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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.
Back here in my editing lair, I want to go over the images that I shot tonight, see if my exposure strategy worked, and see what I came up with here. One thing before you go into a post-production process: it's a good idea to have some idea of what you need to get out of it. Now, a lot of times if you're just wandering around taking pictures, you'd want to get good pictures out of it. And of course, I want to get good pictures out of this. But I also had some particular ideas about what I know they can use and what I need to deliver to them. They're looking for images that are going to work well in print and newspapers and things like that for promotional materials.
They also told me that lately, with performance pictures, they're getting a lot of people who look sad. So, probably want to avoid those kinds of moments, or anything that could be construed as that. One thing that's a little tricky about improvise because there are no sets or costumes, it's difficult to tell what people are doing, and so I think it's good for me to not worry about trying to tell the story that they were telling. That's irrelevant. I just need compelling pictures of performers, and I think that's very often true with performances, particularly more abstract performances, dance performances and things like that.
Don't worry about, oh, well, this was the moment where they killed the dragon, or whatever. That may not be visible to the audience, and they don't really care. These pictures are really about the performers and about those moments and this kind of stage picture that they were creating. So, going along here, I'm in Adobe Bridge. I've already pulled my images in. I've got them all in a folder so I can easily review them. And I've got my Metadata panel up here, because I want to very quickly be able to assess what might have gone wrong with an image, if something's not quite right.
And as I look at this, right away I can see boy, it looks awfully hot. And she's very overexposed here on her face. Bridge does not offer a histogram display, so I can't tell if that's really overexposed. I'm going to go a little bit further and I see that there are a number of these that look really bright. I'm going to open one of these up here in Photoshop just real quick to see if this is something that's recoverable. Yeah, look at that big spike right there. Bad overexposure there. My Recovery slider though gets most of it back.
I can see now that the areas that are clipped, no, they're still in there, but I think that's mostly Red channel clipping. If I fix my white balance, which I can do with my White Balance dropper here, yeah, I see that actually, this exposure is completely manageable. So, for the time being, I'm not going to worry about those other images that look like they're overexposed. My goal here as I work through is I'm just trying to make my selects strong, trying to figure out what images I like, and also just trying to give us a chance to discuss the strategy that I had taken. So, right off the bat, I know that my initial images were overexposed.
Fortunately, as I mentioned earlier, I had identified that in the show and dialed in some underexposure at some point. I noticed in this image that I've got the lights. It's very easy sometimes to get focused on close-ups and really think about the performers, which is great--you need those--but you also at times want to step back and get the whole stage picture and not just the picture they're creating, but the environment the sense of place. For the audience, you do notice the lights, you do notice the keyboard player there, and it's nice to have a record of that. And so I was just trying to compose around some of those things. Here's an image that's too dark maybe. It can certainly be brightened up, but this is just a point where the lights changed.
So, as I've been going through here, I've been wading images, things that I think I might want to keep. I'm also seeing the limitation of my vantage point. I have chosen front row over on the edge and all of my pictures here are looking up, which is not the most flattering lighting, and there're all of these extreme angles. It's hard for me to get in front of people. I am getting lots of hard profiles and things like that. This I think is a usable image. It's going to need to be cropped; it's going to need some work. One thing you'll find with most of your performance shooting images as they need a lot of post*production. So, don't worry about what they look like out of the camera.
In fact, we'll take one of these and take it all the way through to the end, just so you can see how much change there can be. It's difficult at times when you can't control your position. It can be hard to prevent. In this case, a bad convergence, there's somebody else's arms sticking out of his side. That's one reason that you shoot a lot. You really need to just blast away while you're there, not unintelligibly, but it's--things are moving and changing so quickly that it's hard to know exactly every bit of your composition while you're working there on the fly.
So, you need to really be sure you have a lot of coverage. Some of these are soft because of motion blur. This was at a 30th of a second at f/8. I could have opened up a little more, sacrificed the depth of field in this case and gotten more motion capture, but again, things are happening so quickly, this scene developed so quickly, I didn't realize he was going to be moving that fast. With that said, there are still usable pictures in here, like that motion blur in his hand, that's not really a problem. This, again, is a reason if you have the opportunity to learn the show before you go, if it's a scripted piece that you can see ahead of time, that's great. You can find out where the fast and slow parts are going to be.
Still battling overexposure in here. This is before I made the change. These images still look too hot. We're coming up on this image where you can see here I dialed in 2/3rds of a stop of negative exposure compensation and the images are definitely darker. I experimented there with 1/3rd of a stop under, and that wasn't enough. I was looking at the histogram on the back of the camera while I was doing this and so that's how I had decided on 2/3rds. This may look very dark to you, but I think you'll find, if we open one of these up, you'll see that we've got a lot of latitude here. Let me quickly set the white balance as best I can, and I can brighten these up a lot.
I'm possibly exaggerating a little bit of noise, but I know my camera is really clean in that regard, so these are actually very usable images. So, I think this underexposure strategy was good. Maybe I didn't need to go to full 2/3rds of a stop under; I might have been able to make do with just a 3rd of a stop. This is definitely not in keeping with their idea that they want happy-looking images. Even though this was a funny scene when it was transpiring, that's probably not something that they're going to want to use for promotional purposes. Moving along, my exposure is looking good. I'm doing okay with motion blur.
