As mentioned before, we are going to start a little series of basic tutorials for (digital) photography. This will be the first post as part of many and as the definite ‘curriculum’ is not yet set and might change in depth and scope over time, if you have any particular topics that you would like to be covered, just drop us a line (firstname.lastname@example.org)!
We will initially deliberately avoid becoming too technical and will focus on practical application in these tutorials. However, if you feel you need more detail or would like to see more advanced tutorials, again, please just let us know!
Low Light Photography
I probably most often receive questions regarding low light photography – so I am going to start this little series of tutorials with this seemingly everlasting topic.
Common questions run along the lines of ‘Why are all my pictures blurry?’, ‘How should I set my camera at dawn or in indoor venues?’ and ‘Why does my Flash either produce a far too bright/unnatural foreground while the whole background is pitch black or doesn’t seem to illuminate at all?’
To tackle the first two:
‘Why are all my pictures blurry?’ ‘How should I set my camera at dawn or in indoor venues?’
You seem to have the wrong setting! In most compact cameras and the entry DSLRs you will find many preconfigured settings that are trying to accommodate low light situations. However, these are bound to be approximations as clearly not all situations are the same. So, more often than not, your picture might benefit from a manual setting.
In essence, these pre-sets play around with three key variables:
– the AV (= Aperture value)
– the Shutter speed
– the ISO settings
The AV is responsible for your depth of field. The higher the value you are seeing, the more focused detail you will notice in your pictures – the depth of field increases. The lower the value on your display, the more your background will be blurred – lower depth of field. Most cameras have AV settings, why not play around a little to understand what I mean?
The Shutter speed is basically the time-frame that the shutter of your camera is allowed to open to let in light to actually take the picture. The slower the shutter speed, the more light gets into your camera. So, obviously, which value you will need to take depends on the light available in every single of your shots, which is where the inbuilt light meter of your camera comes into play. Set your camera on manual and look through the viewfinder. You’ll see a little bar at the bottom. If you now play with the shutter setting, you will see that the little point intersecting moves to either left or right. You expose correctly in relation to the other two variables when it is in the middle. Sometimes you might want to choose to over- or underexpose, but we’ll come to that in a later tutorial on composition and effects.
The ISO corresponds to what used to be the film speed in analogue photography. A higher value indicates that ‘your film’ is more sensitive to the available light, i.e. a higher ISO value allows you to take pictures in low light.
Let’s put these together for low light situations:
A lower AV value will introduce some blur in the background, but it will also allow your lens to be faster at a given shutter speed (I’ll talk about the speed of lenses and general equipment in a later posting – watch out for the ‘equipment’ tag).
Set your AV at a low value. Now progressively push up your ISO value while each time adjusting your shutter speed so that your little bar is in the middle (if you like, you can also try this on AV setting only first and only play with the AV and ISO combination for starters). Depending on the available light you are in, you will notice that you might have to push up the ISO by quite a bit, but that generally you will be able to take better pictures with less camera shake and blur.
A note of caution: The only set back in using a higher ISO is that it introduces noise or ‘grain’ in your picture. That said, if your ISO is perfect for the photo yet there is a significant increase in noise you can use software to sharpen up your digital photo. There are two good noise reduction software programs called “Noise Ninja” or “Neat Image”. If you don’t push the ISO higher you may struggle with camera shake if you don’t happen to have a tripod at hand. By adjusting the ISO you will find that noise is better than camera shake. In digital photography noise will always be something to consider.
So, whenever I am desperate for light without a flash, this is the technique I use:
- Push up the ISO as high as possible
- Shoot RAW
- Use the lowest AV value for the lens at hand
- If shutter speeds are still too low to hand-hold, I slightly underexpose (the little pointer slightly to the left on the bar). This increases speed a little and I can push the exposure up again when I do my post-production work on the computer.
- Lastly, in post-production I use a slight noise reduction to reduce any grain/noise.
Although a fast lens can be very expensive, there are relatively affordable prime lenses out there (which means no zoom), like the Canon f1.8 50mm which is $80, or the Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM Lens that is just over GBP300. That extra stop or two can seriously make the difference in low light / no flash photography.
Now that we’ve talked about how to use available light, we’ll make a brief excursion to flash photography in our next tutorial. Make sure you check back often or subscribe to our feed or newsletter!