A refresher course in low light photography

I am finishing up teaching a workshop in street photography at the Maine Media Workshops this week. As I have for the last decade or so, I am enjoying the students and the community that come together at the workshops. The place has an incredible energy and sharing that can only be experienced in person. In the spirit of that, I am blogging in response to a student’s recent question.

As I have been teaching and being a part of the photo community that gathers each week in Rockport, Maine, I have been reminded of a few things. These include:

• Photographers tend to be solo practitioners, which can be good and bad. Getting out of our isolated bubbles occasionally is a good thing.

• The love of photography that drives me is a pretty amazing thing, especially when you see a hundred other similarly motivated people.

• While I like to think of myself as good photographer, I see so much great work here every year. It reminds me that I am also here to play to my other real strength, which is as a teacher. My job here is to explains things that many photographers know, but not every photographer can convey.

To see more about the workshops, start at: http://www.mainemedia.edu/ In the spirit of sharing information, I am responding to a question I was recently asked when a student wrote:

A friend asked me to photograph a dance performance. It is in a very small, dark place, and I’m wondering if you have any tips on this sort of shoot since I’ve never shot anything like it (technical considerations, flash, and photographing without inconveniencing the performer or audience—especially with regards to flash and noise.)

So here goes:

1) Use a fixed focal length lens, probably a 50mm f/1.4 or 1.8. Zoom lenses have become so dominant that many younger photographers never use fixed focus lenses, which generally have very large maximum apertures. That is too bad because those lenses can open up a whole new world of creative opportunities, especially in terms of working in lower light and using shallower depth of field.

2) Use a monopod at minimum or ideally a tripod, to reduce camera shake. We all know that tripods are great for stability, but are often inconvenient to carry and/or impossible to use in certain situation. A monopod can be a good alternative. Monopods are best at reducing the vertical movement in your camera. The mirror inside the camera exacerbates that same motion as it flips up and down.

3) Try to scout the location where you will be photographing, in advance, to figure out where the best light is on the stage. Similarly, go to practices in advance so you know who does what and where on the stage. These may not always be possible but they will considerably improve your prospects for making good images.

4) Practice holding the camera the right way. In each class I teach I am surprised how few people actually do that correctly. It makes a huge difference if you are keeping your camera steady (or holding it so it is more prone to move and shake. ) Some simple videos to show what I mean can be found at http://endlessyears.com/?p=182 and http://www.lightstalking.com/how-hold-slr

5) Learn how to get a good histogram while using RAW files. A properly exposed RAW file has two benefits. Off the top, a RAW file has more usable information than a JPG. A properly exposed RAW file has much less noise than an underexposed file that has been “fixed” in post-production.

I hope that this little course in basics of low-light photography is of some help. In the spirit of sharing that is brought to life each week at the Maine Media Workshops, I hope you will share it with anyone else who can benefit from it.

2 responses to “A refresher course in low light photography”

  1. I’d add never be afraid to use a higher iso to get a faster shutter speed. Getting a slightly noisy shot (which can be processed post process to reduce the noise) beats not getting the shot at all or getting a shot that is marred by motion shake.

  2. David, Sound advice on the low light photography topic. I shoot quite a bit of dance events every year and have some experience in this. All the events I shoot are indoors with stage lighting, which are often contrasty and has mixed colors so always harder to shoot. I shoot with a 200F2.8 and a 135F2 lens on my canon. As David said, I only shoot RAW as there is so much information I get back, especially since I underexpose and get back all the details in post processing. I do not use a tripod/monopod as the dancers I am shooting are often fast enough that I have to shoot at least 1/400 of a sec. I often go for the rehearsals so I know how when the best poses are going to be during the performance. It also helps me to gauge the lighting and maneuvering I need to do on the performance day.

    You can see a few examples on my blog

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