The Ultimate P52 | Week 1 | Low Light

Week 1: Low light 

What better time of year to practice low light, then around the winter solstice? Although our days are slowly getting longer, night definitely still comes quite early (sunset is still before 5pm for me), and we have several more months of shorter days ahead of us. 

There is no real specific definition of low light photography. At its core, it’s fairly self-evident that having a lack of good or bright light would put a scene into low light, but there are no defined thresholds to transition from bright light to low light. Most people equate night or darker toned images as low light, but there are many other images that fall into this category.

Some people define low light as using a single window, but as someone who often uses a one-window light setup, this to me doesn’t make a lot of sense, since I can use the same window on an overcast day or in full sun and have very different light quality. Others might say that shooting at night is the requirement, but there are plenty of overcast, winter days that are decidedly lacking bright light.

As a guideline, I typically consider any image requiring more light than ISO 800, 1/125, and the widest aperture on your lens. Certainly using a fast lens, f/1 – f/2, will allow you more opportunities, but not everyone is fortunate enough to be able to afford fast primes, and you might be using a kit lens that only opens to f/5.6. How you define low light is up to you, but I would work with these settings as guidance as you look for low light scenarios.

Also keep in mind, that low light doesn’t inherently have to *look* like low light, ie, it does not have to be dark. If you are using a high ISO but your image still comes out bright and airy looking, it still qualifies as low light. This just means that you’ve worked the exposure triangle in such a way that you have taken advantage of the available light to meet your artistic vision. Conversely, you might find scenarios that are absolutely flooded with light to the eye, but when exposing for the highlights of your scene, you are able to have the shadows fall to pure darkness due to the inverse square law. I would *not* consider this low light, despite the darker overall look to the image. See below for examples.

Here are some tips for photographing low light scenes:

  1. Do not be afraid to raise ISO; raise it higher than you think you should. Many people who are new to shooting low light have an innate fear of raising ISO for fear of grain. It is universally accepted that raising ISO and preserving shutter speed is vastly preferred to keeping ISO low and compensating with a lower shutter speed. Using too low of a shutter speed will likely introduce camera shake or motion blur, which cannot be corrected in post. Using an acceptable shutter speed but keeping ISO low in camera will often result in undesirable noise when raising exposure in post (there are exceptions to this for ISO-invariant cameras, but for this post, assume your camera is NOT ISO-invariant). 
  2. Unless you are very comfortable hand-holding your particular camera, do not let the shutter speed drop below 1/125. Newer cameras with good IBIS (in body image stabilization) can be hand held as low as 1/50 or so, but this takes much practice to know the limit. I can often shoot as low as 1/30 with my Z cameras, but I’m a fairly steady shooter, and I would not shoot a portrait with a speed that low. 
  3. Make sure your subject is in the highlight area of the image, and expose for the highlights. The highlights are the brightest area of the image and therefore collect the most light. If your subject is in shade, this is the darkest area, and you will have to really crank ISO and/or drop shutter speed. It’s also important to remember that noise lives in the shadows, so if your intended subject is in the shadows, it will inherently be noisier. It is hard to get a clean image of a very dark subject, no matter how capable your camera. I run into this sometimes with my black dog when she is sitting in the shade, and I either wait until she moves or coax her into a different location.

ISO 3200 | f/5.6 | 1/100 | Although this image seems too “bright” for a low light, due to the ISO and shutter speed, it qualifies as a low light image, as my lens was open to the max aperture. Low light does not need to be dark.

ISO 3200 | f/4.5 | 1/100 | A more traditional low light image, I exposed for the highlights in the bright patch of the pantry, and let the inverse square law turn the shadows very dark. I did not want bright light throughout this image, and wanted to highlight the light fall throughout the rooms.

ISO 8000 | f/5.6 | 1/60 | Do not be afraid to raise ISO; this camera body/lens combo has particularly good IBIS, so I did use a slightly slower shutter speed than I might with a different setup. This image is SOOC with no editing, and there is very little noise throughout because the exposure was spot on. What noise there is can easily be managed in post.

ISO 12800 | f/5.3 | 1/800 | This image required a high ISO because I needed a fast shutter speed to capture the sports in action. I did not need to expose for the shadows behind the field and chose my settings on keeping the exposure correct for the players.

ISO 8000 | f/5 | 1/160 

ISO 125 | f/4.5 | 1/200 | Surprise! This image is not low light. Many people would consider this image low light, since much of the frame is in shadows. However, when you see the very low ISO, you realize the room was actually flooded with light, but settings chosen to maintain highlights and work with the inverse square law to throw the shadows very dark. The first image shown was much more low light, as evidenced by the settings, but yet it appears brighter overall. You cannot judge the quality of the light in any given image solely by shadows and highlights; you need to know the exif data to make a determination as to the amound of light available. 

Here are two examples of the dangers of raising ISO in post. I had a hard time finding examples of this as my newer cameras are largely ISO invariant, and my D700 which I pulled out to take these samples, although very old, has extremely good high ISO performance. If you are using a newer camera, you might be able to ignore ISO to some extent, but I highly recommend just raising ISO in camera to set your exposure. You can see that the ISO 3200 images, on the right in both examples (these are the same images, just different parts of the frame) there is less noise overall in the shadowed areas, and the text is slightly sharper as well because there is less noise overall. 

Lastly, here is an example of trying to keep ISO so low that you need to reduce your shutter speed to get your exposure. Notice how the image on the left is very blurry from camera shake. Noise levels in both images are the same, but by increasing my shutter speed to a comfortable hand holding level AND increasing exposure the same amount, the image on the right is much cleaner and a better overall image.

I hope you find this week inspiring, and if you take any photos for the theme, please use the hashtag #lightandmagicp52 on Instagram so I can cheer you along.

PS – You can find the complete list of themes and project outline in this post.

Follow along with my Project 52 in 2023

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