Lens Lessons #1 - Photos in the Dark

Preface: As a photographer (and any other photographer will surely understand this) I learn things as I go. The best way to get better at something is to make mistakes doing it. This blog series will address just that.  The Lens Lessons Series will take problems, challenges, and lessons I endure throughout my gigs, tell you how I overcame them, and offer suggestions for how to avoid this problem in the future.

Photos in the Dark - Ahh, lightless photography. One of the first, yet important problems a photographer endures. Whoever you are, and whatever you're shooting, light is the most important thing for a photographer. In the wrong situations, without the right gear, taking photos in the dark becomes almost impossible.

I am here to tell you that usually there is a way to make it work!

Last night I was hired to shoot a sorority formal at a bar/club.  Here was the situation: a low-light entry corridor with a "step and repeat" stand for the couples to pose in front of as they entered the party. They then proceeded into a pitch black, with the exception of some black lights, dance club. My job was to photograph tipsy and picky sorority girls while simultaneously making them look good. It was a sticky situation that pretty much set me up for crappy photos.

Tips for how I handled this scenario:

  • Don't overreact. Think through the problem.
  • Get out the external flash!
  • Keep your lens on manual focus (auto focus won't work in the dark).
  • When in doubt: Low shutter, low f-stop, high ISO

Don't overreact. Think through the problem.

This may seem elementary, but even the best photographers need a reminder sometimes. I pride myself for my composure, but when I was thrown into a dark and raging party with hundreds of college girls begging for their picture to be taken, my heartbeat quickened. Every few seconds a someone would tap my shoulder to get my attention. Photobombs were numerous. The level of patience was low. So I told myself to relax.

People love people who stay composed. Think about that well-dressed person you saw yesterday strutting their stuff down the street in a new tailored outfit. Remember how you thought, "Wow, that person has got their life together." You already have the good stigma of being a photographer backing you up, so fortify that with some confidence. Your photos will make this party last more than one night, so act that way. Run the show, tell people to wait their turn, and act like you know what you're doing. Doing this will allow you to focus on the light and not freak out.

Get out the external flash!

I can't speak higher about an external flash. You can pick up a decent one for $50, and it will make the difference. Ever notice those red eyes and greasy faces when you use the flash attached to your camera? With the external flash being farther away from your lens, it's almost impossible to get those red eyes and unattractive faces. What I like to do is point the flash straight up. By doing this, you are bouncing the light off the entire ceiling, and that softer, less dense light, is coming down on your subject. This eliminates the harsh light that you can see coming from a flash pointed at the subject.

But make sure you learn how to use your flash. When I bought my first flash, I tried to use it without learning how. I ended shooting all night with the flash not synced with the shutter, and my photos were useless. Learn how the different flash settings sync with the actual camera, and you will have beautifully lit photos.

Finally, don't use a high ISO setting. We will talk about ISO later in this post, but just trust me when I tell you not to use high ISO with a flash. People always think, "But it's dark, I need high ISO." Well, the room won't be dark when the flash goes off. Actually, it'll be lighter than it would be if all the lights were on. So keep the ISO down. You don't want super grainy and noisy photos.

Keep your lens on manual focus (auto focus doesn't work in the dark).

Have you ever tried to take a picture in low light situations and waited for the auto focus to work for 5, 10, even 15 seconds? Well you don't have that amount of time while shooting college kids, especially when there's hundreds of them. Here is a trick I like to use: go to a well lit area with a subject, such as a coat rack. Stand about as far away as you expect to be from the subjects that you are going to shoot in the party. Focus in on the coat rack manually, and keep the lens there. This way, when you enter the pitch black room, your lens will be already focused and you can snap a photo in less than a couple seconds.

This doesn't always work, and it isn't ideal. You may see a shot farther away from you that you can't take because your focus isn't set up for that shot. If that is the case, you could try to fiddle with auto focus, then go reset your focus with the coat rack. This idea is better than nothing for me.

When in doubt: Low shutter, low f-stop, high ISO.

Don't have a flash? Don't panic. You can make it work. If it's pitch black, there isn't too much to do. But if there is minimal light, you can get some photos. This last tip will be basic for experienced photographers, but it is an extremely helpful one to those who are beginning as a photog. 

Shutter Speed - It's basically how long your sensor is exposed to the light in front of you. The longer you open the shutter, the more light you let in, and the clearer your photos. The ideal shutter speed is slow enough to let in light, but fast enough that your image isn't blown out with light. Your goal for a low light party/concert is to find a speed that is slow enough to let in some light, but fast enough that your subjects aren't blurred.

Aperture (f-stop) - If you don't know what this is, all I'll tell you is it affects how blurred out the background of your image is. For a more elaborate explanation, look it up. Sorry but I'm not here to explain it. I will say that the lower the f-stop, the more light your are letting in. So, you guessed it, keep it low. More light is good!

ISO - We talked a bit about it above, and I told you to keep it low. Well, if you don't have a flash, you're going to have to bump it up. A high ISO will brighten your image. In the days of film, ISO was the type of film you used. Certain film turned out lighter than others. What's the problem with ISO? I wondered the same thing. Basically, it makes your images grainy and noisy. That means the image is unclear. It looks like the image was printed on sand, not paper. That's no good right? Yea I know. But sometimes you can't help it. The only thing you can do at that point is save your photo in post editing. 

 High ISO: See the grainy and unclear image? This is an example of a high ISO making an image not as attractive.

High ISO: See the grainy and unclear image? This is an example of a high ISO making an image not as attractive.

So there you have it, a few short tips for getting good photos in the dark. I wanted to share these tips because they are lessons I learned early on, and I hope I can help at least a few of you next time you shoot in the dark. So remember: 

Calm down! Act like you own the place. They hired you for a reason!

Use a flash! It's the simplest answer. What's the best way to tackle a dark situation? Brighten it up yourself!

Use the manual focus. It can be annoying and doesn't always work, but it's better than nothing. I used it last night, and I got some good results.

Remember the faithful trio: Shutter, aperture, ISO. You need to know them if you want to be a photographer, and they are your best friend in low light situations.

With that, thanks for the read.

~Connor

Β