Category Archives: Low Light Photography

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.

Photo Effects In-Camera or Digital Darkroom–It’s Your Choice

Modern cameras offer many options to manipulate images as they are taken. These include night vision, high dynamic range or HDR, selective color, photo illustration and others that adjust the image to create a particular effect. It is fun to experiment with these and you may like the results. But most of these effects can be created in the digital darkroom. Photoshop, Lightroom and other programs give you more control to manipulate the image to your own taste rather than leaving it to the camera. So experiment either in camera or in the computer to get a feel for what you like.

Panorama Is a Most Useful Tool

One effect that goes beyond being a digital toy and significantly helps in the creation of compelling images is Panorama. Most cameras offer some type of panorama option and the methods vary. There are two basic approaches—one lets you pan the camera which joins pieces of the panned image together into a continuous panorama. The other approach lets you frame two or more overlapping images and the camera stitches them together into a panorama or saves them to be joined later in computer software.

Panning the Camera Is One Common Approach

panorama

Street panorama taken by panning the camera from left to right.

 

 

 

The pan approach is easier and gives immediate feedback. The down side is that panning creates a curved effect in the image. Also, the final image is smaller in size than a still frame shot with the same camera. And there can be artifacts resulting from the pan, especially of something moves in the frame.

Combining Multiple Images Is a Better Method

Vernazza, Italy

Night panorama of Vernazza, Italy made of two overlapping images stitched together.

Stitching multiple images together is the better method. It retains the image quality of the individual frames. Distortion can be kept to a minimum. And full camera control is available for creation of the overlapping frames. This can be important for low light night and cityscape panoramas.

Accurate Alignment Is Important

Achieving an accurate overlap of the individual frames is important. Some cameras help with this by displaying a partial image of the previous photo in the monitor to help with alignment of the next shot. But with care, any digital camera can create overlapping panorama frames. The best method is to use a tripod or alternative stabilization device like HandlePod . Simply rotate the camera so that about one quarter of the next shot overlaps the previous shot.

There are many programs that can stitch overlapping images together into a panorama. One very common and simple to use software is Photoshop Elements. In the top menu, go to Enhance then Photomerge and select Panorama. Load the images you want to merge, select the stitching method and hit OK.

When your widest lens isn’t enough to take in the whole scene, panorama is the way to go. Whether it is done in camera or in the computer is your choice. But the results are well worth it.

Explore the Magic of Long Exposure Photography

Modern cameras or camera phones will provide a reasonable image under just about any lighting conditions. Low light capability is a much touted feature of many cameras. Hand held exposure by candle light is no longer an in-your-dreams scenario.

Are Tripods Not Needed Today?

Does this mean that use of a tripod for long exposure is a thing of the past? Not necessarily. It’s true that with modern equipment scenes normally needing a tripod can be shot hand held. But limiting exposures to hand held shutter speeds eliminates the one element that can add true magic to a photograph—time.

The camera sees time and motion in ways that offer a fabulous level of creativity to photography. Check out the Harry Potter like wizardry of long exposures of London busses at night. Time exposure greatly enhances a night view of the Verrazano bridge.

Many Subjects Can Use Long Exposure

Other subjects that benefit from long exposures include water. Seascapes, streams and waterfalls become silky smooth and almost surreal with a few seconds of exposure. Clouds streak across the sky when given enough time. Long daylight exposure of such subjects can be done with the help of a neutral density filter to increase the shutter time. All these effects are possible with the proper equipment. For a more thorough discussion of the subject check out this article on long exposure ideas.

Long Exposure Magic Without a Tripod

low light photography, traffic trails, long exposure

Night Trafic Trails, Lombard Street, SF, CA

An absolute essential for long exposure photography is a reliable means of camera stabilization to eliminate camera shake. But given the low light capability of modern cameras, long exposures comprise a small percentage of the average photographer’s images. In that case does it make sense to carry a tripod for those few photos that might require it? Yes, if the intent is create long exposure magic regardless of the weight and bulk of a tripod.

But few photographers carry a tripod, especially when traveling. Don’t let lack of a tripod deprive you of the magic of long exposure photography. A pocket size tripod alternative like HandlePod lets you take advantage of long exposure magic without the extra weight and bulk of a tripod.

