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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.
By now you should be comfortable with a balancing act that is low-light photography. Of course, in any type of photography you are always balancing, shutter speed, aperture, ISO, depth of field, motion stopping, but in low-light shooting you are really pushing the bounds of those things, and sometimes it's hard to keep it all in order. I ran into a problem the other night, at the theatersports show. If you look at this image here, you'll see that I have a depth-of-field problem. Really soft focus back here but not here. Now a lot of times you might be reviewing an image and find a focus problem and think oh no, my auto focus on my camera isn't working.
Here it is, to my eye, plainly a depth-of- field problem because I do have good focus. It's just not very deep. I can confirm that though by going and checking out my metadata. I am at f/8.0, which seems like it should be pretty deep, but still, I have got this softness back here. I don't think he was moving, so whatever the case, I have got a problem that this image may not be usable because I don't like the shallow focus. However, I have sharpening tools. Now this is an awful lot of blurring we have got here. We will have to see how much we can do. I can't really bring him into the same level of sharpness that I can bring him.
But sharpness is a weird thing. It's a really subjective thing, particularly when it comes to portraits, where we mostly take the cues of our sharpness from eyes and little bits of hair here and there. So I am going to do some very aggressive sharpening, but I am going to do it in a very selective manner, to try and create the illusion that maybe he is not as soft as he seems to be. So let's open this image in Camera Raw. I was shooting row so, as always, because it's low light, I need a white balance correction. I am going grab my eyedropper, get over here into the whites of his eyes, and that's working pretty well.
With color corrected, I am going to go in and work my exposure some. I want the Exposure brighter. I am mostly just following the histogram here. I will warm it up a tiny, little bit. I could save all of these as a preset if I want, or copy the white balance of course from image to image for these images that were all shot in the same place. That's looking pretty good. I am not going to do any sharpening or anything in here. I am going to head on into Photoshop, because I want to do a selective sharpening, which is going to require some masking, something that I cannot do in Camera Raw. So, I am going to start here by duplicating my background layer.
This is the layer that contains the image data. And I am going to duplicate it because sharpening is always a destructive edit. It actually mangles my original pictures and if I screw up, I want a way of backing out of my process. And also sharpening is a difficult thing to judge on screen. I might want to be able to do a print to judge whether my sharpness is exactly right, so I may want to take the sharpening out and put in different sharpening later. So I am going to duplicate my background layer by dragging this layer down here to the New Layer button. So now I have two identical layers here.
If I turn off the visibility of this one, you see that the image doesn't change at all, because it's simply revealing the identical layer that's below it. Now I am going to sharpen this layer. There will need to be two sharpening passes made to this image. There needs to be an overall sharpening pass, because all images need to be sharpened, and then my more aggressive sharpening paths that needs to be done to him. Right now we are just going to do that more aggressive one. So I am going to start by doing what I would always do. I'm going to the Filter menu, down to Sharpen, and choosing Smart Sharpen. And I really am going to be doing everything based on my preview here just, like I always would, but I don't care about looking at him.
In fact, he is going to end up tremendously oversharpened in this process. Instead, I am going to come over here and I am going to look at his right eye. In a portrait it's always the eyes that matter; if the eyes are sharp, it will often hide softness in other parts of the image. That's what we're hoping for from this image. So I am going to do a really aggressive sharpening here. Because he is full-on out of focus, he is not just soft, I am going to dial these up pretty high. I am also going to change Remove from Gaussian Blur to Lens Blur, and that's going to invoke a different sharpening algorithm that might help me out a little more here.
I am sharpening up the noise a lot here, but I am not going to worry about that too much. I am also not going to worry about what's happening to this skin tone, because I am going to create a mask that's going to hide that. So I am not really sure exactly where I want these. Yet again I might do some trial and error. I think I am going to try taking the Amount down so that I am not getting such an aggressive brightening and darkening; instead, I am going to crank the Radius up so that it creates larger halos. I am liking this better. It's looking more just like a noisy photo instead of something with really exaggerated grain.
