After a lovely shoot last week – the last one in my sequence for Mozilla – my mind has been on the art of event photography in what might charitably be called “extreme lighting conditions”.
Photography without a flash is sometimes called “using available light”. So what happens when what’s available is scarce to say the least, and what little there is has huge variations in intensity, and some complicated colour issues to boot? The answer comes down to using the right equipment, and having a few editing tricks up your sleeve.
Exif*: 70mm; ISO 3200; f/2.8; 1/320
But what’s so bad about flash? Many, many events, indoor and outdoor, are shot with flash. Outdoors it can help to even out shadows, especially on faces, that might be caused by harsh sunlight. Indoors? Often it’s the only chance of getting a focused image at all. But it can be very intrusive – I’ve been to events that have been ruined by the hired snapper blasting away continuously, distracting the audience, unsettling the speaker, or making guests feel very “watched” all the time.
And with an image like the one above, flash would have lit the detail of the bowler, but at the cost of the background fading into darkness.
Exif: 30mm; ISO 2500; f/2.8; 1/25
Personally, I find that event images work best if they’re taken in the light of the event itself. This really helps to capture the mood, is far more discreet, and with the right equipment “if there’s enough light to see, there’s enough light to shoot”.
So what do you need? Firstly, have a great sensor in your camera. I use a Canon 5DMkII which has a full 35mm-size sensor capable of very high quality images even at high ISO numbers (that’s the setting controlling how sensitive the sensor is to light). The upside of a high ISO is that you need to let less light on to the sensor to get a suitably bright image: the downside is that, being sensitive, the sensor is prone to capturing “noise” – unwanted rogue information in the form of little grains of colour and texture.
For this shoot, my first move was to set a high ISO – often I use 1600 indoors, but this bowling alley was so extreme that 3200 was in order. Fortunately the 5DII is pretty noise-free even at this setting. Some images – particularly those with a lot of dark areas – are more prone to noise, but software can help remove this. I use a plug-in to Photoshop, called Noiseware, to remove the worst cases.
Exif: 40mm; ISO 3200; f/2.8; 1/25
Secondly, use better quality lenses. These will tend to have wider apertures (the physical hole that lets the light in when the shutter’s open). Obviously, this lets in more light, meaning that you don’t have to keep the shutter open as long to get a bright enough image, and you therefore cut down the chances of you or your subject moving and blurring the image. They also have higher quality glass, reducing distortion of shape and colour within the lens itself, and allowing light to flow freely and precisely into your camera. (Because they allow you to take a faster shot for the same brightness, they’re sometimes called “fast” lenses.)
Exif: 50mm; ISO 1600 (I’ve switched to a faster f/1.4 lens); f/1.8; 1/80
Thirdly… well that’s where you need a big armoury of camera set-up, shooting and editing techniques… This post isn’t a “how to” of low-light photography (that’s a book, not a blog post – or you can come on one of my courses), as much as a few examples from this shoot of what I found, and how I dealt with it. Hope it’s a useful insight into this type of work. Next time you see Annoying Photographer running round an event blasting away with a flash, think how different it could be…
Exif: 70mm; ISO 3200; f/2.8; 1/100
*What the Exif notes mean: this is detailed data about how the photo was taken–first, the focal length of the lens, then ISO (the sensitivity of the sensor: low number for bright conditions, high for dark or indoors), then f number (the size of the hole that lets the light into the camera: low = big, high = small), finally the exposure time (how long the shutter is open) in seconds.