As the nights draw in and the last of the summer shows are drawing to an end, we as photographers are faced with yet another challenge; low light photography. We are plagued by the disaster that is poor focal ability and potentially high noise images, making for an incredibly stressful evening's work. In this blog entry, I thought it would be a good idea at this time of year to give a few pointers on how I cope with low light conditions while photographing horses in motion.
Firstly, I would like to mention that I am shooting with a Nikon D4s, a camera with excellent low light capabilities, which does help my case for these conditions (One of my main reasons for a camera upgrade last year), but these techniques will apply to different cameras as well.
We must initially find, through trial and error, which ISO we are willing to go to, obviously with a higher ISO we create more noise within the image. (For the real geeks among you, image noise is caused by statistical quantum fluctuations, which is a variation in the number of photons sensed at a given exposure level.) Some photographers will be happier with a higher level of noise than others, and some will have a better method for noise reduction in post processing, it is all up to personal opinion and your camera's capabilities for what your ISO "threshold" will be. Personally, I refuse to go about 5000 ISO as I feel that I start to lose quality after this point, some photographers may be better than me for getting more out of the camera, whereas others may consider this too high, personal opinion and skill level is the main factor here.
This image was taken last winter, while I was still learning how to deal with low light. Note, high noise and low image quality. Not a shot I was particularly happy with.
The next step is to consider what your lowest shutter speed can be, this is greatly depends on your subject. For example, if you are shooting static subjects, or landscapes, while using a tripod, you can drop your shutter speed as low as you would like without the risk of motion blur. However for a moving subject, and depending on their speed, you might avoid anything too low. I personally will not go below 1/640 for horses, as I feel anything less than this could allow for motion blur. I like my images sharp, and in good conditions like to have a shutter speed of 1/1000 or above.
I have saved the most flexible corner of the exposure triangle for last; your aperture. Measured with F-stops, the aperture controls how much light is let through the aperture ring inside the camera, this is a hole that opens wider or narrower, depending on your setting. A larger F-stop will create a smaller hole, allowing less light into the camera, but opening up the depth of field to take more into focus. A smaller F-stop will create a much larger hole, allowing more light into the camera, but closing down the depth of field. Generally a standard full frame zoom lens cannot go lower than F2.8, this gives you a lot of room to allow more light into the camera, but you will need to make sure you're an accurate photographer as you can miss out on your sharpness if focal accuracy is a weak point for you. I very rarely go past F3.5, but desperate times call for a lower aperture!
Another trick I like to use, and commonly use in my day to day shooting is "Active D-lighting", this is a setting that optimizes high contrast images when detail is lost through harsh shadows and highlights, it does slightly flatten the image, but allows more scope for the camera's exposure without sacrificing for noise or motion blur. The flattened look is easily fixed through basic post processing. It is a tool that can help when shooting indoors or in general low light conditions.
As for particular shooting techniques, you need to look for your light. Look where it's landing the most strongly to give your camera the best chance to pick up as much information as possible. When I was covering dressage on Tuesday night, there were two floodlights on the arena, one on either side. My best places to shoot were where the lights landed at their harshest, or where the two light pools overlapped. Again, this stage can be trial and error, as the camera perceives light differently to how our eye does. Sometimes your best option is to take multiple shots in different places to find where the camera picks up the best light.
When shooting in darkness, your camera will struggle to pick up focal points, especially with a dark subject, at any chance you have, aim for very light or white points on your subject as your focal point, the camera is far more likely to pick up on this and lock on, making your job as a photographer slightly easier. Luckily, as a competition photographer, I often have a white numnah or bright pair of breeches to focus on!
Taken earlier this week, image quality has hugely improved, even with a black horse! The white point of the numnah and breeches made for an easy focal point.
My final tip for you all, would be experiment and play. That's the only way to learn and find your style, figure out what works and what doesn't and you'll find a method that works for you.
Experimenting in low light can yield some super results, playing is the best thing you can do to improve your skills
*If you've enjoyed this blog entry and would like to see more tutorial style entries, or if there's a particular subject you'd like me to cover, let me know in the comments below!