Low Light Photography: How Low Can You Go?
October 11, 2013
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As a photographer, light is your tool, your sword and your shield. Sometimes, in low light photography, it's fun to experiment with just how little light you need to capture an image while still producing a brightly exposed print rich with color. In low light photography, there is still light!
To capture stunning images in very little light, you must explore the concept of the time exposure. Otherwise referred to as the long exposure, this requires leaving the shutter open for a long period of time. Digital single lens reflex (DSLR) cameras typically have shutter speeds as low as 30 seconds. This means that from the time you press the shutter button, which opens the shutter, to the time the shutter closes again, light will be absorbed through the lens to the imaging chip during the entire 30 seconds. Whatever is not moving during those 30 seconds will be in sharp focus. Whatever is moving during those 30 seconds will be a blur, and those moving objects will create mist, streaks, smears, trails, halos and otherwise bizarre effects.
If your low light photography situation is so dim that it requires an exposure longer than 30 seconds, set your camera to "bulb" or "B." Using these settings allows you to leave the shutter open as long as you want.
Low ISO, Wide Aperture
Unless you regard grain and "noise" to be charming artistic statements, you should shoot at the lowest ISO possible and use the widest aperture and longest exposure time. At the widest aperture, focus becomes extremely critical, so also use the widest angle lens possible and let the auto focus find some sharp pinpoint of light in the distance as a reference point of focus for infinity. Infinity is the farthest-away point on which a lens can focus. Auto focus isn't always possible in low light conditions, and the infinity marking on the lens may or may not be accurate in these conditions. So, "bracket" by taking several photos, using best guess approximations for what is infinity and relying on your eye to judge focus.
The overall color balance in a photographic image—how "cool" (blue), how "warm" (yellow) or any variation in between—is particularly challenging in night scenes where there is a mixture of natural and artificial light. Experiment with different color-balance settings to find one you feel produces the most pleasing effect and the widest variety of colors.
Use a Tripod
Back in the 35mm or larger-format film days, the shutter button allowed for the insertion and attachment of a cable release, a wire with a notch on one end of the cable which attached to the camera's shutter button and a plunger on the other end of the cable which, when pressed, extended the notch on the cable to remotely fire the shutter button without nudging the camera body. The cable release freed the photographer from having to press the shutter button on the camera body itself. This produced a reliably crisp image. Most digital cameras have a smooth shutter button, so use of a cable release is no longer possible. The only antidote to potentially image-destroying motion blur in the digital age is to use a wide angle lens and a sturdy tripod.
Photo credit: mikekuhlmanPhotography