Two Choices in Low Light Photography: Stabilization or Noise

When the sun goes down and light grows dim the choices for photography become limited. They include either camera stabilization for long exposures or an increase in light sensitivity to allow hand holding. The best solution is a tripod, but one is not always available. Sometimes a tripod is prohibited or cannot be used. A small tripod alternative like HandlePod will work if there is a solid object available to support it. The least reliable solution is to hold the camera body against a support object, but this is often difficult and not very firm.

Increased ISO Means More Noise

The other choice is to open the lens and crank up the ISO to astronomical levels that yield a fast shutter speed for hand holding in dim light. The down side is a significant increase in noise that will have to be either tolerated or dealt with in software.

This was the situation during a 50 year Summer of Love celebration in Golden Gate Park. It included a lighting of the Conservatory of Flowers with colored patterns projected on its white surface. A great photographic opportunity, but the crowd was so huge that a tripod would be impractical. There were railings and supports available. But unless you arrived early to stake out a spot, these areas were not approachable.

So the only alternative was to crank up the ISO, open the lens and reduce the shutter to the fastest speed that will produce acceptable exposure. It was also essential to put focus on manual and adjust it accurately in live view. Then the only alternative was to hold the camera up above the crowd and shoot hand held.

This is the result shot at ISO 6400, 1/10 sec, f4.5.

Summer of Love

San Francisco Conservatory lit for the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love.

 

There is significant unavoidable noise. The shutter speed of 1/10 second was slower than optimal given the zoom focal length of 34mm. But there is no camera shake. Considering the circumstances it is the best that can be done and the results are acceptable.

Here is a closer zoom shot taken at the same time. Again there is unavoidable noise.

Summer of Love, Conservatory, Golden Gate Park.

Another shot of the Conservatory taken at the same settings.

Sometimes circumstances determine a less than optimal solution to a low light situation and you just have to go with it. The beauty of digital photography is the ability to achieve good results under conditions that would have been impossible in the days of film. Kodachrome 64 would have required around three seconds for a similar exposure.

So when the lights go down the choice is clear: put the camera on a tripod or use an alternative like HandlePod to stabilize on any available support. Or you can increase the ISO for a shutter speed that can be hand held and live with the noise that results.

Shoot RAW or JPEG? It Depends on Light

In ancient times when film was the only photographic method, the rule was “expose for the shadows, develop and print for the highlights.” The process was created and promoted by the legendary Ansel Adams as the Zone System. It applied primarily to black and white and involved considerable darkroom alchemy to produce a full range of shadow and highlight detail in a finished print.

In the digital darkroom the rules have changed. Modern masters of digital alchemy recommend exposing for the highlights and letting the shadows fall where they may. This is because it is much easier to pull detail from underexposed areas. Highlights that are over exposed will be blown out to pure white with little or no recoverable detail.

The Advantage of RAW and When to Use It

A further recommendation is to always shoot in raw. This is a reasonable suggestion that offers considerable advantages, but only under certain circumstances. Most photographers are perfectly content to shoot in jpeg and settle for images that come directly out of camera. This approach works fine for the vast majority of digital photos.

So why shoot raw? The only reason is to provide greater latitude to manipulate and improve the image in post processing. A raw file has been compared to a film negative where all the information is there and just needs to be brought out in the print. The comparison is accurate in the fact that a film negative is only the first step in image creation that you would never display. The same is true of a raw file. It may look reasonable, but raw files always need post processing to bring out the best the image has to offer. And you can’t share a raw file without converting it to a standard image format like jpeg or tiff.

The technical details of raw vs jpeg are described in this excellent article. The purpose of this blog is to detail the “why” of shooting raw and point out some informative YouTube tutorials that demonstrate the “how”. A major justification for shooting raw is a combination of low light and high dynamic range.

