Low Light Photography - or 'Why I left my phone behind'
By Lennart Pagel
About 5 years ago I started posting photos online. Sharing my photos with people around the world sparked a new passion to get out and shoot but even though I owned a fairly capable camera, I always preferred taking my smartphone into the field. The process of shooting, editing and posting straight from my phone was just so easy and I was quite happy with the shots I was getting with my phone… as long as the lighting was good. Over time, I got more intrigued by shooting at low light so eventually I grabbed my camera (and my dad’s tripod) and headed into the night. What I found was a world full of new possibilities, fresh creativity and less sleep. Not only was I fascinated by capturing what my phone couldn’t capture, I was even more fascinated by the things I saw on the display of my camera that were too dark to see with my natural eyes. I was hooked and I still am.
The right gear
A few things are greatly recommended to gather before you start wandering out into the night.
1. Camera: I use the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II because of its great lowlight performance such as a high ISO capacities (sensor sensitivity) and amazing internal image stabilization.
2. Lenses: If I had to choose one lens for night photography, I would go with a wide angle lens with a fast aperture, such as 7-14mm f2.8 or 17mm f1.8. The fast aperture allows more light to hit the sensor and a wide angle lens is less sensitive to accidental motion blur. In addition, it allows for capturing larger scenes, such as night skies.
3. Tripod: The tripod should be steady as this is what matters most. Tripods with ball heads are great because they are easy to adjust in almost any direction. A quick release option allows you to quickly attach and detach the camera from the tripod without the need of any tools and is therefore highly recommended.
4. Headlamp. No matter how nerdy it may look, there is no real way around a head lamp. It will guide your way through the dark, it’s incredibly handy while setting up your tripod or switching between lenses. It can also be used for unique effects in photos, such as light rays or to illuminate tents or other subjects.
5. Warm clothing: It may sound like a no-brainer, but I’ve often underestimated how quickly your body cools down when you’re standing behind a tripod in the middle of the night.
The right settings
While shooting scenes where little light is available, you want to make sure to make the most of the light you get. Allow your camera to collect as much light as possible and in terms of camera settings this means:
1. Lower your shutter speed. The longer you expose, the brighter the image will be. But keep in mind that your camera should be completely steady while the picture is being taken. I recommend using a remote or the internal 2-second timer so you don’t move the camera when pressing the shutter.
2. Open your aperture all the way to let in as much light as possible. Some lenses’ aperture opens up farther than others. These so called ‘fast aperture lenses’ are best when shooting at night.
3. Adjust your ISO to attain the right exposure. Try to keep it as low as possible to avoid unnecessary grain and other loss of image quality. How high can you go? With the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II I can still achieve good image quality at IS0 2500 (see photo below). Just try and see.
I’d like to show you some of my favorite photos taken at night and I will try to shine some light on what happened behind the scenes.
These shots were taken during a sub-zero night at the base of Vignemale in the French Pyrenees (one of those nights where I wished I had warmer clothes). Rather than simply shooting the peaks in front of the starry sky, I chose to add our camp to the foreground of the image. I illuminated the tents by placing flashlights inside, making sure that the light evenly spread across the tent walls to achieve an even glow.
Light rays are a fun way to get creative with night photography. All you need is a bright light source and some particles in the air (dust, fog, rain, …).
In this case the light was coming from the headlights of our car parked behind the tree and it was hitting the heavy Madeira rain. The tree did not only serve as the key visual element in this shot, it also blocked the light from directly hitting the lens and potentially causing intense light flare.
Blue Hour Power
Both of these shots were taken during blue hour, the time period shortly before sunrise and after sunset when the skies and landscape appear in a strong blue. I love shooting at blue hour because the photos often have an atmospheric feel to them. Opposed to shooting in the middle of the night, it’s also possible to expose more evenly across the image and not losing all details in either the highlights or the shadows (yes, HDR is an option, but I prefer single photos).
Warm lights, such as lit windows or street lights, are a great addition to blue hour shots. Their yellow colors make for the perfect color contrast to the complimentary blues of the surrounding landscape.