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Focusing on the horizon in low light

From: Foundations of Photography: Night and Low Light

Video: Focusing on the horizon in low light

A typical landscape shot is usually something like I've got here, a big grand vista, where I want everything all the way out to the horizon in focus. You may not be able to see the horizon right now because it's too dark for our video cameras to pick it up. So I'm going to take a quick picture here for you. I've cranked my ISO up to 12,000. I'm just going to grab a quick sloppy shot of the horizon here so you can see more what I'm seeing with my naked eye. My eye is not showing me an image that's quite that bright, but I can see that horizon out there, the edge of the mountains, with my naked eye.

Focusing on the horizon in low light

A typical landscape shot is usually something like I've got here, a big grand vista, where I want everything all the way out to the horizon in focus. You may not be able to see the horizon right now because it's too dark for our video cameras to pick it up. So I'm going to take a quick picture here for you. I've cranked my ISO up to 12,000. I'm just going to grab a quick sloppy shot of the horizon here so you can see more what I'm seeing with my naked eye. My eye is not showing me an image that's quite that bright, but I can see that horizon out there, the edge of the mountains, with my naked eye.

If you're new to landscape photography your first impulse might be, oh, okay, I need to just focus on the horizon, I need to focus on infinity. That's actually not the way to do it. You got to remember how depth of field works. Depth of field is measured around your point of focus. So for example, if I have 6 inches of depth of field it doesn't start at the end of the--my depth of field does not start at the end of the lens and go out for 6 inches. It starts where I focus and I have half of it in front and half of it in back.

Now by the time I get out to landscape distances, it's more like a third in front and two-thirds in back. So if I focus on the horizon, two- thirds of my depth of field falls behind the horizon, it falls beyond infinity, and that doesn't do me any good there because I can't see anything beyond the horizon. If it was daytime what I would typically do to focus this shot is focus about a third of the distance in to the horizon. I'd focus there. I'd be sure that I had an aperture that gave me a lot of depth of field, and then I'd be taking advantage of that extra two-thirds of depth of field which would hopefully fall back to the horizon, and everything would be in focus.

The problem is in low light I can't see or focus well enough one-third in; it's very difficult to focus in Autofocus mode when it's this dark, and I don't have focus markings or distance measures that let me accurately manually focus. So instead what I'm going to do is focus on infinity and then pull back a little ways. As you get closer to infinity on your focus ring, tiny little motions pick you up a lot of room. So if I could focus on infinity and then back off a little bit, that would probably bring my point of focus back somewhere in my scene that's a little more useful. That's going to allow me to pick up more depth of field.

There is a tricky thing about infinity though. On your lens you may think well to focus on infinity I just grab my focus ring and turn it all the way till I see that I'm on my infinity marker here. On many lenses, including most Canon and Sigma lenses, the infinity marker though also has this little L shape next to it. What that means is that infinity on this lens is actually anywhere from here to here. That's because the point of infinity on this lens varies with temperature. So what do you do? Do you get out a thermometer? To be honest, I just guess and I bracket my focus a lot.

I would take several different shots to be sure that I'm getting things right. So I would start by saying, all right, maybe that's infinity right there. What I want to do now is back off a little bit, so I would just pull my focus back a little bit, take my shot, zoom in on it, see if I seem to have the depth of field that I want and if not, adjust my focus manually, and try again. That may sound cumbersome and time consuming but it's really not that hard. You'll get a feel for your particular lens and how much you need to move it. Now there is a more accurate old-school way of doing this, which is to calculate hyperfocal distance and set your focus accordingly.

Unfortunately, most lenses these days don't have the necessary markings to make that work. So instead, I'm stuck doing this other scheme. In a situation like this where I've got some lights on the horizon, I could autofocus on those. Or I might even be able to autofocus on the town and have a good focus marking. If I'm out in the wilderness where it's completely dark though, I'm going to have to do what I described to you of trying to focus on infinity and then pull back a little bit. Again, bracketing your focus, taking multiple shots, and doing some trial and error is going to be the best way to get around this situation.

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This video is part of

Image for Foundations of Photography: Night and Low Light
Foundations of Photography: Night and Low Light

55 video lessons · 35964 viewers

Ben Long
Author

 
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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 4s
    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 35s
    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 0s
    1. Shooting lingering sunsets
      1m 42s
    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 8s
    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
      53s

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