Low Light Photography

I wrote about flash painting in one of my previous articles. It is but one application of low light photography techniques which also happen to combine slow shutter speed. You will notice that whenever you are shooting in low light conditions you are using more or less the same techniques and settings. There may be some small changes here and there but by and large the techniques will be the same.

In this article I shall be deliberating on general low light photography approach and tools with focus on the aspects that I did not discuss in the flash painting article.

Shoot with a wide angle lens

Kwinana Freeway Light Trails by Daniel Lee
Kwinana Freeway Light Trails by Daniel Lee

If you intend to shoot cityscapes, fireworks, light trails, star trails and other types of low light photography pursuits you will need a wide angle lens. Wide angle lenses are very versatile in the sense that they are perfect for a wide variety of shooting needs and not just low light photography. They capture a wider area of the scene which is what you want when photographing the above. Another advantage is wide angle lenses is that they have a faster aperture. Faster aperture means you don’t have to jack up the ISO number in order to capture more light.

Invest in a tripod

I did mention about the necessity of a tripod when doing flash painting. A tripod is a quintessential accessory for shooting anything in low light. It helps you to cut down on camera-shake and the resulting blur that even image stabilization cannot counter for. Plus, you would be shooting long exposures, which means the camera has to be rock steady for several seconds or even minutes. It is an impossibility to do by hand.

The Milky Way Strikes by Abdul Rahman
The Milky Way Strikes by Abdul Rahman

ISO number

ISO or ASA refers to the sensitivity of the image medium. In film photography once you select a film you have no way to change it until you have exhausted the roll. Digital cameras gives you that luxury to change the ISO after each exposure. For shooting in low light conditions, however, you don’t always need a higher ISO number. For shooting long exposures, only a small ISO number will suffice because the sensor gets a lot of time to be properly exposed. With higher ISO you increase the chances of noise. Noise is present in all images whether you use higher or lower ISO numbers. But at lower ISO the noise to signal ratio is smaller. Resultantly images are cleaner.

Setting up your camera

Klangwolke 2014 by zeitfaenger.at
Klangwolke 2014 by zeitfaenger.at

Many times when shooting fireworks, light trails or Milky Way photos we are unsure which way to point our camera to. Each of these require a slightly different approach. For shooting Milky Way there are smartphone apps that will tell you where to point your camera, based on your location and time of the year and the hour you are shooting. For shooting fireworks like on Fourth of July, if you are shooting with a lot of people around you, look which way their camera is pointing at. If you are at a really reclusive spot (which is a great thing) point at the general direction you know the fireworks display would be and then wait for the first few shots to fire before re-composing. If there are major landmarks like bridges, monuments or statutes, it is likely that the fireworks would be centered on those, so keep the landmark in the frame and wait for the first few shots before re-composing.

Low light photography works best when there is twilight in the sky. This brings out textures in the sky which tends to add a bit more drama into the scene. This technique works for shooting Christmas lights, light trails an even a bit of Milky Way photos. However for fireworks and star trails a darker sky is preferred.