Despite the bright lights from the neon, I wanted shadow detail, so I shot this handheld with a Pentax K-7, ISO 800, 1/10 second at f/2.8. This works out to approximately EV 3.5. Although the vibration reduction feature was on, this image is not perfectly sharp. The focus was on the lighthouse but should have been on the foreground. Still, it's not bad for handheld at 1/10 second and with a camera that's not reknowned for it's low-light abilities.
These days any reasonably alert person with an automatic camera can get a sharp, well-exposed photo outdoors in bright daylight. Take the same camera indoors under low light and things can get ugly. It will struggle to focus quickly and accurately, especially if it’s equipped with an f/3.5-5.6 zoom lens. Even if you do manage to focus you’ll discover that the limited maximum aperture forces you to use slow shutter speeds, high ISOs, or both, and even then subject motion can be a problem. Anyone who’s ever tried to photograph an active child indoors at night with normal room lighting knows exactly what I mean.
Those of you who own fast primes needn’t feel smug. True, you can use faster shutter speeds and/or lower ISOs, but fast apertures often result in narrower depth-of-field, increased aberrations, and reduced image contrast, not to mention the possibility of focus-shift. Perfect focus can be elusive at best.
And then there’s the issue of white balance. Mixed lighting is the norm in most interior spaces these days. You’ll find tungsten lights in some fixtures and fluorescent lights in others. Even the flourescent lights may have different color balances, with some being greenish, some yellow, and others more cyan. Shooting raw or attempting a custom white balance won’t necessarily solve this problem because correcting for one light source often exaggerates the effects of the other.
Here's a classic example of mixed lighting. I corrected the white balance for the sign in the foreground and the server's flesh tones and decided not to worry about the sickly yellow background. This was shot at ISO 800, 1/90 second at f/2.0, which is roughly EV 5.5. The guitar pick shaped highlights in the upper-right corner are the result of light entering the lens at an oblique angle.
Electronic flash can come to your rescue. It’s bright and its daylight balanced. Then again, direct flash can result in photos that have that “mug shot” lighting effect we know so well. If you’re lucky there will be a white or neutral-colored surface nearby that you can bounce the flash off of for softer, more indirect light. If you’re not, the walls will be green or magenta or some other color cast that’s hard to remove even if you’re shooting raw.
Tripods? They’re great if you don’t mind carrying one around, have the time and space to set it up, and you’re shooting a relatively stationary subject. On the other hand, if any one of these things isn’t true, your tripod is likely to stay at home, in the car, or in the studio—anywhere other than attached to your camera.
The situation isn’t quite as hopeless as it seems. In fact, if you can master the art of shooting in the dark, shooting in broad daylight becomes a breeze. Here are a few practical tips for improving your keeper-to-delete ratio.
1. Go for slow and steady.
You’re going to need to pay close attention to your technique and camera settings. Make sure your shutter speed is one at which you’re capable of holding your camera steady, with or without image stabilization. If there’s anything nearby that you can use to help brace your camera, by all means use it. You should also wait for your subject to be either at rest or at the peak of action. Maintain a relaxed state of alert preparedness, let the picture come to you, and you might be surprised what you can catch.
2. Observe the direction and quality of light.
Unless there's literally no light—in which case you’ll have to add your own—there’s a continuous light source somewhere that’s creating highlights and shadows that clearly visible to the naked eye. So take a good look at them. Are the highlights where you want them? Is the background free of bright areas that compete for attention with your subject? Remember that highlights are where most viewers will look first, so try to make them count for something, even if you have to move yourself, your subject, or the light source to do it.
3. Know your camera’s capabilities and limitations.
For example, a camera that focuses perfectly in bright daylight may back-focus when the light level drops to EV 4 or lower—unless you’re using a lens with a maximum aperture of f/2.8 or faster and use the center AF sensor, in which case everything is fine. Similarly, your camera may produce great ISO 1600 images when you shoot raw but look horrible if you shoot JPEGs. The best way to discover a camera’s limitations to push it to the edge—low light, dark subject, high ISO—until you discover the point at which it falls off. Back off from there and you’ll know the just how far you can go. By the way, I suggest you base “acceptability” on a print that’s as large as you’re likely to produce. For some this will be 4x6 inches. For others it will be 11x17. In either case, an image that looks horrible at 100% on your display can look surprisingly good in a print.
4. Use the fastest lens you’ve got.
Even if you have to sacrifice image-stabilization to do it, the faster aperture will give your camera a lot more light to work with than a kit zoom that maxes out at f/5.6. You may also see a substantial improvement in focusing accuracy: many cameras have higher-precision sensors in the center of the screen that produce more accurate results with lenses of f/2.8 or faster.
5. Try manual focusing.
You may discover that you can focus more reliably in low light than your camera’s AF system can. If your camera is mounted on a tripod and you’re using an intermediate aperture, you don’t even have to look through the viewfinder. You can use the distance scale on the focusing ring (assuming your lens has both), guesstimate, and let depth-of-field mask any slight inaccuracies.
6. Be willing to tolerate less than perfect results.
It's extremely difficult to capture low light photos that are perfectly in focus and have perfect white balance, high resolution from center to edge, and all the other attributes of technical perfection. You'll have a lot more fun if you aim instead for emotional perfection. Capture the mood. Let motion blur work to your advantage. Emphasize the often fantastic colors of artificial lights. Focus on the process instead of the goal and you may discover you've taken some fantastic photos.
You can thank me later.