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How to Take Better Photos, Pt 5

October 24, 2009

Shooting in low light without a flash

First, let’s define low-light conditions.

Low light is obviously the absence of bright light, but when talking about cameras, it basically entails any situation that’s not outdoors during daylight hours (unless you’re shooting in a studio or a room with an abundance of natural light). Yes, this encompasses your typical indoor shooting situation.

Why? Because, compared to our eyes, camera sensors suck at registering light. Our pupils can dilate to adjust to a staggering range of lighting conditions and, given a few minutes, we can see reasonably well in all but total darkness.

Cameras can’t.

The reason? Because exposure is a variable of three variables: aperture, shutter speed, and ISO (discussed in How to Take Better Photos, Pt 2). Put simply, each affects exposure as follows:

  • Aperture: the size of the lens opening through which light passes. A larger aperture allows more light to pass through to the sensor. This allows for “faster” shooting and reduces depth of field.
  • Shutter speed: controls how long the shutter opens and exposes the sensor to light. Fast shutter speeds “freeze” action. Slower shutter speeds open your shots up to blur, which you want to avoid unless it’s intentional.
  • ISO: dictates how sensitive your sensor is to light. At low ISOs, the camera demands more light, but captures clearer images with less grain. At higher ISOs, the camera sacrifices quality to make due with the light it can get. A higher ISO can help you get the shot, but you’ll have to accept the image noise that comes with it.

Most cameras suck in low light because they fall short in one of these three areas, which forces compromises from the other two.

The most common shortcoming is aperture. Point-and-shoot cameras have notoriously small apertures, so in low light they have to crank up the ISO to reach a reasonable shutter speed. Many kit lenses that come bundled with DSLRs suffer similarly small apertures, and face the same problems.

So what can you do if you want to shoot in low light?

If you have a point-and-shoot, sadly, you’re pretty much limited to cranking the ISO. A lot of P&S cameras have a mode that’ll do this on its own, but you’re going to have to live with wicked noise or equally wicked noise reduction processing.

If you have a DSLR, buy a fast prime lens.

What the $*@#* is a prime lens, you ask?

A prime lens is a lens with a fixed focal length (i.e. it doesn’t zoom). Yes, this means you have to move yourself to get the shot framed the way you want, but it’s worth it, for a few reasons

– First, because prime lenses tend to boast very large apertures up to f/1.4. Paired with the right camera, they can pretty much shoot in the dark. Paired with most cameras, they’ll kick ass in 90% of the situations you can throw at them.

– Second, because prime lenses have a simpler construction (because they don’t have to zoom). This means they are smaller, lighter, and cheaper than even crappy zooms. For example, the Nikon f/1.4 50mm prime runs about $130.

– Third, because of the simpler construction (i.e. less glass to distort things), prime lenses are among the sharpest lenses you can buy. Paired with their amazing depth of field capabilities, the effect is quite dramatic.

Now, if you’re in the market for a camera, a few suggestions.

If you’re looking at point-and-shoots, I’d say suck it up and buy a low-end DSLR. But maybe you just really like being able to carry a camera in your pocket or something. In that case, I’d start with the Canon PowerShot S90, which packs an f/2 lens. Because the sensor on a point-and-shoot is so small, you’re not going to get the awesome depth of field you’d get at f/2 on a DSLR, but you’ll be able to snap reasonable shots in low light.

Another option to consider would be any of Sony’s CMOS sensor-packing Cyber-shots, which as of this writing consist of the HX1, WX1, and TX1. The CMOS sensor itself boasts marginally better low-light handling, but it’s real value is the ability to shoot at a ridiculously fast 10 frames per second. Sony has very shrewdly built in some layer processing capabilities, which give these cameras the ability to shoot six frames in a split second (at high ISO), then combine them into a single, clearer image. This approach still doesn’t hold a candle to a capable DSLR, but it’s better than what’s come before.

If you’re looking for a DSLR and have money to burn, the full-frame models (which pack 35mm sensors vs the usual APS size) offer truly amazing low-light performance. But the Nikon D700 and Canon 5D Mk II both run around $2,500 for the body alone. If you’re not willing to drop that kind of coin, you have a ton of options out there when it comes to a solid consumer DSLR. The two I find myself recommending all the time are the Nikon D90 and Canon Eos T1i, but really any DSLR paired with a fast prime lens will get the job done.

Okay, so what about actually shooting in low light?

Honestly, half the battle of shooting in low light is having the right tools for the job.

The other half? Your settings.

First, man (or woman) up and turn your mode dial out of Auto. I’d also recommend disabling Auto ISO. This may mean you’ll have to take a few test shots to see how low an ISO you can get away with, but if you’re not taking a few test shots anyway, you may as well pack up and go home.

Once you’ve disabled Auto ISO (usually buried in some menu tree), switch your camera in to Aperture Priority and crank it as large as it’ll go. Remember, larger apertures are denoted by smaller numbers.

Also keep in mind that, with a large aperture, you’re going to have some ridiculously shallow depth of field. How shallow? Shallow enough that your subject’s nose may be in sharp focus, but the rest of their face might be a slight bit blurred. You can step the aperture down slightly, but keep in mind you’ll have to sacrifice either shutter speed or ISO to compensate.

Once the camera’s set and ready to go, start taking pictures. All the typical suggestions regarding framing and such still apply. Also, pay special attention to the camera’s focus points. I’ve had a lot of great pictures ruined because the camera chose to focus on something other than the subject’s face. It may help to put your subject in the middle of the frame while you focus, then keep the shutter pressed down halfway while you frame the shot.Unless you have a Nikon D3 or D700 with the crazy 51-point autofocus system which seems to pick out and focus on eyes as if by magic.

It takes time to get the hang of it, but don’t give up. The results are worth it.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. karenstuebing permalink
    January 15, 2010 5:04 am

    Great tips and I totally agree about having a prime lens. Sometime you want a macro lens or a telephoto lens but the first step IMO is learning to control DOF with aperture. Plus it’s fun to do this. 🙂

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