Light is vital for taking photographs. If we had our own way as photographers, we would only utilise venues and times of the day when the light is ideal, but more often than not we don’t have perfect light, and instead we need to deal with what we have.
Sometimes you can improve matters massively by using off camera lighting (either strobes or speedguns/flashes) or on camera flash. If using on camera flash it is always preferable to bounce the light off a wall or ceiling. But what can you do if you have a low light venue with no additional lighting options as either you don’t have access to them or they are not permitted?
First and foremost there will be some light sources no matter how dull so use them to your advantage. Position your subjects as close to windows or light sources as possible to achieve better lighting. Try not to photograph with the light sources behind your subject and therefore directly in front of you as it will actually be the darkest lighting and your camera will struggle to read the environment. f you have some strong light sources but other wise dark rooms you can use these areas to your advantage creating atmospheric areas of light and shade.
Next this is where a good camera and lens will come to the fore. Good cameras have sensors with better sensitivity to low light. The measure of this is the ISO. I explained more about the basics of ISO in my previous article covering the basics of ISO, Shutter speed & Aperture. So essentially by having a camera which has a sensor with a higher ISO range you will be able to deal with dimmer light situations where all other aspects are equal.
In addition to a good camera body a good lens with a wide aperture (low F stop number) will also help in low light. As also discussed in the above mentioned article, the wider the aperture the better it is in a low light situation. By using a 2.8F or better lens you will give yourself at a significant advantage.
So we have discussed aperture and ISO but what about shutter speed? The slower the shutter speed the more light that will hit the sensor. There is only so slow you can go though before you will start experiencing issues with motion blur or camera shake. How low you go will depend on what you are photographing, with what lens, and if you are using a tripod. Oh and just how dark it is! If photographing action you can take advantage of motion blur and try to create dynamic images showing the movement. You will need to go quite slow though to make the motion obviously intentional and not accidental.
I try to balance my ISO, shutter speed and aperture to produce the best quality image possible. I will always shoot at the widest aperture possible in low light, I then lower my shutter speed down to the focal length of the lens and then hit the ISO. If it is still too dark I will drop my shutter speed lower taking a burst of three images. By taking three in a row although at least one will be affected by camera shake it is likely I will get one image of the three that is good. I will also underexpose the image using exposure compensation because I can produce a better quality RAW file which I can pull up the exposure on when editing. Sometimes it will just be too dark to photograph hand held and you will need to use a tripod, but your subject will need to stay still to get an image without motion blur, or you can utilise the movement to create a dynamic image.
When it is dark another factor will be your camera’s ability to focus. The camera’s auto focus ability relies on areas of contrast to pick up an accurate focus. The best tip is to focus on something bright or light coloured. If your camera is struggling to focus still there are two main options. First turn off auto focus and instead switch to manual focus. This takes some skill but is perfectly workable for stationary or slow moving subjects. Secondly you can introduce a light source for you to focus on which you then turn off before taking the image. A good example is to ask the subject to shine the torch light on their phone on to their faces. Alternatively you can carry a small hand held torch for the same purposes. If you are using on camera flash you may still find that there isn’t enough light for the camera to focus prior to the flash firing. Using a torch as mentioned is normally a good option or a lot of flash guns now have in built red light focus grids. If your flash does when not in continuous focus mode the flash fires from it’s front a red grid which is displayed on your subject which allows your camera to then focus on that grid.
Without being able to use additional light sources which is very common for most church weddings you will always be fighting and will have to accept a degree of grain and noise in your images, which is the trade of using a higher ISO. The featured image of this post is a prime example of grain, it was shot at 160/sec, 2.8F and 8000ISO. Considering the focal length was 165mm I really couldn’t go much slower on the shutter speed. Yes there is grain but it adds to the image and shouldn’t be seen as a negative.
Photographing in RAW you will give yourself a far greater degree of flexibility to rescue an image. Firstly you will be able to eliminate the noise and also reduce grain. Personally if photographing in particularly dark venues I tend to edit most of my images in black & white. The reason being when removing the noise from an image LR makes a judgement call as to what colour should have been there rather than the incorrect colour which was recorded. The general result is that depth of colour is lost and images often look flat and bland, but by working in black & white a visually more appealing image can be created.
Hopefully this article will better prepare you to photograph in low light situations. In a future post I will look in more detail at how you can utilise additional lighting to transform an area from low light to good light so keep watch.