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A shot in the dark

Photography in poorly lit environments does not have to result in bad pictures, discovers Staff Writer Rashi Sen

Celia Peterson/Supplied
Image Credit: Celia Peterson/Supplied
Photograph of a Japanese couple taken in Brooklyn, NYC.Tech specs: Canon EOS 5D Mark II,f/1.2, shutter speed 1/60 seconds, ISO 800, no flash

No photography is possible in complete darkness. Photo means light and the practice of capturing and recording light is known as photography. Illumination, as purists would surely argue, is the single most important component of any photograph, be it artsy or practical.

Can good photographs be taken in low-light conditions and what is the ideal source of light for your pictures — the sun, indoor light, the camera flash or all of them put together? We ask the experts. 

A flash, both built into the camera or purchased separately, can do the job of lighting up your subject adequately. “I personally love to use both natural light and flash,” says Celia Peterson, Partner, ArabianEye, Middle Eastern image library and exclusive representative of image agency Corbis — Mena region.

“However, it would depend on what I was trying to achieve.” The use of a flash has unbeatable benefits: it can freeze the frame when your subject is moving, act as filler light to make portraits more flattering or make your subject stand out clearly from the background, she adds.

However, being trigger happy with the flash does not necessarily translate into better pictures. “The warm glow of lamps, candles and outdoor lights, for instance, are often blasted into the darkness with an on-camera flash,” says Jason Rego, Product Manager, Canon Middle East, advising photographers to set their camera’s ISO number higher instead. This number named for the International Organisation for Standardisation raises the photo sensitivity of your camera’s sensor and helps take pictures when enough light is not available, such as on a dark cloudy day or at a dimly lit indoor party.

However, Peterson rightly warns: “With digital cameras, as you ramp up your ISO to cater to low light, the digitalisation of the image becomes far more pronounced.” In layman’s terms, the higher your ISO number, the grainier your images will be.
Experiment with aperture
The intelligent use of flash and a balanced approach towards the ISO number can easily help compensate for poorly lit environments and result in well-exposed photographs. Another way of ensuring your photographs do not suffer from the lack of exposure to sufficient light is to experiment with the aperture (the opening through which light enters your camera) and the shutter speed (the time for which your camera’s shutter allows exposure of light). It is a good sign if your camera lens has a really small aperture number (for instance, f/2) since this means that it can open up to a great extent to let in the light.

Your photography adventure does not have to screech to a halt if shutter speed and aperture adjustment seem too complicated to handle. Use your camera’s night mode setting (most point-and-shoot cameras offer this option) to illuminate your scene instead, says Rego.

“This setting uses a slower shutter speed that captures the ambient light in the background, while still lighting up your subject.” Manually, a similar effect can be achieved by reducing the shutter speed on your camera to allow greater exposure. This has to be compensated for by closing the aperture proportionally. Most cameras these days have inbuilt capabilities to sense light conditions and compensate for them accordingly. BenQ’s GH700, for instance, is marketed for its unique ability to take shake-free pictures in the dark.

Manish Bakshi, Managing Director, BenQ — Middle East and Africa, says, “The back-illuminated CMOS  (Complementary Metal Oxide Semiconductor) sensor increases sensitivity and minimises the noise level by up to 50 per cent, delivering stunning results inlow-light situations.” Sony’s newest baby, the Alpha 57, advances the electronics giant’s Exmor R technology — a trade name for backside illuminated sensors that enable richer photographs in darker conditions.

Canon’s innovative HS system combines a high sensitivity sensor and a powerful DIGIC (Digital Imaging Core) processor that work together to capture low-lit environments in great clarity. A range of HS-enabled Ixus and PowerShot cameras (such as Ixus 510 HS or PowerShot SX 260 HS) will make an easy job of low-light photography.

Benefits of dim lighting
“Hold your camera very steady, try a few different exposures and if shooting on a slow shutter speed, you should really have it on a tripod,” advises Peterson. “In the days of film, my light meter was constantly around my neck but these days you can always check your exposures with a test shot. Be sure to upload it to a larger viewing source, such as a laptop before making a judgement on how to proceed.”

But what happens when you forget that test shot and end up with a load of horribly exposed dark photographs? All hope is not lost. “There are so many ways to enhance and improve on an image once you have taken it and loaded the RAW file into your post production software,” says Peterson. However, if the relevant detail has not been captured, there are limits to what you can do. Besides, Photoshop and other post-imaging software should be used to enhance a beautiful image, not save a bad one.

Which brings us back to where we started: can clicking in low-light conditions result in good images? Professional photographers often turn what we earthlings call badly lit environments to their own advantage and come up with great photographs, making the best of the light conditions available to them. Some immediate examples that come to mind are: shooting night-time traffic or firecrackers against the night sky.

Arty pictures aside, even everyday portraits for social network usage can benefit from dim lighting. “It’s quite subjective, but shooting in lowlight can create more atmosphere in a photograph,” says Peterson. After all, what is light without shadow? Add in a bit of patient practice or curious enthusiasm and low-light photography will no longer be about shooting in the dark.