Into Darkness: Getting Started with Low Light Photography
Join Aditya Nair on a journey after dark for all the adventures that lie in wait, as you make pictures after sunset.
Way back in 1899, Kodak released an ad that said, “You press the button, we do the rest.” Modern cameras seem to have realised this prophecy, but there is one situation where it still isn’t as simple. I am, off course, talking about what happens to our cameras after hours. Think about it. How often have you dismissed a fantastic opportunity only because the light’s too low? Well, dismiss no more!
Don’t be Afraid of Artificial Ambient Light
In the daytime, the sun is the primary source of light, across half of the planet, at any given time of the day. Artificial lights that illuminate our world after sundown are designed for a specific purpose.
A streetlight, for example, will illuminate the street bench under it but not much of the background, getting rid of distractions from your frame. This makes it a great spot to shoot some interesting portraits. Neon signs are designed to attract people to a store. They do just that for your images as well, drawing in the viewer.
Here are a few of the basics you need to remember,
|Try This||What It Does||Be Careful About|
|Increase the ISO||Capture more light and boost the reach of the flash||Noise, colour shifts and image softening|
|Use a wide aperture||Lets more light reach the sensor||Shallow DOF, can overpower ambient light when using flash|
|Reduce the shutterspeed||Increases the exposure time letting more light in||Motion blur, camera shake, unsharp subjects|
|Carry a tripod or monopod||Reduces shake when using slow shutterspeeds||Cumbersome to carry around, may not be allowed everywhere|
|Shoot in RAW (If not, use JPEG Fine)||Recovers more detail from the image||Slower write times, heavier file sizes|
|Invest in a Prime Lens||Fast lenses, better optics, relatively inexpensive||Lack of zoom, lower end ones may not have IS|
|Get an external flashgun||More control than the pop-up flash||You will need a camera with a hotshoe|
|Focus manually||Use it when the AF is getting fooled||Manually focusing can be difficult initially|
Assess the Scene Around You
Finding the right balance between shutterspeed, aperture and ISO is the first thing you need to pay attention to. For example, if you need to capture a fast-moving subject, first decide on the shutterspeed. Use a high ISO and let the aperture be as wide as possible. The Shutter Priority mode will help. You can also use the Sports Scene mode to do the same.
If it is a still subject, you will want maximum control over depth of field. Use a tripod and let the shutterspeed drop to whatever it needs to be.
Staying Safe While You Shoot
Cars tend to speed past in the night and giving them a heads up that you are around is always a good idea. A jacket with illuminated strips will strive to serve this purpose.
Needless to say, avoid unsafe areas after dark and pay attention to the surroundings.
Don’t Forget to Carry
- A shutter release cable is needed to shoot at shutterspeeds slower than 30 seconds. They are also useful when you want to get rid of any possibility of camera shake while shooting long exposures when using a tripod.
- A grey card can be quite handy when tweaking the White Balance of RAW files, since it can be easily fooled in low light.
- Use a torch or your cellphone to be able to see your immediate surrounding in absolute darkness. These will also come in handy when you need to adjust settings and need a source of light to illuminate your subject in a pinch.
Familiarise Yourself with the Camera…
… so that you aren’t hunting for settings or buttons when you need to change them in the dark. When the camera is mounted on a tripod, fumbling with it will cause your composition to change.
Keep in mind that zoom lenses can have varying maximum apertures at different focal lengths.
Test Your Camera’s ISO Limit
Sadly, we can’t increase ISO to infinity and beyond. Not yet, anyway. It is important to know the maximum ISO setting you are comfortable shooting at, before you go out to photograph.
For this, keep a colourful object on a table and take pictures of it at different ISO levels. Shoot at a narrow aperture setting like f/11 to get sharp images. Take a series of shots in good light, then dim the lights and take a set of shots again. While analysing the images keep in mind that the camera will respond differently to different light sources.
Choose the Right Metering Mode
When photographing a empty street with bright lights and dark shadows, Evaluative Metering works well. With this mode the camera will try to give as even an exposure as possible.
If you are focusing on one specific subject, like a dancer in an indoor event, try using Spot Metering to give you the right exposure for the subject.
The camera can get fooled by a bright source of light in the frame. Use the auto exposure lock (AEL) function in such cases.
Hunting for Focus?
Even the best AF systems can face focusing difficulties in low light. Luckily there are a few hacks for you to try. For example, you can locate a light source at roughly the same distance as the subject, half-press the shutter to focus on it and recompose the shot.
If it is a person you are photographing, ask them to hold their cellphone near their face. You can also use a torch to shine a light on them. Once focus has been acquired, switch to manual focus so that the camera doesn’t hunt for focus again.
Compensate for Slow Shutterspeeds
Using image stabilisation will let you shoot at slower shutterspeeds without introducing camera shake in your images. Another technique to try is to keep your elbows propped up on a table or a flat surface to minimise shake. If you are unable do that, tightly press your elbows against your body.
Use the Burst mode. Generally, you will find one photo that is sharper and has frozen the subject better than the others. But this only compensates for camera shake and not the motion of the subject. In this case, use a higher ISO or wider aperture.
Camera Shake & Long Exposures
When shooting long exposures, minimising camera shake is paramount. Set the camera on a tripod and either use a cable release or the Self Timer mode. The Mirror Lock Up feature is also useful. You can also weigh the tripod down with a sandbag. It will prevent shake caused by heavy winds.
This lets you use a faster shutterspeed or narrower aperture. You can later recover details in the shadows, especially if you are shooting in RAW. During twilight hours, the camera tends to overexpose the scene and the image may no longer have the mood that you were trying to capture. In these instances, underexposing by⅓a stop can be helpful. Additionally, bracketing, HDR modes or a fill-in flash will help you get more shadow detail.
Or Overexpose the Scene
Noise is always more visible in the shadow areas. So, if you don’t need a faster shutterspeed, it is better to overexpose slightly, and then darken the image. Be careful not to blow out the highlights. That siad, a camera’s tendency to overexpose can lead to some interesting results right after sunset. Shoot in the direction of the sun to get some vibrant orange and blue hues in the sky.
Getting the Composition Right
Considering that it can be pitch dark, framing become a matter of trial and error. You don’t want to press the shutter, wait 30 seconds, only to realise you aren’t happy with the framing. Instead, set the camera to the widest aperture, maximum ISO and take a shot. The image taken will give you an idea of the correct composition. Now, go back to the actual settings you want to use.
Fake the Look
Shooting just after sunset as the city lights begin to come on, is a great way to gingerly step into the world of low light photography. The ambience is a lot more forgiving to exposure mistakes and you can use lower ISOs, faster shutterspeeds and narrower apertures than you would, otherwise. It is easy to recreate the look of a night scene as well, by simply underexposing the image.
This article originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of Better Photography.
With these techniques in mind, here are a few more stories for you to read:
Keep the Noise Away – where we deal with noise and grain while shooting at High ISOs.
Five Simple Flash Techniques to Try — where we discuss the do’s and don’ts of using flash.
Getting Creative with Low Light — where we talk about star trails, light streaks and all the other fun stuff.
Storytelling After Dark — where we break all the rules.