Archive for Sunday, March 23, 2008

Behind the Lens: Special techniques help with photos shot in fading light

Hot springs revelers enjoy soothing waters as night falls March 11 in Strawberry Park natural hot springs north of Steamboat Springs, Colo. This photograph was shot in low light, using available light to keep a moody feel without using a flash.

Hot springs revelers enjoy soothing waters as night falls March 11 in Strawberry Park natural hot springs north of Steamboat Springs, Colo. This photograph was shot in low light, using available light to keep a moody feel without using a flash.

March 23, 2008


I took this picture last week while vacationing in Colorado. The photo is of the Strawberry Park natural hot springs north of Steamboat Springs, Colo.

My host urged me to bring my camera.

After a late start and a bumpy four-wheel drive ride into the mountains, my friends and I arrived. One problem, though: It was getting dark.

As the light was fading, I approached a group lounging in the waters and asked them if it would be OK if I photographed them. That sounds so journalistic of me, even while on vacation. But I love photographing people. And, well, whipping out a camera in a place where clothing is optional can raise some alarm.

So, after they agreed, I begin working the scene.

Since it's so dark I have to do a few things to compensate.

First, open up the aperture. Second, raise my ISO, or camera sensitivity. And third, lower the shutter speed.

This third one is the trick to a lot of low-light photography. If you're using a SLR or a point and shoot, holding the camera still enough at a low shutter speed can be tricky.

The obvious way to correct for this is to turn on your flash and just light everything up. But then this type of picture wouldn't be possible.

This picture was shot at 1/50 of a second. You can easily halve or quarter that speed if you're not comfortable with the way high ISO or high sensitivity looks.

A word of caution, though. The longer the focal length you're using, the less likely you'll be able to shoot at a lower shutter speed. Instead of zooming on something in low light, trying physically moving closer, keep your lens wide and steady your camera.

So here are a couple of tips that I found work, through trial and error:

Elbows in

When shooting pictures, even in broad daylight, keep your elbows in. Press your arms against your body. This keeps your camera much more sturdy, which reduces camera shake. Also, it keeps your elbows from being bumped into by passers-by, which is just annoying.

Move around

While some of the most interesting pictures are made from extreme angles, these same angles can be used to steady your camera. If you're already lugging a camera around and photographing, you're not exactly blending in. You might as well lie down on the ground.

Make a triangle out of your elbows and camera and press the camera against your forehead. When you hit the shutter, don't jab at it but gently squeeze, so as not to jerk the camera. You'll be surprised at how slow of a shutter you can shoot while lying down.

Or try setting the camera on the roof of your car for slower shutters. The shiny surface of your car can also act as a mirror and make some interesting reflections. Leaning against a wall and railings are also handy ways to keep the camera steady.


RedwoodCoast 10 years, 2 months ago

Funny, I've actually done all of that, including using the top of my car and jmadison's tripod.

I have a mini-tripod that combines the two methods. It stands about 4-5" tall when erected (just realized I've been watching too much Beavis and Butthead lately). I place that on top of my car, or wherever else might be steady. It was a gift, so I don't know where to get them. It is probably the handiest camera accessory I have. I like to do a lot of vehicular exploration of the countryside, and sometimes conditions mandate that I use the mini-tripod-car technique.

toefungus 10 years, 2 months ago

I drink before I shoot. I seem pretty steady at the time, but the subject seems to always move.

Janet Lowther 10 years, 2 months ago

John Henry forgot one important item in holding a camera steady which may not obvious to young folk who started out with digital point & shoots: Use the viewfinder so the camera is pressed against your face, so the camera is supported at three points, two hands and your face.

I have been shooting available light for about 40 years and if a shot at 1/30th of a second is blurry it is almost always because the subject moved, not 'cause I jiggled the camera. With a normal lens (50mm on a 35mm camera) I do as well at 1/15 second with a Leica rangefinder camera as I do at 1/30 with a SLR, and while it is a bit of a "hail Mary" shot, I've brought home good shots at 1/8 second hand held.

For shooting in low light, it is also important to have a reasonably fast lens. For my ancient Leica the slowest lens I have is an f:2, with most being f:1.4, which will let me shoot with about 1/4 the light which would be required with the fastest lens I've seen on a digital point & shoot.

When it comes to "available darkness" film cameras still outshine their digital brethren: The grain of a really fast film (ISO 1600+) is usually less objectionable than the digital noise most digital cameras produce at high speed, if they can even reach these really high sensitivities.

Fast film, a fast lens, and a steady hand will produce good pictures in lighting vastly dimmer than the point where point & shoot cameras start popping their flash.

KLATTU 10 years, 2 months ago

At this time 35mm film is still better at most ISOs than compact digital cameras, but digital SLR cameras blow 35mm film away at higher ISOs. My digital photos shot at ISO 1600 with a Canon 20D look as clean or cleaner than what I used to get with ISO 400 35mm neg film.

DSLRs capable of excellent low light photo quality are available now for less than $500, and soon the price will be right back down to where entry level film SLRs were priced before the digital revolution ($250ish).

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