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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.
Low light can play havoc with your camera's autofocus system. Just like your eye, it needs a certain amount of light just to be able to see well enough to focus, and when it's this dark, it just can't get anywhere. I don't know if you can tell, but Heather is standing over there, but she is in complete darkness. If I try and frame up a shot here in autofocus. I'm just half-pressing my shutter button to autofocus, just like I always would, and all I'm getting is an image that's going blurry and then less blurry and blurry and less blurry. The camera is hunting for focus and it's not able to find it because it's just too dark out here.
So, what happens now? Do I just give up on the shot? Fortunately no. Even though it's really dark out here, I have a number of options to consider for trying to get her in focus. Now, we're not going to talk about actually how to expose her, how to get the finished shot. Right now, we're just going to talk about getting her in focus, because if we can't get her in focus, we don't need to worry about exposure. First thing is, I know Heather has a cell phone on her, so I'm going to ask her to take it out and do something to cause it to light up. Heather, could you light up your phone please and hold it up next to your face? There we go! So now you can see there is a nice bright white spot next to her face.
So I can autofocus on that. There we go! The camera beeps, and Heather, you can take the phone away, and now I can take the shot. So, that's one option is if she has got some light, I can focus on it. If she doesn't have a phone, then I've got to wonder about her, because who doesn't have a phone these days? Anyway, if she didn't have a phone-- maybe she left it at home--if she doesn't have a phone, but there is something else at the same distance as her that is bright--maybe a reflection of something on the ground or something like that--I could focus on that and then reframe and take my shot.
Again, I just need something light to focus on. There's not anything; it's just really dark out here. So my next step would be, if she didn't have a phone, would be to try to get some more light on her. And I've got a few different options for that, and I have a flash light right here. I can just shine this flashlight on her to light her up. I'm going to turn it on here. I'm going to warn her to look away because earlier I nearly incinerated her with my flashlight. Okay, so she's looking down. So I'm just shining the light on her. Now, there is enough that again, when I half-press the shutter button, it focuses. Now I can take the light away and take my shot.
So that's another option. Of course, you've got to have a flashlight for that to work. You may not always carry a flashlight with you, but your camera most likely has a flash on it. It could be a little pop-up flash, or maybe you have a big external flash like I'm carrying here. This camera does not have a pop-up flash on it. That's why I have attached this external. So there is a Flash Assist feature that your camera may have, or your flash may have. And on this particular flash, the way it works is I've got this clear window that can shine an infrared light out. And if I turn the flash on, the camera will know that if it's too dark to focus, it should shine some of that infrared light on her, and that can provide enough of an array of light for the camera to autofocus.
So I get it, it focuses immediately when I do that, and now I can take the shot. Other systems will actually fire the flash. usually just a short burst or maybe a series of bursts, just enough for the autofocus system to work, and then they will shut down. Now, if I don't want to use the flash, I can autofocus, then reach up, and turn the flash off and take my shot. Another option though is simply to go to manual focus. I can switch the Manual Focus switch on my lens here and now I focus by turning the focus ring. Problem is now I'm facing the same problem that my camera is.
When I look through here, it's so dark. I don't know how well I can manually focus. I can get out my flashlight again, and again, warn Heather that I'm about to blind her with the flashlight, and try to get some light in there, and using my third hand come up here and focus somehow. There we go! That's helping a little bit. Still manually focusing that way can be difficult and take some practice. That's a good workaround for autofocus troubles, but there's another use for autofocus, or for manual focus, and that is to lock in a good focus when you get it.
Let's say that I know I'm going to work this shot for a while. I want Heather there and I want to try a few different framings because I've got this really dynamic background. I'm going to be working with her at this distance for a while. Once I've focused on her once, I don't need to focus again. So, I'm close enough that my Autofocus Assist on my flash is going to work, or my flashlight, or the phone trick that we looked at last time is going to work. I'm going to go ahead and turn the flash on and get my autofocus set with the Autofocus Assist from the flash-- there we go! It just beeped. Now, I'm focused properly.
I'm going to now switch my camera over to Manual Focus, and as long as she and I do not change distance, I can shoot and shoot and shoot and it will be in focus, assuming the autofocus actually worked. So, Manual Focus is often very useful for locking in something that you've achieved through your autofocus system. Because it can take a long time to focus in low light, that can really slow your shooting down. So, if your subject distance is not changing, focus once, lock it in with Manual Focus, and you're really going to be able to speed up your shooting. That can be especially useful when you're working with a model.
You don't want them to have to wait. You want to be able to get them to relax and let their expressions flow freely. So these are a few different options you have when you're working in the dark. Again, low light doesn't mean you can't take the picture because of bad focus; it's just that sometimes you've got to go through a few hoops to actually get your camera to autofocus when it's too dark to see.
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