Case Study: Shooting at night and other low light conditions

I don’t get a lot of opportunities, but I do like getting into night photography. It was one of the first things I had in mind when I got my first DSLR. Taking pictures at night allows you to see and capture cityscapes literally with a different light. And if conditions are just right, shooting under natural light becomes possible, as well.

Brisbane River (2009) ISO 100, f/6.7, 8.0sec
Brisbane, Australia (2009)
ISO 100, f/6.7, 8.0sec

The picture above taken along the Brisbane River, I believe. I made use of my old Nikon D80’s shutter priority┬ámode, set to 8 seconds. The camera then metered itself and set the lens aperture to f/6.7.

HaNoi, Vietnam (2010) ISO 1600, f/4.8, 1/10sec
Ha Noi, Vietnam (2010)
ISO 1600, f/4.8, 1/10sec

I forget which part of Ha Noi the above picture came from. But I didn’t have a tripod with me at the time. That forced me to crank the ISO up to 1600 (I wasn’t willing to go any higher) and hope Nikon’s Vibration Reduction (VR) technology will bail me out. Still, the picture still has that grainy quality that’s absent in the other pictures in this page.

Brussels, Belgium (2011) ISO 100, f/16. 10sec
Brussels, Belgium (2011)
ISO 100, f/16, 10sec

It was a relatively sparse night around the Brussels Central Plaza in the above picture despite being a relatively warm October night at around 10-12 degrees Celsius. That afforded me the chance to do some long exposures without having to worry about people bumping into the camera or blocking the lens. It did wonders for capturing the Town Hall of the Grand Place.

I think I have a fair grasp of the basics. What I do find challenging, though, is taking pictures of people in action. Long exposures aren’t going to work. As seen in the picture above, while the Town Hall looks nice, the people walking around the plaza were a blur.

If you want to take pictures of people or any moving object at night or dimly lit areas in events and parties, there’s hardly any going around it. Even if your camera is said to be capable of taking good pictures in low light conditions, you still need ample amounts of light to get a good exposure while keeping the image sharp and clean.

Makati, Philippines (2009) ISO 1600, f/8.0, 1,6sec
Makati, Philippines (2009)
ISO 1600, f/8.0, 1.6sec

Using a tripod is not likely to be an option in many cases. With people moving about everywhere, you usually have only a few moments to let them pose, and a fraction of a second to aim and shoot. Capturing people in action is even more difficult because you’ll likely have an even smaller fraction of a second to aim and shoot. You will really need to have your flash on in many instances when literally shooting in the dark.

Joe Satriani (2013) Oakland, CA, USA ISO 2000, f/5.6, 1/60sec
Joe Satriani (2013)
Oakland, CA, USA
ISO 2000, f/5.6, 1/60sec

Now, what if using a flash is not an option? An approach I took in an indoor concert was to set the camera to shutter priority and lock the ISO to either 1600 or 2000 — the highest ones I am willing to go with my camera at the time — a Nikon D7000. I was fairly confident that I can shoot steadily enough at 1/60sec even with my lens fully extended to 200mm. Then I let the camera handle the aperture. I managed to get a few acceptably sharp enough pictures in the process, including the one above.

Like everything else that we’ve covered, this requires practice. Having your sense of composition in the bag also helps a lot, so you can concentrate on getting good exposures. The less you need to worry about in your act of shooting, the more likely it is for you to take great shots