Learning how to photograph when the light is low may be the best way to learn about lighting and exposure in general and produce better images under any conditions. The exposure settings for the best low-light photos are carefully considered and calculated to achieve an excellent balance of contrast. Dark, featureless blobs are not nearly as appealing and creative as dark shadows kissed with just enough light to reveal the edges of details or suggestions of details, thus creating mystery.
There is no mystery, however, to how you can take complete control of what light is available at night or in weakly lit interiors. Photography may be a creative art, but it is also a practical one. Using the right equipment and techniques will give you more command of low light, and your creativity.
- More Shutter Speed Options
If there is a secret to excellent low-light images, then it is having more shutter speeds from which to choose, at narrower apertures, when selecting the correct exposure. Typically, this range of shutter speeds will be from 1/8 to as many as 3 seconds, and with a relatively small aperture of f/5.6, at a minimum, with f/8 or f/11, even better. These combinations will give you sharp images and a greater depth of focus, which adds quite a bit of artistic quality to low-light photos. To accomplish all of this requires a good tripod, which is the first practical aid for excellent low-light photography.
- Precise Metering
To reveal a suggestion of what may be lurking in the shadows of your low-light images, you must use the spot meter in your camera (or a separate accessory). You need an accurate reading from just your subject wherever he or she may be in the frame and whether he or she is illuminated by as much light as is available or standing further in the shadows with virtually no light reflecting from him or her into your camera. Once you have a reading from the spot meter, you can make a manual adjustment of the exposure, providing the extra stops needed to reveal a poorly lit subject, for example.
- Extremely Long Shutter Speeds
A common technique in low light is to shoot moving objects that have their own light source, such as any transportation vehicle: cars, buses, trains, airplanes, boats, etc., and record trails of light. A typical exposure value for such images is f/16 with a 6-second shutter speed, or even slower. Use even slower shutter speeds, however, and you’ll give a moving object a spectral look. Another technique is to flash a light at a moving object at an extremely long shutter speed, which renders the object in an interesting form or shape.
- Capturing a Vision Beyond your Vision
To the human eye, low light obscures details, even some that you may not notice in full light. Your camera, however, (the sensor actually) is capable of capturing some of those details, invisible to you, even in low light, which may be all the difference between a so-so photo and one that grabs the viewer. This is another reason why you must read and set a very accurate exposure for the subject in any low-light image.
Every day is filled with many low-light situations, which provides you with many opportunities to practice these techniques and to use the proper equipment that will help you take great photos whenever the light is low.
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