When the sun descends below the horizon, fabulous sunsets appear. Wonderful “golden hour” and “blue hour” light offer great photographic opportunities. But conditions are often difficult with bright sunset sky and dark foreground. Cityscapes with street lights present a further challenge regarding exposure and color balance. All of these issues can be dealt with in post processing and a raw file contains more information for greater control.

Post Processing Tutorials

There is a tremendous amount of information available on line for image manipulation in Photoshop and Lightroom. A particularly informative Lightroom guru is Serge Ramelli. His YouTube tutorials are nothing short of amazing. He shows how to turn a dark, under exposed photograph with significant light problems into an image that is absolutely fantastic. This Paris night scene demonstrates exactly what can be done with some Lightroom magic.

This is not to say that all this post processing magic can’t be done with a jpeg file. But shooting in raw does allow greater latitude for image manipulation in Lightroom and Photoshop. So if lighting presents a challenge and it is obvious that the photo will require significant post processing, then definitely shoot in raw.

If, on the other hand, lighting is even, exposure is simple and the image is fine straight out of camera, then go with jpeg. In today’s digital darkroom the choice is yours.

Tripod Mounted Manual or Hand Held Automatic, Which One Is You?

There are two types of photographers: the tripod mounted manual shooter who only captures RAW files and the hand held shooter with the camera always on automatic who only shoots JPEG. What kind of photographer are you?

Of course this is an over simplification and most photographers shift between the two extremes depending on the situation. The key is to know your camera and decide which approach works best for what you are shooting.

Many photo tutorials instruct you to get out of automatic and take control of your camera settings. This is an essential approach but there are times when the automatic setting can be your friend. An example is outdoor events in changing light with moving subjects.

Bay to Breakers

A quick automatic exposure shot of costumed walkers in the San Francisco Bay to Breakers event.

The Bay to Breakers race in San Francisco is a case in point. The key here is to aim the camera and shoot fast. After the serious runners have passed, the costumed walkers make interesting subjects. But nobody wants to stop and pose while you set your camera. Speed is essential here for quick candids or fast shots of subjects willing to pose. The automatic setting here isn’t lazy, just efficient.

 

 

 

 

Moving Subjects Benefit from Continuous Mode

When subjects are moving quickly or light is changing through sun and shade or passing clouds automatic is a help. Multiple shots can also be a scene saver. An example is dancers in the Carnaval parade. It is difficult to hit the shutter at the exact moment when one or more dancers are in the best position. Set the camera on continuous shooting and take many exposures over a few seconds. One shot will probably be better than the rest as in the example below.

Carnival

In this four-shot sequence of Carnaval dancers the last photo is the best.

 

 

Manual Camera Control Is Often Necessary

Of course there are times when you want to control one or all of your camera settings for specific results. Examples include sports photography where you would want to set shutter priority at a fast speed to freeze the action. For macro photography or portraiture you would want to control depth of field with an appropriate aperture priority setting.

Low light and night photography is where you would want to be on a tripod or other stabilizing support like HandlePod and adjust all your camera settings manually. These include low ISO to minimize noise, best aperture setting for maximum sharpness, and a series of slow, bracketed shutter speeds to achieve the best exposure.

This is where you may also want to shoot in RAW to preserve a maximum amount of information for post processing later. RAW is the best capture format but the images cannot be shared or viewed by others until post processed and converted into JPEG or other common image format.

Most photographers do not fall exclusively into the two simple categories described above. It is best to apply the settings and techniques appropriate for what you are shooting. And depending on circumstances, “automatic” can be the most user friendly way to go.

 

Add Impact to Landscape Photos with Sky Replacement

Just about any landscape or outdoor scenery photo could use a dynamic cloud-filled sky to enliven the impact. But you have no choice over the sky that’s there when you shoot. In the days of film it was “what you see is what you get” and you were stuck with whatever filled the sky at the time.

sky replacement

Scan of original Kodachrome slide has blown out sky and dull colors.

