Today’s cameras make it easier to utilise available light for more interesting and engaging pictures.

How many times have you been in a city and seen snapshooters trying to photograph ‘the sights’ with their cameras on auto and flashes blinking repeatedly? Total futility; built-in flashes can’t cover much more than a metre or two from the camera.

Available light shooting captures the natural colours and tones in a scene.

This feature outlines the benefits of available light photography and explains why, as photographers, we’ve never had a more persuasive set of reasons for leaving the flash at home or, at least, disabling the camera’s built-in flash. We show how the right settings in low light can yield much more interesting images.

So why is available light preferable to using an artificial light source?

1. Shooting in natural lighting lets you record the subject with a realistic tonal balance. No areas are overly bright and none unnecessarily dark. The only exception to this is for flash fill when shooting subjects that are strongly backlit, where flash may be used to even up the tonal balance. But even in those situations, filling-in may be unnecessary if you shoot raw files then edit your images.

Available light shooting is the only option for street photography as the flash will  attract subjects’ attention as well as destroying the tonal balance in the shot.

2. Available light shooting will encourage you to be more creative and look for interesting conditions.

3. Different times of day can provide radical differences in the strength and direction of the light (although for landscapes the most interesting lighting will usually be when the sun is low in the sky).

4. Travellers will often find situations where photography might be permitted but the use of flash and/or a tripod is banned. Shooting with available light allows you to get the shot you want without contravening regulations.

5. Shadows often play an important role in shot composition. So does the interplay between light and shade. In both cases, artificial lighting will ‘flatten out’ the tonal differences and rob you of the chance to capture an interesting shot.

The near-silhouette lighting, an essential feature of this shot, is a result of careful editing when converting the raw file into an editable format. The ‘atmosphere’ in the shot would have been lost if fill-in flash had been used.

6. Using flash draws attention to you as a photographer, something you don’t want when shooting in the street or in other places where you don’t want to be noticed.

7. Flash photography uses battery power, an important consideration with cameras that have limited capacities, such as small compact cameras and mirrorless cameras, where capacities are often less than 250 shots/charge.

Camera settings

Today’s equipment provides much more scope for low-light photography than we’ve ever had before. Most cameras with M4/3 or larger sensors will produce printable images at ISO 6400 and many can do so at higher ISO settings.

Almost all the latest interchangeable-lens cameras will let you set limits to the range covered by the auto ISO function. This lets you define the lowest and highest ISO settings for a particular shoot. In the auto ISO mode, the camera’s processor will always set the slowest shutter speed setting it ‘thinks’ you can manage when hand-holding the camera. You can usually customise this value to what you know you can handle with the lens you are using, taking account of available stabilisation.

Many of today’s cameras come with sensor-shift stabilisation and stabilisation is becoming a common feature in longer lenses. It is also being provided some wide-angle lenses. The latest cameras can integrate camera and lens IS systems to provide at least five stops of camera shake correction – and 7.5 stops is not inconceivable.

This 1.3-second hand-held exposure showing the reflection of a pagoda in a puddle was made possible by three factors: ISO 6400  sensitivity, effective stabilisation in both the camera and lens and careful shooting technique.

We’re also seeing more fast lenses, with maximum apertures ranging from less than f/1.0 to f/2.8 entering the market. Telephoto zooms with constant f/2.8 maximum apertures have become increasingly common (although they’re relatively pricey). By allowing more light to reach the camera’s sensor, they can extend your low-light shooting capabilities.

Shooting tips

Learning to ‘read’ the light is the key to success whatever the conditions you’re shooting in. Be prepared to search – and if necessary wait, either for the light to change its strength and/or direction or the subject to change its position – until you can see a potential shot.

Ambient lighting changes with the time of day. Shadows move, creating different modeling and patterns. A scene that looks ordinary may really glow 15 minutes later when the sun’s angle has changed.

This photo would lose much of its impact if recorded with flash or at any other time of day. The high angle of view adds interest to the scene, which would look quite different if shot from street level.

In poorly-lit places, try to maximise the assets your equipment and the environment provide. Fast lenses give you more exposure leeway but slower lenses (particularly zooms), provide more flexibility.  It sounds fairly obvious, but do your best to seek out the best lighting possible and adapt your shooting technique accordingly.

Be prepared for a little noise when setting upper ISO limits. Most interchangeable-lens cameras produce great results at ISO 3200 and many can easily do the same at ISO 6400 and higher. If your shot is good enough, nobody will notice the noise and it probably won’t be visible in an A3+ or even A2 print. Noise-reduction processing, either in the camera or in post-production, tends to soften images so it should be applied with caution.

Experiment beforehand to discover the slowest shutter speed you can use hand-held to obtain a reliably high percentage of sharp shots. This will vary with the lens focal length so if you plan to use a zoom lens you’ll need to check each end of its range. The longer the shutter is open, the more light it takes in, which is exactly what you want in a setting where good lighting is scarce.

Take several shots of each subject to maximise your chances of having it sharply resolved. But be cautious if using the continuous drive. Burst shooting is noisy and may disturb subjects; it’s also wasteful of battery power and storage. And you may end up with a lot of unusable shots.

When using slow shutter speeds, even the act of pressing and releasing the shutter can create camera shake. With correct shooting technique (breathe in and hold your breath while gently squeezing down the shutter button) you’ll maximise the chance of taking sharp shots.

A fast f/2.8 lens enabled this shot to be taken at ISO 200 with an aperture of f/5.6 to provide sufficient depth of field plus a shutter speed of 1/25 second, which provided plenty of scope at the moderate wide angle of view (equivalent to 30mm in 35mm format).

If you’re out shooting candids at night, a faster lens allows you to shoot at lower ISO settings and can give you a wider choice of aperture settings. Balance aperture and ISO when capturing moving subjects. In very low lighting, you may prefer to wait until your subject is still, a situation that’s likely to be fleeting. If you’re vigilant you’ll get the shot.

Embrace the blur. There is no reason to think that all blur is always a bad thing; you may find that a little blur and the motion it conveys enhances the creative aesthetic of your low light photos.

Blur was inevitable in this two-second exposure taken at f/5 with ISO 1600 sensitivity because you can’t stop people from moving. Use of a wide angle lens (24mm equivalent in 35mm format) and a camera with built-in 5-stop stabilisation ensured most of the scene was pin-sharp.

If you don’t want any blur, select lenses with built-in stabilisation (if it’s not built into your camera). All major manufacturers produce lenses with this feature, while Olympus, Pentax and Sony include sensor-shift stabilisation in their camera bodies. (Panasonic has some cameras with in-built stabilisation.)

Don’t be afraid to shoot into the light, particularly when an intervening subject obscures the direct rays. It’s a real test of optical performance that can reveal how good your lenses are. Prime lenses tend to be less flare-prone than zooms in such situations, although recent fast zooms are also pretty good.

Contre-jour (into the light) shots like this one gain most of their impact from the dramatic lighting, which produces elongated shadows and dramatic silhouettes. Fill-in flash would have destroyed the effect.

Article by Margaret Brown (see Margaret’s photography pocket guides)

Excerpt from Photo Review Issue 84

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