Low Light Photography: Big Challenge = Exciting Photo Ops

It doesn’t matter what you call it—available light, unavailable light, available darkness or low light photography—often the most rewarding photographs are produced when working under the most challenging lighting conditions. Photographs made under these lighting conditions are different from those made on a sunny day and often have a more eye-catching look. They also open the night and low light to making photos, times you might not have thought about as presenting fun photo ops in the past.

The Cathedral of San Juan Bautista in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico is the second oldest cathedral in the Americas, having started construction in 1521. I placed an Olympus E-3 with Zuiko Digital ED 12-60mm f/2.8-4.0 lens (at 12mm) on the cathedral’s floor to make this shot. Exposure was 1/13 sec at f/2.8 and ISO 1600. I tried variations of this shot using the camera’s AWB (too warm) and Tungsten (too cool) color balance setting and ended up using the AWB shot and correcting it using PictoColor Software’s (www.pictocolor.com) Correct EditLab Pro but then faded (Image>Fade) the correction by 50 percent to produce the color balance you see here.
All Photos © Joe Farace

To make successful low light images you’ll want to start with a combination of fast lenses and ISO settings often combined with a slow shutter speed. While you can always shoot at ISO 200 for available light photography when using a tripod, you’ll probably want to bump up your camera’s ISO settings when the light is low and you’re shooting handheld. How much you raise the ISO will be determined by how much digital noise—that’s exacerbated by long exposure times and high ISO settings—you can tolerate.

One of my favorite tips for photographers is to make a different kind of photograph each day. When I’m home I take a 3-mile walk around a nearby lake and always take a camera because I never know what I’ll encounter. When I’m traveling I take a walk at night because scenes, like this one at a mall near my hotel in Albuquerque, look completely different at night than they do during the day. I captured this image handheld, assisted by an Olympus E-5’s in-body image-stabilization, at 1/50 sec at f/3.2 and ISO 2500. To make it look even more different, I used Olympus’s in-camera Pop Art mode to punch up the color and add a touch of unreality.

When working under low light I prefer to use image-stabilized lenses or a camera body that has IS built-in. My ability to handhold at 1/15th sec and get a steady shot is not quite as good as it was a few years ago. This means I’m likely to use an image-stabilized lens/body and have this technology help me capture a sharp image. Indeed, most systems allow me to gain a 3-step advantage in shutter speed in steadiness, and that really helps in low light scenes.

With the sun low on the horizon, I used a Leica D-Lux 2 to make this image on the beach at Acapulco. While this camera does produce a little noise at the ISO 400 setting used to make this photograph, it’s mostly noticeable only in the boy’s white shirt. The exposure was in Program mode at 1/2000 sec at F/8.

The average photographer can typically handhold a camera at a shutter speed equal to the reciprocal of the focal length of the lens, meaning that if your lens has a focal length of 200mm the slowest shutter speed you can expect to get a steady handheld shot is 1/250 sec. And keep in mind the multiplication factor of your camera’s sensor, like an APS-C sensor found in many D-SLRs. That means that if you have a 130mm lens on say a Nikon D-SLR you have to figure the steadiness factor based on the effective focal length, or around 200mm, thus that 1/250 sec minimum speed again. However, if you have an image-stabilized setup (VR in Nikon speak) you could get away with 1/30 sec with the IS on.

This image was shot near midnight in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico using an Olympus E-3 and a Digital Zuiko 12-60mm f/2.8-4.0 lens. At 12mm, where this framing was set, the aperture is a fast f/2.8 and I had selected an ISO of 800. Aperture Priority mode exposure was 1 sec at f/11 with a plus 0.7 stop exposure compensation. The E-3’s in-body image-stabilization kept the camera steady at the slow shutter speed.