How Low Can You Go?

Guest Post & Photo by Joe Farace

Available light, unavailable light, available darkness, or low light. It doesn’t matter what you call it, the truth is that the most rewarding photographs can be produced when working under challenging lighting conditions.

First, there is the thrill of overcoming technical obstacles that might normally prevent you from producing a well-exposed image. Second, photographs made under conditions different from the F16 and the sun over your right shoulder standard and have a more eye-catching look. Third, taking the time to search out other than normal lighting conditions, such as those that exist just after dawn or before sunset will produce photographs that will make yours look truly different from the rest of the packs.

To make successful low light images start with a combination of fast lenses and ISO settings often combined with a slow shutter speed. Whether used in automotive or photographic terms fast is a relative term.

*Fast ISO Settings: While you can always use ISO 200 speed for available light photography, you’ll probably want to bump up your cameras ISO settings when the light is low. How much will be determined by existing light levels and by how much digital noise you can tolerate. The biggest issue for time exposures with digital capture is noise build-up and its spread across the frequency spectrum. And is exacerbated by slow shutter speeds and high ISO settings.

*Fast lenses: My favorite lenses for indoor available light photography are prime focal length f/1.8 or faster lenses but I occasionally use zoom lenses because you rarely have ideal choices for camera locations and positions. Forget digital zooms if you care about image quality. Digital zoom crops and saves a small portion of the sensors data, then interpolates this new, smaller amount of image data back to the original file size. I call this feature mostly useless because it is.

*Slower shutter speeds: The average photographer can usually hand hold a camera at a shutter speed equal to the reciprocal of the focal length of the lens although I have a suspicion that this changes as we get older. Factoid: Unlike shooting film under low light conditions with long exposures, digital cameras are not subject to exposure or color balance reciprocity failure. Need help with those slower speeds?

*Image stabilization/Vibration reduction lenses: Im not getting any younger and my ability to hold 1/15th of a second consistently is not quite as good as it was a few years ago. This means Im more than likely to use an image stabilized lens to make sure that technology is helping me capture a sharp image. Canon calls their series of image Stabilization lenses IS and Nikon are VR for Vibration Reduction. Pentax and Sony build an anti-shake feature into the camera bodies meaning that all their lenses, even old Pentax MF lens, are image stabilized. No matter what you call it, image stabilization is a good feature to have when working under available light.

*Sturdy camera supports: Any tripod is a three-legged friend that has the simple job of holding your camera steady. How it accomplishes that task is a matter of personal preference, design, and price. A good tripod has just a few basic requirements: It must be sturdy enough to support your camera but lightweight enough so that you’ll take it along and use it. A good tripod protects the investment youve made in expensive optics by delivering the best possible photographs. Since 90% of sales of top-of-the-line tripods are to photographers unsatisfied with their old tripod, check the tripods construction. Does it lend itself to simple and inexpensive repairs? All of these factors add up to a tripod that will give years of service, and improve your photography at the same time. And thats not a bad combination.

Joe Farace is co-author with Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist, Barry Staver, of Better Available Light Digital Photography by Focal Press.