10 TIPS FOR TAKING BETTER LOW-LIGHT PHOTOS
Text and Images by Andrew Darlow, Editor, The Imaging Buffet
Low light photography can be challenging, but if you know a few basic tips, you can greatly improve the quality of your photos, whether you use a Digital SLR or a Point and Shoot camera. Here are ten tips to consider.
The inspiration for both of these articles came originally from a question that filmmaker, podcaster, and new media maven C.C. Chapman had about photography in low-light situations, such as a music gig (on that note, see this site, Accident Hash to hear some amazing music, recorded recently at a live concert in Nashville, TN (Episodes 216 and 218)). The question about low light photography was posted on a website (Tips From the Top Floor), which is a site filled with tips about digital photography, run by a great photographer based in Germany named Christopher Marquart. There is a tremendous amount of content (audio, video, a forum, a Wiki and more) on the site for all levels of photographers.
Another inspiration for these articles was Victor Cajiao. I just started doing a monthly audio tip for Victor’s Typical Mac User podcast. Victor has a fantastic podcast and website, with many great tips for anyone who uses a Mac. You can listen to my first audio comment here (my segment is about halfway into the show), and the main site for The Typical Mac User blog and podcast is here.
Tip #1: Shoot at Wide Apertures – Set your lens to its widest aperture setting, or one stop closed down from the widest aperture. An f/1.8 or f/2.8 maximum aperture lens, such as one of the popular 50mm lenses from Canon, Nikon and others are great choices because they are compact, generally inexpensive and very sharp. You can control your aperture by shooting on Aperture priority, which is almost always shown as an A on your camera. Your camera will then adjust the shutter speed using its built-in meter.
Wide-angle zooms are also great because they are usually fast, which means that they start from a wide aperture such as f2.8 or f4. I love wide-angle lenses because they can give a more dramatic look to your photos.
A selection of 19 lenses that fall into this range can be found in the related links section below.
(Fig 1) This image, shot at Macworld Expo 2006 during a demonstration of the MacBook Pro’s built-in camera, shows how a wide-angle lens and a Steve Jobs keynote can combine to help produce unique images. To reduce color noise, the LAB conversion technique described in tip 6 was used. Image Â©Andrew Darlow, all rights reserved
Tech info: Canon EOS-D60 DSLR with an EF Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 lens (set at 16mm), f/3.5 at 1/30 sec., ISO 800, Aperture Priority Mode
Tip #2: Use a Tripod – A tripod or monopod can make a huge difference. Tripods and monopods can help to make your images tack sharp, and you can generally shoot at lower ISO levels when you use a tripod or monopod (for example, from ISO100-400), especially if your subjects are not moving.
If you need to shoot handheld (like most of us normally do), I recommend setting your ISO from about 400 to 1600 ISO (and I’d recommend doing a quick test at your home first to see where the “breaking point” is). Shoot on Aperture Priority at ISO400/640/800/1200/1600 and then zoom into the images on your computer screen to inspect them. Some noise is OK, and to really test the quality, Iâ€™d also recommend making a few prints to see if the noise is problematic.
Also, try not to underexpose at very high ISOs because it will generally increase the amount of noise in the images. There are a number of tutorials online (search for: â€œunderstanding histogramsâ€) about how to read your histogram, which is a graph that shows the highlight to shadow values of your photo.
Tip #3: Shoot RAW – There are many reasons to shoot in your cameraâ€™s RAW mode, but the main one is image quality so consider shooting raw and then use software such as Apple Aperture, Apple iPhoto, Photoshop Lightroom or Photoshop’s Adobe Camera Raw to view and process your RAW images into JPGs, PSDs, TIFFs, etc.
These two images were shot near the Fulton Fish Market in downtown NYC during the filming of an upcoming motion picture starring Will Smith (that’s the reason for the extra lights around the bridge-I happened to walk by the area and it was quite an incredible scene). Both images were shot handheld within a few seconds of each other and they demonstrate the huge difference that different shutter speeds can make to an image in low light.
In this case, there is a two stop difference between the exposures, and that occured by just pointing the camera in slightly different places with the camera set to spot metering in Aperture Priority mode. Portions of these images (like the light in the forground) can also be combined in an image editor like Photoshop to keep detail in the bridge, while avoiding blowing out the detail in the lamps. Images Â©Andrew Darlow, all rights reserved
(above-Fig 2a) Tech info: Canon EOS-D60 DSLR with a Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 lens (set at 16mm), f/3.5 at 1/30 sec., ISO 400, Aperture Priority Mode
((above-Fig 2b) Tech info: Canon EOS-D60 DSLR with a Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 lens (set at 16mm), f/3.5 at 1/8 sec., ISO 400, Aperture Priority Mode
Tip #4: Switch to Manual Exposure Mode – If your lighting is pretty consistent, set the camera to Aperture priority, then find a good shutter speed and aperture for the space you are in, and then switch to Manual exposure and set the exposure that you determined was good for the ambient light.
Tip #5: Switch to Manual Focus Mode – If you can see clearly through your cameraâ€™s viewfinder, switching to manual focus can help avoid the annoying yet almost unavoidable â€œfocus huntingâ€ that cameras and lenses often do in low light with autofocus on.
Tip #6: Use Noise Reduction Software – Some noise reduction controls are built into Photoshop and most RAW processing software. Noise Ninja and Noiseware are both highly regarded standalone products, and both are Mac and Windows compatible. In Photoshop CS2, I often convert to LAB space and blur the A and B channels with Gaussian blur between 3-5 pixels, which reduces color noise. I then convert to RGB or CMYK, depending upon how the images are going to be used.