Always Be Prepared for Spectacular Photo Opportunities

Amboise, France

Night shot of castle and bridge, Amboise, France.

It is rare for me to associate an apparently successful photograph with disappointment and missed opportunity. But that is my recollection when I view this night shot of Amboise, France. I had visited the same location the night before and stumbled across a celebration involving candles and lanterns. The riverbank and bridge were festooned with lights and the effect was quite stunning. Unfortunately I didn’t have my camera and it was too late to walk back to the hotel to get it.

The next night I returned with my camera hoping to catch the same scene. But of course the lanterns and candles were gone. I did get the above view of the castle and bridge. But not shooting the candle festival the night before is a missed opportunity that still rankles.

Have Your Camera Ready for Any Opportunity

The point here is to always have your camera available and be ready when you come across unexpected and delightful photo opportunities, especially when traveling. Also be sure to have the equipment needed to make the best of whatever opportunity presents. For further information check out this article about traveling light.

I travel light and never carry a tripod on vacation. The above photo is an example where a tripod would have been useful. It was shot on film at a shutter speed impossible to hand hold. I rested the camera on a stone wall and braced it with my fingers to keep it aimed and steady. It worked but was awkward and uncomfortable.

Stabilize for Long Exposures Even Without a Tripod

Another lesson learned. Have some means of camera stabilization when the photograph would benefit from long exposure. It is photos like the one above that inspired the creation of HandlePod years later. No more balancing the camera with fingers on a stone wall. Simply set the HandlePod on the wall, hold it in place with light hand pressure then aim and shoot.

Today with a digital camera and a HandlePod I’ll be ready when I come across a photo opportunity like the one in Amboise.

Camera Stabilization is Still Necessary Despite New Technology

Hand held is the common practice for the vast majority of digital photographs taken today. Cameras have built-in stabilization technologies to minimize blur from camera shake. Depending on their type and effectiveness, these image stabilization electronics allow a slower shutter speed of two or three stops and still deliver sharp hand-held images. This technology, combined with a wide aperture lens and a high ISO setting can make hand held photography possible in almost any light.

The Tripod Isn’t Dead

Does this mean that camera supports like tripods and alternative devices are no longer necessary? Not by a long shot! Camera stabilization is still essential in low light conditions for a number of reasons. You may be able to crank up the ISO to the point where you can shoot hand held by candlelight. But what about the inevitable noise? For maximum quality keep the ISO setting low and use a reliable camera support.

Long exposure photography offers creative opportunities that are not available when the camera is hand held. Traffic trails on a busy street at night is one example that is impossible to shoot hand held. Billowy smooth water flowing over a cascade or through rapids is an effect that takes a long exposure that should be stabilized. Want to shoot star trails? Ditto. Time lapse video is another technique that is impossible to shoot hand held.

Most Cameras Can Use Stabilization

The need for stabilization is not limited to DSLRs, mirrorless or other high end cameras. Most cameras today, including some point-and-shoots, offer manual settings with exposures up to thirty seconds. This provides the opportunity to get out of “Auto” mode and experiment with longer exposures and greater creative control—provided you have dependable camera stabilization.

Tripod Alternative Easy to Carry and Use

The type of camera support you choose depends on what you are willing to carry. A sturdy tripod is always the best gear. But cameras have gotten smaller and lighter. If the camera weighs four ounces does it make sense to carry a three-pound tripod? Yet the smaller the camera, the harder it is to grip firmly and hold steady. This is especially true of smartphones that are taking over the point-and-shoot market. If a tripod is not in your kit, consider a light weight alternative like HandlePod—firm hand-held grip, reliable stabilization on any solid object and hands-free attachment to many supports.

 

Proper Use of a Tripod–Don’t Touch the Camera

A tripod is the best insurance against blur from camera shake during long exposures. But a sturdy tripod won’t guarantee absolute camera stability.  A tripod must be used properly to provide the best results. One essential rule to follow is never touch the camera when taking an exposure. Specifically, do not press the shutter release button with your finger. Even the slightest movement caused by touching the camera can create blur.  Use a remote release, either wired or wireless, to trip the shutter. If a remote release is not available, set the camera’s timer to at least two seconds to allow vibration to settle down after you press the shutter.

