Available Light Travel Tips

Available light, unavailable light, available darkness, or low light. It doesn’t matter what you call it, the truth is that the most rewarding photographs can be produced when working under challenging lighting conditions. There are several reasons for this:

First, there’s the thrill of overcoming technical obstacles that might normally prevent you from producing a well-exposed image. Second, photographs made under conditions different from the “F16 and the sun over your right shoulder” instruction-sheet standard have a more eye-catching look. Third, since most photographs are made during the middle of the day, taking the time to search out other than normal lighting conditions will produce photographs that are different from the rest of the pack’s. To make successful low light images you’ll want to start with a combination of fast lenses and ISO settings often combined with a slow shutter speed.

  • Fast ISO Settings: Unlike using film, digital SLRs can be set to record images at a number of different ISO speeds at any time. While you can always use ISO 200 speed for available light photography, you’ll probably want to bump up your camera’s ISO settings when the light is low. How much will be determined by how much digital noise you can tolerate—that’s exacerbated by slow shutter speeds and high ISO settings.
  • Fast lenses: My favorite lenses for indoor available light photography are fast prime focus lenses but I still occasionally use zoom lenses because you rarely have the kind of choices for camera locations and positions  you have under studio conditions. Forget digital zooms if you care about image quality. Digital zoom crops and saves a small portion of the sensor’s data, then interpolates this new, smaller amount of image data. I call this feature “mostly useless” because it is.
  • Slow shutter speeds: The average photographer can usually hand hold a camera at a shutter speed ’s equal to the reciprocal of the focal length of the lens although I have a suspicion that changes as we get older. Factoid: With focal plane shutters, the effective speed of the curtains at 1/1000’th of a second is the same as it is at 1/30’th of a second. At higher shutter speeds, the only thing changing is a narrowing of the gap between the two curtains. Unlike shooting film under low light conditions with long exposures, digital cameras are not subject to reciprocity failure.
  • Image stabilization lenses: When photographing people, I prefer to allow the subject to remain comfortable, while I contort my body into Houdini-like positions to find a camera angle that works best. I’m not getting any younger and my ability to hold 1/15th of a second consistently is not quite as good as it was a few years ago. This means I’m more than likely to use an image stabilized lens to make sure this technology helps me capture a sharp image.

Author: Joe Farace

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