Foundations of Photography: Night and Low Light
Illustration by Petra Stefankova

Composing and focusing at night


Foundations of Photography: Night and Low Light

with Ben Long

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Video: Composing and focusing at night

I'm standing here on the beach wearing the hippest beach attire available here in California right now. That's actually a lie. I am hoping you are going to forgive me my fashion sense. It's very cold, and it's the middle of the night, and I needed all of this to stay warm. That's often what it is when you are doing night shooting. So don't forget that when you're packing your gear and preparing to go out for a long night of night shooting. You might need fingerless gloves, long underwear, all that kind of stuff. It's also very, very dark out now, so dark that we have had to light this scene where I am standing and that rock that's offshore.
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  1. 2m 27s
    1. Welcome
      2m 27s
  2. 6m 20s
    1. What can you shoot in low light?
      2m 17s
    2. What you need for this course
      4m 3s
  3. 28m 54s
    1. Working with exposure parameters in low light
      1m 13s
    2. Working with image sensors in low light
      4m 35s
    3. Working with shutter speed in low light
      3m 3s
    4. Considering motion blur
      1m 14s
    5. Working with ISO in low light
      2m 29s
    6. Assessing your camera's high ISO capability
      4m 52s
    7. Working with in-camera noise reduction
      2m 4s
    8. Working with aperture in low light
      2m 10s
    9. Understanding dynamic range
      2m 2s
    10. Working with color temperature and white balance
      1m 11s
    11. Exposing to the right
      4m 1s
  4. 34m 39s
    1. Introduction
      1m 36s
    2. Talking with Steve Simon about low-light photography
      13m 46s
    3. Shooting by candlelight
      1m 55s
    4. Choosing a mode
      4m 34s
    5. Exploring the role of lens stabilization
      3m 1s
    6. White balance considerations
      3m 27s
    7. Flash considerations
      1m 18s
    8. Problem solving
      1m 35s
    9. Understanding aesthetics and composition
      3m 27s
  5. 30m 5s
    1. Introduction
      2m 20s
    2. Preparing for the shoot
      5m 25s
    3. Act I: adjusting to the light
      3m 48s
    4. Intermission: reviewing the strategy
      1m 53s
    5. Act II: moving to the back of the house
      2m 36s
    6. After the show: lessons learned
      1m 18s
    7. Reviewing the performance images
      12m 45s
  6. 19m 18s
    1. Shooting in the shade
      2m 55s
    2. Street shooting
      2m 52s
    3. Shooting flash portraits at night
      4m 5s
    4. Controlling flash color temperature
      2m 50s
    5. Adjusting exposure to preserve the mood
      2m 34s
    6. Dynamic range considerations
      4m 2s
  7. 41m 1s
    1. Shooting lingering sunsets
      1m 43s
    2. Exploring focusing strategies
      5m 17s
    3. Composing and focusing at night
      10m 42s
    4. Shooting the stars
      9m 27s
    5. Practicing low-light landscape shooting
      9m 55s
    6. Focusing on the horizon in low light
      3m 57s
  8. 13m 4s
    1. Light painting: behind the camera
      7m 34s
    2. Light painting: in front of the camera
      2m 13s
    3. Manipulating long shutter speeds
      3m 17s
  9. 1h 4m
    1. Correcting white balance
      8m 49s
    2. Correcting white balance with a gray card
      3m 50s
    3. Correcting white balance of JPEG images
      2m 0s
    4. Blending exposures with different white balances
      7m 13s
    5. Brightening shadows
      9m 9s
    6. Reducing noise
      7m 44s
    7. Sharpening
      9m 14s
    8. Correcting depth-of-field issues
      9m 32s
    9. Correcting night skies
      6m 39s
  10. 53s
    1. Goodbye

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Watch the Online Video Course Foundations of Photography: Night and Low Light
4h 0m Intermediate Mar 29, 2012

Viewers: in countries Watching now:

Join photographer and teacher Ben Long as he describes the tools, creative options, and special considerations involved in shooting with a DSLR camera at night or in low-light conditions, such as sunset or candlelight. The course addresses exposure decisions such as choice of aperture and shutter speed and how they impact depth of field and the camera's ability to freeze motion.

Ben also shows how to obtain accurate color balance in tungsten and fluorescent lighting situations, and how to postprocess the images in Photoshop to remove noise caused by higher ISO settings. He also demonstrates accessories that can greatly expand your low-light photography options.

