Tips on Low Light Photography

Last October I attended a weekend workshop “At Low Light” run by Simon Buckley. Simon is author of the Not Quite Light project, in which he captures cities at dawn or dusk.

The workshop focused on the Bridgewater canal between Monton and Patricroft (a few miles from the centre of Manchester), with photo sessions at dawn and dusk. Simon offered expert advice on all aspects, including timing, composition, and exposure. The weather was favourable and I found the workshop was great fun. It inspired me to take some more low light shots in Ellesmere Park over the following days, while the good weather persisted.

I thought I would document a few things I learned—partly as a reminder to myself for the next time I try this type of photography.

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The Scene

The type of shots I am discussing here are ones where the natural light is weak because the sun has not risen, or has set, and needs augmenting with artificial light, typically from street lamps or headlights from passing vehicles.

Time of Shoot

Street lights need to be on and the sky should be fairly dark but not completely black. The optimal time is perhaps 20 mins before the street lights go off (morning) or 20 minutes after they turn on (evening).

Since it is always hard to know how the image will come out, in a morning shoot it is worth starting well before you think the light is good enough, and for an evening shoot continuing after you think the best light has gone. With my limited experience I have found that the resulting shots can be much better than I expected.

Exposure

Manual exposure mode is recommended, as you can’t expect the camera to meter accurately in low light scenes.

Shutter Speed

Exposures at ISO 100 can be of duration up to a couple of minutes, so you need a tripod and need to put the camera in bulb mode and use a cable release (since the exposure is beyond the available range of shutter speeds that can be selected). Alternatively, if the ISO is set to 400, exposures of less than 30 seconds are possible and shots can be taken in the usual way by setting the aperture and shutter speed (in manual mode).

I tried ISO 100 and ISO 400. While in principle ISO 100 will lead to cleaner files, I could not see any difference in my shots taken with a Canon 5D Mark II. The main advantage of shorter exposures is that you can take more shots in the limited time available. Longer exposures could have an advantage if you are capturing light trails or other moving lights, as you should be able to capture more of them in a given exposure.

Aperture

You will usually want shots that are sharp from front to back, that is, that have maximum depth of field, and so will want a fairly small aperture, albeit not one so small that it will cause diffraction. For my Canon gear this means apertures around f11-f16, but not smaller.

One effect of aperture is that it determines to what extent point light sources such as street lamps produce a starburst effect. Use smaller apertures for bigger stars.

Flare

When you are shooting with street lamps nearby there is a danger of lens flare. Using a lens hood should reduce, if not completely avoid, this problem. When I tried it I found that low light makes it hard to fit a lens hood and almost impossible to see if any part of the hood is visible in the shots. When I viewed the shots on the computer I found that part of the hood was visible in some shots.

Focusing

When you are working in low light the camera’s autofocus may struggle. Manual focus is an easy solution and arguably should be used as a matter of course: focus on something a third of the way into the frame to get maximal depth of field.

Processing

Given the effort involved in taking low light shots it’s essential to shoot in RAW mode and spend some time on the subsequent processing, taking care to balance the light and dark parts of the scene. There can be a huge difference between even a well exposed RAW file and the result of careful processing.

Beating Smartphones

An attraction of low light shooting is that it is something that cannot easily be done with a smartphone, so you are not likely to see many such shots on Instagram, etc. If you want to make your shots as unsmartphone-like as possible, you should

  • use long shutter speeds that allow light trails and movement of objects such as leaves and people,
  • use small apertures that create prominent starbursts around point light sources,
  • shoot in RAW mode, capture scenes with a wide dynamic range, and carefully process the RAW files.

Examples

Below I show some shots of the Bridgewater canal, taken during the workshop, as well as some of Bradford Road in Ellesmere Park, Eccles. For the latter shots I was fortunate that the autumn colour of the trees on the road was at its peak. For more inspiration see Simon Buckley’s Not Quite Light Instagram feed or Twitter feed.

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