Taking a look over here, I see that his eyes definitely look sharper here. I am going to turn off the preview so you can see before. Just watch this area here as I check this again. After, sharpened up quite nicely. A little bit more. Now he's getting a little too sharp. I am going to hit OK now and let the sharpening filter go to work. Now this sharpening is too aggressive for this man's skin tone, and I don't like what it's doing to some other places in the image, but that's okay. I am going to create a mask that's going to constrain this sharpening to just his eyes and a couple other locations.
Sharpening can often be murder on skin tones. It can exaggerate every pore, every little blemish, every wrinkle. So you need to be very careful when you are sharpening people's faces, because it's very easy to quickly make them less attractive. So with a mask, I can keep the sharpening effect off of the flat parts of their skin, the parts that actually weren't looking too bad, and get it into the areas of fine detail, like eyes and eyebrows and things like that. I mentioned before that this image needs two different sharpening passes: one to take care--a very aggressive one to take care of how soft he is, and then a normal sharpening pass to just put back in the normal amount of sharpening that we need because this is a raw image.
I think I can do both of those with this single sharpening layer here. I am going to start my next bit here by actually labeling this layer. I am going to say this is Sharpening and I will say Sharpened. So years later, when I come back to this image I will know what this seemingly duplicate layer is for. I am going to turn this layer off so that you can see: there is the original blurry one that's sitting below and there is the sharpened one. Now I am going to go up to my Layer menu and say Layer Mask > Hide All.
And what that does is it attaches a mask to this layer that's completely filled with black. If you are not comfortable with masking, or familiar with masking, it's actually pretty easy once you work with it a little bit. Think of this mask like a stencil. Think of this as a can of spray paint that paints an exact copy of this image. I'm going to spray that paint through this stencil onto my lower image. Of course, black parts in a stencil are opaque, if you were to hold it up to light and look at it. White parts would be transparent or see-through. So what I want to do is just punch a hole in this stencil, in this mask here, and I can do that with the paintbrush.
I am going to take the paintbrush and now I am going to select some white paint and now I am just going to start painting into the mask. Now I am painting into the mask, not the image, and you can see, I have punched a little hole there. If this had been selected--and you can tell it's selected because it has this little box around it--now I am painting actual white paint into the image. So I'll undo that and go back to my mask here, and just paint wherever I want the image to be sharp. So I am going to do his eyes. I think I am going to hit his mouth, just a little bit around here.
Basically, I am trying to get things that are in the same plane as his eyes because those things should all be sharp. And just a few cues towards sharpening will give us an overall idea that the image is sharp, so maybe a little bit in there and I'll just do his nose a little bit. So I haven't brutalized his skin tones over here with too much sharpening, but I have punched up his eyes. So let's do a before and after. That's with the sharpen layer hidden, that's with it on. He looks sharper to me, even though a bunch of his face is still blurry. Now I mentioned before that the rest of this image needs some sharpening too.
I can do that with this same Sharpening layer. If black completely hides this layer and white completely reveals it, then it stands to reason that a shade of gray would put in a little bit of this layer and sure enough, that's what it does. I am going to just dial up a 50% gray or so, and now I am painting in basically half the sharpening effect. So because he doesn't need as much sharpening, I'm okay just dialing in some of it. So I am just going to paint a little bit in here. Hair, it's almost always a sharpness cue, but I am going to stay away from a lot of his skin tones, just so that they don't end up looking too crunchy.
And so again, I've managed to do all the sharpening I need just with that one layer and some masking. So here we go. That's before, that's after. So, shallow depth of field, to a degree, motion blur--if it's not motion blur that's too extreme--those are two problems that you are going to encounter in low-light shooting. To a degree you can correct those with an aggressive sharpening plug-in. However, an aggressive sharpening plug- in is going to make a lot of other things in your image look bad. So I really recommend trying a selective sharpening technique by using a mask on a duplicate of your image, a duplicate layer that has been sharpened.
If you get a little practice with this, it starts making sense and the masking stuff becomes much clearer. You can get to where you can easily read a mask and understand oh, this is revealed and this isn't, and this is partially revealed. So give it a try. It should become very intuitive very quickly.
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