Capturing scenes in low light remains one of the most challenging aspects of photography, yet the results when executed well can be truly captivating. Whether it’s an energetic cityscape or ethereal seascape the possibilities are endless. Here are a few essentials points to consider before you begin.
It’s a good idea to formulate a plan of attack before the twilight hour so scout out a position while there is another available light and grab a few set up shots to make sure your scene works and will be free from distracting objects. Cityscapes are best viewed from a distance, whereas seascapes are more dramatic nearer to the shoreline. Consider compositional elements to add scale, interest and context. When twilight occurs you’ll only have around 20-30 minutes of optimum shooting time so be ready for all eventualities.
The best time to shoot a low light scene starts just half an hour before the sunsets until an half an hour or so after wards as this will produce beautiful colouration in the sky; resonating in a display of pinks, purples, reds, oranges eventually fading into an enigmatic blue. This shade of sky is more useful than the night sky as exposure times can be reduced if and helps to define the subjects within the scene.
The key to flawless low light shots is long exposure which means slow shutter speeds so a sturdy tripod is unquestionably your most vital accessory. Manfrotto and Gitzo produce solid but light products which are ideal for landscape shooters. However, the ever portable and incredibly flexible gorillapod can be a great boon when creative angles or positions are desired. By supporting your camera you will be able to lower the sensitivity and decrease noise but leave the shutter open for as long as necessary without the worry of blur.
If you are without a tripod but can’t resist a capture then look around for some other form of support, be it the top of a wall, the top of a rubbish bin, a fence, the ground, your rucksack or even your shoe – there are many ways to get around this problem. If there are literally no objects to support your kit from underneath, try leaning against a building or strong structure instead and press the camera into it and support it as calmly as possible with your hand underneath.
So start by setting your camera upon a solid tripod and switching the unit to manual or shutter priority if you are wish. Lower the ISO to 100 (for some DSLRs you may need to access a sub menu to find this value) and dial in a shutter speed of 15 to 20 seconds (this will take some trial and error to find the optimum value). In terms of aperture you are going to want capture a longer depth of field to ensure far off elements within your scene remain in focus so try varying from f9 to f14.
In relation to lenses the faster the better and a healthy wide angle will draw the whole scene in, something like a 12-24mm or a 10.5 fisheye can produce exciting results. However a zoom lens can be of benefit when shooting a city scene to pull in sections of the skyline or play with perspective.
Using an auto white balance may result in lack lustre colours so set your white balance manually or dial in 5500k, as this is the average colour of daylight. It is advisable to shoot in RAW however as you can always alter the WB in processing if needed.
Another key piece of kit is a remote control shutter release like Nikon’s ML-L3 wireless control which works with Nikon’s enthusiast range of cameras; D40, D40x, D60, D80 and D90. There are many varieties of release out there for all makes and models; some wireless others tethered. The benefit of a remote shutter release is the photographer can ensure they do not accidental nudge the camera during it’s exposure as this would show on the capture as shake or blur, distorting the overall crispness and clarity. Another trick to employ if you are without a remote shutter is to use the self timer.
If you do have a trigger release take this practice a step further by employing the camera’s bulb setting and mirror lock up functionality. First press the trigger to lock the mirror out of the way and wait for any residual vibrations to subside then press the trigger again to start the exposure but hold it down for as long as you want the capture to last.
Camera manufacturers are stepping up their game all the time pushing DSLR technology to the limits, most recently and perhaps notably is Nikon’s D3S which is capable of shooting at ISO 200 to an impressive 12,800. Further still this ISO can be expanded to an unprecedented 102,400. By utilising higher ISOs such as this photographers can sample low light photography hand held as the shutter speeds can be sufficiently increased.
Although powerhouses such as the D3S cope admirably with noise, the same cannot be said of all cameras. Therefore if you do opt for a High ISO instead or supporting the unit with a tripod noise is inevitably. However there are ways to reduce the effect. First your device may offer a Noise Reduction system, activate this and the camera will automatically search for the incorrect coloured pixels within your scene and map the correct the values instead. This isn’t the best idea by any means but is an option if handheld shooting is the only option available. There are many Noise reduction software products available on the market that can resolve this issue post capture as well and if processing in Photoshop opt to process as a 16-bit file rather than an 8-bit one as you’ll retain more image information which will extend the opportunity to recover shadows from burnt highlights and retrieve details from the shadows – both a hazard of low light shooting.
Incorporate a foreground element to add interest, scale and to help contextualise the piece. For example the combination of natural and artificial light can be very dramatic in cityscapes, high levels of light pollution colour the night sky and the vast quantity of glowing orbs scatter light across the scene but including a bridge, highway or structure will help to lead the viewer into the frame. If it’s a twilight landscape you desire consider a diagonal row of trees, a fence, a hedge or farm house. Likewise with a sea scene incorporate a lighthouse, Cliffside or groyn.
With so much or so little going on in your low light scene in can be a job to know where to meter from so set your camera to matrix or multi-segment metering and take several readings using the elements in your scene to judge the optimal value. Ideally it’s best to start with a midtone rather than highlights or shadows and if you are using a zoom lens, scroll in to meter from the detail of the subject or object and then zoom back out to compose the shot.
Another handy trick some low light enthusiasts employ is exposure bracketing. Use Aperture priority and meter from one area of the scene (later repeat this for the various elements in turn). Dial in the exposure and use the histogram to ensure accurate results. Keep aperture and ISO consistent throughout but vary the length of the exposure in half a stop increments. Later you can package these into one shot in editing.
The wonderful thing about digital is the instant feedback. A lot of your technique will be trial and error in the beginning but use the histogram to check exposure. It may indicate that part of the shot is overexposed but this may be the areas of bright lights in a city scene for example and is therefore perfectly fine. Ideally your frame will present a post sunset sky or veil of blue twilight but still offer detail in buildings on foreground instruments. The most important thing is to have fun and experiment!
Natalie Johnson is the former editor of Digital Photographer magazine and after seven years in the business has chosen to pursue her dream of becoming a freelance photographer and writer.
Natalie Denton (nee Johnson) is the former editor of Digital Photographer magazine, and is now a freelance journalist and photographer who has written for dozens of photography and technology magazines and websites over the last decade. Recent author and tutor too.
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