Low Light Photography – A How To
I’ve had many people ask me how to get into low light event photography. I can say in all honesty, in my opinion of course, that it is the most difficult type of action photography out there. Light is the fuel that powers our cameras. The more you have, the easier it is to take good pictures. When you shoot in low light, you need a camera and lenses made to operate on much less light than a typical SLR or point and shoot.
A camera can control light in three ways: Shutter Speed, ISO, and Aperture. Each function is used to control specific aspects of quality and composition in photographs.
Shutter speed is oh so important in low light event photography. If your subject is moving regularly, as a dancer would, you will need a shutter speed that allows you to capture a portion of the subject in focus, or your photograph is not going to pass muster. The golden rule is to keep the eyes in focus, but if you can be creative in your focal control, other areas can make for very interesting shots. I find that I can handhold and shoot at 1/50 s and get very useable results. I also am very practiced in holding my self still and controlling my breathing to keep from blurring these shots. If the subject is moving their limbs but you can capture their face with good focus, it can make for a very good action shot. If you wish to get the entire subject in crisp focus, you will need to increase your shutter speed, maybe all the way up to 1/250 s. That will require much more light and/or extreme changes in the other two areas: ISO and Aperture. I find that if I have the light and my other settings are where I want them, I use 1/80 s shutter speed most of the time.
ISO controls the sensitivity of the light sensor in a digital camera or refers to the sensitivity of film to light. The higher the ISO value, the less light it takes to capture the image at a given exposure and the more artifacts that will appear in your photographs. For many cameras, beginning at 1600 ISO, graininess begins to show. While some amounts of grain in photos is acceptable, and sometimes even desired, it is best to shoot at as low an ISO as your camera is able. I shoot with a Nikon D700 which has exceptional ISO capabilities. I can shoot at 6400 ISO and still procure useable images. This is an ability of this specific camera which is why I use it for this specialty. If you wish to shoot low light event photos, you will need a camera that can shoot well at high ISOs.
Aperture controls the size of the opening that light travels through within the lens before it enters the camera body. Changing the size of this opening controls how much of the photograph will be in focus. This is referred to as Depth of Field. While contrary to thinking, the smaller the number in an aperture rating, the larger the opening. Lenses are called fast if they possess an aperture rating of f2.8 or lower. Lenses also become much more expensive the faster they are. Prime lenses, those which are set at an unchangeable (fixed) focal length, can be very fast. Lenses that measure f1.8 or f1.4 and even f1.2 can be procured to allow much more light into the body, which in turns allows for the shooter to increase shutter speed (to reduce or remove unwanted motion blur) or reduce ISO (to reduce or remove unwanted grain). Aperture can be tricky however as the faster you set your lens, the less depth of field it will have. If you are shooting photos at distance, this will help somewhat but you should always be aware of your subjects eyes or notable features to ensure they are in focus, as other parts of the subject can and will fall out of focus.
First things first, shoot in Manual mode. You can try to shoot with the camera auto selecting your settings but I guarantee you will not get very many, if any, good photos. You should be working hard to know your camera settings as well as your own name. This type of shooting requires an intimate knowledge of how ISO, Shutter Speed, and Aperture affect each other. I can’t stress enough, practice, practice, and practice some more. Go out and shoot shows every chance you get. Most local bands and acts do not care if you bring a camera and shoot. While you will need to get permission to sell the photos, you can obtain lots of experience shooting in low light.
DO NOT USE A FLASH. The purpose of this article is to help you shoot subjects in the element of stage lighting. This is how the audience sees them, this is how you will get dramatic lighting and shadows and textures. Flash makes most photos 2-dimensional. It removes shadows or creates overly harsh ones and does not make very attractive event pictures. Once you have mastered shooting without a flash, then and ONLY then, should you experiment with one. This is all my opinion of course but, I’m sticking with it.
Be careful with zoom lenses. They are great for getting intimate pictures of the subject, and I do love mine but, when you are zoomed to the max, all movement of the camera is accentuated making it much harder to shoot crisp photos. Be aware of this and make sure your photos are coming out right while shooting. You very well may want to increase your shutter speed and practice and be very aware of your hand holding technique.
During small breaks, check your focus in the photos. Pull one up on your LCD and zoom into it, looking to see if the subjects eyes or other focal points are in focus. If they are not, you need to up your shutter speed or improve your hand holding. I constantly go through and delete photos that I can see are outside my range of acceptable focus. This keeps my card clear for more photos and keeps you aware of what settings you’ll need to shoot in the low light environment you are in at the time.
While this is not an exhaustive list, and believe me, the more you do this the more things you’ll pick up, it is a good representation of what you’ll need to go down the path of a low light event photographer. One thing I cannot stress enough is that this takes a lot of practice and experimentation. The best part (and why I love it) is that every shoot is different and often every performer, as the lighting changes constantly. If you love a challenge, this is definitely a good field to look into.
If you have any questions, feel free to comment or send them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks and good luck!