Most of us at one point in our photographic history realized that capturing images in dim light, or fair darkness changes an otherwise mundane scene into a much more interesting, and in many cases a surreal scene. While capturing this scene in normal daylight is typically fairly straight forward, working with very low light is quite a bit more difficult. There are many minor issues, and just as many larger issues which make it tricky to capture good photography in dim light. As such, we will discuss the big issues which everyone without a doubt has encountered at some point. Sharpness, and accuracy of exposure is always a concern when the light is low. So, let's dig deeper into these issues, and discuss suggestions to improve your low-light photography.
If you are like most people you shoot your low-light, or night photography on the go. This of course means that unless you are already a pro, and have an assistant who carries your tripod, you have to carry it yourself. In most situations tripods are a great tool, however we may not always have them available to us, and at times traveling with one is not easy. There is nothing out there that will replace a stability of a tripod, however if it were not an option there are other things we could do to compensate for low-light. The most simple way is to increase your camera's sensitivity to light. It may sound weird to amateurs, but a higher speed (higher ISO) film, or a setting on a digital camera makes the instrument more sensitive to light. Basically, the higher the ISO setting on your digital camera (ex. 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, etc.) or the ISO rating on your film, the faster it will respond. There are disadvantages to every advantage, and this is no exception. Higher ISO setting on your digital camera means lower image quality. While the camera does become more sensitive to light, and is able to capture lower amounts of light to “paint” the scene correctly, the high ISO also causes “digital noise”which looks like grains of sand sprinkled over the image. Luckily, technology is getting much better, and there are now digital filters built right into the camera which reduce this noise.
Nonetheless, there is some loss of quality. In fact, with most Point-and-Shoot digital cameras the effect is greater than on digital SLRs (Single Lens Reflex cameras), because the image sensor, which actually captures the image through the lens, is very small, in many cases the size of your thumb nail. If you are planning to shoot a lot of low-light photography, consider upgrading to a digital SLR, if you are using a Point-and-Shoot, and are familiar with effects of digital noise. If you are still shooting film, the same problem exists, and higher ISO films are often much more “grainy”than a photograph captured with a digital camera. Some photographers introduce higher ISO films on purpose, because grain is at times considered an artistic effect, however, it has to be used wisely. If you invested in a film or a digital SLR, your options are more open. If you have a reasonable budget, consider getting a fast lens, which will allow more light in and require less sacrificing on the side of quality. Many new digital cameras come with an “Image Stabilization”which allows for sharper images captured at lower ISO settings without a tripod, or another stabilizing device.
Just when you thought getting around without a tripod was difficult enough, I throw another curve ball at you. Overexposed Highlights – are common in photography captured in low light. It is a fine balance, and you never win. You either overexpose the bright light, or underexpose the dim areas of the scene. There is not one solution to this. Try to keep your exposures short, whether you use a fast lens on your SLR, or a higher ISO setting on your Point-and-Shoot, as this will reduce the overexposed lights. If your camera allows for exposure bracketing, use it, and it will help you get the right balance of light and darkness in the scene. Stay away from using any sort of flash, unless you are photographing people, and not a dimly lit scene. If you are shooting people in a club, a pub, or any other dimly lit place, use your flash, and try to be fairly close to your subject(s), because flash drops off very quickly. If you are shooting a street scene, a night landscape, a harbor, or any similar scene, the mood of the scene will be destroyed if any flash is used. The resulting image will be underexposed, and only very near objects will be captured.
Obtaining focus may be difficult at times, when the light really drops off. This is when a manual focus comes in handy. It is unfortunate that most Point-and-Shoot cameras do not have a manual focus option. However, many new cameras have pre-focus lights built into them. If you have this option, make sure it is enabled. The camera sends very quick bursts of light to light the scene, and allow it to obtain focus. In extreme situations a flash light may help too. Simply shine it in the direction of the lens, and let your camera focus. Needless to say, when it is so dark, you MUST have a tripod.
While you will certainly encounter other problems shooting in dim light, the topics covered will no doubt ease your photographic efforts. Ultimately, most of your success will come from practice, and experience.