Low-light photography is a challenge. A challenge comes in learning how your camera responds to given ISO settings and how each impacts the quality of the capture. It’s essential to know shutter speed to aperture relationships. It’s essential to know how subject movement will be recorded based on a given shutter speed. It’s essential to show patience while you wait for long exposure noise reduction to process your file. It’s imperative you carry out meticulous technique. The above, combined with more factors, come into play. Incorporate the following into your workflow to become a better low-light photographer.
RAW Captures: Capture all your low-light images in RAW. More detail is retained in the shadows and highlights than in a compressed jpg file. Compressed files bundle together thousands of pixels that otherwise may contain valuable detail. If you discard those extra pixels that hold data, you lose the potential to restore valuable picture information. Use Adobe Camera RAW or Lightroom to process the file.
Tripod Tripod Tripod: A tripod helps ensure a sharp capture is made. It stabilizes the camera and counters movement from too slow a shutter speed if handheld. Be sure the tripod is sturdy, especially if there’s wind. The more wind, the lower you should keep your tripod. Use a cable release or exposure delay mode so movement from pressing the shutter is not introduced. An added benefit of a tripod is it allows you to make better compositions in that you can study the entire viewfinder with the camera firmly planted on the head. Even in bright light, I use a tripod for this very reason.
Creative Flash: If there’s low light and you use flash, get creative. If your camera has rear curtain or slow speed synch, incorporate the use of flash, especially if there’s a subject that moves across the frame during your long exposures. Slow speed/rear curtain synch allows the shutter to stay open longer and fires the flash at the end of the long exposure. Another technique is to set your camera to manual mode and manually trigger the flash any time during the exposure to illuminate a foreground subject during the exposure.
Adjust Your ISO: High ISO photography is becoming more and more of a reality. Full frame sensor cameras do an admirable job to allow high quality high ISO images to be made. As the technology improves, it will only get better. This being said, there is a limit as to how high you can set your camera to capture an acceptable file. Shoot a series of photos and keep increasing the ISO until you max out your setting. Download and evaluate all the captures to see where the cut off occurs that determines a file is unacceptable. Armed with this information, if you encounter a low-light situation in the field, you’ll know how far you can go with your ISO.
Subject Movement: A big challenge with low-light photography occurs when there’s subject movement. There’s a relationship between the aperture, shutter speed and ISO that determines if you can freeze subject motion. To allow the most light to strike the sensor, fully open the aperture and raise your ISO to where you get an acceptable capture. Do this in Aperture Priority mode. The shutter will now be set to its fastest possible speed. Make a picture and evaluate subject movement. If motion is still detected, short of increasing the ISO to a number that produces unacceptable image quality, it may not be possible to make the photo unless the use of flash is incorporated. (see Flash above)
Bracket and Use HDR Software: HDR images, high dynamic range, are created from a series of bracketed exposures and processed in HDR software. The end result is an image that captures a broad spectrum of brightness values that otherwise would be impossible to reproduce in a single capture. For instance, record a scene with an exposure that is two stops under normal, one stop under normal, a normal exposure, one stop over, and two stops over. All five are processed in HDR software netting an image that shows detail from the brightest highlights to the deepest shadows. Look into Nik HDR Efex Pro and Photomatix if the topic intrigues you.
Tip Summary for Low-Light Photography:
*Use a tripod whenever possible
*Shoot in RAW to be able to bring the most out of the file
*Use fast glass - if it’s an important shoot and you don’t own a fast lens, rent one
*Use as fast a shutter speed as possible if the subject moves
*Bracket if the situation allows
*Adjust your ISO accordingly but realize that noise increases as the ISO is raised
*Open your lens to the widest aperture to let in as much light as possible
*If you have it, use Vibration Reduction
*Use flash creatively to create light
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