|Laurel Hill Cemetery presents the 1964 horror classic “Carnival of Souls” as part of their Cinema in the Cemetery series. ISO 3200, 1/25th at f/4 using Canon 24-105 f/4 IS|
The following is based on the premise that we will not be using flash of any kind. No on-camera flash, no off-camera flash, no bounce flash, no pop-up flash, no flash of any kind. Our objective is to be as discrete as possible so as not to interrupt the event that is taking place in front of us. We will not be using a tripod as we will want to remain mobile and to be able to react as quickly as possible to what is happening around us.
Today’s digital cameras offer much better performance at high ISO’s than cameras from even a few years ago but just because you can shoot at ISO 128,000 doesn’t mean you should. The higher the ISO the more noise will be visible in your images.
Noise is electronic signal interference that manifests itself as random red, green, blue and sometimes white specks in your image. The higher the ISO the greater the noise will be. The same principle applies when shooting film only instead of noise there would be an increase in grain. While film grain can be aesthetically pleasing noise rarely is. Noise can be reduced in post processing but reduce the noise and you also reduce sharpness, increase the sharpness and the noise will return.
It is best to avoid noise in the first place by using the lowest ISO possible. ISO selection is the most important consideration when shooting RAW. Unlike exposure and color balance, which can be corrected after the fact, once you have made an exposure at a specific ISO the level of noise is what it is. Exactly what is an acceptable level of noise is subjective.
Try photographing a multicolored object like a vase of flowers. Make the first
exposure at ISO 100, the next at 200, the next at 400, keep doubling the ISO until you have reached your camera’s maximum sensitivity. Download the images and view each at 100% then decide for yourself how much noise you can live with.
After you have chosen an ISO your next consideration should be what lens shall I use? For low light shooting chances are that unless it’s your only lens you won’t be using the kit lens that came with your camera. Kit lenses are slightly wide to slightly telephoto lenses with variable maximum aperture, usually something like 3.5-5.6. A better choice would be a fast prime lens in the 35 to 85 mm range. They typically have maximum apertures between 1.4 and 2.8. Not only will they allow you to shoot at a higher shutter speed but they will make your viewfinder brighter for ease of composition as well as aid in focusing whether using manual or auto focus. Remember that when shooting in low light even one extra shutter speed can make the difference between a sharp photo and one that is unusable due to camera shake.
Keep in mind the general rule of thumb for selecting a hand hold able shutter speed is 1/fl , fl being the focal length of the lens. If you are using a 28mm lens you should be able to get acceptably sharp photos using a shutter speed of 1/30th, if you are using a 50mm lens, 1/60th second and so on.
IS, VR & IBIS:
Another option is to use an IS or VR lens. IS is Canon’s designation for it’s series of Image Stabilization lenses and VR is Nikon’s designation, which stands for Vibration Reduction. Other manufactures offer something similar but call it something else. Basically these lenses incorporate floating elements or in Sony’s case, a floating sensor, which helps to reduce camera shake. Many new mirrorless cameras have in body image stabilization. Most claim the ability to hand hold the camera at three or four shutter speeds lower than without it. Take advantage of this new technology, it really works, but keep in mind that while it greatly reduces camera shake it does nothing to stop subject motion.
Now that we have selected a lens and an ISO the next thing we might consider is which shooting mode to use. Since we are in a low light situation and hand holding the camera we want to use the highest shutter speed possible. Set your camera to aperture priority and choose your maximum aperture, the camera will select the fastest shutter speed for your aperture, ISO combination.
Now we are ready to begin shooting. Lets concentrate on holding the camera. We are looking for three points of contact with the camera. The first being our left hand as we cradle the bottom of the camera and lens with an open palm, using our thumb and middle or forefinger to work the aperture, focus or zoom ring depending on your
camera/lens combination. The second point of contact is our left elbow pressed against our chest. The third point of contact is the camera’s eyepiece pressed against our eyebrow. Stand with one foot in front of the other to prevent swaying forward and back. Take a deep breath, exhale and press the shutter button when your chest is at rest. Look around you and find something to lean on, a wall a tree, a utility pole. Rest your elbows on a sturdy surface like a tabletop. Sit down and rest your elbows on your knees. Lye down on the floor or on the ground, well you get the idea, utilize any sturdy surface to help steady the camera.
Spray & Pray:
Another technique that works well in low light shooting at impossibly slow shutter speeds is “Spray and Pray.” Set your camera to its highest frame rate and shoot in bursts of three to twelve or more frames. The slower your shutter speed the more frames you should shoot. Chances are the first and last frames will exhibit camera shake but odds are one or more somewhere in between, will be sharp. You’ll be surprised at how low you can go and still get sharp photos.
2 More Tips:
Still not enough? Your photographing black cats break-dancing in a coalmine by candlelight? Here are two more techniques to try as a last ditch effort. Set your exposure compensation to -1. Yes, you will be underexposing every image by one stop but that can be recovered in processing. This will allow you to shoot at one higher shutter speed and as I said before that can make all the difference.
The next thing you can try is setting your camera to Auto ISO, I know, it sounds like heresy but as I said before learn to let technology work for you. Both of these techniques will increase noise but there are times when content trumps technical considerations like when you come upon black cats brake dancing in a coalmine which I’m sure will go viral on Facebook!