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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.
If you shoot RAW, then all of your images, no matter what type of light they were shot in, will need some sharpening applied to them. It's just a fact of the way that image sensors work. The image needs to be softened before it hits the sensor, so there's a little filter in front of the sensor that softens it. That's a necessary step for the camera to be able to properly interpret color. That means you need to apply some sharpening effects to get that little bit of softness that's been added, removed from your image. Now, the bad news is that sharpening isn't actually possible. And what I mean by that is you cannot take an image that's out of focus and make it in focus.
All we're doing when we use a sharpening filter in the computer is creating the illusion of sharpness. Now, we may be treading on deep philosophical ground here because really, what's the difference between having an illusion of sharpness and actually having sharpness? If you do it right, there is no difference. The danger about sharpening filters on the computer is that you can take them too far and end up degrading your image. So, let's look at a simple sharpening process here in Photoshop. I'm going to just open one of these images that I shot at the show the other night. Right off the bat, I see that it needs a white balance correction. This should be pretty easy. As we looked at earlier, I'm going to take my White Balance dropper and click on the white of her eye.
And that's pretty good. I'm going to do some other quick exposure adjustments. I'm going to brighten it up a little bit. I think I liked it a little bit warmer, so I'm going to put a little bit of warmth back in with the White Balance slider there. And that's looking pretty good. Now, most of the time I would say you never zoom in to a 100% and worry too much about what you find there. With sharpness, it's different. We actually do need to get in close to the image and see what it's like sharpness-wise. This image was shot at ISO 1600. I know that because, well, because I was there, running the camera.
I also know that because it says ISO 1600 right here. That means that there's going to be some noise in here and so there's a certain level of detail that's going to be obscured by that noise. High-ISO images are always going to be a little bit chunkier in terms of individual detail, like her eyelashes and things here. But overall I can see that this image is soft. The edge of her eyeball right here, that should be a good hard line and it's not. Now, in Camera Raw, I have this Clarity slider here which will put a little bit of sharpness back into the image, but it's not really a full-on sharpness process here.
It's just meant to add a little bit of extra micro-contrast in any edges throughout the image, and it does help. But this image is so soft, it's really not getting me anywhere. So, I'm going to put that back to 0 and move on. I'm going to leave Camera Raw now and go on into Photoshop. So, I'm hitting the Open Image button. And Camera RAW will process the image, convert it into a full-color final result here, and let's take a look at this. Now, before we get to the sharpening, I want to make one other quick change, and this maybe a feature that you're not familiar with. This is in CS5.
It's a great tool for recomposing your shot. I wish I had asked them to get a little bit closer together. The space in here just right in the center of the frame is bugging me. So, I'm going to Select All by hitting Command+A--that would be Ctrl+A on Windows-- and go up here to the Edit menu and choose Content-Aware Scale. This is going to let me squish the image inwards, but it's not going to do a uniform linear squish, it's going to try and figure out where the content is in the image and not modify those bits of the picture. There are handles on all sides of my images right now.
I'm just going to grab this handle and drag this way, and as I do, you see that it is scaling the image so that she is moving but not getting distorted. It's taken all of the unnecessary pixels out of the middle here. There might be a tiny bit of distortion on her. If there is, I can't see it, so I'm not going to worry about it. I like that better. I think this is a cleaner composition this way. So, I'm going to hit the Return key to take that. Now, when it does this scaling, it leaves the canvas size at its original size, and because my background color was set to black, it's filled that excess canvas with black.
I don't need that. Fortunately, I still have my selection here. So, I can go up to the Image menu and choose Crop, and that crops my image down to just that selection. So, I'm going to deselect and now I'm ready to think about sharpening. I'm going to go into 100% here, which I can do by hitting Command+1 or Ctrl+1 if you're on Windows. And again, I can see that I really need some sharpening in here. As it came out of Camera RAW, it didn't sharpen up anyway. There are a lot of sharpening filters in Photoshop. If I go here to the Filter menu and down to Sharpen, I see I have Sharpen and Sharp Edges and Sharpen More.
