Introducing Low Light Photography
For those of you who primarily shoot with a smartphone or even a point & shoot, there are certain genres of photography that can be quite intimidating to try out. Low light photography, e.g., is one such genre. It is almost a taboo for lots of beginner and casual shooters. To be fair, a lot of these shooters don’t quite know how to deal with a scene where there isn’t much light to go around. Sometimes they employ techniques that are technically incorrect or not devoid of inherent issues. These techniques result in images that are not quite what they see in magazines or art exhibitions.
The thing is, despite all the challenges, low light photography is an extremely interesting genre. With a little bit of knowledge and practice you too can make wonderful portraits or landscape or other images in low light situations. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you can’t do something in photography. As the legendary Ansel Adams had said, “There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs.”
What Is Low Light Photography?
Low light photography is basically about making images in a situation where there is a lack of sufficient light. Light is the essence of all photography. Without it there can be no images. Certainly, the subject of photography doesn’t even exist without light. Now, what is sufficient? This is difficult to answer. What’s insufficient for one photographer probably is sufficient for another. So, the answer is subjective. It depends on the individual skill of the photographer, the equipment that s/he uses and of course on what s/he attempts at photographing.
Let’s say that a photographer want’s to shoot an after dark portrait of a model against a beautiful bluish black sky. Sure, there is not much light to go around. But if you know what tools to use you can still make it work. I am referring to external lights here, like flashes and strobes.
Now, let’s say the same photographer wants to make a landscape image after dark. Can s/he make it work? You can’t light an entire mountain side with strobes and flashes (that’s technically and theoretically too might be possible but economically will be an idiotic misadventure). So, you’d say no. Right? I’d say still possible. Look at Ansel Adams’ Moonrise over Hernandez and you would realize that great images can be shot in almost any lighting situations, provided the photographer knows how to exploit the light.
The Easy Way Out
I wrote about sufficiency of light and how that depends on the individual skill of the photographer. Most beginner or casual shooters feel that the best answer for low light is a higher ISO setting and or the built-in flash of their camera. I am not in great favor of using the built-in flash. It’s at best unidimensional. And I am not too keen on using insane ISO numbers as well. Call me old-fashioned or whatever, but I don’t like to sit and use the blur tool on Photoshop for several minutes in order to edit each of my low light photos. Not that I wouldn’t do either of the two. In certain situations I might do both. But then there has to be a strong reason for doing it. Those are not my primary tools of choice to tackle low light situations.
Alternate Ways To Shoot
So this is what I do. I don’t rely on the ISO alone nor on the on-camera flash. I use the basic exposure fundamentals as well as some external tools to counter low light situations. My first choice is to vary the shutter speed. Shutter speed controls the amount of light that enters the camera. This is something that aperture value does as well. But aperture value is not always the first choice to control the amount of light entering your camera. Because apart from controlling the amount of light it does something else as well. Increasing or decreasing the size of the aperture also alters the depth of field of your compositions. You don’t want that to happen after carefully composing your frame. So the obvious choice is shutter speed.
How To Use Long Shutter Speed
Now, if you are aware of the properties of shutter speed you would know for sure that the longer the shutter remains open the more light it can capture. This is the technique that I love using. It is referred to as ‘dragging the shutter speed’. Dragging the shutter speed entails keeping the shutter curtain open for a long time. This works for low light photos such as moon-lit landscapes, after-dark architecture photos, fireworks and of course star trails. I have a particular love for using the long shutter speed technique. There is literally a lot that you can experiment with if you know how to work with shutter speed.
Tripod Is A Must Have Tool For Shooting Low Light Photography
First rule of slow shutter speed is you need a tripod. Don’t ever try long exposure photography without one. A tripod will allow you to keep your camera on a stable platform. You can’t shoot long exposures / low light photography while hand holding your camera, period.
Keep Your ISO Number Low
Also, you don’t want your ISO to be too high. A long shutter speed like 3 seconds or longer is a sufficiently long time to collect a lot of light. You don’t need ISO sensitivity to be set at a very high level. Unless there is a specific need something, and I can’t think of any at the moment, ISO should be set to 100 or whatever the lowest possible on your camera. Another, reason why I don’t like high ISO, is that it does not do anything to gather more light. It simply boosts the ambient light signals and in the process adds noise. The higher the number, more is the noise that’s added.