I'm up to 250th, 500th of a second. That's something that's a side benefit of the fact that I'm underexposing is my shutter speed went up, which is nice. It's fun seeing some of these things play out where I was bursting, get to kind of relive some of those moments. Now there's some point in here where intermission happened and I changed position. Here I am composing. I like the blue of this light and the blue of this shirt. This image I think will be cropped down. Again, I'm stuck with these hard profiles, which can be rough, although here're some nice shots in front of the actors.
It's important not to leave out all the details. This is the musical improviser who was working with them, a key part of the show, even though you never hear him speak or anything. I wanted to try and get some shots of him. It was difficult with that particular vantage point. Oh, she's going to love those, isn't she? Another very funny moment, not necessarily the most flattering image. So, now we're into the second half of the show. You can tell I am more in front of the stage and getting a very, very different type of picture. Real big change, being up above them, and that's why--and now here I'm able to see the audience some.
I'm getting a very different vantage point. You can see why, if you have the opportunity to move around, it's really critical to take that chance, or take advantage of that opportunity, because I'm getting a very different type of shot here now that I've gotten up above. I've already gone through and rated some of these, picked out some selects. Let's take a look at those right now and quickly go through and take one to completion. These are my--I just did a quick pass, pulled out some selects.
Let's see what we've got here. And you'll see what I mean when I say a lot of these images typically benefit from a lot of editing. Here is a nice moment. I'm not sure about having her there or having her shoulder there. Another nice moment between two actors. Let's work this image up. I'm going to open this up. These are raw images of course, and we can tell right away we've got a white balance problem. I don't know what I have in this scene that I can white balance off of. She's got a tooth there. That might work.
That's pretty good. I'm going to keep that and brighten the image up with my Exposure slider. Difficult lighting situation, because of all of that pink in the background. This may look like bad white balance but its not; it's just white lights on her hair. So, before I go any further with my correction, I want to get my crop in place, because this image definitely needs to be cropped. And working quickly on the fly like this, it's hard to always get your framing exactly right. I've got a lot of extra information. When you can't move, when you can't walk around and change your vantage point, you need to do some cropping. And I know from experience that my camera has the pixel count that lets me really chop a lot out of an image and still have a usable picture, particularly at the size that these will typically need to be put out at.
Heavy, heavy shadows over here because of the stage lighting. I'm going to try and fill those in with a little bit of fill light. That's looking better. I'm still not sure that I need all this space back here. I was focusing on her hand. I don't know, I think the real moment is here in their faces. So, I'm going to come in a little tighter. And if I'm going to come in that tight, I think I'll pull in here. Again, if this is going to be printed out at 3x4 inches in a newspaper maybe, we're doing okay size-wise with our cropping. I like that.
It would be nice to brighten up here eyes. I can do that later with a localized edit. There's a lot of stuff in there that I can pull out. I can whiten their teeth up a little bit. I'm not sure about this pink cast. There's not that much I can do with it. There's a bright pink wall behind her. I'm going to do one more thing though. With all this white space around, my eyes are falling off the side of the page. I can only see her face. I'm losing her, so I really, really need to get my attention in here, because this is really where the image should happen. I'm going to go over here to the fx tab in Camera Raw where I have this wonderful Post Crop Vignetting tool.
This applies a vignette to the cropped part in the image. Let me pull out my Crop tool here again. My whole image was here. If I use the Vignette tool that you find over here in Lens Correction--where is Lens Correction? here we go--I have lens vignetting. This applies a vignette to the edges of the original image. That doesn't do me any good because I've cropped, but Post Crop Vignetting will apply actually to the cropped image. And it not only constrains its effects to my crop; it does these beautiful vignettes where it preserves highlights just like a real optical vignette would.
It's not just blindly throwing in a darkening; it's paying attention to the fact that these bits are brighter. They are pushing through what would be in reality a vignette on my lens, so it creates a very, very realistic vignette. And I'm going to just shrink it down in here and by doing that, I've really changed the focus in this image. I'm just going to adjust these bits some, and now my eyes are really going much more into her face. The vignetting has caused an increase of saturation up here. I'm not sure I mind that. It's created a darkening overall.
I'm going to brighten up the mids a little bit more, pushing in maybe a little more fill light. And I could maybe just to bring even more focus to the foreground, go ahead and selectively desaturate the background. I can probably do that in Photoshop with a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer and a mask. That's something that's a pretty straightforward technique. But those are the types of edits that I'm going to be making to all of these images. I'm going to be cropping a lot, adjusting my brightness, trying to get tones back to where they need to be, and doing anything I can to bring focus to my image.
Because I didn't have a lot of room to move around, I could not control focus through my lens all the time, but I can do that in post-production. Knowing that, I know that I want to next time be very careful about my seat choice, and I probably want to try and pick a seat where I'm going to be able to do more with that longer lens that I have, where I can get more in front of the actors faces than I could when I was over there on the side. I think I've got a good selection of images here. I can definitely work them into a really nice set of deliverables that the company is going to really like. If you're shooting stuff for yourself, you're going to be facing these same issues, these same challenges.
Bear in mind what I said about camera position and choice. I think you've seen the exposure strategy that I took and for the most part, it worked. Keep an eye on that histogram while you're there shooting, so you don't have the overexposure problems that I have, and be sure that you're shooting RAW, so that you can do the kind of edits that you've seen here.
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