San Francisco Bay Bridge night exposure.

Six second tripod supported exposure is not sharp due to camera vibration.

This advice applies to all long exposure night photography but is essential for some subjects. Night landscapes that include point sources of light such as street lamps are particularly sensitive to camera shake. The photo at right is a six second exposure of the new San Francisco Bay Bridge taken on a tripod. It should be absolutely sharp, but it’s not. The slight camera movement caused by depressing the shutter button was enough to ruin the exposure, even though the camera vibration happened for a tiny fraction of the six second exposure.

Camera shake example

Light sources are streaked because shutter was pressed by hand.

The enlargement at right illustrates the problem. Bright light sources register no matter how brief the vibration. Street lamps and light sources that should be round points become a comma-shaped streak. Bright objects in the scene are blurred. Darker elements of the exposure remain sharp because they are not affected by the fraction of a second of vibration. But the simple act of pressing the shutter button is enough to ruin the photograph.

The lesson here is never touch the camera during exposure, even on a sturdy tripod. This rule especially applies to small tripod alternative supports like HandlePod. Always use a remote release or two-second timer to trigger the shutter.

Camera Stabilization for Night Photography

Ferry Bldg panorama

San Francisco waterfront. Three second exposure taken with HandlePod braced on a railing.

Cityscapes at night offer fabulous photographic opportunities. But many people do not photograph at night because of its difficulties. Exposure, white balance, focus and especially camera stabilization present challenges that many prefer to avoid. Yet night photography yields the most impressive images when done carefully and with proper technique. There are two approaches to shooting at night depending on whether or not you have some means of camera stabilization, preferably a tripod or alternative support.

 

Hand Held: Possible But Limited

If no support device is available and you must shoot hand held, the camera setting choices are limited. In order to keep the shutter speed brief enough to be hand held you must open the lens to the widest available aperture and crank the ISO to a high setting.

Fortunately, modern cameras have good low light capability with an ISO of 12,800 or more. This makes hand held night photography possible but at the cost of increased grain or noise. And the aperture must remain wide open and can’t be closed for better sharpness and wider depth of field.

Golden Gate Bridge night
Golden Gate Bridge at night. Eight second exposure, camera supported by HandlePod.

Stabilization is Best

A tripod or other support eliminates these issues. A low ISO setting, narrow aperture and long exposure times become possible with reliable camera stabilization. This opens up a world of possibilities for high quality night photography without the limitations imposed by hand held photography.

Yet carrying a tripod and taking the time to set it up and break it down is a commitment many people are not willing to make.

HandlePod solves the problem with a light weight, pocket size tripod alternative that is fast and easy to use. Just press it by hand against any available support or tie it with the elastic cord and long exposure night photography is a snap.

The photo at right is an eight second exposure done without a tripod by holding HandlePod against a railing.

Salvage Underexposed Photos With Photoshop and Lightroom

It wasn’t that long ago that an underexposed frame of film was a total loss. An underexposed color or black and white negative could be printed but the results were grainy, lacked contrast and barely salvageable. An underexposed transparency was hopeless since no detail could be extracted from underexposed black film.

That has all changed in the digital age. It does not mean that underexposure is no longer relevant. But today it is possible to salvage the most grossly underexposed photos and turn them into something that is generally acceptable.

Photoshop and Lightroom to the Rescue

Underexposed before after example using Photoshop layers.

Underexposure corrected in Photoshop using layer blending.

The primary tools for salvaging underexposure are Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom. There are multiple methods for using both to rescue underexposed shots. One is to duplicate multiple layers in Photoshop and blend them in screen mode. The example at right shows before and after results of this process.

Lightroom offers more complex methods of salvaging underexposures as is detailed in this tutorial. One bit of generally accepted advice is to shoot RAW. This makes it easier to extract more detail from underexposed areas. But even JPEGs can be salvaged with Photoshop techniques as this tutorial shows.

As the many tutorials available on line demonstrate, underexposed photos can be saved in a number of ways. But as with most things there is a tradeoff. Extracting detail from darkness increases grain. Grain can be reduced digitally but at the loss of sharpness. And all of this correction and manipulation of an unacceptably dark photo can take a fair amount of processing time.