Long exposures give you the freedom to use a small aperture. Because when shooting long exposures you can always compensate for the lack of light by keeping the shutter open for a longer duration.
Watch Out For Those Highlights
Highlight warning! There are bound to be some sources of light in your frame. Against an overtly dark background those will appear like blindingly bright white specs of light. On lenses that handle these poorly you will get coma. Try to stop down the lens sufficiently so that the light specs are converted into something that appears like star bursts rather than coma. There is no lens that is absolutely perfect. So some amount of coma is unavoidable. But if you have a sufficiently sharp lens and a high resolution camera you can stop down the lens just enough to achieve the effect that I am trying to convey here. Here’s an image to leave you inspired.
And For Those Shadows
Shadows in an image denote the areas that are dark and almost obscured. If you try to bring up the shadows in your image using in-camera techniques you risk blowing your highlights. That is always a very difficult balance to achieve. There are two ways to handle such a situation. You can either choose to make two or more exposures. One for the highlights, the other for the shadows and the third for the mid-tones. Then combine these three exposures to make one final image. This is the HDR technique that I am referring to. It works in some images, but not so in others. Personally, I prefer to leave from black and some pure white in the image. That way the overall image looks a lot more contrasty. That’s what I want. I don’t want a dull middle-toned image.
The other option would be to use some post-processing techniques. Both Lightroom and camera RAW allows you to bring up the shadows and suppress the highlights. I recommend using these techniques to ensure a more well-balanced exposure.
Using the right metering technique also helps. Find something middle-grey in the image and then base your exposure on that. Your camera comes with a metering mode known as Spot Metering. Spot Metering samples a small portion of the image in order to determine the optimum exposure. How small? Well about 1-5% of the viewfinder area. That is not the smallest, or the most accurate but is better than using the ‘average’ reading of the Matrix Mode on most cameras.
Low light photography works wonderfully well when you mix movement with it. Unlike anything else that you may have learned thus far, movement is beautiful in photography. Movement when done tastefully can impart your images a completely mesmerizing look. This works particularly well with architecture photos. Check the image below to get a feel of what I am trying to convey here.
Milky Way photography
Milky Way photography is an off-shoot of low light photography. This is only possible because of the technical advancements been made in camera and post-processing in the last decade or so. Cameras capable of shooting at insanely high ISO such as the Nikon DF or the Sony A7s are responsible for this. Also, post-processing software such Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop have evolved manifolds in the last few years leading to post-processing marvels that were unthinkable during the days of film.
Milky Way photography involves a combination of shooting techniques and then intense post-processing to make it possible to bring out the tiny delicate lights from distant stars in our galaxy. The key is in capturing a lot of light in a short time-frame. Yes, this means a fast shutter speed. Probably the only time when you would be using a fast shutter speed in low light situations.
A combination of a fast wide lens and a camera that is capable of producing clean frames at high ISO numbers is what you need. Alternatively you could get an ISO invariant camera. ISO invariance suggests that frames produced by a camera, at the lowest ISO, even when exposure adjusted in post-processing remain practically noise-less. In other words, an image shot at ISO 100 and then boosted 3 stops in Photoshop does not add any extra noise in the image than what an image shot at ISO 800.
A fast wide prime is the best lens. You would be shooting at the widest aperture that can. Why the widest aperture? Because even at the widest aperture your subject will not be out of focus. The stars are at a distance of several light years away; practically at infinity. It won’t matter what aperture you are using as long as you are focusing at infinity. But on the plus side when you use a wide aperture you can capture a lot of light in a short time frame.
I have revealed some aspects of post-processing required to improve your low light photos at various stages in this article. Low light photos require some amount of noise reduction. I don’t prefer using the built-in noise reduction techniques in Photoshop or Lightroom. They tend to soften down the whole image, which is unacceptable. You can use some of these techniques to remove noise from your low light images that I discussed previously.
Apart from noise reduction, you will also need to do a bit of white balance adjustment, sharpening, highlight and shadow adjustment.
Overall, low light photography is a wonderful genre. There is a lot that you can do with a little bit of imagination and practice. You are only going to get better as you practice, process and then compare your images with peers.