperture and see how those star-shaped imperfections may add to your shot.
8. Since camera-makers assume you'd rather not put your camera on a tripod for every shot, they make flashes-and chances are you've probably got one. More than just lighting up the scene, external flashes often include infrared focusing aids. Even so, sometimes it may not get the job done as quickly as the photographer's eye. So think about using manual focus instead of autofocus whenever you're shooting in low light. It's a great way to ensure that your camera's focus isn't fooled by the dimly lit situation.
9. When you're trying to eek out every little bit of exposure you can, don't zoom your lens all the way in-particularly if it's got a variable maximum aperture. Not only are telephotos trickier to hand-hold without camera shake, many zooms have variable maximum apertures from, say, f/4 to f/5.6 which means that when zoomed all the way the camera is losing a whole stop of light. That translates into the difference between shooting at 1/30th of a second or 1/60th of a second, which could be the difference between a sharp shot and a blurry one.
10. When all else fails, do what photographer David Stoecklein does when he's faced with low-light situations: look for any little bit of contrast you can. Whether it's a sliver of light on the horizon that can silhouette your subject or the glow from a candle nearby, any little bit of contrast in the scene not only makes it possible to photograph your subject, but it can mean the difference between a successful low-light photograph and a muddy, unrecognizable mess. Take a look at Stoecklein's pre-dawn and post-sunset shots on his web site at www.stoeckleinphotography.com and check out this interview with him in Outdoor Photographer.