The point is there is no complete substitute for proper exposure. Underexposure that would be a disaster on film can be rescued with digital techniques. But it is always best to get as close as possible to optimal exposure to begin with. In low light situations, camera stabilization with a tripod or alternative support like HandlePod is essential to give the camera sensor enough light. Don’t underexpose by hand holding with a fast shutter speed and plan to to fix it in post.

 

Link

Solid Two-Handed Grip for Your Smartphone

Hands are shaky, especially when holding something small like a smartphone. Not a problem when texting or surfing the net, but shake is a big problem for still photos in low light or video. It is difficult to grip a smartphone firmly enough for low light photos and shake free video.

Smartphone two handed grip

Grip your smartphone firmly with both hands.

HandlePod solves the problem with a firm grip and plenty of leverage to prevent shake and provide smooth video. It is also self supporting on a level surface and acts like a mini-tripod. Hold it by hand against any solid surface for rock solid, tripod-like stability. And you can attach it to many objects with the elastic cord.

HandlePod puts blur-free stills in low light and smooth, shake-free video at your fingertips. But using a smartphone on HandlePod or any tripod device requires an adapter. There are a number of smartphone tripod adapters ranging in price from a few dollars to almost fifty.

Choose the Right Tripod Adapter

Selecting a tripod adapter involves several considerations in addition to price. Will it open wide enough to accept any smartphone you will use. Does it hold tightly and securely (an important consideration if you are to attach to a moving vehicle)? Will it take any phone no matter how thick without having to remove the case?

Dot Line cell tripod mount 2

The adjustable Dot Line smartphone tripod mount holds any smartphone securely.

One product that fills all of these requirements is the Dot Line Smartphone Tripod Mount available from B&H Photo for $7.95. It features an adjustable screw that allows it to open as wide as four inches (10cm), more than enough to accept any available smartphone. The soft rubber grips that hold the phone extend ½ inch so a case is no problem. And the adjustable screw can be tightened to hold the phone securely.

The combination of HandlePod and the Dot Line Smartphone Tripod Mount provides a cost effective handle grip and tripod-like stability for low light stills and shake-free video on your smartphone.

Use a Remote Release for Long Exposure Low Light Photography

When your camera is on a tripod or an alternative support like HandlePod, it is important to avoid touching the camera to fire the shutter for long exposures. Pressing the shutter button can cause vibration and blurred photos even on a sturdy tripod. The quick solution is to set the timer to two seconds. This is enough time for vibrations to settle down. However, there are times when a two second delay is not desirable, fireworks for example. Two seconds is long enough to ruin the timing and miss the burst.

Remote release Nikon ML L3 Infra red

Nikon ML-L3 infra red remote release.

Long exposure situations that involve moving subjects require a remote shutter release to get the timing right. These devices are either wired or wireless RF or infra red. RF models have a transmitter and a receiver that connects to the camera. Infra red models activate a sensor on the camera. All DSLRs and many other cameras include remote release capability. Google offers an extensive list of remote release devices.

 

 

Remote release Fugifilm wiredWired modes can be more expensive and may include advanced features like shutter setting controls or even time lapse. However, you are limited by the length of the cable. Wireless infra red or RF units let you shoot from a reasonable distance. This is an advantage for self portraits. Click here for further information on remote release an reviews of devices.

A remote release is essential when using bulb mode. DSLRs and other advanced cameras usually offer a maximum timed shutter opening of thirty seconds. Longer exposures require the bulb mode in which the shutter stays open as long as the release is pressed. Some cameras open the shutter with one push of the button and close it when the button is pressed again. In any case you never want to touch the camera to open the shutter for long exposures, especially in bulb mode. It is best to use a remote shutter release.

A bit of history—the word “bulb” comes from a device invented around a hundred years ago. It was a rubber squeeze bulb attached by a rubber hose to a pneumatic plunger. When the bulb was squeezed, the plunger activated the shutter which stayed open until the bulb was released. The term “bulb” remains on digital cameras today.

For long exposure low light photography consider using a remote release when your camera is supported by HandlePod or any other camera stabilization device.