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Low Light Photos Without a Flash

Monday, July 6th, 2009 by | Filed Under: Digital Photography

Flash photography can be a great tool in the absence of insufficient natural light. Then again, there are situations like live concerts, theatrical performances or even film shoots where you are required to capture everything without using a flash. Flashes might light up your subject, but it can also flatten the image and make it appear one-dimensional. This makes your image look lifeless, with no depth or play of light and shadow (except for the harsh shadow behind the subject). This is particularly true of pop-up flashes that come with your camera. Without a diffuser that normally accompanies external flashes, these built-in flashes lead to over-exposed images and cast a bright spot on the subject, marring the beauty of your image irreparably.

Here is where the following tips to beat low light situations might come in handy.


Become an observer. See how the light falls on your subject to author creative images that have a two or three-dimensional effect on them. See where the light falls and how it reflects on to your subject and your camera. If direct sun light is unflattering to your subject, look at another angle to capture their best side. Study the area around your subject. Look at the props you could use to avoid direct light like windows and curtains to distill the light entering the room, for example. See if you can place leafy plants in the way of sunlight and get a better shot, or better still, see if you can keep a foam board, white umbrella or any white cardboard in the window or door to block direct sunlight. This will also serve as good reflector that will enhance the available light in the room. Once you’ve got a fair idea of the light and shadows in the subject’s surroundings, you will get a fair idea of what works and what doesn’t with the flash.

Crank Up the ISO
Once you’ve taken care of blocking harsh light and enhancing the indoors (or outdoors) with reflective light, it’s time for step two. A good way to combat low light is by using a higher ISO. Your ISO simply means the amount of sensitivity of light falling on your sensor. Simply put, the more you increase the ISO (from 100-1600), the more chances of creating depth in your photos. Now, you don’t want to alert them to it, but you still want to capture the action on your chip. In this case, you simply adjust the ISO to a higher setting manually. If you are unsure, you could set the camera on ISO Auto and the camera does that job for you. Not only that, but you can take even better photos, provided you have a tripod handy. This is because, a higher ISO also means a longer shutter speed. So the camera lens is exposed to the subject for a far longer time than usual. Even minute camera shakes could result in blurred images.


Tackle Grainy Images
Once you’ve set your camera to a higher ISO and got a tripod to shoot your pictures, you are set for the next step of tackling noise. This is nothing but the grainy textures that show up in images where there isn’t much available light (called ‘ambient light’). One way of cutting out this problem is to go for noise reduction software like Noise Ninja, Neat Image and several others. Just type ‘noise reduction software’ in Google, and the site will throw up many options where you can resolve the noise issue.


Faster Shutter Speed
Okay, you’ve tackled noise, but you don’t have a tripod and therefore, your image might appear shaky and blurred. Not to worry. You can decide on the next top ISO which will then enable you to select a faster shutter speed. Yes, here is where you have room to experiment with different shutter speeds to bring about stability in your shots.

Shoot RAW
Now, there are different formats in photography: jpeg, tiff and raw. Jpegs are great for compressing large images into smaller ones, as are tiffs, although that’s a sizable format. Still, RAW formats are the heaviest – a 1MB jpeg file becomes a 9MB RAW file. While you can do limited tweaking of your photos in Photoshop and other photo-editing software, you can go the whole hog with a RAW image. This comes in handy when you want to weed out things like noise, color saturation, over/under exposure, red eye reduction, blurry images and so on. Therefore, if your camera memory permits (and I suggest you go for at least a 4gb card for your Digital SLR), go for a RAW image.


Aperture Mode
Another way to avoid shake where tripod usage becomes impossible, say at a tightly packed private party where you are required to move around a lot, you could also take refuge in the ‘Aperture Priority’ mode. Just go for the lowest f-stop on the fastest lens you have (f1.8 or lower if you can). If that still causes your shutter speeds to be too low to hand-hold, then you might even set exposure compensation down by a stop. This will increase the speed a little. Later, in post editing, you could increase the exposure. Speaking of fast lenses, there are affordable primes as well, like the Canon f1.8 50mm which is $80, or the f1.8 85mm canon USM that is just over $300. That extra stop or two can seriously make the difference in low light / no flash photography.


~Zahid Javali

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