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.

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