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Lesson Seven: Working in Low Ambient Light situations.

After a short pause for life and a trip south to Las Vegas for CES ’11, I am back to the blog and ready
to talk about low ambient light photography. Conditions with next to no ambient or without consistent light such
as highway scenes at night, fireworks or people dancing in clubs or at weddings, for the average photographer can
prove an almost impossible task.

How do I make the camera show what I see in the dark?

An easy way to understand photography is to compare it to the human eye; as the operation is very similar.

Our eyes use the iris muscles to open the pupil and allow us to see things in very low light, in our cameras
the aperture is the pupil, the mechanics that open and close the aperture are the iris muscles.
To allow more light into the eye, we simply leave our eyes open.
To allow more light into the camera, we have to leave the camera open via the shutter speed.

Human Eye == Camera
Pupils == Aperture
Eyelids == Shutter Speed
Sensitivity == ISO

A longer shutter speed and a wide open aperture are the starting points to getting a good low light photo.
Using high ISO values,we can squeeze the most out of the available ambient light.

Low light conditions are more sensitive to ISO noise, so if you know you can get a good image in great light
at iso 2000, make sure it looks as good when using long shutters and dark black tones that are inherent to
low light conditions. You make need to drop to iso 1600

In low light settings you can’t rely on your AUTO setting to get the exposure correct.

Lets look at the AUTO approach to low light party photography: You put your camera on auto and fire
it into the dancing crowd of your friends, the strobe lights look awesome, people are all having a great time,
but your camera will look at this chaos of light and darkness and choose to make one of four different exposures.

1). In one exposure all you see are a few dim lights but complete darkness where the people are; you can’t really
make out anything. Chances are you had a strobe light shining right into your camera as you took the photo
and the camera made a very short exposure due to the intense light at the time of the photo.
This is the least likely exposure to happen. But it will in strobe lit situations.
Consider it a dumb luck misfire.

2). The second exposure that might happen is the camera will see a very low amount of light and it will pop a flash
in order to make up for the lack of sufficient lighting. Filling the room with light by bouncing light off every
close surface and creating devil zombies out of anyone looking your direction. These photos rarely tell the true
story of the feeling of the event or party, they are also nowhere close to flattering to the dancers caught like
deer in your headlights.

3). If you get lucky and have just enough light on your dance subjects to get a decent representation of the action
you are surely going to have dragging of the arms and blurring of their finer details and faces, also the ambient light
sources will appear to squiggle lines all over the photo. This is the most common of low light photos; the camera
stays open with a longer shutter speed to gather light for the photo and the subject doesn’t stop long enough to
make a clear image. The ambient lights show you how your hand movement contributes to this effect as you sway to
the music while trying to take the photo. The less drag you have in these lines; the steadier your hands were while
snapping your photo.

4). The last photo you are bound to capture if you let the camera do the work is the “hit by lightning” photo: the lightning
photo looks like somebody stood beside a lightning bolt and posed for a portrait. They will be completely blown-out
with a giant shadow spilling off behind them, if you are lucky and they are blinking, you won’t see their retinas
burning up.

What happened? You were too close to your friend in pure darkness, or someone stepped in front of your camera as you
took the photo.
Either way, the camera saw zero light, popped it’s flash to create light for the photo, but the close subject took
all of the light in it’s first few feet and lit up like a Christmas tree. Usually casting dark shadows and blocking
the light from the rest if the scene. These shots can be funny to look at, but also, not flattering.

As it turns out it is very hard to get a good low light party photo without taking the camera off of the Auto mode.

What the situation calls for is careful consideration of the scene and a set goal for the desired photo; you should aim to
catch a particular subject in motion and have the low-light scene come through clear and as moody as it was.

Do this through careful camera settings in preparation for the low light and by using flash at a minimum or use bounced flash.