Take, for example, this photo of Castel Combe in England. It is a scan of the original Kodachrome slide. The day was solid overcast and the sky was blown out to featureless white. This would be the case whether the scene was shot on film or digital. But the original film was daylight balanced and despite what the song says, the colors are dull and muted. It sure doesn’t “make you think all the world’s a sunny day.” The shot has potential but needs help.

Sky Replacement Makes a Big Difference

First the sky. This is not a tutorial on sky replacement. You can easily find an excellent sky replacement tutorial using Photoshop, Lightroom or both. Many techniques are available. Trees present a particular challenge and this tutorial covers it very well.

The sky in this example was added very simply by importing the clouds as a separate Photoshop layer underneath the main image then erasing the white sky to reveal the clouds. The eraser was not at 100 percent in order to keep the sky a bit muted to match the light on the main subject.

Lighting and Reflection Completes the Scene

Now that the sky is brighter than the original blank white it’s time to make the subject match the light. This is done in Lightroom with a few simple adjustments in clarity, vibrance and saturation. The final step was to add a hint of the sky reflected in the water. This was done by selecting the sky, inverting it and placing it over the water. Adjust the opacity so it is just visible and erase those parts that are not over clear water. A bit of cropping yields the final result you see here, a vast improvement over the original Kodachrome transparency.

Castle Combe sky replacement

Castle Combe photo with sky, color adjustments and reflection of sky in the water.

Even the most featureless, dull sky can be salvaged with the right post processing. So shoot on those dreary, overcast days and add an interesting sky in post. If the original is on film use a scanner to bring it into the digital world and give it new life. Like the Paul Simon song says, Kodachrome can “make you think all the world’s a sunny day.” It just takes is a little modern digital post processing.

Use HDR Processing to Salvage Kodachrome Slides and Bring Them Back to Life

It was not that long ago when the only way to shoot a photograph was on film. Those of us who remember those ancient times probably have many boxes of slides, negatives and prints gathering dust on some forgotten shelf. Among those thousands of images there are no doubt some that would be worth bringing back to life, if only the modern wonders of digital processing can be applied. Well it can. All it takes is a scanner and some processing software.

An earlier blog talked about correcting uneven exposure in color negative scans. Photoshop can compensate for most exposure discrepancy in a negative or slide scan as long as there is sufficient detail and no areas are completely black or blown out white. But what if you have a slide with high dynamic range issues that could use HDR processing software?

Correct Old Slide Film with HDR Processing

That is how I wanted to deal with an old slide of Sainte Chapelle in Paris. This magnificent 13th century gothic masterpiece is famous for its incredible stained glass. But the bright light through the glass and the dark church interior were too much for the Kodachrome film of the time. The spectacular scene as rendered on my pitiful color slide was a bitter disappointment. No exposure could properly render the stained glass and church interior in one image. It was a situation that screamed high dynamic range.

Sainte Chapelle

Normal, under and over exposed scans of a Kodachrome slide lack detail in light and dark areas.

I only had one slide of the main part of the church so I decided to scan it at three different exposures using an Epson V600 scanner. This is easy to do by adjusting the histogram for each scan. As you can see in the illustration above, the normal, under and over exposures do not retain sufficient detail in the light and dark areas. But this is nearly as useful for HDR as three bracketed exposures taken in camera. It gives the software more to work with.

The next step is to take the three exposures into an HDR processor such as Photomatix. This provides a number of options and photo manipulations to achieve a wide range of results. Here is the final image I came up with after processing in Photomatix. It also required some Photoshop tweeking to straighten the horizon. But the result is infinitely better than anything I could have achieved on Kodachrome film at the time.

Sainte Chapelle, three exposure scans tonemapped in Photomatix.

So you see that salvaging film photographs from the old days is a simple matter of scanning and processing in HDR or other software. Similar results could also be achieved in Photoshop, Lightroom or whatever your preference is. But if you have a few film photos with real potential, consider scanning and processing to bring them back to life in the digital world.