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Talking with Steve Simon about low-light photography

From: Foundations of Photography: Night and Low Light

Video: Talking with Steve Simon about low-light photography

I am here with my friend and photographer, Steve Simon, veteran photojournalist and all-around great guy. Steve, I say veteran photographer; it makes it sound like you have been out there under fire, shooting. Steve Simon: Not so much, but I have been doing this a long time and I love it. There is nothing I would rather be doing. Ben: You have been doing this a long time. And one of things that's really changed over the course of your career is the ability to shoot in low light. Steve: No question! I think we've been in a golden era of photography. I mean now with digital photography and the sensors that we have now, there's really nothing that can't be recorded and photographed.

Talking with Steve Simon about low-light photography

I am here with my friend and photographer, Steve Simon, veteran photojournalist and all-around great guy. Steve, I say veteran photographer; it makes it sound like you have been out there under fire, shooting. Steve Simon: Not so much, but I have been doing this a long time and I love it. There is nothing I would rather be doing. Ben: You have been doing this a long time. And one of things that's really changed over the course of your career is the ability to shoot in low light. Steve: No question! I think we've been in a golden era of photography. I mean now with digital photography and the sensors that we have now, there's really nothing that can't be recorded and photographed.

So it's an amazing opportunity for us to work with the available light that's out there and really capture reality in a way that we weren't really able to do before this. Ben: So as the noise-responsive sensors have gotten better and their sensitivity has gotten better, their ability to pull more detail out of less light, has that changed the way you see? Has it changed your eye? Steve: Absolutely! Sometimes when I go into a low-light situation, I can't really predict exactly what it's going to be.

Now it's getting better with practice, but I'll sometimes go into a very dark situation at a very high ISO, take an image, and be somewhat astounded when I look at the review screen and see what actually has been captured. It makes me realize that often it's best not to interrupt the available ambient light by using flash. Flash become something more for bright light, to fill in shadows, et cetera. Let the available light dominate, capture what's in front of you. Ben: That's a very food tip. We are going to take a look at some of your images.

Steve: Sure. Ben: Let's start with this one. Ben: Now before we go to the actual specifics of capturing this image in low light, I want to just find out what's going on. This is an intense picture. Steve: Yeah, I was working in Lesotho, which is a small country within South Africa. And it was at a bar and I was working on a project that had to do with HIV and AIDS. So I wanted to kind of be in a situation where there was social activity happening and that was at a bar. And I was leaving the bar, and this person was there, and he was a little bit drunk, and wasn't really sure that he was comfortable with me and a camera.

So I just took one frame and then I left. And it was okay. I mean it's just that when people are drinking, all bets are off. You don't know how they are going to react. Ben: So had you been shooting up to this point? Steve: I had been shooting inside the bar, and I was just leaving. And you know sometimes you think the shot is where you're putting your energy, which was inside the bar, but I can tell you that this was the shot ultimately that I used. And it was just one quick grab frame in low light and I got it.

Ben: What did he do after you took the picture? Steve: Nothing really, I mean he just kind of looked at me like this. I'm not sure exactly what he was thinking. But in the end, it was okay, and you can see one of his friends is kind of holding him back because I guess they don't even know what he is thinking or what he wants to do. But it was okay. Ben: So you had already been shooting in a dark bar. You probably were already had your ISO up on your camera. You probably already thinking low light. Steve: I was, I was. Yeah, I mean when I'm in that situation, of course you want to capture life as it happens, and to introduce any kind of supplementary light like flash is going to really kill the ambience and mood of what it is you're trying to capture.

So it's not a question of quantity of light; it's really quality of light. And if it's a low available light, but the quality is fairly even and nice, you are going to get extraordinary results. You can't be afraid to ramp up the ISO these days, because the image capture at high ISO is phenomenal. Ben: And this is not a situation that one would normally think, oh, I am going to go hang out in this dingy area behind this bar and get some good pictures. But even just this one strong light here is giving you nice contrast. Like you say it, ends up being a very nice lighting situation.