And I have two at the bottom: Unsharp Mask and Smart Sharpen. These are actually variations on the same sharpening algorithm. It used to be that Unsharp Mask was the sharpening mechanism of choice, and that may sound a little counterintuitive that I would sharpen my image by choosing something called Unsharp, but Unsharp masking is actually a term from the darkroom days. It was a technique of creating an unsharp copy of your negative and using it to build a mask that you could use to create this effect that we're going to create digitally. I'm going to choose Smart Sharpen.
Note, there is no dumb sharpen, so you don't have to get confused there. And that brings up this dialog box. Now, what sharpening filters do, for the most part, is they look for an edge in your image, and edges are simply areas of sudden contrast change. Every edge in an image has a dark side and a light side. For example let's find a good representative edge here, the edge of her nose right here. It has this dark side here on the left and a lighter side here on the right. I can increase the acutance of that edge.
I can make that edge more acute if I darken the pixels along the dark side and lighten the pixels along the light side. What this does is it creates a little halo around the edge, and that makes it appear more acute, just simply makes it more visible. That's what this plug-in is already doing. If you look here in this Preview area when I click and hold the mouse button like this, I can see the original image; when I let go, I see the sharpened image. That's before, after, and it's definitely sharpening up some. Now, the danger of sharpening on a high-ISO image--the type of image you're going to be shooting in low light--is you'll be sharpening the noise also.
That's one of the sharpening dangers that we're going to look at. I have two sliders here: Amount, which is simply how much brightening and darkening it's doing on the side of an edge, and Radius, which is how wide that little halo it's painting is. So, if you really want to see what sharpening does, you can get a very good idea by just throwing these settings to their extremes. I'm going to say, add a whole lot of light and dark and make it really, really wide. Now, you could see that as I'm making these changes, it's also applying them to my original image.
Now, you can see what I'm talking about. We're not actually sharpening the image. We're creating this optical illusion. If I don't do it very carefully I end up with an image that looks like this. It looks kind of a color Xerox. Let me back off on this some so we can see a little more of what it's doing. Something's that's not quite so extreme. I'm going to put it about here, and now you can start to see, on this edge right here below her eyes, watch this white area right here. I'm going to pull this up here. This white area right here, as I drag the Radius slider, it's getting less pronounced.
The dark area right here along this edge is getting less pronounced. As I increase it, you can see that that bit of contrast is simply increasing, and that what's making the image appear more sharp. So, let's put these back to where they were. They were around 1 and an Amount of 100%. On an image with noise problems like this, you're typically going to need an amount that's wider than 100%. These are the default settings for Smart Sharpen. So, I'm going to goose that up a little bit higher and I'm going to make the Radius a little bit bigger.
These are fairly aggressive settings and again, that's just because of the noise. But, let's take a look now at before and after. It's not a huge change, but it's like just this veil has been lifted off of it, and that's really going to show up in print. What I don't want to do is push this so far that I can start to see those halos, that I start making my image appear more visibly noisy, either because I'm actually exaggerating the noise in the image or I'm creating a lots of new artifacts. Finally, there's been More Accurate button. If I click that, the sharpening becomes actually more accurate. And it's just doing a more complex algorithm, and it's actually making it a little more aggressive.
It's changing the accuracy of this preview so that I can really see what it's going to look like when I come out. Finally, I've got this Remove pop-up menu here. We're going to talk about that in the next movie. So, I'm feeling pretty good about this. Again, I'm not worried too much about what it looks like here, because this is a down-sampled image. I will want to print the image or do whatever my final output is going to be and judge my sharpness there. Sharpening always happens after sizing, so you will of course have wanted to resize this image to your final output size before you do your sharpening.
So, when you're working with low light, you're typically going to be working at higher ISOs. So, your sharpening settings are probably going to be a little bit different than what you're used to if you're already accustomed to sharpening images of lower ISOs. They are going to need to be a little more aggressive and you are going to need to keep an eye on the noise and make sure that you don't exaggerate it too much.
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