Tip #7: There are also image stabilized lenses and even camera bodies like the Sony Alpha 100 that have built-in image stabilization which can help you to get sharp pictures while keeping your ISO levels lower than if you did not have image stabilization. One of my favorite stabilized lens Canon “IS” lenses is the Canon EF 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM. It’s compact, lightweight, renders very sharp detail, and is competitively priced (about US$400). Just remember to turn off image stabilization when you have the camera on a tripod.
Tip #8: Keep Still! – This is easier said than done, but if you can find a wall, table or door to brace yourself against (or a chair to sit on), this can make a big difference in the sharpness level of your photographs. There are also some recommended ways to hold a camera steady. You can also practice slowly depressing the shutter before or after a long breath. Meditation and staying off caffeine works too!
Tip #9: Use a Flash Unit or Other Lighting Accessory – This is a tip that deserves its own section, but it is something to seriously consider. There are many flash units available on the market.
Tip #10: Bring a Flashlight (Or a Car) – And for my last tip, bring a small flashlight along when shooting in low light. It can definitely come in handy when you are searching for batteries, memory cards, or the perfect shot. Some cameras also don’t have a backlit function for their LCD display. A flashlight can add a beautiful dappled effect to a scene when you have your camera on a tripod (or if someone else is directing it toward your subject while you are shooting handheld). A car’s headlamps can also be used to light a scene in interesting ways. There are multiple intensities that can be used on most cars, from parking lights to high beams.
Photographed on July 3 just before midnight. Except for using the highlight/shadow tool in Adobe Photoshop CS2 to bring out some detail in the couple, no additional retouching was done to this image. Image Â©Andrew Darlow, all rights reserved.
(above-Fig 3a) Tech info: Canon EOS 20D DSLR with a Tamron SP AF11-18mm F/4.5-5.6 Di-II LD lens (set at 16mm), f/9 at 4 sec., ISO 200, Manual Mode
And most importantly, enjoy the subdued light! To sign up for our free newsletter The Inket & Imaging Tips Newsletter, featuring imaging tips, reviews, updates & special offers, plus: A direct link to 10 super-cool inkjet & imaging tips for Mac and Windows users; a PDF Resolution Chart; and another PDF with a list of selected inkjet papers and color managment links, enter your e-mail address in the box in the top right side of our website. View the most recent issue here. Feel free to let me know if these tips were helpful by sending me an e-mail at imaging@ andrewdarlow.com (just remove the space).
A selection of 19 compact and affordable lenses to consider for low-light photography
An excellent histogram primer by Michael Reichman of The Luminous-Landscape.com
Related books on Amazon.com.
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I recently did a presentation about inkjet printing and made available a “Resolution Chart” PDF which I created over 10 years ago. It’s nothing fancy, but I’ve found that the chart often helps people to better understand how file sizes change as PPI or file dimensions increase or decrease. It can also help to quickly determine the file size you need when ordering scans, or when making your own scans.
A cropped section of the Resolution Chart.
HOW TO GET THE CHART
A link to the resolution chart, along with 12 inkjet tips (one a week for 12 weeks), will be sent to you by subscribing to my Inkjet & Imaging Tips Newsletter, which is a free newsletter sent periodically with tips, information about gallery shows and workshops, as well as info about imaging related products and offers that I believe are valuable to readers. It’s not a newsgroup, so you won’t be sent messages by othersâ€“only I post to it, and it arrives in your in-box like most e-mail newsletters. The box to subscribe is below, or you can enter your e-mail in the form on the right-hand side of this website.
When you confirm your subscription, you’ll be directed to a landing page with two links-just copy and paste each link into any browser to see the 10 tips and to download the chart.
HOW TO USE THE CHART
After downloading the chart, you will see a series of numbers. Along the Y-axis (along the left side) are common film and image sizes (File Dimensions). Along the X-axis (across the top) are various PPI (pixels per inch) numbers, as well as some RES numbers. RES30, RES40 stands for Pixels Per Millimeter, and the term is often used by companies who make continuous-tone transparencies and negatives. (Just multiply the ppm (or RES number) times 25.4 to get the equivalent PPI).
To determine file size for a specific dimension and resolution (PPI), just choose a dimension, such as 11×14 inches, and follow the line across from 100-2032PPI to see how the file size changes (this assumes an 8-bit RGB file in TIFF format with no compression or extra layers). A grayscale file would be one-third the size since it has one instead of three channels. A CMYK file would be four times the grayscale file’s size because it has 4 channels.
HOW DO I KNOW WHAT RESOLUTION TO USE?
The question of what PPI at what size is always a question that comes up. I always say “test, test, and then test again!” to see what works for your images. I print most of my work around 300PPI at final size to inkjet printers and continuous tone photo machines (like those found at Pro Labs, or drugstores). However, 180-200PPI or even lower has been fine for me in most cases, especially when making larger prints. Your file’s image quality, plus the paper, printer and final output size all contribute to the final quality of your prints.
It’s quite amazing how relatively small files can make outstanding prints, especially if they are not over or under-sharpened or have artifacts (common with JPG files that have been compressed, or with lower-quality cameras). It’s also amazing to me how two different papers output on the same printer can show a very different level of visual sharpness.
DETERMINING FILE SIZE IN AN IMAGING PROGRAM
You can check just about any file size quickly in a variety of imaging programs. Below, I show the File>New dialog box for Adobe Photoshop. Just enter the dimensions, PPI and Color Mode (for example, Grayscale, RGB, etc) and you will see your file size appear at the top of the box.
If you are an educator and would like to make copies of this chart for your students, please contact me, and I will review your request. I’ve seen many of my students truly understand for the first time the concept of resolution after seeing how it works in a visual form.
All the best!
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