Steve: Yeah, the trick is I think to be kind of ready for anything and by that I mean simplify your photographic process so that when you encounter something that's fleeting, you don't have to hesitate and you have done it before, so you can just nail it first time. Ben: Great! Let's move on here. Plainly indoors. Steve: Yes, this was an indoor shot, actually shot, if I recall, at 3200 ISO. It's low light, but it's daylight. And different sources of light are going to react differently on the center. And in my experience, daylight low light is probably one of the best kinds of low-light shooting in the sense that the noise that does show up is often muted a little bit and depending on what your final output is, like a print, you don't really see it.

Now you can certain pixel peep in the computer, and you'll notice stuff, but by the time you post it to your web site or actually make a big beautiful print, the noise is not evident. That's not an issue. Ben: Yeah and this is blown up a lot and looking at it up close, you would never think this is a noisy image. There is nothing distracting in there, noise-wise. It looks to me that in this scene you had identified--looking at the light here on the walls in the background, it looks like it was probably a really pretty diffuse low light. Steve: It was, it was. It was coming in from an opening in the door of this woman's house, and this is her grandson, and we are doing some portraits.

And the light on them was a little bit brighter than the background, so they're very well lit and though they are very dark skinned, you can see that the highlights really kind of draws your attention in, and this part being out of focus by using a wide aperture, shows a bit of the ambience. You get a sense that there's kind of a rock kind of background, but it's out of focus, so your attention stays on where you want it as a photographer, which is these beautiful people.

Ben: So you moved them into this part of the room and positioned with them? Steve: Yeah. You know when you are doing--I tend to be more of a documentary photographer. I like to capture life as it exists and as it happens. But it's obvious when you have someone looking at the camera that it's no longer necessarily a candid snapshot. This is a session where they've agreed to let you photograph them. So in this instance, in the situation, you look around for maybe an available light situation, the most even light.

It doesn't have to be the brightest area, but just maybe the most even, the most diffuse light. And ramp up the ISO as high as you need to maintain a fast enough shutter speed so you don't have any movement, and once you're there, then you can kind of work the scene a little bit, take a few different pictures, and maybe talk to them and try some different stuff. Ben: I think that's a good lesson for low-light shooting is that you might walk into a dark or low-light environment, but there still might be some places that are brighter than others, and those are the areas where maybe you can work with Ben: something and make it happen. Steve: True, true.

Ben: This scene has a little more dynamic range than the last one, with these bright areas scattered around. Beautiful lighting though. Steve: Yeah, it is. I mean you've got this beautiful light coming from up above, and it's illuminating this woman and her grandchild. And with available light shooting like this, I'm not afraid to lose detail in the deep shadows. As a matter fact, in many ways, having the contrast, or having dark black areas can actually really enhance the photo, because it creates a little bit more drama. And your eyes tend to go to the lighted areas, so when you have your main subject, you want to be able to make sure that there's enough light or enough highlight falling on them so that your eye will go to them as they are very important in the scene.

Ben: I am glad you brought that up, actually. One of the things that I think is interesting as we go through the rest of these pictures is seeing how much just full-on black you use in your images. This one, again, you are working with light the way that you have been describing. Very shallow depth of field in this image, which is something that very often happens when we are shooting in low light, because our apertures have to go so wide. You really made it work to your advantage here. Steve: Yeah, that's true. Sometimes I like to use shallow depth of field and have like this child in the foreground, but out of focus. It's amazing to me, as a photographer, and I'm sure you agree with this, that something can be completely out of focus within the frame, yet it reads instantly.

You see it, you fill in the blanks. You don't have to have everything in focus. And in many ways, it create some more dynamic image by having one main center of focus, and that's why we pay a lot of money for those fast lenses and use them wide open because we want to--you have something sharp or someone sharp in the frame, your eye tends to go there and you see everything, but you tend to go to both the lighted areas and the focused area. Now remember, in this situation, you asked earlier if I would have someone move. I remember coming in and this is kind of where they were so there is one of those rare times where I didn't really do anything.