If you choose not to use your flash, you have to start out with carefully selected settings and tweak your way towards
your best possible settings for optimum quality. The best possible settings stem from a need for clear and clean
ISO: affects photo cleanliness
DOF: affects clarity over distance
Shutter speed: affects clarity of motion.

High ISO: 1600-2000 to start!
On my D700 I would start off in the high thousands and creep down as I needed more clarity.
Sometimes getting the right photo comes at a cost of quality of the image. If you are serious about it, you can clean
up the image in Post-processing. But get a good high ISO setting you can live with and open up that camera.

Open Aperture: get that camera near wide open, we need all the light we can get. Shooting at 2.8 might not be wise because you will blur out the scene and the scene tells the story. But open up to between 5.6 to 8 and always remember to keep your hand steady.

Now with your ISO set high and your camera set to near wide open with a usable DOF, slow down your shutter speed.

Longer Shutter Speed: start shooting and adjusting your shutter speed to see how you like the results. Start out with 1/16
or 1/4 second if that works and looks good, make adjustments to suit the needs of your photo. To get more flowing action,
slow down the shutter. This will produce streaks of colour behind the subjects. To freeze the motion, increase the shutter speed.

Remember that if you find you are working with more light than you need, you can stop down your Aperture and close out some ambient light. Remember this comes at an artistic cost, as your DOF is increased, but sometimes that’s not an issue. Also remember to use your ISO settings to your advantage. If you find your shutter is firing really fast and capturing the action with ease, lower your ISO to gain some image quality and adjust your Shutter accordingly.

If you Can’t get a good shot, you may need to pop up or attach a flash; make sure you dial your flash down to it’s minimum power.
You should start to familiarize yourself with the flash setting before going into a low light situation, know your gear if you want to make the most of it. At least know your buttons and what they do, you can find many articles on any camera sold: detailing the stuff you “Must Know” about your camera.

once the flash is dialed down to 1/64th power or lower,
you should consider softening the flash. We do this in two ways:
the expensive way or the MacGuyver way.

The expesive way is to get a mini StoFen or similar softbox or diffuser. They sit in front of your flash and soften or diffuse the harsh flash so it looks better on the subjects.

The MacGuyver way is simpler and free. Just take some tissue paper and tape it over your flash, this will cut the light down and soften the flash so it doesn’t blind the dancers or onlookers. You can also bounce the flash to the ceiling using both the Expensive and Macguyver ways.

Light will bounce off white surfaces pretty efficiently, so you can use a piece of white cardboard to make a GOBO (go between) and bounce the light up to the ceiling and this will create a huge amount of light surface compared to your little flash, which softenes the light and makes the dancers look less harsh.

Try not to overpower the ambient too much, or you will loose the feeling of the setting, you should aim to illuminate but not light the room. With your high ISO settings, your near wide open Aperture, and your slower than normal Shutter Speeds, you are not going to need as much flash power, so make sure to watch your images and adjust the flash or block it out with even more tissue paper.
*Use caution when covering any flash with diffusers, expensive or Macguyvered, in high use situations. Allow enough time for the flash to cool down when using colour filters or flash diffusers. The flash bulb can overheat and damage the bulb electronics.

Anyone who is serious about flash photography will move away from their tiny on camera flash and into an external flash or speed-light. These units allow you to move the light away from the center line of the camera and into more pleasing and functional locations. You can do this by turning or pointing the head of the flash into another area of the room/scene.

Or you can get the flash off of the camera via sync cords or wireless triggers and have them positioned around the room to give you more coverage for your light.

In the next lesson we will look at flashes, both on camera and off camera speed-lights, their power setting and accessories.
Understanding “made” light is key to understanding ambient light too: As you start to learn how light acts in controlled situations you start to understand how to work with chaotic ambient light in all it’s inconsistent glory.


One Response

  1. Hi, just ran into your web site from digg. It is not an article I would typically read, but I liked your perspective on it. Thanx for making a piece worth reading!

    May 16, 2011 at 4:39 pm

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