I hadn’t shot street in months, too many months. I was over-exposing like crazy. Had I actually forgotten how to shoot in natural light?
I’ve been shooting so many gigs over the last year or so that they’ve taken up a big portion of my shooting/editing and I just didn’t have that many outdoor subjects to shoot.
So when I started this Docs project, I was worried. Genuinely. A photographer who can’t take portraits in natural light is a joke. Truly. So I’m working on it, and it’s working. It’s partly why I started the project – apart from my curiosity about the people/shoes, it will also challenge my photography. And that can’t possibly be a bad thing.
So I thought I ‘d share my top ten tips for shooting in low light, seeing as I’m such an expert.
1/ Go RAW
I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. If you’ve got the technology, then why wouldn’t you shoot RAW? If you’re working with low light levels you can make do with a shot that’s slightly underexposed and then push the exposure and shadows in Lightroom afterwards. That is not cheating my friends, that’s getting the shot.
2/ Stay wide open
What’s your minimum aperture? If you’ve got a 1.8 (or wider, look at you), then open it right up to let the maximum amount of light in. If you’re still working with your kit lens that’s only hitting f3.5 at it’s widest field of view then you’re going to struggle to get anything without a flash/ tripod. It’s all about the lens, get a decent prime and you’ll see the magic that happens.
3/ Make it singular
If you’re shooting with a fast lens at big apertures then your depth of field is going to be minimised. Stick to a single point auto-focus allowing you to get more control over what the camera is capturing. This means you to get that clean shot of the performer’s face rather than the microphone – which is an auto-focus magnet so make sure you’re steering clear of it.
4/ Slow down
If you’re shooting without flash, even at f1.8 and 12oo+ ISO you’re possibly still not getting enough light in at a shutter speed of 1/250. So lower it. Yes you’ll get some blur, but try to find that sweet spot where the slower shutter speed creates a sense of movement rather than interferes with the shot.
5/ Hold your baby right
Tripods are a pain, they restrict your freedom and your thinking and if you’re working with live subjects it’s just not worth it. So learn how to turn your body into a tripod – get a good wide stance (not too wide, think shoulder width), brace your camera with your elbows against your body and hold that baby in a cradle. Rather than just thumb and forefinger on the lens, hold it like a cup of hot coffee on a cold day. Wrap your whole hand around the underside of the lens and let your camera know you’re there for it.
6/ You won’t always win
Learn to accept that it doesn’t always have to be perfectly exposed – maybe that slight underexposure is what gives the shot the ambiance it needs.
On most DSLRs you can set the camera to give you a B&W preview (while it still records colour on the RAW file). If you’ve pushed your ISO up to the limits then that noise will look much better in a monotone rendering. Also, if you’re using flash and the shots are looking a bit flat in colour, try them in monochrome and see if the high contrast works better.
8/ Tripod tactics
Yes, I did just tell you earlier not to, but if you’re doing anything other than a live performance then break out the tripod. Portraits, landscapes, cityscapes, lightwriting – you need a tripod for all of these and it will get you much better shots with a lot less frustration.
9/ Flash it
The built-in flash on your camera is really really really not going to cut it. You can find little diffusers (and tutorials to make your own) online but they’ll only get you so far. Invest in a flash gun and a trigger and your life will change for the better. The infrared focusing assist on the flash gun will also make it much easier to find your focus point.
Points to remember with a flash gun:
- Bounce – it takes a certain amount of skill/ artistic vision to pull of direct flash. Try to avoid it. Your camera will reach a total maximum of about 20m, that includes the bounce if you’re angling the flash gun up and over the subject.
- Stop down your flash to give you just enough light to shoot with without interfering/ flatten your image completely. Try rear curtain release to give you the added light you need to freeze your subject while giving you a slow enough shutter speed to capture ambient light aswell.
10/ Manual control
Assisted exposure programs can be useful, especially if you’re just starting out or you’ve got a three-song limit and don’t have the time to get your settings right. But the results won’t always be what you’re looking for, so you shouldn’t rely on them. If you shoot manual and monitor your exposure in the viewfinder, you can tweak your settings as you go and you’re safe in the knowledge that some random strobe light isn’t going to throw your exposure into complete darkness.
So there you have it, my top ten tips for getting better shots in low light. Are any of these helpful to you? Let me know in the comments and if you try them out be sure to post a link to the results.