I just started to shoot, and I started to shoot, and that was it. It's not perfect in the sense you have got--you know the contrast range is such that the detail is lost there. But again, it's not perfection, and available light shooting is really not about making it perfect. In many ways, it's the imperfection that makes the picture stronger. And it's not really distracting or taking away from the image. Ben: No, and it's fascinating, one would think in theory this image shouldn't work, your foreground was out of focus. One would think this would be the subject of the image, but it works perfectly and a lot of that is because of lighting.

Your eye is really drawn right there. You shot the Republican National Convention in 2004. Steve: I did, yes, and these are a few photos from that. Ben: So this is a big convention center, and one of the things we are going to see throughout a lot of these images that you shot in there is something you mentioned a minute ago: you are letting a whole lot of detail fall out to black. And I think that's really what makes these images work. You are really controlling the viewer's eye with the way that you are dealing with the lighting. How dark was it in this place? Steve: Well, I mean the thing about a convention like this is it's lit for television.

So as a photographer, it's actually the ideal available-light situation because the light may not be bright, but it's even. So once you've established your exposure, you can pretty well shoot freely in available light and get really, really nice results. But of course, it depends on who your main subject is and how the light is falling on them. With this particular woman, the light on her face was falling very nicely. But because it's lit for television, the areas where the light is illuminating are beautifully lit, but you also have pockets where there are very dark areas where light isn't happening, and that kind of drama really often adds to the success of the image in available light.

Ben: Yeah, the contrast in these images is wonderful. Here you have gone outside. She is plainly-- Steve: A television reporter, and this was shot outside in Times Square. You know the thing is with our cameras today and available light, the contrast range is so great you sometimes have to make choices. So in Times Square, when you have brightly lit illuminated billboards, and then you have a nice light on her, so you make a decision to get the exposure for her, make sure, because she is what counts most, and you let the highlights overexpose, and these are choices you make.

HDR photography is a whole other way to do things, but it's not necessarily always going to be a better way to go. Ben: No and I think the black in these images, it's a great demonstration that just because there is detail to be had there, you don't necessarily want it. It can be distracting, it can lead the viewer's eye astray, and it's really about the light, and a big part of what makes light is shadow. Steve: Absolutely, yeah. Well, thank you. Ben: The way you are manipulating shadow is just wonderful. It's must easier nowadays that you don't have to worry about the noise problems we use to have; you can keep your shutter speed up, you can get these shot as they present themselves, you can work quickly, and it seems to be what you are doing here. The moments you are finding yourself and managing to capture.

Steve: Yeah, one of the things I do when I am photographing in fluid situations, I will often use auto ISO, and I will set my maximum ISO to--depending on the camera--3200, even 6400. So it allows the camera go up high, but I maintain a minimum fast shutter speed. And for me, a 250th is going to freeze both any kind of movement that I create or subject. And by doing that, I am guaranteed of a fast enough shutter speed so that I don't get the blur if that's not what I want. Because often, blur, if it's not helping the picture, it's kind of hurting it.

So that's a technique that allows me to give up some control and allow me to concentrate on the subject and work quickly. Ben: And it's nice to hear that you are using auto mode. I think a lot of people think, well, I have got to graduate from auto modes to manual and really think and have the difficult time and miss all the shots that I want. Steve: I have heard you say many times, there is no holy grail. There is only one right exposure in any situation, and there are many ways to get there. And shooting manual is not going to necessarily give you anything different than working in program. They will take you to the right exposure once you learn how to read your histograms, et cetera. So whatever works fastest I think is the main thing.

You want to have full control of what you are going to get, and you want to take advantage of the technology if it helps you to work faster. Ben: I think that's great advice. I also think dinner is ready, so we should go get our cameras. Steve: I am hungry. Ben: All right, great! Ben: We are going to get our cameras out, turn the lights down and shoot a dinner and give you guys some ideas of exactly what kind of problems you are going to be facing and how you might solve them shooting an event like that in low light.

Show transcript

This video is part of

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

55 video lessons · 36548 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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