March 20, 2009

Photography Tips From a Pro on Shooting in Low Light

If you are shooting wide open, which is at the camera's largest aperture, your depth of field will be correspondingly shallow. That means your focus is going to be even more critical than otherwise. Pick a point that needs to be sharp and really pay attention to keeping that point sharp. Generally, if you are shooting people, the most important thing to keep sharp is the eyes. When I am shooting people I focus on the eyes, shoot, re-focus and shoot again...and then do it all over again. I can't tell you how much I hate to be editing and find that I have a potentially great shot, but out of focus eyes ruin the picture. I have found that if I am worried about an image not being sharp, I am usually right. Pixels are cheap...shoot enough to make sure you have your shot!
Shooting for stock, know your equipment, know your agency
If you are shooting with a stock agency in mind it is good to know just how high you can push your ISO before you reach the point where the agency is going to reject the image. That means you have to know both your own equipment and the standards of the agency. I was once shooting from the interior of a jeep on a mountain road in China. The scene, road-building equipment clearing a landslide, was lit by the headlights of the cars waiting for the road to be cleared. I shot the scene, hand held, but braced against the head-rest, at an ISO of 1600 with a Canon 1ds. Man did I work on that image in post (processing the digital files)! They accepted it too. With the newer cameras I have no qualms about shooting at 400, I am comfortable shooting at 800 and don't think 1600 would really be such a stretch. But don't take my word for it... do some testing!
Exposure and more
RAW (the file format native to the camera) has been talked to death, but keep in mind that it is more akin to negative film than transparency film and I personally find that I can safely get another stop to a stop-and-a-half in post-shoot processing. Shoot RAW, not jpeg! As far as exposure, keep your histogram as far to the right as possible without clipping (going off the edge). If you loose your highlights (which are on the right hand side of the histogram) you probably can't get them back. I guess in that way a digital file is like transparency film.
I am not a big user of on-camera flash, but it can be a real life-saver. I suggest a good starting point is to set your flash to under expose by two-thirds of a stop. That can help bring out details without overpowering the image...and looking like you used on-camera flash! If you do use on-camera flash it is generally a good idea to bounce it or at least put some sort of diffuser over it.
Use movement to your advantage
Another thing to keep in mind is that a little movement in your image isn't necessarily an image killer. Sometimes you can make it work to your advantage. A year ago I was shooting in the train station in Mumbai, India. The station is indoors and while it wasn't exactly gloomy, it still qualifies as low light. I put the camera over my head as high as I could hold it and fired off a half-dozen frames at an eighth of a second. I only shot six frames because at that point a machine gun carrying police officer politely but firmly informed me that photography in the train station was forbidden. That image, in which everything has movement, even the lamp posts, has already sold a number of times as a stock picture with Getty Images (1377). Sometimes movement can make an image more dynamic and help it convey a mood or message.
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