Photo Project: Low Light Photography

Photo Project: Low Light Photography

Silhouette of a man on a hill, in fog with lights behind by Charlietyack

Photographers are intrigued by light. One situation that every photographer struggles with, and wants to master, is the skill of taking low light photographs. This is a photography project in which you can push the limits of what you can do with your low light photography skills, and learn the basics of this skill too.

Photography is all about light. How you see it, how it affects a scene, and how that affects the person viewing the photograph. The dark black & white photograph taken with fast film, with its characteristic grainy ‘texture’ will always draw people to it…

Let’s take a peek into what equipment you’ll need and what you can do with it…

Photographs that are primarily dark are called low-key photographs and photographs that are primarily bright are called high-key photographs. However, low-key photographs need not necessarily be low-light photographs. And vice versa.

Low-light photography usually needs 4 things to get sharp results:

  1. A sturdy support for the camera
  2. Fast lenses
  3. Cable Release
  4. Fast Media – fast film or a digital camera with a high ISO ability.

1. Sturdy Support

Pin-sharp photographs will always stand out in a crowd. How do you get them when low light levels mean that your aperture and shutter speed will be at their greatest? A sturdy support such as a tripod will make all the difference. Make sure you have one if you’re trying out low-light photographs.

2. Fast Lenses

“Fast” lenses are ones that enable you to use faster shutter speeds. They usually have larger apertures than comparable lenses. Having an f/2.8 lens will help you in low light photography even if you’re shooting at f/5.6. How? By letting more light into the viewfinder while you’re composing the shot, letting you see your subject and make your composition better.

3. Cable Release

You can always set the self timer and use a slow shutter speed. Typically, cameras have shutter speeds down to 30 seconds. However, a cable release, or remote trigger gives you the flexibility to handle unforeseen changes in the light that need you to shorten or extend the exposure duration. They also allow you to get those 3 or 4 hour exposures for star trails.

4. Fast Media

Every extra second that the shutter is left open means a greater level of reciprocity failure in film or higher noise levels and hot pixels in digital cameras. Increasing the ISO setting of your digital camera will actually increase the noise levels, but reduce the chances that you will have “hot pixels” in your image. Of course, you could always nitrogen-cool your sensor, like some astro-photographers do(Scroll to page 10 of the PDF that downloads)

Now What?

You now know what you need for your low light photography, but what are you going to do with your new found skills?

1. Star Trails

star trails on a dark night by Bob West

I’m sure you’ve seen photographs like these if you’ve ever thought of photographing those minute speckles of light from oh-so-far-away. If you’ve ever been in the countryside on a clear moon-less night, without the lights of a city to interfere with the stars, you’ll know how truly beautiful a star-filled sky can be. There’s no resisting the urge to photograph this…

All you have to do to get a star specked sky is to keep your shutter open for a couple of seconds at your widest aperture and manually focussed at infinity. Experiment with the duration if you want the stars to be brighter. I’ve found that a 30 Second exposure is usually enough. Remember to use a tripod.

If you want trails of light as the stars make their daily sojourn across the inky sky, be sure to use a smaller aperture. You should decide the length of your exposure in advance and then work out the corresponding aperture. You can do this keeping in mind your earlier short-duration star exposures.

Also keep in mind that the focal length of your lens will decide how long your exposure should be before you see some significant movement in the stars. If you’re using a telephoto lens, the duration will be less. If you’re using a wide angle lens, you could end up with and exposure that’s a couple of hours long. Your cable-release with built in lock is very useful for this. Here’s a Canon Astrophotography primer

2. Light Trails

streaks of differently coloured light in the middle of a city by Chris Hoare

Streaks of light moving down a highway, or down a country lane, or a path between two fields lit by a shoulder-high, hovering light source. How you photograph this is your call. There are no limits, there is no right, there is no wrong. There are only good pictures, and not so good pictures. There are no bad pictures.

Remember that composition and the way the light streaks move are the most important factors here. If you’re photographing a cityscape with many roads and you want to keep some detail in the buildings and sky, remember to take your photographs just after the sun has gone below the horizon and when the lights are on. Experiment with exposure durations and times at dusk/night.

It’s Important that lines, form and colour become a central part of your compositions because the streaks of light, the way in which they weave around stationary objects and light them up are what make these photographs work. It will be important to use a tripod if you want the stationary objects in your scene to be seen clearly, but there is no real restriction here either. You can use streaks of light…

3. Moon-lit scenery

This is possibly one of the most faint light-sources, and one of the most difficult to photograph scenes. A fast lens really helps in your composition and to cut the number of objects that could move while the shutter is open. Remember that if you’re shooting with film, Reciprocity failure is always a problem because of the long shutter speeds. Here’s how to correct for reciprocity failure. If you’re shooting with Digital, Noise could be a problem.

4. Use Light as a Subject by Itself

Write with your light. Here’s an interesting picture taken with two coloured torches. You use torches, covered with coloured gel give you different colours of light. Remember that your lens should never have the torch pointed directly into it, as it is sure to have flare in the final picture.

No Limits on Your Photography

There really are no limits on photography these days. Once you convince yourself that this is true, you’re restricted only by your imagination.

If you enjoyed this low light photography project, here are some of the other Photo Projects that you may enjoy too.