Photo tips from a professional photographer on shooting in low light
When shooting in low light situations there are a number of things to consider ranging from equipment options, to ISO settings, to improvised camera support. I will go over all the factors that I take into consideration when dealing with low light levels. Since I am sharing my own approach and experience I think it is a good idea to give you a little background on what I shoot and what equipment I use.
The types of photography that I do range from studio still life, to location lifestyle, to travel photography in remote and primitive destinations such as Myanmar and Mongolia.
I pretty much photograph everything except fashion and breaking news. I tend to travel light and try to always keep my equipment to a minimum. For ninety percent of what I shoot I use a Canon 24-105 F4 Image Stabilized L series lens on either a Canon 1ds MKIII or a Canon 5D MKII. Before the advent of digital I shot with Sinar 4x5, Hasselblad medium format, and Nikon 35mm cameras. When using studio strobes I use Profoto 7b packs triggered by Pocket Wizards. For on camera flash, I use a Canon 580 EX and a Quantum battery pack.
Right now I think that the top Canon and Nikon equipment are pretty much equal and a purchase choice would have to take into consideration your own personal ergonomic preferences and the type of shooting you do the most of. In either case, with the newest models the images are better than I used to get shooting medium format film.
In addition to the 24-105 Canon lens I usually bring a 16-35 2.8 Canon L Series Zoom and a 100-400 Image Stabilized L Series zoom. I also own, and love, a Canon 135 F2 L Series and 80-200 2.8 Canon L Series zoom, but tend to only bring those lenses on rare occasions.
Having stabilized lenses enables one to effectively hand hold a lens somewhere between 2 and 3 stops slower depending on the individual person. Should you get a faster lens, or rely on stabilization? Tough question. If your subject is moving then the faster lens will generally be more helpful. Stabilized lenses are usually a little slower (smaller wide-open aperture), so even if you can hold them steadier, it doesn’t help with a moving subject. In my own case I have found that while stabilization is helpful it is hardly a panacea and I am always better off if I seek some sort of camera support. I will brace myself tightly against a wall or post, take in a deep breath, let half of it out and gently squeeze off a burst of three to five exposures.
Available light, available surfaces!
If there is a surface available that I can brace the camera on I will seek that out too. Once, while shooting a crowd of people at night, carrying candles and circling around a temple in Vientiane, Laos, I laid down on the ground, dug my elbows in and created a tripod effect with my arms and torso. I shot a lot of frames, something in the order of 30, and got two or three that worked. While shooting a temple in India lit by courtyard lamps and the moon, I braced my camera on a garbage can and shot a dozen or so frames (image 1371). Even though the shutter speed was around 5 seconds, I got the shot. You can press the camera against any solid surface and shoot at any shutter speed that ends before your arm gives out. Believe me, I have tested those limits too!
A helpful tool can be a bean bag, a wadded up shirt, or any kind of material that will help you position the camera at the angle you need when the available surface just isn’t cooperating in that respect.
Focus is critical, pixels are cheap
If you are shooting wide open, that is at the camera’s largest aperture, your depth of field will be correspondingly shallow. That means your focus is going to be even more critical than otherwise. Pick a point that needs to be sharp and really pay attention to keeping that point sharp. Generally, if you are shooting people, the most important thing to keep sharp is the eyes. When I am shooting people I focus on the eyes, shoot, re-focus and shoot again…and then do it all over again. I can’t tell you how much I hate to be editing and find that I have a potentially great shot, but out of focus eyes ruin the picture. I have found that if I am worried about an image not being sharp, I am usually right. Pixels are cheap…shoot enough to make sure you have your shot!
Shooting for stock, know your equipment, know your agency
If you are shooting with a stock agency in mind it is good to know just how high you can push your ISO before you reach the point where the agency is going to reject the image. That means you have to know both your own equipment and the standards of the agency. I was once shooting from the interior of a jeep on a mountain road in China. The scene, road-building equipment clearing a landslide, was lit by the headlights of the cars waiting for the road to be cleared. I shot the scene, hand held, but braced against the head-rest, at an ISO of 1600 with a Canon 1ds. Man did I work on that image in post (processing the digital files)! They accepted it too. With the newer cameras I have no qualms about shooting at 400, I am comfortable shooting at 800 and don’t think 1600 would really be such a stretch. But don’t take my word for it…do some testing!
Exposure and more
RAW (the file format native to the camera) has been talked to death, but keep in mind that it is more akin to negative film than transparency film and I personally find that I can safely get another stop to a stop-and-a-half in post-shoot processing. Shoot RAW, not jpeg! As far as exposure, keep your histogram as far to the right as possible without clipping (going off the edge). If you loose your highlights (which are on the right hand side of the histogram) you probably can’t get them back. I guess in that way a digital file is like transparency film.
I am not a big user of on-camera flash, but it can be a real life-saver. I suggest a good starting point is to set your flash to under expose by two-thirds of a stop. That can help bring out details without overpowering the image…and looking like you used on-camera flash! If you do use on-camera flash it is generally a good idea to bounce it or at least put some sort of diffuser over it.
Use movement to your advantage
Another thing to keep in mind is that a little movement in your image isn’t necessarily an image killer. Sometimes you can make it work to your advantage. A year ago I was shooting in the train station in Mumbai, India. The station is indoors and while it wasn’t exactly gloomy, it still qualifies as low light. I put the camera over my head as high as I could hold it and fired off a half-dozen frames at an eighth of a second. I only shot six frames because at that point a machine gun carrying police officer politely but firmly informed me that photography in the train station was forbidden. That image, in which everything has movement, even the lamp posts, has already sold a number of times as a stock picture with Getty Images(1377). Sometimes movement can make an image more dynamic and help it convey a mood or message.