Thursday, December 11, 2014

Dealing with low light

In my last post about the unusual nor'eastern storm that hit New York,  I was not looking forward to photographing a lifestyle shoot in our daylight studio that day. I was right to be worried. Normally, I can shoot at an ISO of 100-400 on normal days with occasionally having to go as high as 800. This time I ended up working in an ISO range of 1000-1600 for most of the day. I was shooting with the Nikon D750, a camera that should have no problem with this speed. There were some things about the situation that made it more difficult, and a few things that made it easier.

First the easier part: We were doing some Christmas scenes with tree lights on. With the available light so low in the studio the intensity of the tree lights was balanced with it making that job easier.

Now on to the hard part:

Working in dim light means using f/1.4 fast aperture lenses very wide open. Additionally, the low light necessitates a low shutter speed to compensate. Problem is that the Nikon 50mm f/1.4 and 85 f/1.4 lenses do not have any vibration reduction. So, even though I am able to keep the ISO lower by using a very open aperture, I was still not able to achieve a shutter speed fast enough to stop the action in a lifestyle shoot where the models are constantly moving about and I am using the camera hand held to quickly change my composition. This is when I sometimes wonder if using an f/2.8 zoom with 3-5 stop VR might be a better option. I would lose one to two stops on the aperture, but possibly make up for it with the higher VR.  I'm going to have to experiment with this a bit.

The other problem was when, even with the ISO set to 1600 I under exposed some of the shots, in some cases by a full stop. Having to open the shots up on post-production was pretty much the equivalent of working with a noise level of 3200 or higher anyway. Not a whole lot of fun dealing with that.

Finally, the high speed aperture causes another problem with focus. When in tight on the subject and working between f/1.4 and f/2 with the focus placed on the subject's eye, only the eyelashes are in focus. The shallow depth of field in tight like that means the rest of the face is out of focus. To complicate things the subject is moving about in the dim light. This puts a lot of strain on the camera to quickly adjust the focus point. Thankfully, the new Nikon D750 is very good at this and delivered a high percentage of usable shots in focus.

This scene was fairly easy at an ISO of 1000. At that speed the D750 is barely breaking a sweat. 

The warm glow of light on the wall from the reflected tree lights was one of the benefits of working is such a dimly lit situation. It kept both the ambient light and weak tree lights balanced.

Today it's back to the studio for another lifestyle shoot. Fortunately, the sun is shining.


  1. wow, that shot of the out of focus tree -- wonderful. i don't see how VR lenses would be any help if you have to stop action. in fact, it might make it more of a problem, shooting at slower speeds will create more blurry subjects due to subject motion.

    but here's my question -- you are a propnent of the fuji xt1 -- why not use that? because... i bet the images from a larger sensor are better. you've said no but is that really true?

  2. Hi Tom
    I'm curious as well, about the fuji vs the nikon. What's your opinion? I imagine that you are a bigger fan of the Nikon system?

  3. Wow, some great photos. I love low light photography. This is a place where you can prove your creativity. I have some pro tips for low light photography.
    Tips for Low Light Photography
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