Topics include:
  • Understanding how low light affects exposure, shutter speed, color temperature, and more
  • Preparing for a low-light shoot
  • Shooting in dimly lit rooms
  • Using the flash indoors
  • Shooting in the shade
  • Taking flash portraits at night
  • Controlling flash color temperature
  • Focusing in low light
  • Light painting
  • Manipulating long shutter speeds
  • Correcting white balance
  • Brightening shadows
  • Sharpening and noise reduction
Ben Long

Composing and focusing at night

I'm standing here on the beach wearing the hippest beach attire available here in California right now. That's actually a lie. I am hoping you are going to forgive me my fashion sense. It's very cold, and it's the middle of the night, and I needed all of this to stay warm. That's often what it is when you are doing night shooting. So don't forget that when you're packing your gear and preparing to go out for a long night of night shooting. You might need fingerless gloves, long underwear, all that kind of stuff. It's also very, very dark out now, so dark that we have had to light this scene where I am standing and that rock that's offshore.

The human eye is incredible. When it's completely adapted to the dark, it can detect a single photon of light. Our video cameras are not that good, so we have had to throw some extra light in here. I am telling you this because I want you to understand that the scene that I am seeing with my eyes is actually much darker. It's a waxing gibbous moon right now; we are just a few days away from the full moon. If you want to get a sense of what I'm seeing, wait for that moon and go outside. I think you will be surprised to see that I'm advocating shooting in that little amount of light, but that's what our cameras are capable of these days.

So I am not seeing any color right now, but once my eyes are adjusted and the moon shining on me, I am seeing enough that I can walk around. I can see details and I can start to barely visualize shots. So what I've seen here is a rock offshore that's being pounded by waves, and I want to take a shot of it, for a couple of reasons. Under the moonlight, it's a really cool light that you don't typically see during the day. And because I am going to need to do a long exposure, all those waves are just going to create a big smeary mess of cloudy white around it, and I'm intrigued to see what that might look like.

So there are a lot of decisions to be made here to get this shot. Let's get going here. I have put my 200 mm 2.8 lens on the camera. Obviously, I am on a tripod. It's not too windy right now. I have got the center column up. I am not worried about camera shake. To further prevent camera shake, I have activated the camera's mirror lockup feature. What this means is that when I press the shutter button, the mirror on the camera is going to flip up and stay there, but the shutter will not open. I have to press the shutter button again to open the shutter. The reason for this is that mirror flopping around can vibrate the camera and that can be a problem for sharpness when doing a long exposure.

So I've got my mirror lockup set. I need to think about focus, exposure, and framing. I am not going to do those in that order. I am going to first start with framing. The problem is it's dark enough out here that I cannot perfectly see my shot through the viewfinder, even with this extra light on it. So what I want to do is take a shot and check out my framing. But taking a shot can take a while if I am at ISO, even 1600; that could be 30 seconds. I don't want to stand here for 30 seconds just to figure out if I got the shot framed properly. So what I am going to do is crank the ISO up really, really high, much higher than I would ever actually use.

I am going to end up with a really noisy beat-up picture, but it will allow me to take the shot quickly enough that I can simply check my framing. Normally the ISO on this Canon camera goes up to 6400. There is a special custom function I can enable called ISO expansion that lets me go one or two stops higher than that. Nikon cameras are the same way. Other cameras also offer a similar function. I have activated that and now I am going to turn my ISO up to one stop above 6400, which will be 12,800.

It's very, very important when you're doing this kind of work that you know how to operate your camera by hand. When it's really dark out here, you are going to have a hard time finding controls. So I've got that set up. I have got my ISO where I want it. I am going to just put the camera in Program mode because I don't really care about depth of field or anything right now. I want it to just assess an exposure for me. And it is suggesting, as I meter here, quarter of a second at f/2.8. That's fine. I am going to ask Greg to turn the lights off now, and you are going to maybe lose track of me. And I want him to turn the lights off, because I don't want them affecting my shot.

I am half pressing the shutter button. My lens is in manual focus right now, because focus is an entirely different issue. I take the shot. Forgive me that was four seconds, not a quarter of a second. Here--no, no, I only press the shutter button once. That's my problem. It is not actually taking a picture yet. I am going to press it again. Now it's taking a picture a quarter of a second later, it's done, and I can play the image back and look at it and I think I want to pan a tiny bit to the left. I am going to see if I can see that at all in the viewfinder, and now I am going to take another shot.

So by using this really high ISO, I can quickly knock out these shots that I can use purely for visualization purposes, and that's looking pretty good. Greg, you want to put the lights back on? My next question is going to be focus. Now, focus is really tricky in a situation like this, because, as we've talked about before, the camera needs contrast to focus, and it's just really dark out here. I can't get enough light on the rock to focus. I've tried. Part of the problem out here right now is it's really, really hazy from all of these waves.

