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Tutorial: 10 Tips For Taking Better Low Light Photos

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.

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(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 ©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, I’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: “understanding histograms”) 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 camera’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.

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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 ©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 camera’s viewfinder, switching to manual focus can help avoid the annoying yet almost unavoidable “focus hunting” 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.

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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 ©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).

Related Links:

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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