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Low Light Photography

Under low light conditions (eg. at the edges of the day, indoors or under heavy shade) it’s often best to shoot with a wide Aperture (eg. f4). This will provide a faster shutter speed than would otherwise be the case. As a result you have more chance of being able to freeze action, reduce camera movement and the need for a tripod or flash. A wider aperture may also concentrate the viewer’s attention on the subject by de-emphasising their surroundings.

For more contemplative work (eg. Landscape, Environmental Portraiture, etc) the use of narrower apertures (eg. f11) to increase Depth Of Field and display more detail throughout the scene may be appropriate. Of course narrower Apertures allow less light to reach the film and the resulting slower Shutter Speeds may require the use of a tripod to prevent camera movement.

It’s important to note that the quality of light produced under low light conditions can provide a beautiful soft, wrap-around type of illumination. It’s often the most flattering light under which to make photographs.

Leica M7 camera with Leica 21mm f2.8 Elmarit lens and Kodak Ektachrome Elite 100 Extra Color film

Leica M7 camera with Leica 21mm f2.8 Elmarit lens and Kodak Ektachrome Elite 100 Extra Color film


Leica M7 camera with 21mm Elmarit f2.8 lens and Kodak Ektachrome 100 Extra Color film

Minimizing Camera Shake

Under low light conditions camera shake is a problem when using the camera hand-held. To minimise camera shake, try utilising the following technique:

  • Stand steady, with your legs slightly apart (a little like a tripod)
  • Hold the camera steady
  • Provide extra support by taking the weight of the camera and its lens by letting it rest on your left hand
  • Tuck elbows into the body and use them as an alternative tripod
  • Talk a series of deep breaths, exhaling in a slow, gentle manner            
  • Take another deep breath, this time exhale 1/2 way to steady both camera and body
  • Gently squeeze the shutter release without pushing down on the camera

While nothing beats the use of a quality tripod, particularly with mirror up engaged, many folks will be able to achieve acceptably sharp results down to and including 1/8 second. Due to a lack of impact/vibration cushioning inside the camera, this may be reduced to around 1/15 second with cheaper DSLR models. To confirm the images are in fact sharp it’s necessary to view them on the desktop at 100%. Making test prints is also advisable.

From my own experience I’ve had considerable success shooting, hand-held, down to ¼ second. This is particularly the case with brilliantly engineered equipment such as the traditional SLR-styled Leica R8 camera and the Leica M6, M7 and MP Rangefinder cameras. As a case in point, the above image was made with a 1/4 second exposure, utilizing the technique outlined above, to make the image at Norman Bay, Wilsons Promontory National Park, in Victoria, Australia. The grand sunrise I’d hoped for didn’t eventuate, so I employed a Leica 21mm f2.8 Elmarit wide angle lens on my Leica M7 camera to emphasize the color, texture and shape in the foreground.

As further evidence I can recall many an issue of National Geographic magazine featuring a slightly soft image no doubt included, despite the lack of sharpness, for the communicative power of the low light under which it was made.

Try making some images under low light. Where possible keep the ISO set as close to, and definitely no slower, than the camera’s default setting. Get used to looking at and working under a variety of low light sources. Don’t worry too much about sharpness initially, you’ll get better with practice.

You may choose to set your camera up to ISO 400 without too much concern. Nevertheless, except where subject movement is likely, I would advise you to only increase it to ISO 800 or above when you have reached the point (Shutter Speed) at which you are susceptible to camera shake. With practice you’ll learn the skills necessary to make wonderful, luminous images without the need for a cumbersome external flash or tripod. Of course when absolute quality is essential (still life, macro, architecture, etc) it’s best to employ a good tripod, together with your camera’s mirror up function engaged, to enhance sharpness and help control composition.


© Copyright All Rights Reserved

Glenn Guy, Blue Sky Photography


One Response

  1. Yeah, but nothing beats the security of a tripod. Oh, and I’ve found that using a shutter release cable helps a ton.


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