So instead, I've just gone through a purely trial-and-error process. I have set the focus ring, taken a picture, zoomed in on it, adjusted the focus ring again, and I've done that five or six times until the focus was right. There is a focus indicator on the lens. It stops on this lens at 25 feet, and then there is a very short distance between 25 feet and infinity. So it's very, very tiny motions between that last measurement and infinity. So I put it a little bit past 25, took a picture, and then went until it got sharper and sharper and then started getting blurry again and I backed off.

I'm trusting that I'm going to pick up some extra sharpness because I'm going to use a slightly deeper depth of field than what I'm getting at 2.8. So I have got my image focused now. I am keeping my camera on manual so that I don't accidentally auto focus away from the focus of a carefully crafted. Now what I'm ready to do is turn my ISO back down. I don't want to work at ISO 12,000. I am going to put it back down on 800 and just see what the camera meters.

Now I'm still in Program mode so it's making all of the exposure decisions for me about shutter speed and aperture. I don't want that. I want to put it in Aperture Priority mode so that I can dial in a deeper aperture than 2.8. I am going to put it on 5.6, and that's saying that at ISO 800, I am at 13 seconds. Now this camera can automatically take a picture up to 30 seconds long. Longer than that, I need to go to remote control, and that gets more complicated. So I would like for this shot to keep my exposure under 30 seconds, because maybe I don't have my remote control with me.

I do actually, I am prepared. But let's just say for the sake of example, you forgot it. So I have got two choices here. I have got some latitude here. I am at 13 seconds right now at ISO 800. I could drop my ISO to 400 and my exposure would go up to 26 seconds. That's one stop difference. And by doing that, I would possibly reduce some noise and I would get a longer exposure, and the longer exposure is maybe going to make more smearing of the water. Or I can try and go for more depth of field. I could bump my aperture from 5.6 to 8, which would be another one-stop difference, and that should also get my exposure to 26 seconds, and that is going to give me deeper focus.

So I think what I'll do is try one of each, and you will often find that this is how it goes with low-light shooting. You have got to just bracket lots of different parameters and see what you get. So I am going to crank my exposure back up to 8, and now it's saying that my exposure is 20 seconds. Now that's with the lights on. Greg, let's kill the lights and see what I get. Okay, now that's saying 30 seconds. So I am going to drop my exposure back down. All right! I can get a 30-second exposure at 6.3. I am going to go with that.

Press the shutter button once. There is my mirror lockup. I press it again and I am taking the shot. You are seeing the mindset I am going through here. I am balancing all of the same things that I balance with any type of shot in low light or bright light or whatever, but I have got--I am just really out there on the fringes of the kind of tolerances of the camera. As my eyes are adjusting, while I'm waiting, because sometimes these exposures are very long, I'm looking for other shots. You need something to do while you're hanging around, making very careful not to bump the tripod.

This is going to be a 20-second exposure, and there, it's finished, and that's looking pretty good. I am going to play that back again and take a look at it here. I want to zoom in and double-check my focus. I am getting a lot of nice, smeary stuff there. As near as I can tell, the focus is pretty good. Wow, that last wave way too close for comfort. The focus looks pretty good. It's hard to really judge focus accurately on the LCD screen. It's just not really set up for that.

Something else to consider is that it's really hazy here and that's going to be impacting my focus. So I think that's pretty good. I am going to leave it like that and I am going to do another exposure. This time I am going to drop my ISO because I want to be sure that I am not battling any noise, although noise is not really a problem on this camera at ISO 800. If I drop the ISO, I need to compensate by opening up my aperture, and I need to go up to 4.5. I am going to take this next shot. When you are working in low light it's critical, as I said, that you be able to work the camera without seeing it really well.

You need to know exactly how many stops there are, or how many clicks there are, between every mode on your mode dial, so that you can switch from Program to Aperture Priority without looking. You need to know where your ISO control is without looking. You need to know where the controls are for changing aperture and shutter speed when you're in a priority or manual mode. You need to know where the light is, if there is a light on the LCD viewfinder on the top of the camera. Notice I'm not touching the camera right now. Stability is critical on these long exposures. And there is another one, and I am checking that out, and that looks pretty good.

Again, I can't really tell too much here without getting the images home and getting them on the screen. Greg, lights please. And gosh, I wish there was always someone following me around to just put a light on me like this; it's great! So that's the basics of the thought process of this type of extremely low- light night shooting, and this isn't even that extreme because the moon is so bright right now. Now there are some other focus techniques that we can consider, that we are going to look at next. There's also the issue of stars. It's hazy enough right now and the moon is bright enough that we have no stars in the frame.

We are going to go find another shot that does have some and that's going to add another parameter to our decision-making process.

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